By Paul Goble
This week, Finland marks the centenary of its independence from Russia, a date that is all the more impressive because it is the only country that broke away from the Russian Empire in 1917 and never was reabsorbed either temporarily or partially by Moscow thereafter.
In a Rosbalt commentary, Sergey Shelin identifies eight reasons why that is so, reasons that provide guidance to others who hope to avoid being retaken at some point by the aggressive policies of Vladimir Putin and his superficially resurgent Russian empire or who want to help those countries avoid that fate (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2017/12/05/1666177.html).
First of all, the Rosbalt commentator says, the Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire was its “most autonomous part” and that meant that “at the critical moment there was not only someone to take power but to hold it.”
Second, there was no “peasant question” of the kind that existed in Russia or a hated landed aristocracy. As a result, the divisions of the Finnish civil war in 1918 were not those [found in Russia].” For the Whites in Finland fought not only the privileged strata but also the peasants.” The Finnish Reds had a base only in the urban poor.
Third, while the Finnish civil war was every bit as bloody and cruel as the Russian, the Reds in Finland made their peace with the Whites by the end of the 1920s, and overwhelming majorities o both opposed any future political or social revolutions. “This is the key to not only to the military but also to the post-war evolution of Finland,” Shelin says.
Fourth, according to the Rosbalt commentator, “the most important factor behind the stability and unity of Finnish society in the 1920s and ensuing years was the preservation of a more or less democratic regime which was supported by the main portion of the social forces of all shades of opinion.”
That put Finland in a very different position from “interwar Poland and the Baltic countries,” Shelin continues, because in Helsinki there was never established an autocratic regime that frozen social divisions on which “outside forces” could play in the event of a conflict.
Fifth, in the fall of 1939, the Finns behaved in a very different way than the Balts when challenged by Stalin, The Balts appeared to behave in a realistic way bowing before force majeure, while the Finns refused to. They fought for their country, and “while Stalin didn’t necessarily take into consider the strong all the time, he never considered the weak at all.”
Sixth, even though the Finns allied themselves with Hitler during World War II, they did so in ways that showed they were more fellow travelers than allies ready to do his bidding. As a result, they did not gain the opprobrium of others who cooperated more closely with Hitler and were not absorbed into the USSR or the Soviet bloc.
Seventh, although Moscow tried to transform Finland into a peoples’ democracy after the war, the Soviets were never able to find a sufficiently powerful base and thus had to accept what many have called “Finlandization,” Helsinki’s deference to Moscow on many international questions but its continuing control of its own domestic scene.
And eighth, Stalin and succeeding Soviet leaders found it more convenient to deal with the Finnish “Whites” who were in power than with the fractious and increasingly marginalized Finnish “Reds.” As a result, Finland’s unique combination of compromise and toughness kept the country out of Moscow’s grip and left it “a quite free country of the Scandinavian type.”
The Finns have never returned to the empire, Shelin says. And he notes in conclusion that Russians like to talk about “a special path” for their country. But there is a better “special path” on offer: the one provided by Finland over the last 100 years.