Helsinki and the Cold War – fact and fiction

Sari Autio-Sarasmo

Situated between the East and the West, Helsinki was a good training ground for spies of the Cold War era.

Hollywood films made during the Cold War often used Helsinki as a stand-in for Moscow or Leningrad, present-day Saint Petersburg. Western film crews had no access to the Soviet Union, so the Finnish capital would have to do as the next best thing.

All you had to do was stick a red star on top of the tower and voilà, the National Museum was instantly transformed into the Kremlin, the bastion of Cold War politics. During the dark winter season, Helsinki could easily provide authentic Soviet-type gloom without any staging required.

However, the truth was even stranger than fiction. “Helsinki was in fact a place of great significance in the Cold War,” says historian Sari Autio-Sarasmo from the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki.

Its geographic location, straddling east and west, made Helsinki a good training ground for spies in particular.  Spies arrived in Helsinki both from the Eastern and Western blocs. “Helsinki was nonetheless part of the West, but close enough to the East. This is why Helsinki was one of the hubs of espionage in the Cold War,” Autio–Sarasmo says.

The Soviet embassy was located in one of the prime locations of Helsinki, in a leafy district in Tehtaankatu, a street name that many Finns still associate with Cold War politics.  Tehtaankatu was the nerve centre through which Soviet intelligence was orchestrated.  The embassy building still bears witness to external memories of cold war: it is imposingly massive in the best Soviet tradition, and as the cherry on the cake the emblem on the facade still has a shining hammer and sickle.

The embassy also facilitated the relations between Finnish and Soviet politicians throughout the Cold War. Finnish politicians would have clandestine close links with the Soviet Embassy, a practice that was not talked about, but about which everyone knew.  “All leading Finnish politicians had a contact at the embassy. These contacts helped them to anticipate what to expect in terms of relations between the two countries. These contacts were a public secret,” Autio-Sarasmo says.

Neutral Finland had signed a treaty called the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union and had close relations with the East. In spite of the FCMA treaty, however, Finland also had strong trade links with the West.  While Finnish politicians were busy entertaining Soviet leaders, the business sector built ties with the West.

“Finland, who wanted to emphasise her neutrality, managed at times to manoeuvre quite superbly between the two superpowers,” says Autio-Sarasmo. “Finland has traditionally been thought to have kowtowed in front of the Soviet Union – hence the concept Finlandisation – but recent research has shown that, in fact, Finland was quite the tactical player in the Cold War.”

For example, the flagship brand of Finland today, the mobile phone giant Nokia, exported technologies to the Soviet Union during the high-tech embargo – with the blessing of the United States. Nokia told the US what it was exporting to the Soviet Union and in exchange Nokia obtained the components it needed from the US. In this way, the US remained in the know as to what kind of instruments the Soviet Union had at its disposal.
Trade with the Eastern bloc was decisive from the perspective of Finland’s development. “Without the trade with the Soviet Union, Finland would not have developed its industry and economy at the rate she did. It is quite likely, according to some analyses, that Nokia would have gone under in the 1980s were it not for the Soviet trade,” says Autio-Sarasmo, who specialises in the economic history of the Soviet Union.

In exchange for exporting innovation technologies, Finland acquired raw-materials and energy from the Soviet Union – and strangely enough, zinc buckets. Money, however, never exchanged hands, as Soviet trade was based on a clearing arrangement.

Personal relations were key in the trade, and many deals were closed in the private hospitality facilities of Helsinki-based businesses. Urho Kekkonen, who served as the President of Finland from 1956 until 1982, often met Soviet leaders in the log-built seaside sauna of his official residence in Helsinki.

According to Autio-Sarasmo, the culmination of the Cold War years both for Helsinki and President Kekkonen was the signing of the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975.  Finland Hall in Helsinki hosted a conference attended by heads of state both from the East and the West, including Leonid Brezhnev (already seriously ill) and President Gerald Ford from the United States.

The CSCE Final Act signatories numbered 35 countries, which was a staggering achievement in a world divided into blocs. The impact of CSCE was dubbed as “Helsinki spirit”, and it accelerated the process that eventually led to the end of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union stressed the importance of economic co-operation and as a compromise, accepted the articles on human rights, which she did not consider central to herself. “After CSCE, however, people in the Socialist bloc started to call for the respect of human rights, such as freedom of speech. This gradually eroded the system from within,” Autio-Sarasmo says.

Sari Autio-Sarasmo’s tips on the Helsinki of the Cold War era:

1. “The Russian Embassy – the nerve centre of Cold War in Helsinki – is a prime example of Stalinist classicism. Finland built the embassy building as part of the war reparations in 1952.” Russian Embassy » »

2 “Torni hotel, absolutely! This is where the Allied Control Commission resided after World War II, from 1944 until 1947. Most of the 160 members of the Commission were Soviet, but there were representatives from other victorious powers as well. The Commission was directed by the notorious Andre Zhdanov, who was feared by Finns and was known for his role in the occupation of Baltic countries. In addition, the view from the ladies toilet of the Ateljee Bar on top of the tower is worth seeing.” Ateljee Bar » »

3 “The National Museum of Finland has often played a Soviet edifice in American films, such as The Kremlin Letter (1977), Telefon (1977) and Gorky Park (1983). For Gorky Park, a red star was put up on top of the museum. The makers of Telefon also wanted to erect a plastic Lenin statue in front of the National Museum, but this is where Finns drew the line and refused.” National Museum of Finland » »

4. “Finlandia Hall is the most important Cold War site in Helsinki. Designed by Alvar Aalto, the conference building was the venue for the signing of the Final Acts of CSCE in 1975. According to an anecdote, the Soviet leader Leonid Breznev was so ill at the time of the CSCE that a fully-equipped hospital room was built especially for him in the building. A resuscitation team was on stand-by because Breznev had in fact collapsed before the conference. Finlandia Hall » »

5. “The Olympic Stadium is important because of the 1952 Olympics. They were the first Olympic games that the Soviet Union participated in, having joined the IOC a year earlier. The Soviet political elite had by then realised the potential of sports as a propaganda tool. Soviet athletes stayed in separate accommodation to other nationalities because, in Stalin’s era, all contact with foreigners was treated as being highly suspicious. Helsinki also had its first taste of a certain Western delicacy: Coca-Cola was first introduced to Finland at the Olympics.” The history of the Olympic Stadium » »

6. The “World Peace” statue in Hakaniemi is also an important sight for anyone interested in Soviet history. Moscow gave the statue as a gift to the City of Helsinki as late as 1990, and Finns didn’t really know how to say no. There were attempts to camouflage the statue by planting trees around it – although the symbolic statue is still a much better alternative than the Lenin statue that was originally planned in its place. Finnish university students covered the statue in tar and feathers in 1991 as a protest against the statue.”World Peace" Statue in Hakaniemi

Text: Suvi Turtiainen
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro



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