Decades of possibilities and impossibilities
Image size 28 Kb President Urho Kekkonen brought up the question of Karelia in his many discussions with First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev.

One often hears it said in Finland that the Karelian question could be raised with the Russian leadership "in some suitable conjunction". If one prefers, the issue can also be side-stepped by saying that "it should not be discussed in these circumstances". A variety of sources mention numerous situations in which the question has cropped up in speeches by leaders of the two countries during the past five decades. Most of the feelers that were put out behind the scenes will probably remain unrecorded in the history books, although the unofficial talks that President Kekkonen had with Soviet leaders in the sauna have been reported.

"As long ago as 1947, when the Paris Peace Treaty was being negotiated, President J.K. Paasikivi demanded that the Karelian issue be taken up. On the previous evening, however, Foreign Minister Molotov summoned Finnish Prime Minister Mauno Pekkala and his party and severely intimidated them. That put paid to that," recalls Johannes Virolainen, a former Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament.

When Alexei Adzubei, Khrushchev's son-in-law and a former editor of Izvestia, was interviewed by the Finnish writer Martti Valkonen in Moscow in October 1991, he said: "Kekkonen always talked about Karelia when he met Nikita Sergeivich." Khrushchev was the Soviet leader from 1953 until his overthrow in 1964. The matter seems to have been more difficult to broach with Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Khrushchev.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Karelia has been featuring in speeches by Russian leaders in a way that it never did before. Writing in the daily Helsingin Sanomat on 4.3.1992, Ambassador Yuri Deryabin commented: "It must be possible to discuss all matters, and borders must not be taboo; two peoples that live in good-neighbourly relations must be able to negotiate about them." Five years later, however, he expressed an entirely different view, this time in the daily Suomenmaa on 17.4.1997: "Not even the painful matter of lost areas has been put on the agenda for the Finno-Soviet dialogue and I hope it will not be. Nor would I want that ever to happen, even though I understand the Finns' feelings."

"The door was open"

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Gennadi Burbulis, who was then de facto the head of the government (President Yeltsin was nominally also Prime Minister) visited Finland in January 1992. Just before the visit he gave an interview to Helsingin Sanomat correspondent Martti Valkonen in Moscow. In a book published under a title translating as "Finlandisation Still Persists" in 1998, Valkonen is highly critical of the reception that the interview was given in Finland. "Helsingin Sanomat gave front-page coverage to the part of the interview dealing with the border and Karelia. The newspaper highlighted the matter, but the politicians slithered around it. No one in Finland began discussing the matter with him, even though reformers like Burbulis were open and obviously willing to talk about everything, either immediately or within an agreed time frame. At that point, a door of opportunities was ajar for quite a while. Finland failed to peep inside. The country lost something, because its leaders did not understand the spirit of the times." The President of Finland then was Mauno Koivisto.

Image size 9 Kb Two Presidents in the Kremlin in 1997: Martti Ahtisaari und Boris Yeltsin.

Speaking in Loviisa on 9.1.1998, Dr. Ilmari Susiluoto, a research expert at the Finnish Foreign Ministry, analysed the interview that President Martti Ahtisaari had given the Russian newspaper Itogi on the eve of his visit to Moscow in November 1997. Ahtisaari had said. "I am always prepared to discuss the question of Karelia with Russian leaders if they want to. There is no escaping the fact that the occupation of the Karelian Isthmus was and is a major injustice to the Finns." Susiluoto finds it surprising that in this context the Karelian issue was brought up in the Russian media rather than "in Finland, the promised land of chicken cop-outs. It reflects the paradoxes of the present-day world. For decades, none of the major parties have given the Karelian issue any kind of prominence in their programmes." Boris Yeltsin said during Ahtisaari's visit that "Finnish journalists should give up writing about the return of Karelia." An official at the Finnish Foreign Ministry said he believed Yeltsin's comment had been prompted by the interview in Itogi. Ahtisaari did not concur with Yeltsin, but instead said. "I'll be the last Finn to forbid discussion of Karelia."

"They don't know what they've done"

The last prominent statements on the matter in Moscow in 1998 were in two issues of the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta ("Independent Newspaper") in November and December. They criticised a speech that Speaker of Parliament Riitta Uosukainen had made at a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Karelian League earlier in the year. The paper accused Uosukainen of "revanchist tones" and "zeal for the return of Karelia". In an interview published in the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti on 18.12.1998, Uosukainen denied that her speech had contained "any foreign policy programme proclamation whatsoever". In her opinion, the matter of Karelia should be examined mainly as an ethical and moral question rather than as a political one. "The greatest misfortune is in our neighbouring country's ethical framework. They have committed a wrong, but it is difficult to discuss these things, because they do not know what they have done. The ordinary people are exceptionally poorly familiar with their own recent history," she said in the interview.

Thus the debate has oscillated on both sides of the border, sometimes making big headlines. Like those of Ambassador Deryabin, President Yeltsin's altered positions only prompt further questions. Speaking in spring 1995, Yeltsin condemned the Winter War and the seizure of Finnish territories as a policy of aggression on Stalin's part. In the view of observers, he was expressing his own conceptions at that media briefing, without the help of his advisers. Two and a half years later - most obviously now guided by the spin doctors - he forbade journalists to write about Karelia and the other Finnish territories lost to the Soviet Union.

Window to Russian Karelia