Excerpts from the Revised Edition

 

From Chapter 1, Stranger in a Strange Land: the summer of 1977

AS FAR as the oft-disparaged capital itself was concerned – “a well-ordered, provincial town,” Len Deighton called it in 1966; “a city in which people are silent in two languages,” Bertolt Brecht dismissed a quarter of a century before – it also had its charms.

Helsinki certainly was not what you would call a convenient city; the notion that sometime in the near distant future it would qualify as the world’s most livable city (as a 2011 issue of the über-cool lifestyle magazine Monocle would later claim) would have been laughable. The drab green trams wrapped in ads for “Paulig” seemed to work, and so did the buses, but there was no metro yet, nor would there be for some time. It was impossible to find a cab driver who spoke English, addresses had to be written down ahead of time, and unlike in London, fares had to be paid before you exited the cab, lest you upset the order of things, and Finns were, if anything, an orderly people.

There certainly was no service ethos. Waiters and store clerks invariably acted as if they were doing you a favor by serving you. A smile for the customer? Unheard of. There were a handful of fine restaurants. The Savoy, with its Mannerheim table, was the Savoy: one could easily envision the Marshal sitting there contentedly eating his “vorschmack”. A couple could have a good meal here, if you could afford the exorbitant tab. The Kosmos, with its palm trees and high-backed booths, did an excellent lunch, if you could afford it. The Elite, with its art collection and Left Bank crowd, was also quite nice. So was the beer garden-like Esplanadin Kappeli in the summer, with its hearty oompah music and oompah food to match.

Besides that, the Helsinki of 1977 didn’t have very much to offer in the way of cuisine except lots of Baari, workmen’s cafeterias where one could consume, in silence, a plateful of meatballs or sausage, always accompanied by three naked potatoes, a thick brown gravy and a few slices of pickled gherkin. No restaurant in Helsinki, not even the vaunted Savoy, bore a Michelin star. Nor did anyone care.

There was also no nightlife to speak of. To be sure, there were a couple of ballroom type emporia of the Copacabana kind, with table service and swirling lights – the Hesperia was one, the Red Room was another; I seem to recall a disco ball or two – but you had to dress up to get in past the menacing doorman. And foreigners, while not unwelcome, weren’t exactly welcome either, and if you had a dark tan, as I did, you ran the risk of being mistaken for a gypsy and roughed up: these were still the dark days of Finnish xenophobia.

Nor could Helsinki be called a beautiful city. The center, particularly my own adoptive neighborhood of Töölö, was quite attractive, with its Art Deco gems, but even here one found blocks of indifferently built box-like apartment buildings that had shot up in the Sixties to accommodate the rush from the countryside. And yet with each passing day and night I found Helsinki growing on me. Perhaps Helsinki wasn’t the most livable city, but it was wonderfully accessible. Perhaps its trams weren’t so comfortable, but what did that matter when it was so easy to walk? One could traverse the width of the center in an hour.

It was also a great city in which to think. Unlike my native Manhattan, with its incessant traffic, I could hear my thoughts here. I liked the way one could step from the hustle and bustle of Mannerheimintie to the silent vault of a courtyard in Ullanlinna in a few minutes. I also liked Helsinki’s proximity to the sea. Perhaps, as Brecht put it, it was a place where people were silent in two languages. What did that matter when they had the omnipresent, dive bombing seagulls to speak for them? And was there any better place to start the day than with a cup of kahvi and a stroll by the Market Square?

Nightclubs? Who needed nightclubs when you had the long white night, which effectively turned the entire city into a nightclub, with a floor show provided by the clusters of giddy partiers, bottles in hand, right out of a Fellini movie, scurrying to and fro, beneath the soaring cupola of the magenta sky? And was there any better place to greet the dawn then to climb the steps of Helsinki Cathedral and look out over the historic cobblestone square, with its statue of “the good emperor” Alexander II, and watch the ships go out to sea? Perhaps Helsinki wasn’t a great city, but it didn’t claim to be one either. It wasn’t London or Paris. It wasn’t Stockholm. But it was unique, and it was growing. It also was a young city, unencumbered by the past. Who knew what tomorrow would bring, particularly if it could ever throw off its politically – and spiritually – confining relationship with the Bear?

Unfortunately, I found out that Helsinki was also an expensive city, at least for an American. Before long I found my money running out. Helpfully, Eddy enumerated the various ways an enterprising American freelance might supplement his income. There was plenty of translation work available, but of course one needed to know Finnish, so that was out.

Or one could do a little spying.

To be sure, in those days Helsinki was definitely John Le Carré territory, hardly surprising given Finland’s proximity to the USSR. Most of the sleuths operated under the flimsiest of covers. Thus, over fifty Soviet so-called journalists were assigned to Helsinki at the time, amongst them the putative football correspondent for the monthly magazine of the Soviet Cooperative League. The US, for its part, fielded over a dozen “agricultural specialists”. It wasn’t too hard to figure out what they were really interested in digging up.

Moreover, Eddy claimed, the local CIA desk was on the lookout for “lone guns” to carry out one-time special assignments behind the Iron Curtain. For good pay, too.

“Check it out,” Eddy said. “Go to the bar of the Hotel Marski and look available.”

