At the University of Helsinki, research on the Cold War has been enriched in the last few years by new research agendas and approaches. The study of the Cold War is one of the key areas of research in the Aleksanteri Institute and at the Department of Social Science History. The project Competition in Socialism identifies with the paths represented in these departments and follows the footsteps of prof. Seppo Hentilä’s earlier project, “Détente, Finland and European Security” (funded by the Academy of Finland 2002-2005) and Dr. Sari Autio-Sarasmo’s Academy project, “Knowledge through the Iron Curtain” (2006-2009), which is coming to an end.

Where Hentilä’s team focused on the role of small states, Autio-Sarasmo’s group underlined the significance of interactions between East and West. The new interpretations that those studies provided helped to broaden our understanding of the Cold War by stressing interaction and the flow of ideas across the Iron Curtain instead of merely juxtaposing the Eastern and Western Blocs.

Our project opens another new direction to the existing scholarship by combining the above mentioned angles of small actors and interaction but adding the new aspect of the competitive features of state socialism. In the project will be able to contribute with a new and significant research line to the above mentioned and already realised high level of scholarship that displayed the capacity to turn the University of Helsinki into one of the leading centres of new Cold War research in Europe.


The idea of competition was a difficult subject in state-socialism. It was problematic from the point of view of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The system promised material security for the people on an egalitarian basis. This contained the right of citizens to work, to free education and healthcare, to housing and to quality leisure time and to proper care for the elderly. In theory, the development of socialism and its utmost goal, communism, was based on higher human values and noble social principles. Competing as the driving force of development was associated with capitalism and was therefore rejected. In practice, however, competition existed in socialist societies from the very beginning even if it was explained as part of a completely different ideological frame. Lenin had understood after the Revolution that people needed a motivation for work in the absence of the motivating means of profit or a rise in salary.

Thus, competition was integrated into socialist ideology as an important incentive for increasing production. This state-promoted form of competition was used to manipulate people to expand their personal capacities for the sake of building the ideal communist society. One of the best examples of this is the Stakhanovite movement, which forced workers to compete with one other as a way of increasing production. In this sense, the negative meanings invested in capitalist competition (капиталистическая конкуренция) was counterbalanced by the positive implication of an ideologically correct and unselfish socialist form of competition (социолистическое соревнавание).

After the Second World War there was, however, a significant change in the role of competition in socialist societies. The Cold War induced a new situation where competition became the key notion in the bipolar confrontation. The constant sense of insecurity and the drive for ideological hegemony led to an East-West rivalry, most notably in the spheres of ideology and armaments.

In addition to the above mentioned two forms, the third aspect and the most hidden form of competition was the challenge that the so-called ‘second society’ presented the official, or first, society. According to Elemér Hankiss, under the only officially legitimate social sphere, that which was state-controlled and hierarchically organised, there appeared a parallel society, formulated from below as an independent social condition. Some forms of the second society, particularly the second economy, were accepted because they supplemented the official economy in certain vital sectors, and were therefore advantageous for the state. Most of the second society, however, was either ignored or prohibited. This coexistence of official and unofficial spheres created pressures for the political elite to answer the challenges of the second society. The immanent competition of the situation could not, however, be officially admitted.