When Swedish television broadcast a film based on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novella A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the seventies, Finland shut down the channels that broadcast the film from the Åland Islands, the autonomous archipelago of islands, between Sweden and Finland.
The Finnish censorship authority had banned the film, which focused on Soviet GULAG camps, as anti-Soviet.
Solzhenitsyn’s book Gulag Archipelago had a similar experience. Finnish President Urho Kekkonen and Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa prevented its publication, and the Nobel laureate’s Finnish publisher bowed to this pressure. Esa Adrian, however, the Finnish translator, decided to bypass their decision and took the manuscript to Sweden himself, where book publisher Wahlström & Widstrand published its first part. Distributing the book in Finland was difficult. After it was published, it was removed from libraries and bookstores. A few secured a copy – for future generations and as an example of anti-Soviet resistance.
Since Finlandization was a success story from the point of view of the Soviet Union, it stands to reason that Russia will want to repeat its lessons. From the Russian point of view, the Finlandization of all of Europe would be ideal, and not just Ukraine.
A few years later, my Estonian mother came to Finland through marriage, and I was born in a country that had retained its independence on the one hand, but where Finlandization impacted everything on the other. The term that emerged in West Germany is defined by the submission to the will of a strong neighboring country, and Finland was more firmly in the iron grip of the Soviet Union than any other Western country. This shaped not only foreign policy, but also national defense, the economy, the media, art and science. It was undesirable for research to deal with the catastrophic economic situation in the Soviet Union, and topics that were considered anti-Soviet were to be avoided if one hoped for a successful career. When the Finnish customs administration noticed that tuna imported from the Soviet Union contained three times more mercury than allowed, the official who had recommended a ban of it, was criticized for probably interpreting the research “too theoretically”. The Finnish Maritime Authority even changed its regulations when Teboil, a company owned by the Soviet Union, sold rubber dinghies that had failed the Finnish safety tests.
In my school textbooks, I was told that Estonia had voluntarily joined the cheerful Soviet family. The background was the 1948 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the Soviet Union and Finland, and the Finnish Education Administration, which controlled the textbooks and adhered to this narrative.
While the problems of the United States found space in our geography textbooks, no negative adjectives were used in the context of the Soviet Union. Everything there was great and impressive, and our trade with it was described as “a single Eastern miracle”. In fact, 80% of Finland’s exports went steadily to the west, while its neighbor to the east was effectively granted a free loan.
The Soviet Union received the highest praise from the cultural sector. The “Taistoyans”, a radical left-wing movement that unreservedly idealized the Soviet Union, achieved a dominant position. Actors who did not join the Red choir were no longer given roles. In honor of Lenin’s 100th birthday, a thousand cultural events were organized in Finland.
We watched American TV series and traveled freely to the West
From an Estonian point of view, all of this is difficult to understand, because the small people living under Soviet occupation had no other option but to follow the laws of the Soviet dictators. Finland, on the other hand, was an independent Western democracy in which citizens were free to choose their decision-makers in free elections. And Finlandization did not even require any laws: any action directed against the spirit of Soviet friendship failed even without official censorship or punishment. The consensus was robust, the whitewashing of the USSR a national custom. For Estonians, on the other hand, the reality was very different: deportations, penal camps, human rights violations were the order of the day. The Finns, on the other hand, did not care that Stalin’s persecutions killed as many of their compatriots as they did in the Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939/1940.
In 2020, the Finnish Economic Forum EVA commissioned a study of the values and attitudes of Finns, the results of which were surprising: the older generation was generally more positive towards Putin’s Russia than the younger respondents. The border was about 45 years old. The older generation grew up during the period of intensive Finlandization – they had personal connections to the Winter War and knew the veterans of it. How is it possible that they think more positively about Russia than younger Finns?
Finlandization has directly shaped historical memory, national identity, and the language we use. With language, the way the speaker thinks, changes. Finland was the test laboratory for many of the Soviet Union’s psychological operations and a success story from Moscow’s point of. Our state, which seemed like a Nordic democracy, was used as proof that the Soviet Union was capable of peaceful coexistence with its border neighbors. The pretty shop window called Finland could trick outsiders into believing that this practice was a viable alternative. We were allowed to watch American TV, consumed with extraordinary zeal, and traveled freely to Western countries. We were westernized and Finlandized at the same time. Even today, Finns pride themselves on being able to reconcile Finlandization with their awareness of what was really happening inside the Soviet Union.
However, only a small number of Finns ever travelled east across the border, and only those who were able to get a visa to enter the Soviet Union.
What foreigners were allowed to see in the Soviet Union was strictly controlled by the authorities – only those cities and locations that were approved for western eyes.