So one night in early July that’s what I did.

To be sure, the downstairs bar of the Hotel Marski was a very odd place in those days, with all manner of foreigners and assorted hangers draped around the bar, including a contingent of outlandishly dressed women, whose searchlight eyes would traverse the bar at fixed intervals briefly catching you in their glare, before moving on; sort of an updated version of Rick’s Café American, with perhaps a touch of the bar in Star Wars, which was just then taking the world by storm.

Sure enough, no sooner had I ordered a Southern Comfort with Seven-Up than I found myself engaged in a round of light-hearted repartee with another American “businessman”.

“Mike,” he said, introducing himself and extending his hand. And what sort of “business” was “Mike” engaged in?

“Export and import.”

Mike’s eyes lit up when I told him that I was a freelance journalist, as if to say, “Here’s a live one.” After another round of drinks and banter, Mike – if that really was his name – cut to the chase.

Mike had a proposition for me. Here was the deal: A] If I went to Russia as part of my research for the article about Finland, and B] while I was there managed to visit one of the Soviet “forbidden cities” (cities in Russia that were off limits to foreigners) C] and managed not to get caught, then D] I would be extremely well-compensated.

How well?

“Let’s just say over ten thousand for a three to four page report.”

Hmmm. Ten thousand dollars was a lot of money in 1977. Still, somehow, I couldn’t get past part C.

Thanks, anyway, I told Mike.

Eddy was right, I told myself as I exited the hotel. This place is crawling with spies.

Paging Casablanca.


From Chapter 3, Lost in Finland

“Åland is a practically independent country”

– From a brochure about Åland published in Mariehamn

“Rat poison.
Small or large?
Large.
What does it do?
It kills.
Good.”

– Kati Outinen in Match Factory Girl (1990)

THE BOAT TRIP from Turku to Mariehamn, the so-called capital of the Åland Islands, as anyone who has taken it can attest, is quite special. I should know: I’ve taken it half a dozen times over the last twenty years. Åland is very much part of my Finland.

It seems like every few years I am there again, on the top deck of the Silja or one of the other interchangeable, tax-free cruise ships that travel the “archipelago route” from the southwest coast of Finland to and through the 6,700 various skerries and islands that make up the archipelago, hair blowing in the wind, drink in hand, leaning over the handrail, watching this little uninhabited stretch of land, imagining a solitary clapboard house with an invisible sign over the door that says, “If you lived here you would be home by now!”...and another…as the circling gulls above provide air cover…escort…and all the while feeling as if I am leaving the civilized world with all its worries and cares behind.

I vividly recall my first trip to Åland, in September 1990. My contacts in Helsinki weren’t particularly encouraging of my Ålandic sortie. “Why on earth would you want to go there?” someone asked me. “There are so many other more interesting things here in Finland for you to investigate.”

Overall, the impression I got was that most Finns, i.e., most Finnish-speaking Finns, regarded the 24,000 some odd inhabitants of the semi-autonomous, Swedish-speaking archipelago located betwixt Finland and Sweden – not to mention Europe’s only officially demilitarized zone (and don’t you forget it!) – as a bunch of spoiled ingrates who took more from the country to which they begrudgingly belonged than they gave back.

There were also some hard feelings on the mainland after a Finnish naval boat docked in Mariehamn and some of the crew decided to go ashore in uniform, leading to an official reprimand from the put-out Åland authorities. Fancy that! Never mind that those same sailors were protecting Åland.

Of late, I also understood, some of the more rabid Ålanders had even formed their own independence movement. Well, good riddance to them!

All of which, of course, only made me look forward more to my journey to the Åland Zone.

Yes, it was a memorable visit indeed. Originally I had planned on spending ten days, beginning with a visit long enough for me to research the article I was writing about Åland, followed by a sojourn somewhere deep in the archipelago where I could really cool out; after completing my first book, a biography of Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone, I really needed to be away, and the Åland Zone (so to speak) struck me as an ideal place for doing that.

This proved true. In fact I wound up zoning out so well in that I nearly drowned in the process.

***

AS ALWAYS, my first stop on the Åland Islands was in Mariehamn.

For a seaside town that likes to think of itself as a world-class resort, I was surprised (and still am) at the relative lack of luxurious hotels.

But who needs luxurious hotels when you have the vast Mariehamn harbor, with sailboats tacking to and fro at your feet, and a windswept promenade culminating in the wacky open-air Mariehamn Zoo, or the elegant tree-lined Storagatan that links the eastern side of the Mariehamn peninsula to the west?

As for indoor attractions there was, of course, the award-winning Åland Museum, where one could immerse oneself in the convoluted history of the anomalous islands from prehistoric times through the fondly recalled Swedish period and on. I had certainly read up on its history and was fascinated by it. There was the Russian period that was punctuated by the pulverization of the great Bomarsund Fortress by Admiral Napier’s men o’war during the Crimean War, and the attempts by forlorn islanders during the First World War to reattach themselves to their former motherland, not to mention the historic 1921 League of Nations decision, from which the islands derived their unique semi-autonomous status. I found the island’s Nautical Museum truly magical; one could vicariously relive the great days of the great Ålandic four-masters via a splendid assortment of maritime canvases on display there. And of course to see what the real thing looked like, the majestic Pommern, now a museum ship, was nearby.

