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Subjective Steps Along the Estonian-Finnish Bridge from 1917 to 2017

PM/EMF/Scanpix
PM/EMF/Scanpix
Celebration of the tenth anniversary of Estonia regaining independence at the Estonian volunteers’ commemorative statute at Luumäki in 2001. Soomepoisid—Estonian volunteers who participated in the Continuation War—repaid Estonia’s debt of honour to Finland.

The Gulf of Finland has both separated and united neighbours

The 1905 Russian Revolution made Finland popular with several Estonian politicians. Among others, Konstantin Päts, Jaan Teemant, Eduard Vilde, Mihkel Martna and Friedebert Tuglas (Mihkelson) found shelter there. Finland became their “land of liberty”, an ideal. They saw the country in a perhaps overly positive light.

Gustav Suits also knew Finland well. He studied at the University of Helsinki and married a Finn. In autumn 1917, Suits had a great vision—the union of Finnish and Estonian twin republics. They would have had joint foreign affairs and trade policies, and defence forces, if possible, but each country would have elected its own parliament and government. Mihkel Martna killed the vision in the newspaper Sotsiaaldemokraat; Suits was said to be “a mere reed in the wind”. However, Tuglas was more enthusiastic. He developed the idea in his essay titled “Soome sild” (Finnish Bridge).

Finland became independent in December 1917, Estonia in February 1918. At the same time, the German Empire entered the game. It occupied Estonia, while the Finnish government invited its forces over to help in the civil war. The connection over the Gulf of Finland almost disappeared. But only for a short while.

Dispute Over the Legacy of the Estonian War for Independence

Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany collapsed conclusively in November 1918, and the Red Army attacked Estonia. The War for Independence began. Finland cheered Estonia on and provided aid: approximately 3,700 volunteers, weapons and funds. A great Estonian boom emerged: the largest since the first Estonian song festival in 1869. Finnish papers wrote about Estonia, Estonian papers about Finland. Päts’s favourite idea about the Finnish-Estonian twin state found new supporters. While it did not create excitement in Finland, it had lots of proponents in Estonia.

The War for Independence ended, and bickering began. How substantial had Finnish help been? The larger state saw it as considerable, the smaller one less so. An attitude of “Estonia became independent thanks to us” emerged in Finland. Estonian Colonel Mihkel Kattai searched for balance in his analyses, while Vilho Helanen polemicised in the papers that the Finnish boys’ heroic deeds should not be diminished or forgotten.

Estophile Lauri Kettunen held a different opinion. According to him, the greatest obstacle to achieving friendly relations was not Estonian pride but the Finns’ self-satisfaction. “Does our compassion towards our southern neighbour and brother really depend on whether we receive [the] eternal thanks due to us for the help we provided?”

Kallas and Kairamo

Diplomatic relations between Finland and Estonia had a bumpy start. In December 1918 Oskar Kallas was appointed Estonia’s representative in Finland. In March 1919, Finland appointed former senator Alfred Oswald Kairamo as ambassador to “study Estonia’s political position”. Kairamo was not enthusiastic about his task, and he was not welcomed with open arms in Estonia, either. The senator was pro-German, considered himself “purely white”, and thought that the leadership of Estonia was “quite red”. Kairamo did not believe independent Estonia had a future. Lauri Kettunen considered that Kairamo destroyed the Finnish bridge.

Kairamo soon wanted to leave Estonia, and the Finnish government finally agreed. He departed in August 1919 and was succeeded by Yrjö Putkinen. Relations “normalised”.

Fear of and Anger towards Russia

The Estonian War for Independence created different foundations for establishing independence compared to the 1918 war in Finland. In Estonia, war united people; in Finland it separated them. Entering into a peace treaty with Soviet Russia in 1920 was beneficial both for Finland and for Estonia.

Anger towards Russia was present in Finland only after gaining independence, although its roots went much deeper. Finland’s anger towards Russia was rather a fear of Russia; after all, fear is the mother of anger. It was amplified by the fact that Finland had not even used military force against Soviet Russia in the war of 1918, let alone won. Thus, fear and the anger generated by it remained.

