A Finnish success story in the shadow of the Soviet bear

Quickly now - what country has so many lakes that there's one for every eight people, covers more area than the United Kingdom or Italy, earns more per head than the Japanese or the British . . . yet contains fewer than 5 million people?

Here's a hint: It trades so energetically with a nearby superpower that only the much bigger West Germany manages to do better.

The answer is one of the best-kept secrets of the Western world. It is idyllic yet surprisingly active and often misunderstood Finland.

Too often Finland's taciturn, close-to-nature, sauna-loving 4.8 million people seem remote, on the distant edge of Scandinavia, semi-obscured by the huge shadow of the bear next door.

The Finns' foreign policy is often regarded by Westerners as subservient to the Soviets. The disparaging word for it is ''Finlandization.''

Finns are seen by outsiders as stolid individualists who spend most of the year skiing or consuming disconcerting amounts of alcohol in their long, cold winters and brief but beautiful summers.

Yet this relatively young Nordic outpost is much more than 60,000 lakes scattered over 130,115 square miles (the UK: 94,208) known abroad only for its major composer (Jean Sibelius), several designers (the Saarinen brothers in architecture, Alva Aalto in industrial design), and a compact, attractive capital city useful for East-West conferences such as the 1975 Helsinki conference on European security and human rights.

Finland is, in fact, unique.

Mainly Western (in ideas and economics), partly Eastern (in location, climate , and history), and with a dash of Byzantium thrown in, it is the only European border country of the Soviet Union to retain the independence it gained after World War I.

Not only that - it has turned its proximity to the Soviet Union into a two-way trading bonanza totaling $7 billion a year.

''Poland, the Baltic states, all have yielded independence,'' says a senior Foreign Office diplomat here. ''We are the only direct border neighbor in Europe with no basic problems with the Soviets at all. . . .''

Finland is also a paradox.

The price it pays to stay on even terms with the Soviets is a relationship carefully orchestrated to avoid strain or stress. On foreign affairs, Finns stay silent or take a line carefully designed not to bring down Soviet wrath.

Yet Finns as individuals appear to be staunchly anti-Soviet. In conversation after conversation with Finns over the last seven years, this reporter has yet to meet one (apart from members of the Finnish Communist Party) who has the slightest sympathy for the Soviet system.

''We have fought them on and off for 800 years,'' says a Helsinki filmmaker as he tries to sort out his feelings toward Moscow.

''Let younger Finns go and visit,'' said a middle-aged industrialist, waving toward the border just two hours away by car. ''I was born in Vyborg, and the Russians took it when I was just a boy. . . .''

It was in 1940, after the spectacular three-month Winter War in which white-clad Finnish ski troops won the world's admiration. Joseph Stalin took Vyborg, Finland's second city, to secure his border near Leningrad.

''They took away my toys,'' grumbled the industrialist - ''[and] the place where I was growing up. . . .''

He and many other Finns of his age say they remember only two words of Russian: ''Ruki verkh'' (''Hands up!'').

Finland firmly believes that it makes the best of a complex relationship. It sees its caution on foreign affairs as realism, not subservience.

''The fact is that there can be no drama in our relations,'' says a senior Finnish Foreign Ministry official.

''They cannot depend on the current state of detente, or lack of it, nor on personalities at the head of our two governments.''

When President Mauno Koivisto visited Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in Moscow June 6 to 10 to renew the 1948 Treaty of Friendship for 20 years, the significance was that Soviet-Finnish relations had emerged safely from the end of two long eras - Leonid Brezhnev's and Urho Kekkonen's.

Mr. Brezhnev passed on last November after almost two decades in power. Former Finnish President Kekkonen resigned for health reasons in 1982 after 26 years.

So striking is Finland's success in living at peace with an expansionist, unpredictable and potentially aggressive neighbor that United States writer Milton Viorst has just attempted to draw from its example principles which Israel and the Palestinians might use for possible peace. It's a comparison Finnish officials find flattering but not wholly relevant.

Quietly and without fuss, Finland also makes money from the Soviets. It exports manufactured items and imports raw materials.

''Once upon a time,'' says a Finnish diplomat with a grin, ''trade like that was called imperialism. . . .''

He paused. The subject was, after all extremely sensitive, as are most Finnish pronouncements about Moscow. ''Of course,'' he added, ''I'm joking. . . .''

Finland sells shoes, suits, dresses, and giant ice-breaking ships that can bash through ice up to 12 feet thick. It constructs whole industrial complexes ranging from iron mining and pelletmaking to railroad repair shops, food processing plants, lumber settlements, and - it hopes - part of a new harbor near the Estonian capital of Tallinn just four hours by ferry across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki.

Soviets also come in supervised tourist groups - 79,000 individuals between January and April this year. (This is out of a total of 427,000 tourists from all countries. Sweden led the list with 118,000. The US was fifth with 26,000.)

Yet the Soviet-Finnish trade agreement calls for balanced trade in rubles which cannot be used in the West, with cash on the barrelhead for each transaction.

Finland can only use its surplus rubles (now about 800,000 of them) to buy Soviet goods. So few Soviet exports are competitive that finding enough to buy is a constant challenge.

At the moment Helsinki's answer is to buy more and more Soviet oil (160,000 barrels a day, almost all the country's needs), natural gas (1 million cubic meters a year and 100 percent of need), and coal (800,000 tons a year).

This produces the ironic situation of private Finnish smiles when the Soviets recently lifted the price of its oil exports to Finland to $29 a barrel.

''Well, we're not exactly overjoyed at spending more for oil,'' says one senior trade official, ''but at least it sops up some of our surplus rubles. . . .''

Finland's lakes and forests look so serene that it's a shock to discover social problems here - one of which is alcoholism.

''Drink is the poor man's opera,'' a Finnish saying has it - and the Finnish language has about one thousand words to denote intoxication.

The Institute for Studies on Alcohol Policy says drinking habits are changing , with less emphasis on trying to find quick oblivion, Soviet-style, and more ''social drinking.''

Research is being stepped up. So far the institute has identified isolation and defiance of authority as main causes.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.