Åland has always had its own veritable culture, and its own literature, including a number of authors like Sally Salminen, author of the prize-winning Katriina about the life of a doughty 19th immigrant to Åland and her struggles. There is also Anni Blomqvist, the bard of Simskäla and winner of the Pro Finlandia medal, who had received acclaim in both sides of the Gulf of Bothnia. The archipelago even boasted its own poet laureate, Karl Erik Bergman, a native fisherman who putatively wrote his nautical-based verses in between working his herring and laveret nets.

In fact, Åland even boasted its own cuisine, including the justly celebrated Åland pancakes, preferably served with stewed plums and whipped cream.

Mmm. I reminded myself to stop off and get some of those, perhaps on my way to purchase some stunning Åland postage stamps. I always picked up some stamps when visiting, if only to throw the folks back home off. One could almost picture them looking at the stamp and saying to themselves, Åland. Where the ___ is that?

Needless to say I sent a lot of postcards on my first trip to Åland. In fact, I was so taken by the sheer quirkiness of the place that I decided to write up my first story about Åland in the form of a running commentary via post card, dispensing different installments to each of my editors, such that the whole would form a kind of, how should I say, archipelagic account.

Thus:

Dear Mike,

Fred is the word for ‘peace’ in Swedish, but it really ought to be Åland, the name of these beguiling islands lying between Finland and Sweden. Åland was declared a demilitarized zone by Russia in 1856, after its forces had been blasted out of the water by an Anglo-French expedition during the Crimean War, a status that was given international status in 1921 after the League of Nations gave Åland to Finland – over the protests of the inhabitants who wanted to be repatriated with Sweden, which owned the archipelago prior to 1809. Now Ålanders appear to be content with their self-governing, demilitarized status, which frees their men from having to serve in the Finnish armed forces (a cause of some resentment on the mainland), and makes this place a natural setting for meditating on the future of the world.

Peace baby,

Agent Sander

Isn’t it extraordinary how much one can fit on a postcard, especially when one has ingested five cups of strong Ålandic coffee?

Yes, Mariehamn ‘tis a very pleasant place indeed.

I’ll never forget realizing how government-intensive it was there. I remember witnessing the sweeping Landskapsregering complex, which includes the lavish four-storey glass-enclosed Lagtinget, the Ålandic parliament, with plush seats and a great mural relating the story of how Åland achieved its independence – sorry, semi-independence. There is also an adjoining, even larger Administration Building with surprisingly tight security (as if anyone wished to attack the Åland government; but of course you never know) and dozens of bespectacled archipel-acrats contentedly dashing about, attending to this piece of pressing archipelagic business or that.

As far as the so-called Ålandic independence movement was concerned, that was really much ado about nothing, the courteous Åland official I interviewed one crystal blue day in September 1992 assured me. Yes, in fact, there was such an “independence” party, he confirmed, however polls had shown that no more than 10 percent of the Åland population favored outright independence. The vast majority of Ålanders were indeed quite happy with their special status. And, after all, why shouldn’t they be? I recall asking if the official felt the locals were spoiled in a way.

“That is not for us to say,” he replied, diplomatically.

It seemed clear that the majority of Ålanders were quite content to let Helsinki administer their defense and foreign affairs. Besides, the idea of Åland having its own navy – no less its own air force – was a self-evidently foolish one.

The preponderance of Ålanders was quite content to let the Finnish navy and air force patrol the archipelagic skies and waters. And of course, the Finnish navy was welcome – just as long as the crew took its liberty in civvies.

This particular Åland official assured me that Ålanders were extremely proud of, and indeed grateful for their unique status with Helsinki, and how well it worked – at least for them. Indeed, it worked so well that of late it was attracting interest from other governments around the world who were seeking a workable formula to deal with their respective linguistic minorities. For example, in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev and his reformist comrades were desperately looking for a way to keep the restive Baltic Socialist Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from leaving the Communist reservation altogether.

Of course, Åland officials took pains to point out, the “Åland model” per se only worked for Åland because it was a) wealthy and b) monolingual, conditions that didn’t really correspond with the relatively impoverished Baltic republics with their large Russian-speaking minorities.

Mariehamn nevertheless wished Mr. Gorbachev the best of luck while allowing the USSR to maintain its large consulate-cum-listening station in Mariehamn, a legacy of old Russian imperial days, when Åland was still considered a strategic point, along with the crumbling ruins of Bormasund.

 


From Chapter 5,   Shake it Up:  Helsinki media quake

WHILE MOUSTGAARD and Grünstein were administering electroshocks to their respective sectors of the Helsinki mediascape, rising ad mogul Ami Hasan was doing the same in his hitherto stale and stagnant sector with his agency Hasan & Partners and having a blast doing it.

The son of a well-known ear, nose and throat specialist and a left-leaning university professor who grew up in the fashionable Munkkiniemi district of Helsinki, Hasan had once wanted to be an architect before a period of “creative drift”, as he puts it. He enjoyed a lengthy stint in the United States as self-described “ski bum” before returning to Helsinki to make his mark in the closed, cutthroat and conservative world of Finnish advertising.

