Urho Kekkonen

Urho Kekkonen (1900-1986) was Finland's president from 1956 to 1981. He kept the nation on a steady political course, despite continuing to keep that nation actively politically neutral to assure peaceful relations with its powerful neighbor, the Soviet Union. This policy became known as "Finlandization" by detractors.

Youth Spent in War, Journalism, Sport

Urho Kaleva Kekkonen was born on September 3, 1900, in Pielavesi, Finland, the son of a farmer. His father later became employed in some aspect of timber operations. His career has been variously described as a sawmill operator, timber foreman, and forestry manager. His mother was a farmer's daughter. The family lived in the rural province of Kainuu. Kekkonen attended the Lyseo Lukio Kajaani. He was not an exemplary student and had to repeat the seventh grade.

Kekkonen originally planned to become a writer. He frequently wrote short stories and plays. Among his influences were Jack London, Jules Verne, and Mark Twain. His other favorite subjects were history and gymnastics.

He became a war correspondent during the Finnish Civil War, which was fought in 1916 through 1917. He fought in the White Army and reported from their positions in Eastern Finland. During his service, Kekkonen commanded an execution patrol squad. As such, he was witness to the execution of six Red Army prisoners.

After the war, Kekkonen continued his journalistic career at Kajaanin Lehti, a newspaper. He also worked as a magazine columnist. He was active in other organizations including the Academic Karelia Society.

He made his entry onto the world stage via international athletics where he won an Olympic gold medal in the high jump. He also was an active member of The Finnish Sports Organization and the Finnish Olympic Committee. This served as his springboard into politics.

He married Sylvi Uino, who was a writer, in 1926. They met while she was working in the secretariat of the security police. They would eventually have two children. Kekkonen graduated from the University of Helsinki with a Bachelor of Civil Law degree in 1928. He completed his doctoral degree in 1936.


Began Ascent in Finnish Government

In 1933, Kekkonen joined the Agrarian or Maalaisliitto party, which would become known as the Center party in 1965. Among his first political jobs was a post at the ministry of agriculture. He made his ascent in Finnish politics from his post as a parliament member. He served in various national political offices between 1936 and 1956. During World War II, Kekkonen was director of the Karelian evacuees welfare center and commissioner for coordination. He was Finland's prime minister from 1950 until 1956.

Kekkonen was also known as a political columnist. He adopted numerous pseudonyms for publishing this work beginning in 1942. His noms de plumes included Pekka Peitsi ("Peter Pikestaff"), Olli Tampio, Veljenpoika, and Liimatainen. His work frequently appeared in magazines including Suomen Kuvalehti, even during his tenure as prime minister. He once demurred being considered as a writer, saying "I haven't even written a single poem."

In 1950, he lost his bid for the presidency to Juho Kusti Paasikivi. Kekkonen wrote a political pamphlet "Onko Maallamme Malttia Vaurastua" ("Does our country have the patience to get rich?"), published in 1954. In the document, he laid out his ideas on Finnish economic policy.


Won Election, Adopted Policy Known as "Finlandization"

Two years later when he ran again for president, he was elected by a two vote margin over Paasikivi. This was the last national election the country would hold until 1981. It was feared any open election might jeopardize Finland's relations with the neighboring Soviet Union and compromise the nation's independence. In fact, every Finnish attempt to hold a national election was said to be seen by the Soviets as a desire by the Finns to put an end to their neutrality.

Perhaps to outsiders this policy might have seemed as equal parts Finnish cowardice and Soviet bullying. It is difficult, however, to understand in a vacuum. Finland achieved political independence from Russia during the Russian Revolution. During World War II, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 and 1944, forcing its neighbor to reduce its borders. Once World War II had ended, Finland chose to adopt a policy of political neutrality for the sake of self-preservvation. This was not initiate by Kekkonen, but certainly he made sure relations with the Soviets were never in jeopardy. The nation had, under Kekkonen, become what The New Republic writer Joyce Lasky Shub characterized as "a silent victim of Soviet power."

Walter Laqueur, writing in Commentary, observed that in the 1970s Finland had to kowtow, by virtue of its proximity to Soviet Union, to display "readiness to acquiesce in Soviet wishes." This Kekkonen-extended political deference policy became known as "Finlandization." Richard Lowenthal was said to have originated the phrase in the 1960s to describe this strategic political subordination, but Laqueur is credited with modifying the term to fit with the Finns' self-imposed submissive policies, which were adopted well before being approached by their overbearing neighbor.

Laqueur said "given Finland's geopolitical situation, it was obvious that certain concessions toward the Soviets had to be made. But I also argued that Urho Kekkonen … had carried this trend much too far (though he himself was not a Communist or even a socialist). It was not the policy of wisdom, maturity, and responsibility that Kekkonen and his supporters claimed, and furthermore it set a bad example for the rest of Europe."

This issue is still open to debate and has been examined closely by political commentators and historians. So too has Kekkonen's role in Finnish-Soviet relations. There is no clear consensus on these issues.


Enjoyed Reputation as an Effective Deal-Maker

Kekkonen himself, however, is said to have been a gregarious leader. Seppo Salonen, an editor of one of Finland's leading newspapers told The New Republic in 1983 that Kekkonen could "get anybody to do anything. When he wanted to score a point with [Soviet leaders Nikita] Khrushchev or [Leonid] Brezhnev, he'd get them into a sauna and tell them funny stories."

While in office, Kekkonen developed a reputation for following through on every deal he struck. He made good on five-year trade agreements with the Soviets throughout the 1960s. He also brought Finland to the attention of the Common Market. As a result, Finland became one of the world's leading producers of oil rigs.

