YYA and the fear of a coup in spring 1948

In spring 1948, President J.K. Paasikivi found himself in the most demanding situation of his career as a statesman. The fate of his country, its position in world politics and its entire future were at stake.

When the Cold War began in earnest halfway through 1947, it was not immediately clear which sphere Finland would belong to. Finland was not purely in either camp, but somewhere in between.

Unlike in the West, the communists in Finland were not removed from the government, and the post-war coalition of the three big parties held together, if only just. Unlike in the East, the communists did not gain absolute power. In his foreign policy, Paasikivi reluctantly declined the aid offered by the United States under the Marshall Plan. Countries that had fallen under the sphere of Soviet influence were all forced to do the same, although in Finland, the economy and the political system remained Western.

After the Paris Peace Treaties were ratified and the Allied Control Commission left Finland, the Soviet Union began advocating a military pact that would tie Finland within its protective buffer zone. The project made no progress during autumn 1947: Paasikivi was stalling and did not allow any initiatives to be made from the Finnish side. As early as in February, during the Head of the Allied Control Commission Andrei Zhdanov’s final visit to Helsinki, the Soviet Union had arrived at the conclusion that the President was the “strongest and the most intelligent enemy” in Finland. Publicly, however, such expressions were not used.

Aiming at a military pact

In December, the Big Four Conference of the foreign ministers of the victorious nations had led to a gridlock, and it was beginning to dawn on everyone that there would be two Germanys, East and West. Stalin decided to quickly bind Romania, Hungary and Finland, all former allies of Germany, to its sphere of influence by way of treaties.

Finland proved to be the most difficult of the three to coax into line. The three domains of Soviet foreign policy were working at full throttle.

In the domain of diplomacy, a new Soviet ambassador was appointed for Helsinki. Lieutenant general G.M. Savonenkov, the former deputy head of the Allied Control Commission, was ordered to appear in uniform in his ambassadorial role. His main task was to “secure the reorientation of Finland’s foreign policy to form a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.” For this purpose, it was important to invite Paasikivi to Moscow, but the ambassador was not to divulge that the invitation came, in fact, from Stalin or Molotov and that the purpose of the visit was to enter into a military pact.

The task proved too difficult for the sombre and unresourceful general. It was typical of Stalin’s foreign policy to ambush the weaker counterpart and force them into the position of having to beg for favours so that the Soviet Union could then dictate the terms. Paasikivi was unwilling to be placed in such a position and refused to travel to Moscow.

The second domain of Soviet foreign policy was military intelligence. A.M. Saharovsky, who later became the head of the KGB foreign intelligence, paid visits to Helsinki, where he inconspicuously built confidential relations with his contacts. Both of his major promotions in the Soviet hierarchy (1948 and 1956) were related to his Finnish operations. He pressed for an initiative from the Finnish side and sounded out what type of pact Finland might agree to sign and whether Paasikivi could be brought onboard.

To summarise the motives of his contact, Eero A. Wuori reported to the President that the goal of the Russians was to “isolate us and to make it seem in the eyes of the world that we are part of the Eastern bloc”. Reinhold Svento was more optimistic: while a military pact seemed inevitable it could be negotiated as a sui generis agreement, unique in its content.

Savonenkov’s instructions and high-level intelligence and influence operations show that the primary objective of Moscow was to reach a military pact, preferably with Paasikivi. But Paasikivi was holding his own and it seemed uncertain that he could ever be persuaded. Therefore, failing to turn Paasikivi around, the Soviet Union devised a plan B: turning Finland around.

Enlisting the Finnish Communist Party

Plan B was launched through the three foreign policy domains, using the Finnish Communist Party, SKP, as its vehicle. The leaders of SKP, Yrjö Leino, Hertta Kuusinen and Ville Pessi, were invited to Moscow, where they received strict orders from Zhdanov and Georgi Malenkov. The plan was to launch a major political offensive aiming at election victory and a majority (101 seats) of forces controlled by the communists. The Russians felt that the problem was in the SKP’s overly benign tactics, ignoring the fact that it had been Zhdanov who had initially urged such caution.

Leino, who was suspected of nationalistic tendencies, was to immediately step down as the Minister of the Interior and party leader. While Leino was removed from party leadership, ousting him from the ministry was considered a step too far in fear of a cabinet crisis, much to the surprise of Savonenkov, who insisted that the instructions from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been clear.

SKP knew that the target of 101 seats was unrealistic and kept the objective a secret from its members. “At this rate it will take a hundred years,” Hertta Kuusinen had said in Moscow.