“The beginning of the Nineties was, of course, a depressing time,” Hasan pointed out in a recent interview, “but at the same time it was in many ways an extremely inspiring one. If they could tear down the Berlin Wall, we thought, we should be able to tear down all the dusty conventions, regulations and rules of the Kekkonen era as well.”

Unsurprisingly, one of his agency’s first clients was Radio City. “Christian and Juha were creating a new kind of media at Lepakko. Great things were happening all around us and we wanted to be part of them. It was a time for new rulers and new rules.”

One of the many rules that Hasan and his band of brothers happily flouted was the unspoken one prohibiting humor in advertising, in which respect Finnish advertising was considerably behind the rest of the Western advertising world. The charismatic, wise-cracking Hasan enthusiastically broke that rule (along with quite a few others) by producing some of the funniest ads ever seen in the northern latitudes.

Oski Granström, one of the creative sappers whom Hasan hired for his new team, describes what it was like to work at Hasan’s wild and crazy ad shop in an old industrial building in Punavuori.

“At [Hasan & Partners] everything just clicked. The recession changed the rules of advertising. We were new and hot, and nothing could stop us.

“Of course, a lot of family lives were destroyed in the process. But that was ok: we were freaks, and we knew it. We were in a platoon in a war of market shares. We were mad dog guerillas. We had a mission: we wanted Finnish advertising to be up to the standards of the best international work, we wanted it to be humorous and funny, to touch our clients in a way that they – and TV viewers – hadn’t experienced before.”

***

SAMPLE of early Hasan & Partners ad:

Client: Finnmatkat, the Finnish travel agency.

A group of miserable-looking people are huddled together in rain slickers watching a football match between two teams of equally miserable-looking youth desultorily battling each other.

CUT to a close-up of one particularly determined looking woman, evidently the mother of one of the rain-soaked berserkers, who is trying to infuse her son with the proper winning spirit.

CUT to son battling it out in the mud…

BACK to determined mother, whom one can barely make out over the pounding rain.

MOTHER: Kill him!

WORDS APPEAR ON THE SCREEN: “Finnmatkat. Take a vacation before others tell you to.”

In the humor-challenged Finland of the early Nineties, this sort of spot was revolutionary, in its own way.

As was this risqué one for Ilta-Sanomat, the Finnish daily, which cleverly references the secret lives of the buttoned-down Finnish ministerial set:

OPEN with a close-up of a Batman logo, moving back and forth, which, we SEE, in the next frame belongs to

A MAN in a Batman costume hunched atop a closet in a bedroom, where his half-dressed lover, perhaps his wife, perhaps not, looks on from their bed. On the nightstand the couple’s phone – this is still the pre-mobile era – is conspicuously off the hook. Segue to:

THE WOMAN who beckons her lover, who is moving back and forth in the background, waving his cape, preparing to leap onto bed, to make his move, when suddenly

THE MAN falls into the closet and disappears from view.

CLOSE ON the woman, now concerned (but not overly), puts one of her hands to her lips, as if to say, “Oh my.”

CUT TO old-style movie shot of spinning front page, which, when

it stops, reads, beneath the Ilta-Sanomat head:

SUMMIT CANCELLED?

Minister Breaks Ankle

CUT TO final shot:

Ilta-Sanomat

You Never Know

Unsurprisingly, Hasan and his fellow bomb-throwers wound up winning numerous top awards at international ad contests for spots such as these.

***

IT WASN’T just the way that Hasan did advertising that broke the mold; it was also the way he did business. This self-proclaimed “uppity Jew” wasn’t merely out to fashion a new mode of advertising; he was out to establish a new type of agency.

“We wanted to do everything differently from the old guard, the establishment,” says Hasan, looking back. Two decades after founding his groundbreaking firm, Hasan, never one for modesty, is still fiercely proud of his contribution to the late 20th-century Helsinki mediaquake – and he doesn’t mind saying so, fairly tripping over his words as he ticks off the myriad ways his modus operandi putatively differed from that of his traditional, conservative, hidebound rivals.

“The old guys got their money from kickbacks from suppliers, commissions and reductions from media. We didn’t do that. We came out and said that this was our clients’ money and pushed for transparent business models, and that we would only earn money from our work. We also went on a crusade against shady practices and accounting. Our clients loved it. Of course, our competition hated it, and they were even stupid enough to say it out loud,” Hasan suggests.

“The old [ad] guys played golf and wined and dined their clients,” Hasan passionately declares. “We didn’t do any of that. We treated all clients – and prospective clients – on an equal basis. The old guys employed nattily attired sales people who would spend as many as five nights a week entertaining. Instead our people would be informally dressed and spend all of their time working with the client, as often as not at their workplace – not ours.”

Not that Hasan and his partners had anything against partying or spending money on partying, but they decided that they would get the biggest bang out of their entertainment budget, and thereby enhance the hasan and partners brand by spending the same amount, or roughly the same amount, all at once, on a big blow out affair, like the Image extravaganzas – or even bigger – and invite everyone in town.

“The old guys did things the old-fashioned way, with formal presentations, just like in Mad Men. Instead our guys did things in a much more personal way, in an honest and open dialogue with the client. We saw our role as enablers and catalysts as much as anything. Our philosophy was that we weren’t selling advertising to clients, but rather helping to sell our clients’ products and services to their clients.”

