Collaborative “Sisu” and Modesty:  Finland’s Story of Accidental Happiness (Part Three)


Maintaining Peace

This is the third section of a four-part essay exploring how the Finnish people might have found some happiness, even though they haven’t shown much interest in the happiness award which they received from the United Nations last February. Part One  examines the national character trait of sisu (tenacity and resilience, especially for the sake of one’s fellow Finns) which helped the Finns to miraculously win and maintain independence from their neighboring Soviet Union, whose population outnumbered theirs by 54 to one.  Part Two discusses how the Finns’ “sisu together” or “No Finn Left Behind” attitude has helped them since World War II to create not only a strong safety net but also a sound economy and an exemplary education system.

In this third section, I suggest that the Finns’ inclusive, collaborative mindset has helped them to get along peacefully with their international neighbors (especially Russia) for 73 years while still advancing principles of freedom and democracy.  Before we proceed, however, I strongly suggest that you take a moment to review the Facebook conversation thread presented at the beginning of Part One.

In his presidential address to the United States last year, President Sauli Niinistö explained that the Finns’ centennial theme of “together” has always been a crucial part of their national psyche. He then went on to point out that, for Finland, “together” simply can not “stop at the water’s edge.” Though the Finns have always been willing to die for their country, they also have come to understand the benefits of staying alive by having international friends and, above all, by turning enemies—even enemies such as Russia–into friends.

To say that this has been difficult is a gross understatement. When the Soviet army invaded Finland in 1939, the Finns displayed their sisu by joking, “[The Russians] are so many, and our country is so small, where will we find room to bury them all?” But after six more years of war, the Finns squarely faced the inescapable reality of sharing 800 miles of border with an expansionist world power: if the Finns wanted to survive, they had to prove more useful to the Soviet Union as an independent nation than as a people to be conquered. In the 73 years since World War II ended, sisu has in fact often been used to refer, not to a willingness to fight the Russians, but to the mental stamina required to maintain stable relations with them.”

After World War II, maintaining stable relations involved painful compromise and restraint. To negotiate peace, Finland not only gave up ten percent of its land but also agreed to and conscientiously paid staggering “war debts” mandated by the Soviets. Then, though the Finns would very much have liked the protection of other democracies, they refrained from joining NATO to avoid angering the Soviets and worked to establish mutually beneficial economic ties with the Soviets just as much as with more like-minded Western countries. During the Cold War, Finland’s press exercised considerable self-censure in its commentaries about the Soviet Union and Finland served as a neutral host for summit meetings between Soviet and other world leaders.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Finns breathed a long, collective sigh of relief. In the years since then, Finland has firmly established itself as a democratic nation with a fiercely independent press and a free market economy, balanced by social programs like the public health care and education discussed in Part Two.

Still, coexisting with Russia, especially Putin’s Russia, remains a tightrope walk which could possibly explain some Finns’ continued reticence to identify themselves as happy.

Russia is a permanent dilemma for Finland,” says Rene Nyberg, a retired diplomat, in an interview with Bloomberg. “It’s not a theory to us.”

Since the Cold War ended, the Finns have negotiated this tension by continuing to cooperate with the Russians on mutually beneficial matters like trade and tourism but also by clearly establishing their limits.

A Line in the Sand

When Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from the Ukraine in 2014, Finland immediately increased its defense budget, began beefing up its military operations, and endured deep economic sacrifices  in order to join Western nations’ punitive sanctions. Four years later, many Finns vocalized concerns about U.S. President Donald Trump’s inexplicable loyalty to Vladimir Putin.

You don’t have to read many Finnish news articles to figure out that Donald Trump’s constant bragging is, among other characteristics, extremely hard for the Finns to take. But I believe it is still harder for them to understand why President Trump has refused to address documented Russian efforts to undermine freedom even in his own country. Many Finns fear that Trump is trading America’s birthright for a mess of pottage. And perhaps because Trump leads the more powerful country, his 83% disapproval rating (91% among women) is even higher in Finland than Putin’s 75%. As The Atlantic reported last June,

the Finns share the “[a]nxiety … grow[ing]… in European capitals that Trump’s eager-to-please attitude toward Putin could undo efforts among allies to isolate Russia for its destabilizing activities across the continent.”

