Ambling through the Museum of the History of the City of Helsinki I find myself in a small projection room where a film about the history of Helsinki during the last 70 years is shown. It is poignant and telling. There are shots from the late 1930’s of young, smiling, large-boned Finnish women in their long white skirts, chatting at the trolley stops or pushing their babies in prams, during the relentlessly pale Nordic summer of 1939. Then the Russian bombs start falling: the Winter War. The sound of air raid sirens; the fires crackling through dark walls and windows on December nights, their blaze more sinister in these black-and-white pictures than on color film. Then the stream of refugees from the lands the Russians have taken. Then the Second World War. More bombs. Hospital scenes. Then the slow rebuilding. All through this not one critical word about the Russians, which is remarkable as well as rare, since the history of small nations is ever so often suffused with the history of their (often legitimate) complaints.
The Finns are an admirable people (except when they are drunk, but that is a different story). They are stolid, courageous, civic-minded, patriotic rather than nationalistic. They have many reasons to hate Russians and to dwell on their injustices; yet they are not inclined to do anything of the sort. The Russians, including Stalin, knew that. In turn, what the Finns do not know about the Russians may not be worth knowing. That is why Finland, alone among the western neighbors of the Soviet Union, could remain independent even during the worst years of the Cold War. John Kennedy, who ought to have known better, asked a Finnish diplomat in 1961: “What puzzles us Americans, is why the Soviet Union has allowed Finland to retain her independence.” What is puzzling is Kennedy’s ignorance. Later in the 1960’s and 1970’s came American propaganda and fear about “Finlandization”—that is, the potential temptation of Western Europeans to insure their security and wellbeing by voluntarily restricting some of their independence vis-à-vis Russia, à la Finland. “Finlandization,” of course, was an idiotic term from the beginning. The Finns knew that independence, in the life of a state or of an individual, is inseparable from self-discipline, from a knowledge of one’s own limits. I often said to myself then: if only the United States itself were “Finlandized”—that is clean, reliable, homogeneous, modest, honest, well-educated, knowing its own limits of national well-being and security, uninterested in and disinclined to rhetorical, let alone political or military, ventures beyond these limits.
Some of the Soviet archives are now open. I talk with a Finnish scholar who shows me photostats of secret conferences with Stalin, with Stalin’s handwriting on the margin. Here is one of them. It is 1945; Stalin won the war; Finland is potentially under his thumb. He receives a pro-Soviet delegation in the Kremlin: Finnish communists, fellow-traveling intellectuals, etc.
Hertta Kuusinen, a leading Finnish communist: “You won the war. We admire Russians.” Stalin: “We did not do it alone. We have our faults. But, yes, Russians are stubborn and tough. So are you. Finland is a poor country, full of swamps and forests. But you built a state for yourselves, you fought for it. Finnish people: village people, not like Belgians. Belgians: cultured people. They gave up. Had Belgium consisted of Finns they would have fought.” Later, to a Finnish general in civvies: “Why don’t you wear your uniform? You have a great little army.”
This is the Stalin whom the most respected American scholars of the Soviet Union still describe as a “revolutionary fanatic.” Even Robert Tucker and Robert Conquest, who are not phonies. Conquest in his latest book describes Stalin as an extreme dogmatist; Marxism “was obviously well-tailored to Stalin’s own personality.” Marxism was obviously well-tailored not to the personality of Stalin but to the personalities of New York intellectuals, so many of them neoconservatives today.
Marshal Mannerheim knew better. He was perhaps one of the two or three most admirable leaders of imperiled nations in the 20th century (the other two were Churchill and De Gaulle). He was a Swedish baron, born in Finland, who served in the czar’s army, fought in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and 1905, and was sent after that to survey the still largely unmapped borders of the Russian Empire, a 2,000-mile journey, mostly on horseback, that took two years. In 1917 he ceased to pledge allegiance to the czar and led the Finns in defeating first their own communists and then the Red Soviet army. In 1918 a German prince was about to become king of an independent Finland. Mannerheim said no. The British will win the war, not the Germans, he foretold. Besides, we don’t need a monarch who, in the 20th century, is often not much more than a figurehead. What Finland needed was a strong president. Though Mannerheim did not fill the position, he did become constable of the nation, the Marshal of Finland. In 1939, at the age of 72, he advised the Finnish government to negotiate seriously with Stalin about Finland’s frontiers; he knew that Stalin wanted to regain the old frontiers of Peter the Great. He was overruled but then led the Finnish Army during the Winter War and during what became the Continuation War. When the crunch came in 1944, the Finns asked him to become their President. The Fenno-Swedish aristocrat made peace with the Georgian bandit Stalin. It was not the Socialists but the men of the Finnish Conservative Party—Mannerheim, Paasikivi, Kekkonen—whom Stalin and the Russians trusted. True conservatives, not neoconservatives, light-years away in character and intelligence from the latter bunch that is now in charge of much of our intellectual commerce.
Mannerheim never owned a house. He rented one on a flat hilltop in Helsinki, in which the Mannerheim museum is now. It has all the marks of the life of an old nobleman-soldier, including plenty of superb antlers, the skin of a tiger he shot in Nepal, two tall silver-chased horns from Tibet, his medals and guns (well, two of them are Purdeys), etc. These artifacts are not dominant or obtrusive. Impressive is his bedroom where he slept on a narrow army cot, requesting that the heat be kept at not higher than 60 degrees. Most of the house is comfortably furnished, with a North European upper-middle-class feel to it. In 1918 Mannheim divorced his difficult Russian wife and lived alone. The two Italian chandeliers he bought are not very good. The main boulevard of Helsinki is named after him and his statue is at the end of it, overlooking a soulless modern glass box of a building, not a prime place. The long living room has a view of the harbor. That view is my only luxury, Mannerheim said. That kind of restraint and modesty bonded this aristocrat to the democrats of Finland, like him defenders of Western civilization, the civilization that for the last 400 years has been a mix of aristocracy and democracy, not yet entirely leveled to the lowest common denominators of popularity, publicity, and populism.