More drastic measures were needed. Moscow made Hungary an example. In Hungary, opponents of the communists had been intimidated and crushed through arrests, accusing them of scheming with Western powers. A similar scenario was sketched in a memorandum drafted with the Soviet intelligence, with Unto Varjonen and Väinö Leskinen of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as the top names on the list of people to be arrested. The arrests were to be made by the State Police, which was under communist control. The idea was for the party, which was already holding a strong position in the cabinet, to orchestrate a decisive shift in power, which would then be sealed by a pre-scripted general election. To support the mission, SKP set up “groups”.

Before implementing plan B, however, Stalin wanted to exhaust plan A.

Moscow talks

Stalin was eventually forced to make the first move, and he sent Paasikivi a letter on 22 February 1948. It suggested a pact that was analogous with the ones recently made with Romania and Hungary. Meanwhile, the operation securing communist power in Czechoslovakia was underway in Prague.

Signed by Stalin, the letter was an obvious sign that the Soviet Union would no longer back down. Paasikivi played for time, delayed publicly discussing the matter, and consulted with parliamentary groups and experts. Finland did not explicitly seek the support of the West; its mere presence would have to suffice. Paasikivi did not, in reality, need any more time, as he had been pondering on the possibility of a military pact since 1945 and gone on record as saying that Finland would not condone an attack on the Soviet Union through its territory. However, any agreement that Finland entered into with the Soviet Union would have to be limited to the Finnish territory only.

On March 9, Paasikivi agreed to the talks, albeit against the advice of former president Ståhlberg and the will of the people and the majority of the Parliament, should they have been consulted at the time. The President was adamant that approval by the Parliament was essential and that the content of the agreement should be placed under “free consideration and decision”.

Paasikivi chose Moscow as the location for the talks, as this was the only place where Soviet leaders could expend enough time on the negotiations, and it was also where the power to make concessions resided. The President himself stayed behind in Helsinki to avoid being pressured and to reserve himself one more delay tactic, as all decisions had to be approved by him. He said he was too old to travel to Moscow, although his age did not stop him from signing the agreement on the return of Porkkala in Moscow seven years later.

At this point, the first wave of the offensive and active measures that SKP had been instructed to undertake began. At the same time, the State Police presented Leino with fake documentation of a right-wing conspiracy that would call for arrests.

On March 9, Leino hinted at possible covert operations to Chief of Defence Aarne Sihvo, who had played a key role in defusing the Mäntsälä rebellion in the 1930s. Sihvo took precautionary measures as did the network around SDP, who had kept a close eye on the intentions of the communists.

Finland’s treaty

The talks in Moscow were genuine negotiations, the tone of which was set early on. In a confidential meeting on 26 March, Molotov told Prime Minister Mauno Pekkala, who had finally arrived in Moscow, that the treaty could be based on a draft devised by Finland, if this would secure Parliament’s approval of the pact.

Hence, the Finno-Soviet treaty did turn out to be a special case. It was not a generic military pact and, instead provided for the specific eventuality that Germany or any of its allies planned to attack the Soviet Union through the Finnish territory. In this situation, Finland was obliged to defend its territory, in cooperation with the Soviet Union, if necessary. Another difference compared to the pacts made with Central European states was that Finland was not required to consult Moscow in advance on its foreign policy, a clause that was reinforced by a provision in the preamble of the agreement stating that Finland should aim to remain neutral regarding conflicts between super powers.

The Soviet intelligence had detailed information on Finland’s position and negotiating power. Stalin’s approach was probably mostly influenced by the views of the generals Erik Heinrichs and Oskar Enckell, who maintained that if a major war broke out, Finland could not realistically hope to remain neutral and would be forced to side with the Soviet Union.

The fact that Stalin became privy to this information in secret made the intelligence implicitly trustworthy. Stalin settled for an outcome that was less than what he had achieved with Hungary and Romania and certainly less than his own intentions earlier that year had been.

Stalin backs down

Why, then, did Stalin suddenly change his mind? The rapid deterioration of the global situation was the decisive factor. The global situation changed dramatically between January and March, which meant that Paasikivi’s stalling tactics paid off.

Western powers had been surprisingly quick to react to the communist coup in Prague. On 17 March, Britain, France, and the Benelux Countries established the Western European Union (WEU), a defence pact supported by the US and the predecessor of NATO. Stalin was well aware of the developments in the global situation and understood what reining Finland in too tightly could lead to in the West and the Nordic countries, in Sweden in particular.

