Foreign journalists and Finnish interpretations of history

by , under All categories, Enrique

If one wants to do an interesting study into the role of the state and the media, one could look at the cold war years of Finland.

An article written by Max Jakobson, Substance and Appearance: Finland, is one example of how the governments viewed foreign journalists.  He writes: “As a result, Finland is forever at the mercy of the itinerant columnist who after lunch and cocktails in Helsinki is ready to pronounce himself upon the fate of the Finnish people.”

Notice that he uses the word “columnist” not “journalist.”

When the article was written in 1980, there was little to no criticism even by the Finnish media on our special relations with the former Soviet Union. Even though it is a great matter that Finland retained its independence despite two wars with the Soviet Union, Jakobson asks a key question in the article whether Finlandization forced the country to give up any essential national interests in order to have good relations with Moscow.

He writes: “Here it is important to distinguish between substance and appearance, between abstract principle and political reality and to make the distinction in terms of the Finnish experience. One again it is necessary to take the account of the legacy of the war.”

One of the biggest flaws in the article is that it aims to be THE only opinion on how we should interpret Helsinki-Moscow relations. Nobody, except for a few wise men such as Jakobson, were able to speak publicly about Finnish-Soviet relations. The former diplomat does not mention a word about the censorship and self-censorship that existed on this front even though he stresses how “Western” we are.

What does Jakobson’s article tell us today? It shows, I believe, a country that has seen foreigners with suspicion. Even though there are valid factors that have fueled this suspicion, it has been reinforced over and over by our history. Apart from having few foreigners in the country, the Restricting Act of 1939 also made made foreign investment virtually impossible.

Like the government, which must have reaped a lot of political benefits from our special relation with Moscow, Finland enjoyed and grew accustomed to being a geopolitical recluse.

Language rights in 1862, independence from Russia in 1917, civil war, Winter and Continuation War and Cold War tell us of a continuing story that has fueled suspicion of outsiders. So, for a foreign journalist to come to Finland and, “after lunch and cocktails,” to write about our special relation with the Soviet Union naturally hits a very nationalistic nerve.

The impact of the previous century on the present one explains why some of us continue to see immigrants as a threat.

Those reticent one-sided views or ourselves and the outside world we learned in the previous century may turn out to be a threat to our future because opening up is still a painful process.