There was no conspicuous anger towards all things Russian in Estonia in the interwar period. Estonia had defeated the Red Army in the War for Independence. This is why Estonians did not fear their eastern neighbour and the sentiment did not turn into anger. That ripened only after World War II.

Some Finnish circles were embittered by the fact that East Karelia remained on the other side of the border in 1920. Revanchism, the Greater Finland ideal, was born and fed the fear of all things Russian.

With the peace, all the territory Estonia requested was granted to it. Revanchism, the ideal of Greater Estonia, could not emerge, which is why fear of Russia could not grow.

Finland’s de jure recognition, Estonian spirits

More than anything else, Estonia wanted Finland to acknowledge its independence. That wish did not make the long and thorny journey that led to it any easier. Oskar Kallas sought recognition in February 1919, and Finland de facto provided it half a year later. Estonia was disappointed. Foreign minister Rudolf Holsti carefully worded his congratulatory wishes and said that de facto meant the same as de jure. Nevertheless, Estonia was not happy. De jure recognition came as late as 7 June 1920. Two days later, a Finnish delegation arrived in Tallinn and travelled on to Tartu for peace negotiations with Soviet Russia. Was the de jure recognition that Finland had finally provided a coincidence? No, it was not.

Then the spirits issue started. Prohibition came into force in Finland in 1919. No one could sell or produce alcohol, or bring large quantities of it in from a foreign country. Nevertheless, vodka poured into the country, albeit in secret. Much of this came from Germany and Poland, but a considerable amount was shipped from Estonia as well. Ambassador Oskar Kallas, who was involved in the temperance movement, wrote with concern from Helsinki in December 1921: “Anti-Estonian sentiments are becoming increasingly more evident in everyday life both among the temperance movement, Finnish public, and drinkers.” The prohibition law was repealed in 1932. The Finns no longer had an important motive to travel to Tallinn. At least for a few decades …

Low Point

The nadir in Estonian-Finnish political relations came in 1934–5. It was the biggest crisis in the relationship between the countries up to that point. Due to the strengthening of the Vaps movement (Union of Participants in the Estonian War for Independence), the State Elder, Konstantin Päts, declared a state of emergency in March 1934. The transition to authoritarianism began.

Artur Sirk, head of the Vaps movement, escaped to Finland and began to plot Päts’s downfall. He invited the Vaps movement leaders from Estonia to confer in Finland. The coup d’état planned for 8 December 1935 failed for several reasons. When it was exposed, Estonia partly blamed Finland, believing the latter had interfered in its internal affairs. The events of 1934 and 1935 left a lasting wound in Estonian-Finnish relations that did not have time to heal before World War II.

Paavo Johannes Hynninen, the Finnish ambassador in Tallinn from 1933 to 1940, said that the two states’ relations were never as tense as in 1935. Foreign minister Friedrich Akel made a speech in 1937 on the occasion of Finnish Independence Day and declared that the blood relations uniting the two countries were not always noticeable in real life. There were said to be certain parties in Finland who had tried to harm the deep friendship between the two states.

At the same time, General Johan Laidoner spoke at the congress of the Fatherland Union (Isamaaliit, a political party of the time.—Tr.). The general stirred up a hornet’s nest, and not for the first time. He said that Estonia was grateful for aid in the War for Independence, but Estonians also knew that the help was not provided due to pure kinship alone but also served Finland’s interest. Which is true.

Finis Estoniae

During the interwar period, Estonian-Finnish relations operated on two levels: official, and unofficial communication in civil society. Official relations were formally correct, and rather cool at times. At the same time, educated and cultural circles communicated actively and without prejudice.

Finland and Estonia were two typical small countries eagerly and selfishly pursuing policies that were only useful for one or the other, and it followed that the neighbour wouldn’t gain something at the first’s expense. To exaggerate the point, it’s as if there was a constant test match. Moreover, Finland needed Estonia less than Estonia needed Finland.