Meanwhile, the Marshall Plan passed through the US Congress and the German question was escalating towards the first Berlin crisis. The conflict between Moscow and Yugoslavia that led to the Yugoslav-Soviet Split brought another difficult and pressing foreign policy problem into the equation. Even the situation in Italy and Greece may have had an effect. All of a sudden, Stalin was juggling too many balls at once.

The treaty and the reactions

The Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, or the YYA Treaty, was signed in Moscow on 6 April 1948. At the celebratory dinner that evening, Stalin, who was “in an excellent mood”, again returned to the topic of iron, which was his recurring theme when talking about Finland. He saw Finland as a forge that would produce high-quality goods particularly for the Soviet Navy. Urho Kekkonen, who had played a central role in the negotiations, ventured to display his famous sense of humour: “What treaty? It was Paasikivi’s dictate!”

The treaty was met with a general sense of relief in Sweden and elsewhere in the West. It was perhaps only now that the British ambassador in Helsinki realised just how “tough both physically and morally” the aged President of Finland was. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin understood that the treaty would prevent the Soviet Union from interfering with Finland’s internal affairs and made Finland a neutral buffer country rather than a Soviet satellite state.

The “groups” within SKP continued to receive stern instructions from Moscow until mid-April, and the preparations undertaken by SDP, Paasikivi and the military came to a peak on the night before 27 April, when the YYA Treaty was discussed by the Parliament. By that time, the situation was no longer as acute and the message in the communications to SKP “groups” had been toned down.

The rise of the communists to power in Finland would have required substantial military action. Stalin was not prepared to take such action in the existing international climate when a tolerable military agreement with Paasikivi was within reach. Stalin did not hesitate to strike when his enemy was weak, but he also knew when to back down if the situation would otherwise have escalated unnecessarily without any obvious benefits to himself.

Paasikivi’s achievement

Ville Pessi, General Secretary of the SKP, travelled to Moscow on 13 May to make amends and to ask for assistance particularly in placing pressure on the Finnish defence forces. According to Zhdanov, as long as Leino remained installed in his position against the straightforward orders from Moscow to remove him, the SKP could not be taken seriously. In his report to Stalin, Zhdanov strongly criticised the vagueness and lack of determination shown by the Finnish comrades.

The SKP had to contend with a consolation prize, and Moscow agreed to a considerably reduce the amount of war reparations on the initiative of the communist cabinet ministers, headed by Leino. This did not win any votes for the communists in the next general elections.

Leino lost a vote of no confidence in Parliament on 20 May, when it discussed the 1945 government report and Leino’s decision to turn a group of prisoners of war over to the Soviet authorities. Paasikivi was angered by the National Coalition Party and the SDP rocking the boat at such a delicate time, but could not but release Leino from his duties as cabinet minister. Unwittingly, he had fulfilled one of the demands Moscow had made in January.

The SKP went on to mobilise an extensive wave of strikes to support its already dead cause, but almost immediately afterwards agreed to a compromise. “We received advice that we took with aching hearts,” Hertta Kuusinen wrote to her father in Moscow.

The Finnish People’s Democratic League (SKDL), ally of the SKP, suffered a defeat in the July general election and lost thirteen seats. Paasikivi quickly appointed a social democratic-led minority government.

It is obvious that the events of spring 1948 were also influenced by the experiences of the Soviet leaders during the Winter War and the summer of 1944. After the war, these were two periods that were seldom reflected upon in the relations between Finland and the Soviet Union, but there was at least one occasion when these events in history were referenced. When the representatives of the SKDL parliamentary group, led by Hertta Kuusinen, met with President Paasikivi late in the summer of 1948 to voice their discontent regarding their treatment in the formation of the government and how people had been unduly threatened with the fate of Czechoslovakia, Paasikivi lost his temper: “If the Soviet Union wants to do that to us, they will first have to kill half a million Finns and me.”

Of course, Paasikivi knew exactly how far his words would carry.

Paasikivi contributed to and achieved great many things over his life-long career, but the skill, wisdom, and composure with which he steered the country through the extremely difficult process of spring 1948 was a feat second to none.


Kimmo Rentola is Professor of Political History at the University of Helsinki. He has previously served as professor at the University of Turku. He has published several articles and books on the relations between Finland and the Soviet Union.


Sources

1.   Norman M. Naimark: Stalin and the Fate of Europe: The Postwar Struggle for Sovereignty, 3. luku Suomesta. Belknap Press, 2019.
2.  Tuomo Polvinen: K. Paasikivi: Valtiomiehen elämäntyö Osa 4: 1944−1948. WSOY, 1997.
3.  Kimmo Rentola: Stalin ja Suomen kohtalo. Otava, 2017.