Geopolitics – the root cause of Paasikivi’s foreign policy

Europe 1923.

Paasikivi, who was a history and law graduate, kept a close eye on the ideological developments of this time, geopolitics being one key element. The main questions in geopolitics are,

 How does geography influence and steer global development? and

 How is geography used as an instrument in politics?

Paasikivi did not approach geopolitics as a field of science, but based on his academic studies and experience, he saw Finland’s position largely as a geostrategic question. For Paasikivi, geography was a central political factor, and he must be considered the first Finnish geopolitician. Studying the notes in the margins in the books in Paasikivi’s library give a unique insight into his interests.

Geopolitics in the early 1900s

The period from the Crimean War until the First World War is called the Age of Imperialism. During this period, the great powers competed for world domination. Towards the end of the 19th century, the European great powers and the United States had practically subjugated the entire world to their political and cultural hegemony. This was globalisation that had taken place solely on the terms of the dominant powers. At stake were land and sea territories as well as raw materials and natural resources. This competition gave rise to the concept of political geography.

Scientists representing the great powers found scientific explanations to support imperialism. The aim was to prove how geographic factors influenced politics, and how countries adapted their policies according to the conditions dictated by the natural environment. There was a clear agenda in identifying such conditions to create a deterministic framework for historical developments. The American A.T. Mahan and British H. Mackinder considered the dominance of sea and coastal territories to be vital. They argued that seafaring nations were cleverer than continental nations and, therefore, were entitled to world domination. The German F. Ratzell and K. Haushofer emphasised the importance of controlling extensive sources of raw materials. In Russia, geopolitics contributed to the extensive study and subsequent exploitation of land areas that the Russian Academy of Sciences had launched as early as in the 1700s. In the 1800s, the Pan-Slavists N.J. Danilevsky and K.N. Leontiev declared their own culture and nation superior to others and called for the expulsion of foreign elements from Russia.

In the early 20th century, the main goal was to lay the foundations for the Russian Empire. The purpose of encouraging resettlement schemes was to boost the economic life of the empire. The most noted scientist in this line of research was V.P. Pyotr Petrovich Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky. In Finland, the most notable names in this field of study were Toivo T. Kaila and J.G. Granö. Kaila studied and worked in Russia for several years and in 1914 he published his research on the resettlement of the European Russian population at the end of the 19th century. (1) Meanwhile, J.G. Granö explored Russian Central Asia and Mongolia, which were territories into which Russia was aiming to expand in the early 1900s. Granö later participated in the Tartu peace negotiations and he maintained close relations with Paasikivi until the latter’s death in 1956. (2) Paasikivi adopted these geopolitical concepts, which explains the wisdoms that he borrowed from Stalin: “We cannot change geography, and neither can you,” and: “Acknowledging reality is the beginning of all wisdom.” The first sentence is self-explanatory and undisputable. The second is open to interpretation.

The First World War and the ensuing revolutions transformed the old political system, which had been based on a balance of power within Europe. As a result, public attention was increasingly drawn to the changes in the relationship between states. With the First World War, geopolitics replaced natural sciences as an auxiliary discipline to military strategy. In fact, geopolitics became quite the fashion, and it was believed it would offer a window into the future. The main ideologies of the time – Socialism, Communism and Nazism – were all forward-looking constructs and their goals were justified with geopolitics. The period offered a fruitful ground for a foreign policy based on geopolitics to take root. Finland, which had recently gained its independence, closely followed the global developments and justified its tribalist territorial demands with geopolitics. The weakness, however, in Finland’s aspirations was its lack of knowledge of military science. Theodor Homén, Paasikivi’s fellow MP and a professor in applied physics, produced a work entitled “Itä-Karjala ja Kuolan Lappi, suomalaisten luonnon- ja kielentutkijain kuvaamana” (Eastern Karelia and Russian Lapland as described by Finnish naturalists and linguists), an example of a scientific study that completely omitted the military strategic dimension.(3) Another one of Paasikivi’s contemporaries, historian Väinö Voionmaa, wanted to see Finland extend to the Artic Sea. Paasikivi condemned such fantasies as dangerous utopianism. These territories had never been considered part of Finland. Eastern Karelia would be an economic burden to Finland and an eternal point of contestation with Russia. The Arctic Sea coastline was subject to plenty of political interests of a global scale that Finland was not in a position to control. For Paasikivi, Finland was a country standing by the Baltic and linked by the Baltic to the rest of Europe.

