15 September 2005

Finland's "year of danger" 1970

By Tapani Lausti

Kimmo Rentola, Vallankumouksen aave: Vasemmisto, Beljakov ja Kekkonen 1970. Otava 2005. [A ghost of a revolution: The Left, Belyakov and Kekkonen 1970]

According to a widespread belief, 1970 for Finland was a year of danger. Soviet behaviour at the time was interpreted as a threat not only to Finnish neutrality but to the country’s social system. However, two decades later the Soviet Union collapsed. Thus the question has to be asked, how big a threat was Moscow to Finland since it is now clear that the Soviet system was already terminally ill and had started its decline into extinction? The question lurks on the pages of Kimmo Rentola’s excellent book but remains between the lines.

The terminal illness of the Soviet system was camouflaged under propaganda which in spite of its lack of credibility seemed to convince a great many influential Finns. Rentola describes how part of the zeitgeist was to believe that the Soviet system was there to stay and would possibly go from victory to victory. Even some of the Finnish bourgeoisie suspected that the international ideological balance of forces was turning in Moscow’s favour. “Socialism” seemed to be around the corner. Politicians believed that the radicalised youth was the future. And for complicated historical reasons, a substantial part of the leftwing youth in Finland turned to the Soviet Union as an inspiration.

Rentola describes well the comedy of it all: ”More than others, the Russians were probably amazed at the rise of this pro-Soviet mentality. Of course, they had always been constantly told that their system was overwhelmingly better and that people in the West would eventually realise this. Now people were flabbergasted when this seemed to be true.”

Why did the politicians and commentators not see the deepening crisis which 20 years later would bring down the whole Soviet system? Presumably because most Western Sovietologues believed in the stability of the system. In the words of Michael Cox: “But in the main, those who had earlier suggested that the USSR might be unviable, as opposed to being just plain inefficient or morally repugnant, tended to be peripheral figures in the profession; outsiders rather than insiders; marginal to the mainstream; unwelcome at the conferences; and often laughed out of court by those who thought they knew better. (Michael Cox, ed., Rethinking the Soviet Collapse: Sovietology, the Death of Communism and the New Russia. Cassell 1998.)

Administered economy

It was widely believed at the time that the Soviet Union had a planned economy. Even now, after the collapse of the system, it is constantly repeated that the planned economy turned out to be a non-workable utopia. Even if one does not see a centrally planned economy as a model for future, it is worth noting that in fact the Soviet system was something else.

South African-born Hillel Ticktin, who has made his career at the University of Glasgow, was one of the few who foresaw the coming implosion of the Soviet system. He was a dissident among the Soviet experts — and was not taken seriously among them. In 1973, with a small group of colleagues, he started publishing the periodical Critique which initially looked like a samizdat publication.

Already in the first issue Ticktin laid out his thesis that the USSR was not a planned economy: “To have a planned economy there must be conscious control of the society and economy by the democratic representatives of the majority — the working class. (”Towards a Political Economy of the USSR”, Critique 1, Spring 1973) He summed it also like this: ”In other words not being able to be controlled from the centre the economy is not planned but administered.” Such a system had enormous waste, enormous number of people who were underemployed, there was underutilisation of capacity and the products were of low quality. Because the system was neither capitalist nor planned, it was without a future. Ticktin did not believe that the Soviet system was a viable historical social formation. As a result, it was impossible for the elite to formulate a set of doctrines that would at least partially conform to reality. (Hillel Ticktin, The Origins of the Crisis in the USSR. Essays on the Political Economy of a Disintegrating System. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 1992)

Ticktin spent five years in the Soviet Union and was well aware of the all-pervading discontent among the population. Already in the 1970s the system was in a state of deep crisis. Ticktin pointed out that it was a popular myth in the West that the Party in the Soviet Union played a crucial role in maintaining the system. In fact the secret police had this role. Its integration into all aspects of social life was unique in human history. From being a tool of the elite, they had become the controllers of the elite, since they alone possessed both the information on the state of society and the means of blocking or promoting change. Only the KGB knew how long the elite had before events would get out of control.