“The rest of the industry talked about the rules of advertising. We said,” Hasan says today, “there are no rules. Our only rule was to get noticed.” And so hasan and partners did, via such attention-getting ploys as driving a pick-up truck around Helsinki on Vappu and dropping off cases of Koff beer [naturally a client] or those blow-out parties, but most of all by the quality and originality of the agency’s work.

Little wonder that by the time I met Hasan, on that day in 1990, people spoke of hasan & partners in hushed terms. As a friend of mine put it at the time, “Hasan is not just another agency. It is the agency.”

At the same time one could understand why the pressure, exhilarating as it was, of working at the turbo-powered, iconoclastic agency wound up destroying – or at least damaging – a lot of family lives, as Hasan himself conceded.

“We were so enthusiastic about our new agency,” he said, and “our mission and work that the wife of one of my original partners, Petu Pesonen, Kikka, got so mad at her husband that she shouted, ‘The whole bunch of you are not interested in anything but booze, [expletive deleted] and advertising.”

“At the time it almost felt like a compliment,” Hasan says today without apology.

At the same time one can also understand why some have called Hasan and his crew arrogant. They were, and are proud of it. “Arrogance was very much part of our brand,” he concedes. “We were skillful, we were proud of our professionalism, and we were not cheap.”

“At the same time,” he says with a wink, “we could be had.”

Not by everyone. The agency was picky about who it worked with. The list of prospective clients the agency turned down include “the country’s [would be] fifth power plant, a presidential candidate, several political parties, and the fur producers’ association.” Hasan turned them down, he says, not because of his likes or dislikes, but for the sake of internal agency harmony and because he did not “want to cause discomfort within the ranks. I felt that we could survive without these clients if we remained attractive to other ones. All we needed to do was to corner 5% of the market. And we did. Fast. And we did it our way. Still do.”

As Granström, who wound up starting his own agency (with Hasan’s blessing), said: “He was cocky, fast, witty and business-credible. Later, perhaps inevitably, he began to believe his own legend and began to get a little too big for his britches – at least from the point of view of some of his partners, but there is no question: he was a giant-killer. So were we all.”


AN HOUR or so later, I was waiting in the lobby of the Klaus Kurki when a breathless Stephen Kinzer came bounding in. Several minutes later we were in a cab, a fast cab – we paid him well. Kinzer had been based in Istanbul before taking over the prestigious Berlin post – the same one that William Shirer, celebrated author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, had once occupied. He was definitely one of the paper’s swashbucklers, having been through several scrapes, including being imprisoned by the PKK, the insurgent Kurdish group, while on the Turkish beat. He also happened to be a very nice guy, and I found him very easy to work for.

I briefed Stephen on what I gleaned from the first press conference. I had also had my friend, Ilkka Ranta-aho of Apu, write a summary of what Finnish TV had reported that morning, which I handed over.

The magnitude of the disaster was manifest by now. The various aircraft and the vessels that had gone to the scene of the disaster returned with the fortunate few who had managed to escape the ship in time and swim to one of the lifeboats that had been hastily lowered into the raging sea. The bodies of those unfortunate souls who had been winched to safety but had expired during the interim were also returned, and the hospitals in Mariehamn and Turku tallied their numbers – it was clear that no more than a small fraction of passengers and crew, perhaps ten percent, perhaps a bit more, had gotten through.

I passed on this information, as well. Kinzer nodded solemnly. “Good work.” Then we fell to small talk. Kinzer and the Times had done due diligence and were aware of my Nordic credentials. He was curious: why did I find this part of the world so interesting? Two things, as I told him: because the region was virtually ignored by the  major media, including the Times, and because a lot of interesting stuff was happening here.

“Fair enough.” When we arrived Stephen decided that we should split forces, that I should cover the press conference while he peeled off and visited the main hospital to see what he could find out there. I would join him at the hospital later.

“Got it.”

The cab was still moving when I jumped out and ran inside the school where the conference was being held.

***

MY memories of the rest of that horrific day basically merge into another.

During one moment, I was sitting in the back of a cramped auditorium looking down at the three prime ministers: Sweden’s Carl Bildt, Estonia’s Mart Laar and Finland’s Esko Aho. They were huddled in the front of the room doing their best to answer the barrage of questions being hurled at them by dozens of journalists from around the world. The predominant mood was one of shock, but now it was mixed with something else: anger.

By now the basic sequence of the sinking had become clear: the visor door of the ferry had somehow come undone in the rough seas and water had poured into the car deck, causing the boat to list and quickly capsize. Still, the press – and the world – wanted to know: How could this happen?

For his part, Carl Bildt was sure that the visor had come off because of a design flaw and promised a full investigation. Prime ministers Aho and Laar nodded their assent. Laar, in particular, looked like he had been hit with a sledgehammer. After all, the ship had carried his country’s name and had been piloted by an Estonian captain.