Reading Kjellén

Russia, Germany, and Sweden were the neighbours with whom Finland primarily needed to maintain good relations. The geopolitician that Paasikivi knew the most intimately was Rudolf Kjellén, a Swedish nationalist, conservative politician, scientist, and the first to coin the term geopolitics. Prior to Kjellén, the discipline had been known as political geography.

Paasikivi learnt about Kjellén when the second, revised edition of his four-volume magnum opus Stormakterna (The Great Powers) was published in 1911–1913. He read each volume in great detail, as indicated by the numerous annotations and markings made in the margins of the pages. In the first volume, Kjellén discusses the empires that were already past their glory days: Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Paasikivi appears to have paid particular attention to the situation of language minorities.

In the second volume, the focus turns to France and Germany. Paasikivi’s attention was drawn to the rapprochement between France and Russia, which began in the 1890s. In evidence of Paasikivi’s wide interests are his notes on the politics in the French Africa and Indochina. In case of Germany, Paasikivi appears to be astonished by the spectacular economic progress of the country. He had highlighted Kjellén’s statement that the Atlantic Ocean formed a veritable playing field between the United States, Britain, and Germany. In the competition between the empires, Germany with its central position in the middle of Europe, had geography in its favour. Paasikivi expresses certain concerns about the German nationalist activities in its peripheries. These could easily lead to armed conflict. The eastern alliance stretching from Germany to Turkey, between France and Russia, which Germany was advocating, Paasikivi finds fantastical. If such as an alliance could be achieved, it would inevitably lead to war because Russia would always offer her support to the smaller Slavonic people in the Balkans. Germany’s problem, in his opinion, was her autocratic rule that had not adapted to modern capitalism and parliamentarism.

The third volume of the series Kjellén dedicated to Britain. Paasikivi showed more interest in the British economy and industry rather than the empire’s strategic and political manoeuvres. The fourth and final volume discusses the United States, Russia, and Japan. The section on the United States merited only a few notes in the margins, mostly in connection with industry and transport links.

The Russian section was clearly well-thumbed, although there were no Russian-language sources in the bibliography. Presumably Kjellén did not know any Russian. Paasikivi underlined the part in which Kjellén emphasises Russia’s internal unity compared to Western Europe. The birth rate and population growth in Russia were at a much higher level than in the West. Geopolitically, Russia as a country with vast expanses of inland territories represented a polar opposite to Britain. This explained why Russia was so underdeveloped as a seafaring nation. The country had no natural boundaries, which meant that it would always have to defend its territory at great cost. The United States was also a maritime power. Whether a country was a seafaring or a continental nation determined their role in international politics. Paasikivi took note of Kjellén’s discussion on the rise of Russian chauvinism. Kjellén considered the Russification of Finland a worrying development, and Paasikivi has read this part particularly closely. His attention was caught by Kjellén’s observation:

Large empires are not mathematic but dynamic. They must be understood as physiological, not ethno-cultural communities. Every great power aims to grasp more power and they will grow even stronger. The key was in the division into seafaring and continental countries. The fate of small nations depended on humanity, in other words, the idea of common humankind. Above small nations ruled the great powers, above which ruled humankind, which had organised itself into greater and smaller powers.

In 1915, when the First World War was still raging, Kjellén published a supplementary work entitled Die politischen Probleme des Weltkrieges. Paasikivi read the sixth edition of the book in 1917. The book was written with a clear geopolitical perspective and agenda. The author briefly reiterated the key points of the previous work and discussed how they reflected on the developments of the war. The main focus was on Continental Europe and, more specifically, on the German development and war effort. Kjellén also gave more attention to questions of nationality than previously.

