The shadow of the former USSR and its spell on Finland and source of xenophobia

by , under Enrique Tessieri

In the spring 1989 I was planning to travel to the Western African countries of Mali and Niger. Mali was cut out of my journey thanks to the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo), which revealed to the honorary consul of Mali in Helsinki, Karl Jalkanen, what was written on my secret Interpol file.


Here’s an editorial  by Helsingin Sanomat about what happened to me published on April 13, 1989.

The file that was revealed to Jalkanen is supposed to be secret since it has sensitive information about your personal life.

In an apparent state of inebriation, the honorary consul of Mali was highly suspicious about my travel plans to that African country. There was nothing suspicious about my motives since my plan was to do a travel story for Apu, Finland’s largest magazine at the time.

After Jalkanen made the phone call to Supo, it took about twenty minutes for his contact to call him back. The honorary consul said that I had taken part in three demonstrations, of which one I had organized. The Interpol files revealed as well that I was interested in human rights.


Human rights didn’t apply to non-Finnish citizens, who couldn’t own land, control over 20% of a company, establish a newspaper as well as scores of other restrictions. This story was published in the 3/1989 issue of Ydin-lehti magazine.

I got in touch with the Office of the Data Protection Ombudsman and wrote what happened in Apu. Pessimistic that anything would happen to the Supo agent, I heard from the data protection ombudsman that the security intelligence agent had been reprimanded.

Even if the incident is a drop in the bucket when compared with  what Edward Snowden exposed in summer about massive global surveillance by the NSA, it was highly revealing since it showed how Finnish officials, like the secret police, perceived expats and immigrants.

Apart from being watched closely by Supo, another matter that the Interpol file revealed was that it had a network of immigrant informers.

Back in the Cold War days, human rights were considered in Finland as something “unpatriotic.” It was unpatriotic to speak out for human rights since it was in direct conflict with Finland’s sacrosanct foreign policy with the former Soviet Union. Since human rights were seen as a threat at the time, it has fueled the intolerance we see today. The price that Finland paid for its geopolitical isolation during the Cold War is it’s reluctance to interact today with the outside world in Finland.

Human rights was a big issue for me at the time due to the violations committed in Argentina under one of the region’s most ruthless dictatorships during 1976-83. Human rights became an important part of US foreign policy during  Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977-81).

The protection and defense of human rights in Finland is a relatively new matter. It reveals why this country pursued such a draconian policy against immigrants never mind Soviet citizens that fled the country and sought asylum.


One of the culprits of Finland’s xenophobia is the Cold War and the former Soviet Union. It was the breeding ground for the intolerance we find today in Finland.

Finland’s suspicion of human rights is best exemplified by its membership in the Council of Europe. Finland became in 1989, together with the principalities of Europe, the last Western European country to join the Council. Why did it take so long for it to become a member? Because it to be to vocal about human rights violations in the Soviet bloc.

Not only were human rights considered “unpatriotic” back then, but the very officials who ran things are still in office. Their view of the outside world is still that of a hostile place where we should react with suspicion instead of trust. It explains why some Finns still see foreigners as a threat and the rise of the anti-immigration Perussuomalaiset (PS) party in the 2011 elections.

Finland’s issues with intolerance and racism are tucked in the deep murky corners of its history. When Finland moves away from its present state of denial about its history and opens its past to critical and open scrutiny, only then we’ll know that we’ve taken a courageous step forward in accepting our ever-growing cultural diversity.

Opening up the past is our best insurance against a populist movement that wants to take us back to the times when writing these types of columns would not only get you blacklisted and part of smear campaign.