Finland is not the only European country facing a significantly larger neighbor with a fundamentally different society and culture. But Finland shares the longest European border with Russia. This has geopolitical, cultural, and societal implications.
- The proximity of Finnish territory to both St. Petersburg and the Murmansk coast with its strategic nuclear forces is a geostrategic factor.
- The Finno-Russian border is a historic cultural divide going back to Rome and Byzantine.
- The societal divide that is centuries old has not changed. Finland is a country ruled by law, while Russia remains a country ruled by man.
The stabilization of Finno-Russian relations after the war was a major European achievement. The crucial explanation remains that while Finland lost a just war, because it was attacked, it never suffered occupation. Loss of territory and large war reparations were a small price to pay in comparison to the destruction and human suffering of an occupation.
The radical decision by the Finnish Government to evacuate every single Finn — around ten percent of the total population — from the ceded territories in Karelia stunned Stalin. It was a historic novelty because normally armies advance and withdraw but the population stays put, like in Alsace-Lorraine, not to mention the Balkans. Only 2 000 civilians lost their lives in the war and around 90 000 soldiers were killed. But by bringing its people to safety from Karelia, Finland avoided an irredenta with all its consequences. The border remains a sharp divide that paradoxically is also an important factor of stability. It would have been impossible to develop friendly relations after the war with the Soviet Union, had 400,000 Finns been abandoned to the Soviets.
The Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952 are perhaps the best example to illustrate how Finland emerged from the war and stabilized its relationship with the Soviet Union. These were the first Olympics where Soviet athletes participated, and Stalin was still alive! The last train carrying war reparations crossed the border a month after the closing ceremony.
Peu-à-peu and step by step, Finland joined the European integration process and built a Nordic welfare state. It traded with its Scandinavian neighbors and other Western partners but also with the Soviet Union. In hindsight this sounds like a balancing act with Stalin and his heirs, which it undeniably was.
It remains a major achievement of Finland to have emerged from a war with its vital institutions intact and having been able to protect the civilian population. The long post-war period with growing trade and regular contacts on the highest political level with the Soviet Union proved the superiority of the Finnish economic and social system. Mass tourism since 1954 – but only in one direction – allowed hundreds of thousands of Finns to see the USSR with their own eyes. This was an effective antidote against any illusions about the Soviet system. All of this might not have been evident during the twists and turns in dealing with the Kremlin, but it turned out to be the decisive factor.
At the same time, fifty years of post-war relations dissipated feelings of hatred. This applies to both countries and should not be underestimated. The explanation is at hand. Losing a just war and avoiding occupation plus minimal civilian losses were outcomes accepted as a fact of life by the Finns and as an imperative to rebuild a relationship with the neighboring superpower. As for the Soviet Union and its citizens, Finland emerged as a “friendly country”, but not as a “fraternal country” to use topical Soviet propaganda expressions depicting the different reaches of Soviet power.
Finland remained the largest Western trading partner of the Soviet Union until West Germany overtook it in the 1970s with the export of large diameter gas pipes. During these long years, Finland had a strong presence on the Soviet market, and it was a major exporter of consumer goods and food products. The visibility of Finland in the dull everyday life of Soviet citizens was significant.
Russia is not the Soviet Union, it is a different country, but the historic legacy remains. The most important change of the Russian society is its development into a market economy, with its peculiarities and statist interventions. But the path towards rule-of-law has been abandoned with severe implications for citizens and business alike.
The opening of the border and citizen-to-citizen contacts in the 1990s were novelties, which the closing of the borders because of the pandemic has not changed The same applies to trade. It is not an exaggeration to talk about a historic reconciliation between Finland and Russia. The symbol of this was the laying of wreaths by Presidents Yeltsin and Putin at the War Memorial and the tomb of Marshal Mannerheim. The established confidential dialogue with the Kremlin is an important asset with a proven track record. But its success depends on the ability to find the pragmatic tone needed.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war of attrition in Eastern Ukraine was a watershed in the Western world’s relations with Russia. Historic continuity and a strong military tradition explain why Finland did not even contemplate letting peace dividend thinking undermine its defenses. The change of borders by force in Ukraine prompted Finland to enhance its defense efforts and modernize its intelligence systems. The most significant change remains the intensification of defense cooperation with Sweden, not to forget Norway and the United Sates and alignment with NATO.
Despite the present stand-off in Ukraine, it still is not an exaggeration to claim that Russia has problems with all its fourteen neighbors – except for one: Finland.