Aspects of the Governing of the Finns

Aspects of the Governing of the Finns is far more vibrant and colourful than its stuffy title suggests; it challenges the reader to actively wrestle with it in search of elusive truths. Dr George Maude, a Knight of the Order of the Lion of Finland and the author of the Historical Dictionary of Finland (2006), begins as he means to go on, provocatively suggesting that the “dominant role” of German soldiers in the 1918 liberation of Helsinki may have prevented a massacre of the city’s Reds. He soon points out that Mannerheim the “youthful” Finnish general was actually a Swedish-speaker in his fifties who had loyally served the Russian Tsar for three decades, and who would soon skip town. But his words are chosen with the greatest of care; for the next 300 pages, Maude argues that Finland’s political history is littered with misleadingly archetypal public personae, unlikely alliances, and discarded alternatives.

Conservative Finns might chafe at Maude’s cynicism towards the sacred cows of the 20th century; more open-minded readers will appreciate his empathy for the enemies of yesteryear and his ceaseless questioning of what conservatives think they are conserving. Maude’s sources are wide-ranging, from PhD theses to newspaper archives, although some assertions rely on the less rigorous focus of recent TV documentaries. Meanwhile, he encourages a healthy mistrust of documents not only from WW2 and the Cold War, but also from the national birth trauma that he dutifully identifies with its twin titles: the Finnish Civil War/Revolution. If there is any problem with his scholarship, it is merely that he (or his publisher) has failed to codify it with an index – a regrettable omission in an academic work that will surely make it harder for other researchers to use.

Like most foreign authors on Finland (Screen, Upton, Clements…), Maude has married into his subject, in his case into a family with ties to the hotly contested city of Viipuri. Hence, his account often seems considered from the vantage point of a counterfactual Finland that might have been. This is a valuable approach to history, educating the reader in the “what-if” scenarios that had to be rejected before real history could happen. What if, as Britain once unhelpfully suggested, post-revolutionary Finland were re-incorporated into Sweden? What if, as Germany once urged, Finland embraced a notion of Finnlands lebensraum and seized the Kola Peninsula? What if, as Russia once hoped, Kuusinen’s Terijoki puppet regime had taken hold, and turned the country into a Soviet republic? Maude seems determined to ignite rewarding arguments everywhere that Finns talk about Finland – except, oddly, Lapland, with issues of Saami integration or autonomy unmentioned.

Maude dares us to consider paths not taken, even into his final 50 pages, where he assesses the years since 1981 in terms of “disequilibrium economics” – Finland’s dual position at the periphery of both the rising European Union and the collapsing Soviet Russia. He is particularly persuasive on the terrifying compromises and daunting realpolitik forced on Finnish governments during the Cold War, and demonstrates very well for foreign readers why figures such as Kekkonen are still revered at home. His book does not conclude so much as stop mid-flow, as if boisterous students have dragged him from his podium. In a hurried coda about the current economic crisis, he compares modern Finnish defences against Russia to those of the Afghan Taliban, ending as he began, with a mischievous reinterpretation of acknowledged facts; should the Russians ever invade Finland, they would indeed face decades of rural resistance from a fanatic populace with an already legendary reputation for defiance and sisu. It is a fittingly cheeky finale to an inspiring, exhilarating book that makes Finnish politics come alive, scattered with intriguing asides and wry observations.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy. This article comprises the original English text from a review published in Finnish in the latest edition of Ulkopolitiikka, the Finnish Journal of Foreign Affairs.

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