According to initial reports the captain, a man named Piht, had been amongst the estimated one hundred and fifty survivors of the tragedy. Everyone wanted to know what he had to say. There were also questions about the rescue. According to reports, Estonia had sent out a Mayday signal a little after 1 a.m. However the first vessel did not reach the area until 2:12, by which time the ferry had sank, and many of the initial survivors had drowned or died of hypothermia. Why was this? And although the Finnish Coast Guard had responded – and responded well by all accounts – the vessel had sunk in international waters.

Had, I wondered when my turn came to ask a question, the three nations ever conducted a joint practice rescue in case of such an eventuality?

No, they hadn’t. Although maritime accidents in the Baltic were commonplace, it had been assumed that the coast guard of the country closest to the emergency would be able to deal with it. Moreover, no one had anticipated an emergency of this magnitude. And after all, Estonia – poor Estonia – had only been a sovereign nation with its own coast guard for three years. This was something for which it was not prepared.

Again, shades of the Titanic….

The next moment I was at the hospital standing outside the door of one of the survivors, along with a number of other journalists, when a nurse came out and said that only one of us would be allowed inside. A terrible moment. Even though we couldn’t hear or see the survivor – a traumatized Estonian man in his fifties – we could feel his misery seeping through the door.

Another terrible moment. At one point, while I was milling around the hospital, I took the elevator and pressed the wrong button. The door opened onto a large, dimly lit space. A nurse – or someone – emerged from the crepuscular light, as in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“You’re in the morgue.” I could tell that she had been busy.

From Chapter 7, Somewhere near Uto: the Estonia tragedy


MY MEETING with Jorma Ollila did not disappoint.

The courtly, buttoned-down, mild-mannered man with tortoise shell glasses who greeted me after being ushered into Nokia’s downtown executive offices hardly looked or sounded like the corporate demolition man I had heard so much about; however, when it comes to Finns, first appearances can be deceiving.

It became clear the moment he began his presentation that Ollila was just as driven in as his departed mentor, Kari Kairamo. Like the still legendary Kairamo, Ollila was also a tank commander, but this general knew exactly where he was going. I did my best not to play the part, as he began his talk, starting with a freeze-dried version of Nokia’s storied history.

Although much if not most of this part of his presentation was already familiar to me from my reading, I was impressed, perhaps even a little startled, by Ollila’s manifest passion for his company. It isn’t often that you hear a Finnish business executive become emotional about his Oy (or about anything else for that matter), but the triple degree (physics, engineering, business) corporate captain had no qualms about professing his love for Nokia and its glorious history in paper, televisions, personal computers, electronics, mobiles, galoshes and all.

I could almost envision the ghosts of Fredrik Idestam and Leo Mechelin smiling down on us as Ollila spoke eloquently about the highpoints of Nokia’s one-hundred-and-thirty-year history, from the days when the original Nokia supplied much of Finland’s paper needs through the 1920s and 1930s when the Finnish Cable Works laid the foundation of the young nation’s telephone and telegraph system; through the perilous but soul-stirring days of the Winter War and the Continuation War, when Nokia developed the M61 gas mask and  other equipment for the Finnish Army; through the difficult postwar days when the firm helped the country rebuild and recover from four years of war – and retool and modernize its infrastructure; through the 1960s and 1970s, when, under Bjorn Westerlund and the late Kari Kairamo, his former boss, Nokia expanded into electronics.

Clearly, Nokia was not just another successful Finnish company to Ollila: Nokia was Finland. I could almost hear “Finlandia” playing in the background as the new steward of Finland’s corporate flagship came to the end of his prelude.

The prelude, moving as it was, however, was somewhat disingenuous, and Ollila knew it. Indeed, he had already moved to sell some of the same storied divisions of the “old” Nokia whose praises he had just sung, as he continued the streamlining process begun by his predecessor, Vuorilehto. It was not an easy process for him, he said. After all, the paper and rubber goods were so much of what Nokia had been about since the 19th century. Still, he implied, “Grandpa” Idestam and “Grandpa” Mechelin would have approved. The company was now facing a historically fast-changing market. Either it adapted, or it would die, and the best way it would adapt, he explained, was by putting its full weight behind the mobile division. (Ollila had yet to sell off Nokia’s television division at this point.) The body of the company may be changing, but the conquering, entrepreneurial spirit of Idestam, Mechelin, Westerlund and Kairamo lived on.

There was no music for this part.

Now came the main movement of Ollila’s presentation, the part about the mobile and the future of telecommunications, as well as the future of Nokia. Cue kettle drums.

Then Ollila started using a lot of words and acronyms I wasn’t entirely clear about, like analog and digital and 3rd Generation and GPRS and GSM and so forth. But that didn’t matter. Ollila’s message was clear. What it boiled down to was that the cell phone represented the future of both personal and business communications, and that, because of Nokia’s head start in the field, as well as “our strategic decision” to focus on the mobile, Nokia would in the not too distant future be the world’s leader in mobile manufacture.

“The handset market is entering a new growth period spurred by the arrival of an increasing number of mass volume products with color and multimedia messaging capability, all enriching the customer experience,” he said (or words to that effect). He also talked about “thinking globally, but acting locally.”

There was some technical boilerplate, but not much. What was clear was that Ollila had a vision, not just for Nokia, but for mankind, a vision that was based on the mobile, a vision of super-connectivity, with the mobile and the Internet, or the World Wide Web, coming together.