General Laidoner visited Finland in early 1939. In his party address, he said: “… I think that common battles [in the War for Independence] and the blood we shed together guarantee that these two nations and states, Finland and Estonia, walk and act hand in hand also in the future, in times of both peace and war”. Laidoner also spoke about Estonia’s debt of honour to Finland, which Estonia would repay by being loyal and standing with the Finnish people and state in peacetime and on the brink of war.

That is not what happened. A party address is a party address. Finland fought the Winter War (1939–40) alone. Estonia surrendered and lost independence in the summer of 1940. Finnish ambassador Hynninen wrote to Helsinki on 15 July 1940: “I have just returned from the funeral of independent Estonia, the funeral of the Republic of Estonia that sounded so sweet to us Finns. It feels like we have lost something of our own, which we’ll remember even more keenly as it is lost.” The deeply moved ambassador ended his report thus, and titled it Finis Estoniae—the end of Estonia.

During the Continuation War from 1941 to 1944, the Finnish bridge was rebuilt. An infantry regiment—JR 200—was formed from 2,500 Estonians who escaped German mobilisation. In addition, 700–800 Estonians served in the Finnish navy. The debt of honour of the Estonian War for Independence was repaid to Finland. As was written on a commemorative statue at Luumäki, unveiled in 1991: “For Finnish freedom and Estonian honour”.

Silence Disappears

After World War II the Iron Curtain split the Gulf of Finland. Soviet Estonia was close, yet so far. The geographical distance between Tallinn and Helsinki remained the same, yet …

The darkness was pierced by a ray of light in the mid-1950s. People started to restore ties little by little. Cultural delegations were exchanged. In 1956 several Finnish groups visited Soviet Estonia and vice versa. That year, only 212 foreigners visited Estonia, while there were 298 visitors in 1957. The majority of these were from Finland.

Information crossed the Gulf of Finland in other ways, too. Estonian Radio began to broadcast programmes in Finnish in 1947. In the following decade, Finnish stations began to send correspondents to Estonia and broadcast news reports. However, Finnish radio and television disturbed the peace of Soviet society. Ideological warfare came to a head. In 1985, the central committee of the Communist Party of Estonia prepared a list of channels that leaked bourgeois ideology into Soviet Estonia. Finnish television came first; foreign travel was in second place. Something had to be done. But the party ran out of time.

Kekkonen Brings Light

In 1964 the president of Finland surprised everyone—Urho Kekkonen visited Soviet Estonia in March. His speech at the University of Tartu moved listeners and was noted in the annals of history. But every trip has a price. When Kekkonen returned home, he invited 33 “old brethren and visitors of Estonia” to meet him. He said he believed that the Estonian people would survive only in Soviet Estonia. Finnish Estophiles should look south and stop communicating with expatriate Estonians.

Kekkonen’s visit helped to restore sea traffic between Tallinn and Helsinki in the summer of 1965. The hiatus had lasted for a quarter of a century. The number of passengers rose to 100,000 in ten years.

During the years of Soviet occupation, Estonia had to be satisfied with the role of Finland’s little brother. Finland became an opportunity, a prison window through which Estonians could catch a glimpse of the blue sky. Finland became the number one foreign country for Estonians—due to circumstance, not by choice. Estonians were not considered competitors in Finland, nor did the Finns perceive the Estonians’ prospects. We, the Finns, were independent and well off. Estonians, on the other hand, lived in a compound guarded by Moscow and ate what the nourishing hand of the north offered. This was milk and honey for Finnish self-esteem.

And Now?

Finland was slow to recognise Estonian independence in 1920, but the pace was quite different in 1991. To the surprise of many—maybe even Finland itself—Helsinki restored diplomatic relations with Tallinn on 29 August 1991. No new recognition was needed, as the one dating back to 1920 had never been revoked.

What about now, in 2017? The connection over the Gulf of Finland is a normal and everyday phenomenon. People cross the Gulf to work or as tourists. The Finnish bridge has transformed into a plan to build a tunnel, while Helsinki and Tallinn increasingly resemble twin cities. And vodka travels swiftly over the waves of the Gulf of Finland—until Estonian prices catch up with Finnish ones.

For a person who has studied Estonian history over a half a century, it is nice to see such a time in one’s twilight years.

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