March 18, 2022

Echoes of Lenin in Finland

Echoes of Lenin in Finland
Downtown Tampere, Finland Images by the Author

A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, I was evacuated from Moscow. I’d been in Russia for four months as part of a fellowship for American, British, and German professionals, spending my time learning Russian, traveling the country, and getting to know locals. A few days after the invasion, we’d awoken to discover that our program had been suspended and that we were all flying to Istanbul—one of the few places that hadn’t shut its airspace to Russia—the next day. 

When I’d been asked where I wanted to go after Istanbul, my answer was immediate: Helsinki, Finland. I had a friend there and knew the city somewhat well, plus I’d been in Finland only a few months prior, right before I moved to Russia. It seemed like a safe and natural place for me to go. On the flight, I thought of an important Russian character who passed through Finland multiple times during his lifetime: Vladimir Lenin. It struck me that despite his major role in Russian and global history, some of Lenin’s most significant moments actually took place in Finland. It was in the Finnish city of Tampere that Lenin first met Josef Stalin in 1905, and it was through Finland that Lenin traveled after years in Europe when he decided to return to the Russian Empire in spring 1917. Finland is a crucial, though often overlooked, part of Russia’s history.

Russia’s unique relationship with Finland

Finland was part of the Russian Empire for a little over a hundred years, becoming a Grand Duchy of Russia in 1809 after a war with Sweden. Its Grand Duchy status meant that instead of being a direct province of the Russian Empire, Finland was essentially an autonomous region with its own Helsinki-based Senate that determined domestic (though not foreign) policy. Toward the end of the century, however, Russia tried to exert greater control over Finland, which encouraged rising nationalism in the Grand Duchy. In late 1917, Finland declared independence. The Bolshevik government—headed by Lenin—recognized its independence shortly thereafter.

One of the best resources I’ve found for these complicated relations and complex history is the Lenin Museum in Tampere, Finland. The museum was set up in the 1940s in the former workers’ hall that hosted Lenin and Stalin during their first encounter in 1905 to discuss fundraising for the Bolshevik movement. The two chose to meet there for a few reasons. First, given its status as a Grand Duchy, Finland was a safer spot to have the meeting than within the Russian Empire itself. Moreover, the city of Tampere was a known industrial center with a growing labor movement that supported communism (hence the workers’ hall). Though few at the time could have guessed what could come after the meeting, the Lenin Museum today calls itself the “birthplace of the Soviet Union” for hosting such a historic encounter. When it was set up, the museum’s rooms were filled with knick-knacks from Lenin’s life to serve as a tribute to the late leader. Given its glowing portrayal of Lenin, Cold War-era Finland used it to foster friendly ties with the Soviet Union. Indeed, the museum counts notable Soviet figures like Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and astronaut Yuri Gagarin among its visitors.  

The Lenin Museum I visited in October 2021 was quite different. Instead of exhibits that spoke of Lenin’s greatness, I read about Finland’s independence, learned about Soviet prison camps and saw realistic relics of daily life in the Soviet Union that sought not to glorify the past but rather accurately portray it. The museum also included an in-depth analysis of Finland’s relations with its large neighbor, starting with Finland’s independence and moving through to the fall of the Soviet Union. I found it fascinating that Finland sought to maintain good relations with both the West and East during the Cold War by remaining politically neutral but maintaining trade with both partners. Trade with the Soviet Union was crucial to Finland’s economy, as when the USSR collapsed in 1991, so, too, did Finnish GDP, contracting by over 10 percent from 1990-1993.

Lenin and Stalin in a museum
Lenin and Stalin in the Tampere museum.

Russia and Finland Today

After evacuating from Moscow and reaching Helsinki in early 2022, I can't help but think of Russo-Finnish relations today and existing parallels with Lenin’s time. War had started in Europe. Economic turmoil was beginning in Russia, and political changes were following, much like the draconian laws in 2022 to clamp down on internal dissent.

Both then and now, Russo-Finnish ties were at an important inflection point: back then, Finland had been itching for independence as “Russification” efforts intensified. A poll taken in late February showed a majority of Finns supported joining NATO for the first time in the country’s history, up from 30% just a few months prior. A more recent poll from early March showed that 48% supported NATO membership, still remarkably high compared to historical levels.

Apart from discussing NATO membership, Finland is defying Russia by taking action to support Ukraine. At the national level, Finland has pledged military and humanitarian equipment to Ukraine, in addition to over 10 million Euros of extra funding. In addition, a number of Finnish cities, including Tampere and Helsinki, have pledged money to support Ukraine, too, while locals are actively organizing with groups such as Operation Hope to support Ukrainians in need. Relations between Russia and Ukraine will no doubt continue to morph as the crisis in Ukraine continues.

I thought about how all this would play out during my first day in Helsinki. It was beautiful: the sun was shining intensely, and spring was clearly on its way. But I knew the world was far from normal. I was full of questions. What would happen in Ukraine, where strikes had already been going on for a week? Would Finland join NATO? How would Russia respond? One thing I knew, however, was that we’d entered into another important chapter in Finno-Russian relations—the kind that the Lenin Museum in Tampere may talk about one day.

Helsinki sunrise
A sunrise near Helsinki.


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