Consequently, when Presidents Putin and Trump met in Helsinki last July, many Finns wanted it understood that they are no longer neutral. Both presidents were greeted in the streets by open protest, as well as by more characteristically Finnish satire and irony. Throughout Helsinki large billboards printed in both Russian and English welcomed each president to “the land of free press.”

On the other hand, it is important to note that the Finns have not given up on their peace-keeping approach, and they still favor peaceful relations between Russia and the United States. Despite Trump’s and Putin’s unpopularity in Finland, President Niinistö continues to reach out to both presidents and to host diplomatic talks between their two countries.

“We aren’t a bridge to Russia, but maybe we can be a looking glass,” says Charly Slanonius-Pasternak, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “You can still have a working relationship with Russia and not be blind about them” (quoted in The Atlantic) .

I experienced this mindset when we visited Finland in 2014, just months after Russia invaded Crimea. When I asked the Finns how they felt about this aggression, their anxiety often became palpable. At other times they responded with understated but telling jokes like this:

Putin arrives in Finland.  Customs officer asks: Name?

Putin: Vladimir Putin.

Customs officer: Occupation?

Putin: No, just visiting this time.

It quickly became clear to me that disapproval and alarm about Russia pervaded the country.  Still, several Finns I spoke with made sincere efforts to try to understand the psychology behind the Russian aggression. One woman speculated that the Russians were acting from deep feelings of insecurity and hoped that the Finns could reduce risk by helping the Russians to feel better about their opportunities and their position in the world.

Four years later, Putin still leads Russia, but because Finland has in fact tried to help Russia to gain greater stability, the Finns are not overly concerned that Russia would attempt to meddle with their elections or media. In a BBC news report, Markku  Kangaspuro, a Russia expert at the University of Helsinki, explains,

“Russia probably doesn’t have any serious need or reason to try to interfere in our politics because our relations are as good as they can be in this situation.” President Niinistö echoed the same sentiment by describing his communication with Putin as “rather clear and frank,” claiming the two of them could “discuss anything.”

In other words, because they have worked to promote Russian prosperity and stability, the Finns can and will now use their leverage to call the Russians out for treating others less kindly.

Well-Meaning Frankness

This combination of collaborative good will but also openness and frankness with Putin about their differences strikes me as particularly Finnish and brings me back to the Facebook conversation thread with which I began in Part I. The Finns have been described as the quietest, most introverted people on Earth, but when they do speak, they can be straightforward beyond most Americans’ comfort level. They have little regard for flattery, hype, or pretense. Their educational system has trained them to welcome differing perspectives and to understand nuance. My point is that their “together” mindset has not turned them into mindless automatons incapable of independent thought.

However, I believe the collaborative, inclusive mindset does temper the way the Finns disagree and improves their motivation for disagreement. Communication is just radically transformed and usually more productive when the purpose is, not to win, but to resolve conflict and find mutually acceptable solutions.

Perhaps still more important, the collaborative mindset helps the Finns not to dehumanize those with whom they disagree. Remember Finn #4’s modifying the happiness award with language that would satisfy all the Finns participating in the conversation? Today I read another Facebook comment by that same Finn, reminding those of us mourning for our veterans that the tears of those on the other side of our military conflicts have just as much salt as our own.

It takes considerable humility to recognize the humanity of those against whom we harbor legitimate grievances. Because of their unchangeable geography, the Finns have had to muster up more than their fair share of that humility. In the process, however, they have learned that humility can be a strength and an asset.  Any Finn will tell you that humility has been key to their survival.

And if you give them a moment to think about it, some Finns might even agree that humility has contributed to their happiness.




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