Paasikivi’s notes on the margins reveal that he shared the writer’s interest in these issues. After all, the nationality question had been topical in Finland for decades. Paasikivi had underlined the writer’s conclusions: “The most salient phenomenon of our time is the nation state. The state and the nation have long been in competition against each other, but now, in our lifetime, the nation state has won. People are far more willing to identify with a nation than with the state.” A state and a nation were in some ways inseparable.

For Paasikivi, a Finnish nation state was not an end in itself, but just one phase in history. Therefore, he was able to concur with Kjellén when he argued that: “The nation state cannot be considered the last word in history. There are plenty of polarities, for example, a nation can be unified by not free. A state can be free but nationally fragmented. A nation will always seek both unity and freedom.”

Here, Paasikivi’s view clearly differs from that of many of his contemporaries, such as Svinhufvud, for whom an independent Finland was an absolute. Paasikivi saw history as a never-ending continuum and Finland’s independence a phase in history among many.

Paasikivi would hold Kjellén in high regard for the rest of his life. As an envoy in Stockholm between 1934 and 1939, Paasikivi observed the geopolitical changes in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries as well as their relationship with Russia through Kjellén’s theories. During his conversation on 8 January 1938 with Lieutenant General V.P. Nenonen on military collaboration between Finland and Sweden, Paasikivi referred to Kjellén, who had argued that Sweden’s position had improved with an independent Finland as their neighbour. The immediate threat of Russia on Sweden’s boundaries had thus been removed. This is why Finland’s independence was so important for Sweden.

When assessing the League of Nations and the defeat of Czechoslovakia in his diary entry of 14 December 1938, Paasikivi mentions Kjellén’s opinion, according to which a state needs the moral support of the general opinion. For that reason, it was necessary to support opinions that would best protect small nations against the expansive aspirations of the great powers. When giving a talk at a Stockholm press club event on 8 July 1939 to journalists who were about to travel to Finland to attend a Nordic journalist conference, Paasikivi referred to Kjellén as an internationally renowned scholar and politician who emphasised the importance of the general opinion in the defence of small countries against the ambitions of great powers.

Spengler and the decline of the West

The relations between the great powers and small nations were a major trend in world history and societies, and to understand them in more depth, Paasikivi studied the works of Oswald Spengler, who was considered the most influential social philosopher of the early 20th century.

Paasikivi was particularly interested in Spengler’s philosophy of society. He took with him to the Tartu peace negotiations Spengler’s 1918 work Der Untergang des Abendlandes. Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte(The Decline of the West. Form and Actuality). He later obtained the revised edition of the same book. The notes in the margins reveal that Paasikivi read the entire 1200-page tome in great detail.

In Part One, his interest was caught by the discussion of humanity and the soul as the vehicle of culture. Paasikivi fully concurred with Spengler’s idea of an ever-changing history, manifested in the ongoing evolution of nations, societies and states. The concept coined by Spengler, “Faustian culture”, which denotes human yearning for something higher and better, appears to have been of particular interest to Paasikivi. Socialism and large numbers of migrants travelling to America were all repercussions of a Faustian culture.

In Part Two of the work, Spengler looks at the development of European nations from a chronological perspective. Paasikivi appears to have been interested in Spengler’s ideas about Russia and Russian culture and identity mainly on the basis of literature. Paasikivi, who was highly knowledgeable about Russia, was astonished by Spengler’s claims that the Russian soul had grown similar to the Western soul only in the wake of the reforms carried out by Peter the Great. Spengler draws parallels between Peter the Great and Charles the Great. Enlightenment was foreign to the Russian soul, which had also been shocked by the French invasion in Russia as well as Alexander I’s attack on Paris. The Russians were not part of Western culture. In their heart of hearts, they hated the establishment of St Petersburg. Nihilism sits deep in the Russian ethos. For Spengler, F.M. Dostoyevsky represented Asia, a culture foreign to Europeanism, while L.N. Tolstoy represented the West. The latter was one of Paasikivi’s favourite writers.

