Well, it was probably a mistake that led me to accept a correspondent’s job in the old Soviet Union in the late 1970s. I had no business doing that, was completely unprepared (speaking no Russian) and presented all the sophistication of a forest animal. Still, it was something I could not say “no” to.
UPI did not want me to go to the Philadelphia Bulletin, which had offered me a good job writing about politics, and the boss at the time, H.L. Stevenson, said I would regret it if I turned it down. I suspect, in retrospect, that he was right. It put me on a higher diving platform, gave me lots of things to write about and made me feel, well, daring.
I took some Russian lessons from a former Naval intelligence interrogator, put my lovely house on the market, tried to make my wife comfortable with the decision (she was newly pregnant with our second son) and said “yes.”
We arrived in Moscow with me prepared to ask surly Soviets what artillery azimuths they were using, whether they had a bomb and whether it was nuclear. Completely useless unless you were in the intelligence business, which I was not. Still, the fact that the Russians found my training and language books in my furniture shipment did not help me in getting along there. We worked diligently, my wife, our first son and myself, in an attempt to thrive. When it came time for the birth of the second son, there was only one choice for us, Midwives Hospital in Helsinki.
It was a very smart choice. Not only did they treat my wife with respect and kindness, they let me catch the baby and insisted we have a little bonding experience right at the start. I had become used to living in a place where I did not know the language, and Finnish was impossibly difficult.
But I didn’t need it. Everyone spoke at least three languages, with English being the first for most, because that’s how you did business. Therein came my lesson in what Finlandization really meant. It has its definition in diplomacy, what Helsinki had to do to get along with its aggressive, arrogant and scheming Soviet neighbor. I had my own. It was a process designed to let Americans and lots of other people from other places who found themselves in Moscow spend gobs of money on nice stuff they could never find in Russia, enriching the Finns and delighting us, too.
That right. It was all about business.
Even getting to Finland was fun, an overnight train from Moscow that plopped you right in the heart of Helsinki. You could fly, too, but I found that problematic because once you had purchased a ticket from Aeroflot, you could never tell whether they were going to put you on a safe Finnair 737 or cram you into an aging, creaky Soviet jet that was loud and uncomfortable. The train was better.
Helsinki was a delight and I was proud to have our second son born there. The Finns were tremendously creative, experts at using light and color to spark things up and wonderful cooks. You haven’t had comfort food until you have had a plate of mashed potatoes with a ringlet of sautéed reindeer meat like a collar around the bottom. Butter topped it all off.
Not everyone loved Helsinki. People who went there from Paris found it subdued and found the Finns a little difficult to approach. We had no such problems. Coming from Moscow, Helsinki was like arriving in heaven. The people were pleasant and even when they had too much to drink, they seemed eager to get along. It may well have seemed like a version of Finlandization, the place we went to from Moscow, but it was its own entity, with its own pride and its own history, which occasionally got mixed up with invading Russian troops who found it was not so easy to overcome 200,000 Finns on skis with rifles. The Finns lost some wars with the Russians, but Moscow knew it had been in a very difficult fight.
Coming back to Moscow from Finland was always unpleasant, even though you knew exactly what to expect. A Soviet friend (yes, you could have those) warned me to label everything we were bringing back as office suppliers. But I forgot, and the immense collection of toys and things that were clearly NOT office supplies was shipped from Helsinki with an honest shipping label. That made my Russian friend crazy.
“They are going to charge you 100 percent duty on the toys and clothing,” he said. He was genuinely miffed at this bonus for Soviet customs. So he came up with an idea.
“Get the little man (our first son) and his harmonica and bring him to customs.” When we got there, my friend put the little man on the hood of his Zhiguly station wagon and told him to play some music. Russians cannot resist children, particularly cute ones putting on a show. All the customs people came out to watch the child play music, delighted to see this American child tooting away, while my Russian friend quietly walked into the office. When he came out, he had a new shipping label that said “office supplies” on it instead of toys and various indulgences. It cost two cartons of Marlboros, one bottle of vodka and some chocolates.
There was no duty to pay.
“Speak to no one about this,” my friend said.
And I have not, until now. It may be that Ukraine will have to find its own version of Finlandization if the Russians start moving their stuff toward Kiev. Maybe not.
But the Finlandization I knew way back in the Cold War worked very well for all of us. We left a bundle of money at Stockmann Department Store, brought some things back for our Russian friends, and got away with a small stunt that made me proud to be who I was, where I was.
It was a very jolly Christmas.