Belyakov arrives

When president Urho Kekkonen and other Finnish politicians in 1970 fretted about their relations with the Soviet Union, they had no idea that they were dealing with a giant with clay feet. The person in the centre of the drama was the Soviet ambassador Alexei Belyakov, who spent six eventful months in Helsinki. He seemed to have been an “ideologue” who lived in his own dream world. He took seriously the empty doctrines of “Marxism-Leninism” and refused to see the reality — just like the pro-Soviet youth in Finland. Rentola writes quite correctly that Brezhnev’s Soviet Union was all make-believe. It was enough that everything seemed to be going the right way.”

However, Belyakov behaved in a way which made many Finns — even now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union — believe that he was trying to foment a ”revolution” in Finland. Maybe he really believed in his mission. No wonder that the KGB, with its better grasp of reality, had to come and bring him back home to Moscow. The poor man had taken his many dreams too seriously and thought that he could somehow bring Finland closer to the Soviet system.

Rentola quotes two KGB men: ”According to Viktor Vladimirov and Albert Akulov, the hot-headed and heavy-drinking Belyakov with his backers and assistants thought that a revolutionary situation was emerging in Finland and this could bring about an example of a peaceful transfer to socialism.”

After Belyakov’s recall, Soviet diplomats were pestered with questions by Finnish politicians about the ambassador’s intentions. The Russians admitted that Belyakov really had tried to bring about a revolution. There was something comical about this all, and Rentola catches the funny side by quoting a Finnish observer who noted that there was no doubt that Belyajov had heard about a revolution since one could hear talk about it every day in student cafés.

A conservative power

Looking at the broader historical perspective, it is clear that there was nothing revolutionary about the Soviet Union. Its elite was deeply reactionary and fearful of any changes which might rock the boat. Ticktin believed that the Soviet Union constituted a conservative social formation which took on a monstrous social form in order to prevent social revolution. That is why many of its forms resembled fascism, which was similarly concerned with avoiding social revolution.

In the Kremlin’s rhetoric, talking about revolution was nonsense. To have real democratic socialism in neighbouring Finland would have become a nightmare for the Soviet elite because their socially reactionary nature would have become obvious. And no matter how some Russians might have envisaged a change in the Finnish social system, real social change cannot be realised with one big push or coup; it takes a long time to mature and requires a gradual dismantling of power hierarchies. The Kremlin’s talk of “peaceful transition to socialism” of course meant installing a Soviet model — “really existing socialism” — which would have been a crazy endeavour in a society like Finland.

In their conservatism, the leaders in the Kremlin wanted hardly anything else but peace to enjoy their privileges. Rentola writes: “It is clear that in the middle of 1970 several real factors spoke against it being worth the Soviet leadership to aim for an ideologically motivated radical change in Finland. Détente was beginning to bring results in Europe.” Rentola quotes a Soviet diplomat who said that Belyakov wanted revolution in Finland but this did not reflect the Soviet government policy.

Rentola takes at face value some of the ideological pretensions of Soviet leaders. He writes about “a sparkle of ideology” which Moscow after the Czech crisis was looking for. He adds: “But what little we can now find in the archives, it has been noted that ideology was after all an important thing and it was taken seriously. In Soviet foreign policy there was a mutual dependency and reciprocity between ideology and geopolitics.”

I don’t know Rentola’s sources on the archives but I would tend to agree with Ticktin’s view on the role of ideology. He says that in capitalism the ideology is provided by the political economy itself. In the USSR, ideology, or rather the official doctrine, played little or no role in ensuring consent. To do so it must be believed, but few people actually accepted the truth of the official line. Ticktin wrote that since the elite would not dare let loose a genuine Marxism on society, an emasculated Marxism was ideal in “embezzling concepts”. (See Socialism, democracy and conceptual embezzlement by Hannu Reime)

The emphasis of ideology, which Rentola believes can be found in the archives, most probably means that Moscow wanted to preserve its monopoly in interpreting what the Soviet model was all about. This is why the Prague Spring was so dangerous to them. To reform the model into something more democratic would have destroyed the remnants of the Soviet elite’s credibility. In the last resort, it was about power rather than ideology.

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