Paasikivi and his relationship with Russia

Over the course of his long life, Paasikivi’s relationship with Russia changed as a result of the prevailing circumstances and knowledge acquired through his academic interests. The decisive factor in his thinking was, however, always the geopolitical juxtaposition of the two countries. The relations between the Grand-Duchy and the Russian Empire became livelier from the 1860s onwards with the increasing amount of bureaucracy. At the same time, both Finland and Russia saw a clear rise in nationalism. The senior government and the business and industry in Finland saw it necessary to increase the teaching of the Russian language. Students other than those aspiring to become Russian teachers were now also offered grants for language studies and travel. This helped arouse interest in learning Russian. Another clear goal of the measures was to curtail the suspicions harboured by the nationalist forces within Russia towards the autonomous status that Finland enjoyed. By being proactive in this manner, the Finns aimed to avert the conflicts that had taken place in Poland and the Baltic countries. In practice, the efforts were geared towards protecting Finland’s geopolitical position.

Paasikivi’s youth coincided with a period when the Russian language was favoured and there was great demand for people who had mastered it. After finishing upper secondary school in 1890 in Hämeenlinna, Paasikivi enrolled in the University of Helsinki to study Russian language and literature. (4) 

At the university, Paasikivi made good progress in his studies and in spring 1891 he was ready to apply for a grant to study the language in Russia. His application was rejected so he borrowed the necessary funds from a Lahti-based merchant named K.V. Kunnas and spent six months studying in Novgorod.

In 1891, the competition for grants had been stiff and while he had completed enough courses to meet the requirements there were simply not enough places to award him a grant. As a consolation prize, he and several other applicants received 50 marks from the Rector’s petty cash. Taking out a loan in this situation was a sign of Paasikivi’s resilience and determination that he would show throughout his life. He was adamant that he should learn to speak Russian well and to know the country.(5)

The time spent studying in Russia left an indelible impression on the young student. He noted that Russia was very different compared to Finland and indicated that he held Russia in high esteem as a great national culture. His relationship with Russia remained friendly and positive throughout his life and would influence his policies even if he could never accept the revolution and Bolshevism. His take on Russia and the Russians departed from that of, for example, P.E. Svinhufvud and Arvi Korhonen, who held a negative view of the country and its people.

As a traditional Fennoman, Paasikivi always aimed to maintain good relations with Russia. He rejected active resistance and strongly condemned the murder of Governor-General N.I. Bobrikov committed by Eugen Schauman. After being elected as an MP in the first unicameral parliament of Finland in 1907, Paasikivi committed himself to the Fennoman policy line defined by J.R. Danielson-Kalmari and caught the eye of many of his peers with his legal and economic knowledge. As Director General of the State Treasury, he had a unique vantage point into the affairs of the state. In 1908, a dispute broke out concerning Finland’s share of the investments in the railway between Finland and St Petersburg. The recently convened Parliament did not discuss the matter and left it for the Senate to manage. The Senate paid up, but was then criticised by the Parliament in 1910, when the State finances for 1908 were reviewed. Paasikivi maintained the Senate had made the correct decision. He considered good economic relations with Russia extremely important. A connection between the Finnish and Russian railways was a most natural arrangement and would bring great benefits to the Finnish economy. Technical compliance between the two systems required additional engineering works, which the Finnish state was to bankroll. Paasikivi wrote:

I also feel that the idea that the Russians have brought to our attention, namely military, strategic considerations, which also require a connective rail network, could well be true. It seems to me that this demand is one of those – shall I say rare demands, which has foundations in reality, so there is no reason to oppose this from our side.