And so, these Finns grew up in the firm belief in the Soviet liturgy.
When power changed in Ukraine in 2014 through the revolution – the Revolution of Dignity – it led to a war instigated by Russia in the east of the country. During the buildup of Russian aggression towards Ukraine over the past months, I realized that Ukraine was apparently supposed to Finlandize itself – even though it would prevent its integration into the West and would drive the country back to the past. The vibrant polyphony of the Ukrainian media would disappear, and Russia’s invasion would only be publicly referred to as a civil war, in accordance with Russian propaganda. Moreover, I would not dare to imagine the environmental situation of the country.
Finland withdrew from the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was much more difficult to break away from its practices. The subconscious quickly learns to avoid historically inappropriate formulations, and that language once learned, does not change without a conscious decision.
In the Baltic States, the change in language took place in 1990. Here the Soviet occupation could finally be called by its name. In Finland, this process was slower. After Russia had already occupied Crimea, our Defense Minister, Carl Haglund, was publicly scolded for cosigning a statement together with his Nordic colleagues, in which Russia was described as a military aggressor. The leaders of the Finnish SDP and the Centre Party criticized the Minister for his statement. To them, the text in question, was unwise.
Alexei Navalny would soon be remembered as a terrorist
Would Finland today be a member of NATO if Russia did not constantly make it clear how uncomfortable it would be with our membership? Finland is so deeply conditioned, that it will always react defensively to Russia’s growls. In 2011, researcher Seppo Knuuttila from the Finnish Environmental Centre noticed a huge phosphorite emission in the Baltic Sea, the source of which was a mountain of waste from a phosphorite factory. The factory belongs to the largest fertilizer factory in Russia, EuroChem. The company hardly reacted to the publication of the report about the disaster. The Finnish Environment Agency, however, questioned the competence of the researcher, claiming that he was damaging relations between Russia and Finland. Concerns about nature and the environment were secondary.
It is not easy for the Finns to see which political decisions associated with the East are based on an actual threat or coercion and which are based on self-censorship or self-deception.
The Finnish media, however, have improved their coverage of Ukraine and adapted their use of language to the modern reality. Thanks to this, and for our freedom of the press, go to the European Union, because membership and the European Human Rights Treaty necessitated a reform of communication laws and the strengthening of freedom of expression. Younger Finns have grown up under free media and attended schools in which textbooks offer the truth. This is why they have a different attitude towards Russia than the older generation.
Since Finlandization was a success story from the point of view of the Soviet Union, it stands to reason that Russia will want to repeat its lessons. From the Russian point of view, the Finlandization of all of Europe would be ideal and not just Ukraine. This aspiration manifests itself in countless Russian attempts to exert influence outside its borders. The methods are well known: a manipulation of minds and language, the alternating use of carrots and sticks, the threat of violence.
Since Russian influence is often not met with determination in Europe, there is every reason to think about what a Finlandized Europe or a Finlandized North would actually look like. The scenario is not very encouraging: the EU’s core values would be just a joke, and decision-makers would benefit from being harnessed to serve Moscow’s interests. We would still drive Western cars and travel wherever we want, there would be nothing wrong with our standard of living. But we would no longer have freedom of speech, and our media would publish Russia’s press releases. A few generations later, our descendants would laugh at the thought that Russia was violating human rights, and those who complained about it would be labeled as troublemakers suffering from litigation mania.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny would be remembered as a terrorist like Osama bin Laden. And Ukraine? It would be a natural part of Russia, as would the rest of Eastern Europe, and the Balts themselves would probably be to blame for some new war, no matter how hard alleged “racists” or “fascists” tried to blame Russia. And the Baltic Sea would be a cesspool, which no one would say out loud. What else would be left of Europe other than the shell?
In order for it not to come to that, it is important to name things clearly now.
In 2014 the international media puzzled for a long time about who or what to call the soldiers who had invaded the Crimean peninsula. As aggressors, aggressors, occupiers? This confusion was in Russia’s interest, because the term aggressive war has clearly negative connotations. Whoever speaks the truth about Putin, supports Ukraine, because under international law states have a right to self-defense, and it is precisely this right that Russia is trying to deny to others. When the Ukraine war began in 2014, Russia managed for a very long time to create a narrative to its liking abroad, and it seemed as if the international media were unable to call Russia a party to war and the conflict that was flaring up at the time. Now the situation is completely different.
Ukraine’s cause is a matter for the whole world: how successful Putin is in his aggressive foreign policy will be closely watched by other authoritarian regimes. By supporting Ukraine, we support democracy and its values elsewhere.