It’s high time for Finland to yank those roots of racism from the ground

by , under Enrique Tessieri

This blog entry is dedicated to the late Donald Fields, Helsinki correspondent of the BBC, The Guardian, and Politiken to 1988.

As a journalist writing from Finland for some of Europe’s biggest dailies in the 1980s like the Financial Times, there is one matter that stands out from those days: censorship.

The censorship that Finland imposed on its media was overpowering and near-complete. Even writing about topics like EU – then EEC – membership was out of the question. Foreign policy was the sacrosanct topic reserved for only a few “wise” men.

As one example out of many, in 1992 I wrote an editorial for Apu magazine about the scrapping of the treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (YYA) with the Soviet Union. At the last moment, my editorial was taken down.

The only matter that remained of my editorial on the page was a black-and-white picture of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signing the YYA agreement in 1948.

The then editor of Apu, Matti Saari, warned me: “I’m the only one that writes about such topics in editorials.”

Whenever I wrote a story that was critical about Finnish-Soviet relations, I’d get a call from the Soviet Embassy. Even the foreign ministry warned me that I would be blacklisted if I wrote critically as I once did for Spain’s leading news magazine Cambio 16 about the contraband of Bibles to the USSR.

A Finnish diplomat whom I knew in Madrid told me how furious they had been about what I had written. She said outright that if I continued to write about such topics, then I would be blacklisted by the foreign ministry.

Mike Hofman published in 2014 his thesis on media censorship during the cold war.

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signing in 1948 the treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Agreement. Source: Yle.

Some of these “wise” men who guided Finland’s sacrosanct foreign policy during the cold war was the late Max Jakobson (1923-2013). I found out many years after his death that we were distant relatives. Our great great great grandfather was Jacob Weikain, who moved to Hamina in 1799 and was the first Jew to get a residence permit.

Believe it or not, history books in Finland to the 1970s still claimed that Finland was populated by two races, the Nordic and East Baltic. Eugenics was a big pseudoscience in Finland. Source: J.E. Aro, J.E. Rosberg, I Arvi F. Poijärvi, Koulun maantieto, WSOY, 1941. p.32.

Jakobson, like some of the hardliners of the foreign ministry, and associations like Finnfacts, whose job was to invite foreign journalists to Finland so they’d write positive things about the country, did not accept anyone diverging from the official interpretation of relations with Moscow.

In the minds of many foreign ministry officials, Finlandization, foreign policy dictated by the USSR, did not exist.

In the summer 1980 edition of Foreign Affairs, Jakobson wrote: “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.”

The attitude that Finns never mind foreigners should see the country’s relations with the USSR from its perspective, reveals today Finnish exceptionalism. Foreign journalists and scholars should not give their opinion because they don’t understand our reality.

This exclusive attitude is highlighted by S. Muir and H. Worthen in “Finland’s Holocaust.” “Even when there was something written about Finland, the perspective of the foreign researcher was often criticized for hopeless objectivity and the blindness towards the specifically Finnish war-time historical context. In many cases, this has been more than justified (our emphasis).”[1]

How have the cold war years impacted Finland today? Is it evident in its immigration and asylum policy and the general suspicion of foreigners? Can we trace its impact to the rise of a racist party called the Perussuomalaiset (PS)?* What about the explosive increase of hate speech and racism?

As S. Muir and H Worthen as well as other scholars, it is clear that the roots of Finnish racism are rooted in its history.

They continue: “The myth of an ideologically unified Finland isolated from the attitudes and practices of its ally, the Third Reich, and generally unsullied by antisemitism has become an insupportable burden for contemporary Finnish historical and cultural studies, and indeed for contemporary Finnish society; the insensitivity toward these silenced histories provides a condition of continued racism and antisemitism. [2]

Cold War and Human Rights

My Finnish relatives are a source that helps me to understand the source of racism. It is right under my nose almost completely whitewashed by hostility and history.

Part of my grandfather’s family changed their surname in 1931 to Harvo from Handtwargh. Even if I never asked my grandfather why he changed his surname, I suspect it had to do with the rise of fascism and anti-foreign sentiment, which was fed by anti-Semitism.

While matters like my family’s Jewish background took decades to figure out, one of my greatest disappointments, when I moved permanently to Finland in December 1978, came when an Aliens’ Office official said that I wasn’t a Finn.

Citizenship in Finland is determined by the parents’ citizenship (jus sanguinis). Even so, I was not considered a Finn because my father wasn’t a Finn.

Even if people in this country are quick to point out that women where the first in Europe who won the right to vote in 1906, it was not until 1984 when they had the right to pass on Finnish citizenship to their children.

A year before women won such a right, the country had in force its first-ever Aliens Act. Before the act, foreigners were treated by the aliens’ authorities on a one-to-one basis. You had no rights and could be deported without the right to appeal.

The treatment of foreigners, especially Soviet refugees, was disgraceful during the cold war.

Migrant Tales has written on Soviet asylum-seekers in Finland in the past and how they were returned against their will to the USSR to suffer a gruesome fate in psychiatric wards and prisons. One of these that I met was Aleksandr Shatravka, who visited my home in 2011 with his wife Irina.  Thanks to Aleksandr, whom I met thanks to Migrant Tales, I published in February 2010 in one of Finland’s first-ever extensive human- interest stories on a former asylum-seeker who was forcibly returned to the Soviet Union in 1976.

If Finland was hostile to refugees and suspicious of foreigners, the country was ruled until 1992 by the Restricting Act of 1939.

The Act prohibited foreigners from owning real estate and acquiring a majority stake in Finnish companies—limiting this to 20% normally and 40% under special permission. The Restricting Act stipulated that foreigners could not own shares in sectors like forestry, securities trading, transportation, mining, real estate, and shipping. Foreigners weren’t allowed to establish newspapers, never mind organize demonstrations, and be politically active.

If history shows us some of the roots of our racism and anti-Semitism today, it also sheds as well light on our restrictive asylum and immigration policy. It explains why the Finnish Immigration Service operates in the way it does and why it has been the object of much criticism.

One positive step in cutting the roots and sources of our racism was an independent investigation that confirmed in February that Finnish volunteers of the Waffen-SS Wiking Division engaged in violent acts against civilians and Jews in Russia.

Considering that the aim of the SS in Russia was a war of annihilation and genocide against Jews and other enemies of the Nazis, the conclusions of the investigation should not come as a surprise.

The big surprise, however, is that it has taken almost 85 years to connect the volunteers of the Waffen-SS dots to the genocide that took place in Russia during World War 2.

[1] Finland’s Holocaust: Silences of History, edited by S. Muir, H. Worthen, pp. 25-26.

[2] Ibid., p. 26.