The Parliament refused to foot the bill, but the sum was nonetheless obtained from Finland’s state coffers by royal decree. When a few years later, the Parliament debated the government proposal of extending the railway from St Petersburg across the Karelian Isthmus all the way to Vaasa, as Russia had suggested, some MPs were strongly against the proposal. Paasikivi was in favour of the initiative, because in his view, Finland had to take the military and strategic requirements that were significant to Russia into careful consideration. Besides strategic considerations, he also found the construction of the railway line conducive to the economic development of the eastern parts of the Karelian Isthmus. Paasikivi’s reasonings were highly convincing and the Parliament eventually approved the government proposal.(6)

The Finnish Party was ready to pay compensation to the Russian imperial treasury for the dissolution of the Finnish army, as a result of which Finland had no military expenditure. The constitutionalists, the Swedish People’s Party and the Social Democrats opposed the payments, because in their view the act had been passed in violation of the Finnish laws. The dispute over the compensation eventually led to the fall of the coalition government. In Paasikivi’s opinion, the Senate’s lack of flexibility put Finland’s relations with Russia at risk. Although the Finnish army had been dissolved, and there was no desire to re-establish it, Finland still had to play its part in the defence of the empire. As Director General of the State Treasury, he held that allowing the conflict over the military expenditure compensation to erupt was a mistake. The only outcome of it was the deterioration of the relationship between the two countries.(7)

Paasikivi understood that Russia looked at Finland from a geostrategic perspective. Finland stood guard on the route connecting the east and west through the Baltic Sea, while the border between Russia and the Grand-Duchy ran only 30 kilometres from St Petersburg. Paasikivi objected to the Pan-Slavist intentions expressed by the Chairman of the Council of Ministers to bolster Russia’s security by subjugating Finland fully under the Russian Empire. In his memoirs, he refers to S.Y. Witte’s observation that with their Pan-Slavist policies, N. I. Bobrikov, F. A. Seyn and P. A. Stolypin had caused damage to the Fenno-Russian relations. It should have sufficed for Russia that the national defence of this corner of the empire was secured. (8)

After the First World War broke out, Paasikivi was in favour of absolute loyalty towards Russia. He was not a supporter of Kagal, a movement that exercised passive resistance, nor the Jager movement, and instead he maintained contacts with various actors. As the Director of Kansallis-Osake-Pankki, he witnessed the impact of the war in the economic life of the country. The First World War immediately changed Finland’s position, but before 1917, the concrete repercussions of this remained negligible. The defeat of Russia and the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath came as a shock to Paasikivi and many of his peers. Barbaric forces had been unleashed and were threatening the entire civilised world. The Finnish Civil War was a poignant example of this development. Paasikivi had familiarised himself with Russia’s problems during his days as a student in Novgorod and later as a Fennoman politician and one of the members of the Finnish delegation negotiating Finland’s position with the Russian interim regime. His personal observations were limited, however, and to understand the larger picture, Paasikivi sought information from literature. Paasikivi kept up to speed with the most recent developments in Russia by reading Russian, German, French, and other international literature.

The Russian Civil War removed Russia from the world stage, but Paasikivi kept following events in Russia with keen interest. The Bolsheviks were the first to recognise Finland’s independence at the end of 1917. At that point, Lenin’s position was uncertain, so the Bolshevik recognition did not carry much international weight.

At the same time, Paasikivi was touring Sweden, Denmark, and Norway to gauge their reactions towards Finland’s newly declared independence. He received negative responses, and the Nordic neighbours required that Finland first obtain recognition from the government of Russia. On returning to Finland via Tornio, Paasikivi ended up being arrested, and he concluded that the revolutionary Russian troops were controlling the country and its borders. For this reason, he took a sceptical view of the recognition issued by the Council of People’s Commissars.(9)

Between 1918 and 1920, it appeared that the Russian revolution would be overturned, and the monarchy would be reinstated. Paasikivi considered this a disadvantageous development for Finland, because the Russian Whites had not recognised Finland’s independence. Based on a diary entry from 1918, Paasikivi hoped that the Russian Civil War would be prolonged, and that Bolshevism would continue to take its toll on Russia.(10)

After the end of the Finnish Civil War, the Parliament convened on 15 May 1918 and on 18 May 1918, the Economic Division of the Senate presented that the Parliament authorise the Senate to issue a proposal under which the Chairman of the Senate P.E. Svinhufvud should assume the supreme power, that is, to act as the head of state. The proposal was approved on the same day.(11)

Svinhufvud appointed on 27 May 1918 the Vice-Chairman of the new Senate and the Head of the Economic Division and other ministers. The Head of the Economic Division, or the Prime Minister was Paasikivi.