Now Ollila turned positively cheery, as he painted in his vision of a giant, telecommunicative latticework enveloping civilization. In a few years he saw a world in which, with the aid of the next generation of telephony (Nokia telephony, of course), one would be able to use the cell phone to do everything from calling to sending “SMS messages” (whatever that was).

“You’ll even be able to send a fax to your car,” he said, his eyes glinting.

Ollila had a name for his vision, or rather a slogan.

“We call it connecting people.”

I don’t want to make too much light of it. I had a strong sense that Ollila knew what he was talking about. One knows when one is in the company of a visionary, and there was no question that Jorma Ollila was a visionary.

I also had a strong hunch that both Ollila’s mobile-centric strategy for Nokia would prove successful and his correlative vision for a super-connected world community would come to be. Ollila was finished now. I had a philosophical question: When this brave new world comes true, I asked, and we all have cell phones, and we can pay bills from our phone, and we can talk to anyone we want at any time of the day and we can send faxes to our car and so on, how will our lives really be better?

“We haven’t really thought about that,” he said.

“Right.”

From Chapter 10, Connecting people—and not: or, Nokia and anti-Nokia


AMEN! In return for my services to Aland, so to speak, in January 2017, I was awarded an artist’s residency at the Aland Museum, where I spent several weeks working on Citizen Kekkonen, my forthcoming biography of Urho Kekkonen, and third of my trilogy of works on Suomi, while communing with the stuffed seals and other deceased flora and fauna on display at that wonderful, bifurcated museum of Alandic history and art, where my friend Graham Robins, a brilliant and creative Scotsman who found his way to Mariehamn twenty years ago—and is still (thankfully) there—, is curator. A special honor indeed!

Later that memorable year my works for Finland were also recognized when, to my delight and surprise I was made a knight of the Order of the Lion, Finland’s highest award for foreigners. I must confess that a tear or two crossed my cheek when I received the letter from Kirsti Kauppi, the Finnish ambassador to Washington, confirming the honor. On October 12th, 2017 I received the insignia for the knighthood at a special ceremony at the Finnish embassy. A day to remember indeed.

Several months later, in February, 2018 I also was honored with a meeting with newly re-elected President Sauli Niinisto, who also granted me an exclusive interview for my web site, which is excerpted below:

“OF ALL the Western leaders, Sauli Niinisto of Finland enjoys the best relationship with Vladimir Putin. The reason is simple, he explained in a surprisingly frank, and wide-ranging interview. ‘We listen.’ ‘Of course,’ he added, ‘we don’t have much choice in the matter. After all we have the longest border with Russia of any country.’ Still, he said, he made a point of trying to understand Putin’s point of view in their discussions—something which he said most other Western leaders have not.

The effort seems to have paid off. Two years ago relations between the two neighbors, who share a 437 mile long border, were frosty. Moscow, the Finnish government charged, was deliberately trying to undermine Finland by infiltrating migrants over the Fenno-Russian border. Over flights of Finnish airspace by Russian aircraft were increasingly common.

Relations between the two countries arguably reached a low point in July, 2016, when, at a press conference with Niinisto during his first visit to Finland since the Ukraine crisis, the Russian leader appeared to threaten Finland if it joined NATO, as an increasingly vocal minority of Finns—not including Niinisto—was then pressing to do. ‘Do you think we will keep [things the way they are] with our troops 1500 kilometers away?’

Putin gestured belligerently, as Niinisto, standing next to him, grimaced. Relations have improved since then. Moscow has stopped sending migrants over the Finnish border. Over flights of Finnish airspace have tailed off. Clearly, a lot of the credit must go to Niinisto (as well as to his foreign minister, Soini).

Doubtless, Niinisto’s successful management of the relationship with Russia was a major factor in the recent election, which Niinisto won by a record 62% margin, obviating the necessity of a run off. After all, managing Finnish foreign policy is the most important part of the Finnish president’s job. And the most important part of that job is managing Finland’s relationship with the Neighbor to the East, as the Finns call Russia.

To be sure, Niinisto was in an expansive mood during this, his first sit down interview with a member of the foreign press since his re-election, and well he ought. At a time when the liberal democratic order is cracking, and populist and nativist forces are on the rise across the continent, Finland may well be the most stable country in Europe.

In contrast to neighboring Sweden, where support for the leading right-wing party, the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats is at an all-time high—nearly a quarter of the electorate, according to the latest polls—support for its Finnish counterpart, the Finns Party, is at an all time low, as reflected by the poor performance (6.9%) of its presidential contender, Laura Huhtasaari, and another Euroskeptic candidate.

In Finland, the center is holding. After a short recession, the economy is rebounding. Unemployment, though still relatively high at 8.5%, is falling. Perhaps the performance of its athletes at the recent Winter Olympics, where they only won six medals (compared to Norway’s astounding tally of 39 and Sweden’s 14) was a disappointment, but by any other measure, Finland continues to be in a good (if increasingly imperilled) space. The latest UN survey shows that Finns are the happiest people in the world. So why did Finns still have such sour faces, Niinisto asked in his New Year’s message, referring to Finns’ celebrated modesty.