Perhaps it was his earlier interest in writing or a result of his marriage to an author, but nevertheless Kekkonen made sure to keep informed about writing and the arts throughout his career. Young writers and artists were frequently guests at his residence, Tamminiemi. After Hannu Salama, the writer, was tried and convicted on blasphemy charges in connection with his writing the novel Juhannustanssit ("Midsummer Dance") in 1968, Kekkonen immediately pardoned him.

Kekkonen left office in 1981. There remains debate about how his retirement came about. Some suggest he was pressured into retirement. Other opinions suggest ill health led him to step down. He was succeeded by Mauno Koivisto, a Social Democrat.


Diary-Keeping Offered Insight into Kekkonen

Kekkonen continued to live in Tamminiemi until his death. He reportedly continued to write and read frequently, favoring authors such as Anatole France, Mika Waltari, and a number of other Finnish authors and works such as Machiavelli's The Prince and Don Quixote. The residence is now the Urho Kekkonen Home Museum.

About two years into his first term as president, he had started keeping a diary, a practice which he faithfully continued until 1981, shortly before his resignation. The diaries were never meant to be published, but in 2000, his son, Matti Kekkonen, and his grandson, Timo Kekkonen, consented to their publication in a four-volume set. According to the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, "The only parts to be left out of the books will be Kekkonen's observations about his own family. There are to be indications in the published work whenever a cut is made."

Ironically, Kekkonen never completed his memoirs. The first volume was completed by Paavo Haavikko in 1981. Later, Juhani Suomi wrote a multi-volume biography of Kekkonen, a project that has spanned some two decades. Suomi also contributed historical perspectives to the diaries and has been credited for his ability to read Kekkonen's handwriting.


Rumors Persisted As Did Legacy Debates

Even after leaving politics and well after his death, rumor and conjecture continued to swirl about Kekkonen. One such rumor held that he had been a Soviet agent, but, says Laqueur, 'they were dismissed as base calumnies by his official biographer—who denied everyone else access to the relevant archival material." When the files of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) were eventually made public, it became clear Kekkonen and his cronies "had been paid many millions of finnmarks through the office of the KGB: some of this money was used for their election campaigns, but there were also payments for personal use." But, notes Laqueur, "perhaps he would have acted as he did even if the Soviets had never paid him a single ruble."

More controversy arose when a tell-all book by Anita Hallama was released in 2001. She claimed to have had an affair with Kekkonen that had started in the early 1960s. Her husband was the Finnish ambassador to the Soviet Union. Reuters said the publication of this correspondence between the two served to confirm the "open secret" about their relationship. Each of their spouses purportedly knew about this relationship. The book delved into how Kekkonen developed policy, purportedly even how he discussed specific issues with Hallama.

"Urho Kekkonen was a great statesman in the true meaning of the word," said Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen in a September 3, 2000, speech marking the Urho Kekkonen centenary seminar at the House of Estates. "The aim of Finland's active policy of neutrality—as Kekkonen, not the Soviet Union, understood it was to strengthen Finland's international standing. Good relations with the USSR prepared the way for consistent integration into cooperation between the Western democracies…. Finland was neither an outpost of the West nor a cat's-paw of the Soviet Union. When certain Western commentators saw fit to cast aspersions about us in conversation, I couldn't help asking what exactly their own countries did in 1940.

"Talk of Finlandization is justified, but in the case of foreign policy it's valid to ask which did better, the cat or the mouse. Finland came out on top in the Cold War," continued Lipponen. He says at the end of his term in office, however, Kekkonen "was interfering in the action of the Prime Minister and the Government in a way that was totally unacceptable…. The neo-worship and concentration of power that had grown up around the old man kept him in office too long. On the other hand, maybe Kekkonen himself knew no other way of life, and would have been unable to resist interfering in things as ex-President."

Several politicians and political commentators have noted that there has yet to be any sufficient distance from events to truly gauge what impact on Finland and the world Kekkonen might have had or to accurately determine what his legacy might be. "The jury is still out on what sort of verdict history will hand down to Kekkonen. The image of the man presented by the diaries is naturally bound to the times of which they report, in just the same way as our present image of Kekkonen is bound to what we know now. And above all we know what ultimately happened to the Soviet Union," wrote Unto Hämäläinen, in a review of the diaries published in Helsingin Sanomat in 2002. "Kekkonen could not even begin to guess at such an outcome, and in his weak moments he lost faith that Finland would come through intact." Kekkonen died on August 31, 1986, in Helsinki, Finland.


The Columbia Encyclopedia, Seventh Edition, 2002.

Contemporary Newsmakers, Gale Research, 1986.


Commentary, January 1993.

The New Republic, October 31, 1983.

Reuters, September 6, 2001.


"Journal entries indicate President Kekkonen considered resignation during Czech crisis of 1968: A review of Volume II of Urho Kekkonen's diaries, (ed. Juhani Suomi)," Helsingin Sanomat online, October 1, 2002, http://www.helsinki-hs.net/news.asp?id=20021001IE9 (February 28, 2003).

"Kekkonen diaries to appear as a book," Helsingin Sanomat online, August 15, 2000, http://www.helsinki-hs.net/news.asp?id=20000815xx10 (February 28, 2003).

"Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen at the Urho Kekkonen centenary seminar at the House of Estates, September 3, 2000," Ajankohtaista, http://www.valtioneuvosto.fi/vn/liston/text.lsp?r=762&=en (February 28, 2003).

"The Silenced Media: The Propaganda War between Russia and the West in Northern Europe," book review, The American Historical Review, History Cooperative online, http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/105.1/br_158.html (February 28, 2003).

"Urho Kaleva Kekkonen," Lyseo Lukio Kajaani, http://lyseolukio.kajaani.fi/english/kekkonen.htm (February 28, 2003).

"Urho Kaleva Kekkonen," Pegasos website, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ukekko.htm (February 28, 2003).