Max Jakobson dies but his legacy and the cold war linger on

by , under Enrique

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

I read with mixed thoughts about the death of Max Jakobson (1923-2013),  a diplomat who shaped Finland’s policy of neutrality during the cold war. While I am certain that he was an able diplomat, he was no friend of dissension or anyone who dared to question Helsinki’s sacrosanct foreign policy with Moscow. 

He didn’t hide his disdain for foreign correspondents as can be seen in the summer 1980 issue of Foreign Affairs: “…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. A person visiting, say, London for the first time, who does not know English and has only a vague notion of the significance of Dunkirk or the role of Winston Churchill, would hardly be regarded as qualified to comment on the British scene today.”

Did cold war Finland have to treat the media with such contempt and overbearing censorship?

Future historians will shed light on that question.

Kuvankaappaus 2013-3-12 kello 0.31.46
Helsingin Sanomat writes about the death of Max Jakobson on Monday’s edition.

In the 1980s, people like Pekka Karhuvaara, Lasse Lehtinen, Matti Kohva, Ralf Friberg and others made sure that what you wrote about Helsinki-Moscow relations was to their liking and toed the official foreign policy line.

If you didn’t you were black listed, period.

The foreign ministry together with Finnfacts did everything possible to brighten Finland’s name by inviting foreign journalists to the country. They would pay their trips, stay, wine and dine them to win them over. Many, I’m certain, became good friends of this country after such freebies.

My first attempt to interview Jakobson was  in 1989 shortly after I started to work  for the Financial Times in Helsinki. First he accepted the interview but later canceled it.

I suspect the reason why Jakobson canceled the interview was because he had learned about my stand against the Soviet Union, Finnish foreign policy and especially those Soviet asylum seekers who were deported back to the former U.S.S.R.

I got my second chance when Christian Tyler of the Financial Times came to Finland to do a special  report on the eventual demise of the Soviet Union and its impact on Finland.  Tyler had an appointment with Jakobson and I tagged along.

This is what we wrote in The last wall in Europe, published in January 1991:

“Even Max Jakobson, the distinguished former diplomat and most eloquent apologist for Finland’s extreme post-war neutrality, agrees that the government has been traditionally inhospitable to immigrants and slow to respond to the turmoil around its borders. “The period of stagnation was not bad for Finland,” he said but he added: “There is nothing wrong with stagnation if you can do it on a high income level as we did.” Finland had no obligation to Soviet citizens, but rather an opportunity. “Our obligation is to look after our own interests.”

The foreign ministry wasn’t naturally happy with what we wrote. Tyler told me that he published in a separate story an interview with Jakobson, which was more favarable.

While the cold war is still too close to us to study objectively, I suspect that future researchers and historians will look at this period with mixed feelings. Even if we were able to build a successful Nordic welfare state after the armistice with Moscow in 1944, we were near-isolated form the world. Even if we lost hundreds of thousands of able workers who migrated to Sweden after World War 2, we kept our borders effectively closed to immigrants and the outside world.

No matter how much you tried to accept the foreign ministry’s and Jakobson’s view of Finland’s neutrality, it always boiled down to censorship and even greater doses of self-censorship. Thanks to Finland’s near-isolation, foreign investment was almost negligible thanks to the Restricting Act of 1939 (law 219/1939) and it was not until 1983, 65 years after independence, that Finland got its first Aliens Act.

What is the legacy that Jakobson and Finland’s cold war foreign policy left on Finland?

While both kept Finland from becoming a Warsaw Pact member, it came with a high price. The cost can be seen today in our attitudes and suspicion of foreigners, especially of Russians.

If we still believe that we are at war with Russia, how can we be an open society that aims to integrate newcomers?

If there is anything holding us back, it is the cold war legacy.