‘We should take joy in their Finnishness,’ he said at the time. ‘Finns tend to be quite modest,’ Niinisto explained. ‘Now there are lot of studies indicating that we are the most stable country in the world,’ he said. ‘We are in the top ten in almost every measurable gradient.’ Nevertheless, he felt, Finns’ inherent modesty prevented them from enjoying their success. ‘So I meant to say that yes, we can be modest, but we should also be proud of our success.’

That didn’t mean that Finland was the promised land, at least quite yet. Asked about the immigration issue, Niinisto said he was proud of the way that Finns had met the challenge of absorbing the wave of 30,000 migrants who arrived in Finland in 2015 with comparatively little backlash. Nevertheless, that challenge is not over yet. ‘Now we have 10,000 people in the country who have been refused asylum.’

And some of them, he said—alluding to the 2017 Turku terrorist attack—could be potential terrorists. So, no this problem had not been solved—not by a long shot, renoted.

Niinisto also expressed concern about the large number of young people who were ‘dropping out’ of society altogether. ‘They don’t study, they don’t look for jobs. We’re talking about 60,000 people. That is the same amount of people as the number of babies born every year. We need them back.’

***

INEVITABLY our discussion returned to the subject of foreign policy, and Finland’s place in the shifting—increasingly tense—European-Russian cosmos.

I asked the president how he felt about a recent article in Reuters describing him as ‘a low level middleman between East and West.’

He laughed. ‘Well, we are part of the West, no doubt about that. We [Finns] certainly are not any kind of middleman—on any level. By dint of our geographical status and our democratic system we are part of the West. We are not in the middle of anything’.

He also rejected the reference to ‘active neutrality,’ as the Finns described their foreign policy during the Kekkonen era, when Urho Kekkonen, tried to play the role of middleman between Russia and the West.

‘We don’t use that word—neutral—anymore,’ he emphasized. ‘We are a member of EU. That’s the club we belong to. Non-aligned is the word we prefer these days.

However one characterized his role—or, more accurately, the role he would like to play, or play more of—was to be able to foster better understanding between Russia and the West. ‘They are our neighbors, so we have to have some contacts. After all, we do share this long border.’

What Niinisto would like to do, he said, was to ‘use this [Finland proximity to Russia] to improve understanding’ between the West and Russia.

‘That’s what I am trying to do. I am not always successful, but nevertheless, that is what needed.’ He also said—frankly—that the West could do a better job of listening to Russia.

Case in point: the night before, Vladimir Putin had made a saber-rattling presentation in which he spoke in bellicose terms about the arsenal of advanced nuclear weapons his country had developed. The speech was all over that day’s news.

Did Niinisto fear that the world was on the brink of a new arm’s race. ‘Yes, I think that’s possible,’ he said. But, he added, the most important thing that he took away from Putin’s speech was his—Putin’s—complaint that no one had listened to him.

‘I think the most important words were nobody listened to us. Now you listen. You know, Putin is a deep-souled Russian. The Russians felt in the 1990s that they were ignored, that no one listened to them. And a Russian soul,’ as he put it, ‘doesn’t like that feeling.’

Who exactly ignored Russia, I asked.

‘The West. That’s what [he] says. That is what [he] tells me. That is not necessarily my opinon, of course.’

Asked whether he was satisfied with Finland’s current relationship with Russia, the president responded in the affirmative: ‘Yes, it is balanced.’

Regarding Putin’s 2016 threat to Finland—and to him, it seemed at the time—if she joined NATO, the president responded, ‘Yes, he has said this many times. They [the Russians] say this very openly. That they don’t want to have NATO on their borders. At the same time they also say that it is up to Finland if we wish to take this step. And if we do, we have to face the consequences.’

***

AS someone who has been working on a biography of Urho Kekkonen for five years I couldn’t help but ask the president what he thought about his predecessor.

Niinisto demurred from judging Kekkonen, who, thirty years after his death, continues to be the most controversial figure in Finnish history.

‘First I never met Kekkonen,’ he pointed out. ‘I remember him very well—although I never actually met him. The circumstances of course during his [four term] presidency were very different of course.’ That made it difficult for him to judge him.

‘So the truth about him—I don’t know.’

‘However,’ he allowed,’ Kekkonen clearly served too many terms’ He also seemed to have fallen in love with power. ‘He became dictatorial.’

‘It’s human,’ Niinisto continued. ‘You have power for too long a time...’

As far as Finlandization was concerned, the president had an interesting anecdote to share about that murky time by way of illustrating how strange it was. ‘When they translated Orwell’s 1984 in 1950 [when Niinisto was three] it was partly censored in Finland, because there were some references to the Soviet Union.

‘What a paradox,’ he laughed. ‘Here you had a book about censorship—and it had to be censored!’

That said, I replied, and notwithstanding the evils of Finlandization, and Kekkonen’s numerous faults—which of course I was quite familiar with, both as someone who had visited Finland during that time, and was now writing about in depth—I ventured the opinion that ‘in his own way he [K. Kkonen] was a great man.’

‘Oh undoubtedly,’ Niinisto replied instantly.

I confess that when I exited the presidential mansion and walked out into the bright sunlight of that memorable day in late February, 2018 I had the same feeling about its current occupant”.

From Chapter 12, Back on the Beat (2014-2018)