Urho Kaleva Kekkonen (1900-1986) -- the UKK to America's JFK -- was the democratically elected virtual dictator of Finland between 1956 and 1981. His indisputable achievement was managing to keep Finland neutral and independent through the dark days of the Cold War, but his legacy of Finlandization remains a controversial one.

The Great Bald One

The Early Years

Born in the small town of Pielavesi, Kekkonen originally wanted to be a writer but, not finding much success, became a journalist instead. During the Finnish Civil War (1917-18), he was a war correspondant and occasional combatant -- yes, at the tender age of 17 -- on the (victorious) White side. He was (and would remain) an avid sportsman and won the Finnish high-jump championship in 1924. He married author Sylvi Kekkonen in 1926. A member of the Finnish Sports Organization and the Finnish Olympic Committee, he started to exercise his talent for politics at this time. He joined the Agrarian Party in 1932, and in 1936 he completed a doctorate in law at the University of Helsinki, was elected to Parliament and became the second Minister of the Interior.

During World War II Kekkonen served as the director of the Karelian evacuees' welfare center and later as the Ministry's commissioner for coordination. He also started writing political essays under a variety of pseudonyms, mostly in the respected magazine Suomen Kuvalehti.

In The Seat of Power

Kekkonen lost the 1950 presidential election to Juho Paasikivi but became Prime Minister, a post he held for the next six years. In 1956 he defeated Paasikivi, became president, and determined to stay there.

Demokratia itse voi suorastaan synnyttää ja kehittää vaikeita valtiollisia epäkohtia. Sellaisissa oloissa demokratian puoltajien on oltava valmiit juuri kansanvallan säilyttämiseksi tarpeen tullen luopumaan jostakin demokratialle vähemmän, tai ehkä enemmänkin, oleellisesta, voidakseen pelastaa sen, minkä turvin kansanvalta voi sitä vastaan kohonneen myrsky ajan säilyä ja sitten olosuhteitten rauhoituttua puhdistuneena ja selkeentyneenä taas kehittyä demokratian sisäistä olemusta enemmän vastaaviin muotoihin.

Democracy itself may cause the creation and development of difficult national problems. In such conditions the defenders of democracy must, precisely in order to maintain the power of the people, be willing to temporarily abandon some of lesser, or perhaps even more important, principles of democracy. This way the power of the people can be maintained through the storm and, once the coast is clear, it can develop again into a form better matching the inner essence of democracy.

Kekkonen in 1933, from Vuosisatani I, 1981 (my translation)

Kekkonen's overriding interest was foreign affairs (read: the Soviet Union), and during his presidency foreign policy was set by him and him alone. All significant decisions, in internal matters as well, had to pass through Kekkonen's hands. Ministers were disposable and Kekkonen did not hesitate to dissolve Parliament whenever it suited him to do so; this was one of the Finnish president's many unusual powers and only after UKK's departure was the political will to limit them found.

In terms of foreign policy, Kekkonen agreed with his predecessor Paasikivi, and their approach became known as the Kekkonen-Paasikivi Line. Kekkonen believed that Finland's chance for survival was in lying low, agreeing with the Soviet Union over foreign policy issues as the price of retaining independence, a capitalist economy and a democratic system of government. This approach, accompanied by a loudly proclaimed policy of neutrality, became known as Finlandization.

Naturally, such a policy of maintaining friendly relations with the Soviet Union at almost any cost had its drawbacks. During Kekkonen's term the Finnish media practiced self-censorship: editorials or other opinions critical of the Soviet Union were simply not published. It must be emphasized that this was not the result of overt governmental coercion, ie. violators of the unspoken rule were not jailed, but it was clearly the wish of Kekkonen and it was widely respected -- as an individual, you might shout out anti-Soviet propaganda, but then none of the major newspapers (or the government) would touch you with a bargepole.

The highlight of Kekkonen's career was the Conference on Security and Cooperation (CSCE) in 1975, which marked a quiet turning point in the Cold War. After the "spirit of Helsinki", the Great Powers were no longer in hostile competition, but merely in detente, with both East and West more or less content to stay where they were. This, of course, suited Finland (or at least Kekkonen) just fine. The other, hopefully more permanent result of the conference was the Helsinki Convention on Human Rights, in which all parties established a baseline of human rights to respect.

The Fading Years

Kekkonen was re-elected in 1962 and 1968. When his term was due to expire in 1974, Kekkonen strong-armed the Parliament into extending his term until 1978, after which he was re-elected yet again. A major force behind this series was the Soviets, who had learned to trust Kekkonen and much preferred him to any of the alternatives. After the 1960's the threat of a military takeover -- still very real after the war -- had decreased considerably, but Kekkonen remained extremely deferential to the Soviets. Due to his charisma, his grip on the media and the simple fact that he had been president for as long as most Finns could remember, a bit of a cult of personality also started to develop aroud UKK, with small but formerly unthinkable steps like publishing stamps and bills with his unmistakable bald dome and gigantic black glasses on them.

During his last few terms Kekkonen's mental and physical health started to fail, and there are numerous anecdotes about Kekkonen bungling his speeches, eating serviettes and and not even being able to recognize people. While the media did their best to hide this from public view, to those around it him it slowly became clear that he had become a liability to his nation. He was finally induced to retire for medical reasons in 1981. He died in 1986 at his residence in Tamminiemi, Helsinki, the former presidential mansion and now the Kekkonen Museum.

So What Does It All Add Up To?

A very good question. The jury is still out, as the Kekkonen archives and his diaries are still being examined and nobody knows what may turn up in the bowels of the Kremlin, but the consensus seems to be moderate: there is no evidence to indicate that Kekkonen was a paid Soviet stooge, but it seems clear that -- especially in the later years -- Kekkonen's deference to the Soviets and absolute refusal to violate the principle of neutrality did Finland some harm. The Finnish economy, in particular, had grown used to extensive trade with the Soviets under advantageous conditions, and was thus hit very hard when the Communist regime collapsed.

Just the same, Finland did avoid the fate of East Europe, and after running around like a headless chicken for most of the 1980's the Finnish government finally joined the EU. Ten years later, the economy seems to be doing just fine again, so maybe it was a small price to pay after all.

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