JARI RISTOLA, with the car radio blaring Casey Casen and the Top 40, is talking about his newfound love: American football. In good English, he explains that his new cable television network shows National Football League games. The conversation makes his sister, Anu, sitting beside him, turn serious. ``We're not Finlandized,'' she says. ``We're Americanized.''
How times have changed. After World War II, Westerners invented the epithet ``Finlandization'' to describe a state of suspended sovereignty, a country facing inevitable demise through blackmail and subtle subversion by its large, powerful neighbor, the Soviet Union.
The 5 million Finns were forced to cede 11 percent of their territory to Moscow, accept heavy war reparations, and sign a compromising treaty of friendship and mutual assistance.
Today, Finland seems secure and prosperous - proud of its Western democracy and its Western life style. Externally, little tension exists with Moscow. Internally, Finland has transformed itself from a backward, rural country dependent on a few old paper mills into one of the world's healthiest industrial economies, with a per capita income higher than that in Britain or France.
``We are enjoying a new phenomenon, blissful boredom,'' says Max Jacobson, a Finnish diplomat. Finns ``no longer feel they are living in the tragic situation of a lonely hero stoically facing powerful adversaries.''
How did Finland manage the incredible feat of maintaining democracy and creating prosperity under the shadow of the Soviet Union? How, in a superpower world, has it proved that a small country can remain an autonomous actor and not merely a pawn?
Mr. Jacobson and other observers in Helsinki point to the fundamental differences between Finland and East European states.
Alone among small countries involved in World War II, Finland was never occupied. Despite two massive Soviet offensives, Finnish resistance was strong enough to make the price of conquest prohibitive. The country's democratic system never stopped functioning. Its people remained united, and they successfully resettled the 400,000 Finns who lost their homes and land under the peace treaty signed with Moscow.
From this starting point, Finland decided, out of its own interests, to construct good relations with the Soviet Union. The policy succeeded. While the Soviets once may have had designs to take over the country, Soviet leaders now praise their relations with Finland as a model for cooperation between communist and capitalist countries.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet noninterference is even more pronounced. The Soviets have cooled ties with Finnish communists, and after last spring's elections they made no angry noises about the appointment of conservative Harri Holkeri as prime minister.
``When the Soviet leaders today speak of Finland as a `good neighbor,' they really mean it,'' says diplomat Jacobson.
``Do they have a better one?'' Looking at Eastern Europe, which he describes as ``a zone of vulnerability,'' Jacobson answers, ``No.''
Within Finland, the national consensus supports cooperation with the Soviet Union. If anything, says one Finnish diplomat, Mr. Holkeri's conservative new government is more eager than the previous socialist-led coalition ``to prove its fidelity'' both to the letter and spirit of the Soviet friendship treaty.
``We want no change with the Soviet Union,'' says Perti Salolainen, the conservative foreign trade minister. ``Relations have been friendly, and we will guard this friendship.''
Fidelity and friendship mean not offending Moscow. Finland is not a member of the Soviet alliance, but assumes the obligation under the cooperation treaty to consult with Moscow in case of any threat of attack. When Western nations lambaste the Soviets, Finland remains quiet. Finland, for example, did not vote against the invasion of Afghanistan in the United Nations; it abstained.
``The Finns pay a lot of attention to what the Soviets say,'' a Western diplomat says. ``That doesn't mean the Finns are dependent on the Soviets. It means they are conscious of living next to a large, testy neighbor.''
As the Finns see it, those in the West who complain about Finland's caution in defending Western ideals fail to see that by doing so Finns defend those very ideals inside Finland. Why, they ask, do Westerners salute Romania, with its Stalinist system, and criticize Finland, with its prosperous free democracy?
President Mauno Koivisto's retort to Westerners who ask more of Finland is simple. ``If you want drama,'' he said recently, ``go to the theater.''
Within their self-imposed confines, Finns are beginning to shed their shyness and raise their voice. In Vienna, under the auspices of the 1975 Helsinki treaty, Finns are taking the lead in pursuing East-West disarmament. In Geneva, a Finn is presiding over East-West negotiations on the environment.
``Ten years ago, a Finn would never have opened his mouth at an international conference,'' says B.O. Johansson, director of the Confederation of Finnish Industry. ``Now we play a bigger role than our size would indicate.''
Newspaper editors no longer practice a sort of self-censorship, either.
``In the past when the Russians did bad work on a joint contract, we wouldn't have printed anything,'' says Hannu Olkinuora, editor in chief of the Helsinki daily Kauppalehti. ``Today, there would be articles. We're the third generation after the war, and we write about everything,'' he says.
This new confidence is also visible toward Finland's other neighbor, Sweden. Finns readily admit that they long felt inferior to the sophisticated Swedes. During the 1960s, some 200,000 Finns emigrated in search of jobs across the Gulf of Bothnia. Now, many are returning.
``Our companies are not just buying in Sweden,'' adds Arto Ojala, director of the Finnish Employers' Confederation, ``they are moving into the rest of Western Europe, even to North America.''
That direction is no accident. Both culturally and economically, Finns look West, not East. In commercial terms, the Soviet Union accounts for less than one-fifth of all trade; the vast majority goes to Western Europe or the United States.
Helsinki may only be a few miles from the Soviet border, but it is one of the most Americanized cities in Europe. McDonald's does a booming business, clothing stores are packed with Levi's, and the cinemas show the newest American films in English.
``Americans come here thinking it will be some sort of East European country and they are shocked,'' says the Western diplomat. ``They look around and they can't find one piece of Eastern influence.''
Take Jari and Anu. Their older brother, Jurki, once was tempted by communism; not them. Both speak English; neither, Russian. In all, some 86 percent of all Finnish students choose English as their first language. Only 0.4 percent choose Russian. Although Jari receives Moscow television, he says he never tunes in. He prefers the American shows and American sports - even when he can't understand them.
``That football game, can you explain the rules to me?'' he asks. ``It's very complicated.''