Allegiance with Germany

After the Civil War, Finland was weak and was forced to seek reassurances from external powers against the Bolsheviks. In spring 1918, Germany was at the height of its power and Finland trusted in her support. With the German’s having occupied Helsinki, Paasikivi pondered on Finland’s position. In his notes of 10 April 1918, he wrote: “How can we preserve Finland’s independence and defend ourselves against Russia?” Paasikivi surmised that after regaining its power, Russia would claim its old peripheral territories back, and Finland would be in no position to defend herself against Russia. For this reason, Finland was forced to ally with Germany. The first step was to create a monarchy in Finland, which would build relations with other monarchies, particularly the royal houses in Germany. The great Western powers would not provide sufficient support for Finland against Russia. Like most White-supporting Finns, Paasikivi was grateful to Germany for liberating Finland from the Red tyranny. (12)

Paasikivi negotiated with Rüdiger von der Goltz, the Commander of the Baltic Sea Division of Germany, on a number of strategic questions. His advice to Finland was to rebuild friendly relations with Russia and to concede in the border dispute regarding the Karelian Isthmus. The border could not run too close to St Petersburg. (13)

The situation took a sharp turn when Germany surrendered in November 1918. Paasikivi’s government was forced to resign and the German king, who had already been elected, refrained from acceding to the throne. Finland’s internal situation was stabilised with the election of K.J. Ståhlberg as the country’s first president. Building a relationship with the neighbours was considered paramount. A major problem was the finalisation of the peace treaty with the Soviet Russia. The process was hindered by border, nationality, and economic questions. The challenge involved major geopolitical decisions.

After Finland had established its position, the Russian Civil War continued, and the longevity of the Soviet rule was widely questioned. Paasikivi was among the sceptics, but he also held that benefitting from the temporary weakness of Russia would be unwise. Russia would eventually rise again, and then claim back with interest any territories it considered unlawfully taken.

This was the belief that guided Paasikivi’s actions for decades to come.

Alpo Juntunen is Professor Emeritus at the National Defence University of Finland.


1.  K. Ketola, Ryssän koulussa. Suomalaiset  Venäjän stipendiaatit autonomian aikana 1812–1917. Helsinki 2007,
pp. 124, 128.

2.  A. Juntunen, Impact of the Russian Empire on geography in Finland.  Fennia 171/1993:2, pp. 137−158.,
A. Tiitta, Sinisten maisemien mies. J. G. Granön tutkijantie 1882−1956. Helsinki 2011, pp. 70−135, 207, 470.

3. Th. Homén, Itä-Karjala ja Kuolan Lappi, suomalaisten luonnon- ja kielentutkijoiden kuvaamana. Helsinki 1918

4. T. Polvinen, H. Heikkilä, H. Immonen, J. K. Paasikivi valtiomiehen elämäntyö I, 1870−1918. Juva 1989, p. 12.

5. K. Ketola 2007, p. 235.

6. T. Polvinen 1989, pp. 137-146.

7. Paasikiven muistelmia sortovuosilta II. Porvoo 1957,pp. 67-86.

8. Ibid. pp. 178−181.

9. T. Polvinen 1989, pp. 322−337.
K. Ikonen, J. K. Paasikiven poliittinen toiminta Suomen itsenäistymisen murrosvaiheessa. Helsinki 1990, pp. 143−145.

10. ”Olen tullut jo kovin kiukkuiseksi”. 2000, p. 50.

11. M. Häikiö, Suomen leijona. Svinhufvud itsenäisyysmiehenä. Juva pp. 328−332. 
K. Ikonen 1990, p. 192.

12. ”Mietelmiä” 10.4.1918. Paasikiven kok. K VI: 20. KA.

13. T. Perko, Haastaja Saksasta 1918. Von der Goltz ja Mannerheim. Jyväskylä 2018, pp. 252−254, 276.