Statues of Russian czars stand in the squares of Helsinki. There is a St. Petersburg look to the harbor quays, broad with cobblestones, well-proportioned, lined with low-lying neoclassical buildings of the Eastern European Empire style. It is a provincial capital, under gloomy grey skies in the winter, with bourgeois touches. I walk into a confiserie with stout Finnish ladies wearing large fur hats; then I sit in a brasserie where the food is not particularly good but where through the windows I see the street full of people walking around after eight on a weekday night, with the streetcar gliding by. I have the feeling that this will remain so 10, 20, 30 years from now. There is a tremendous bookshop, the Finns are great readers. “The Month in Helsinki” lists the various operas and concerts. In 1917 Finland achieved her independence. In the same year the Philadelphia Orchestra was organized. I fear that in 2017 the Philadelphia Orchestra will exist in name only: it will perform perhaps once a month at Wanamakers in a suburban mall, while in Helsinki the bookshop, the home-baked creamy cakes, the grandmotherly Saturday afternoons, and the Helsinki Philharmonic will still exist.
I fly to Tallinn, capital city of the reconstituted Republic of Estonia. At the airport the first signs of the budding, uneasy, as yet thin authority of a new sovereign state: the hastily assembled uniforms of the border guards, the girl at the visa checkpoint who cannot find the official stamp, the prevalence of signs still in Cyrillic Russian script, etc. Tallinn still has a Russian touch: one-story wooden houses, slightly askew, with their large double windows. In the lee of ugly, concrete, Soviet-style apartment houses is a yellow-painted Russian Orthodox Church, with its big bulbous pea-green onion dome; it is closed, suspicious, inscrutable. Men and women hurrying in the streets in their padded coats, Russian fur caps, and hats. Inside its buildings Tallinn has a Russian smell, with the ingredients of damp greatcoats, boiled cabbage, and cold grease.
I am lodged in Hotel Olümpia, the newest and biggest hotel in Tallinn. It was built for the Olympics in 1980, 26 stories high, all modern Soviet architecture. The usual Eastern European oddities: for some unknown reason there is an enormous empty refrigerator in my room, clanking periodically throughout the night. One must hunt for the stopper in the bathroom. As one travels east, toilet paper gets coarser and coarser. The elevators are gigantic, but they do not always work. Each may accommodate as many as thirty people, but once in a while the Russian-speaking help orders the crowded passengers aside to make way for steel carts filled with hundreds of dirty plates, exuding ever stronger smells of lukewarm, leftover grease. A hive of people at the bar; one cannot get the bartender’s attention except by reaching out to grab a glass, while others are pounding and shouting. I stand in my American overcoat, my fur-lined gloves in my right pocket. A middle-aged Russian woman stalks up to me, with a crumpled face, exclaiming in English: “Come! Sit with us!” Across that dim amphitheater her group, mustachioed Caucasians, grin and wave, beckoning to me to join them. Pointing at my watch, I excuse myself. Later, out in the street, I find that the woman has stolen my gloves. The hotel is full of Georgians and Armenians, as the young Estonian woman at the desk tells me; many of them are criminals; the hotel detectives cannot dislodge them; they make passkeys, empty their belongings from their suitcases, and move into other rooms they have cased beforehand.
Are these the remnants of the Soviet era, of the past? Yes and no. All around me are awful premonitions of a global future. There is one kind of sound and one frenzied gunfire of pictures that throbs, rules, pervades, dominates all the public places on every floor, screaming and yelling throughout this monstrous prison-box of the Hotel Olümpia, at the bar and coffee shop and in the corridors, elevators, halls, spilling out even from the small hanging telescreens over the receptionist’s desk: the black and white niggers of MTV. That deadening diabolical beat, their endless writhings and screamings—these are not the results of pain but the creations of a new kind of barbaric self-assertion. The Anglo- Saxon age is going, the prestige and power of the British are largely gone, the United States retreats across the globe, but English—well, a kind of English—is still and will remain for some time the lingua franca of the world (well, not much of a lingua and not very franca, but let that pass).
Darkness arrives in Tallinn in the early afternoon. Then the huge doors of the Hotel Olümpia are closed; the only entrance is watched by a young staff of hotel detectives, allowing some people to enter, jostling others away. Here, too, is the contrast: the new world of two kinds of people, those within and those without. Groups of young men and women, the girls with great coats over their incredible clothes, endeavor to penetrate the Olümpia. This is their instant future, the central emanations of steam-heat and loud sound and company and sex, the world of MTV, the promise not of bourgeois comforts but of a proletarian Dionysia. Outside the chilly cold, the dark city under a black starless sky, the sullen shut Orthodox church, the broken sidewalks, the older people huddled at the bus stops, going back to their hot pots in their dilapidated, creaky rooms. Very far from New York and yet not so different from much of it. Eighty years ago John Butler Yeats (the poet’s father) wrote that “the fiddles are tuning up all over America.” It was not ragtime that he meant; but, in any event, the run from ragtime to metal-rock was shorter than he, or anyone else, could have imagined. It is near global now. New classes. New Barbarians—and the future may be theirs. It is from their ranks that one day the new Alexanders and Caesars and the new feudal lords will rise, with beautiful young women around them, longing for their chains.
Next morning, snowstorm. Sea gulls and sea hawks fly across Tallinn, inland. The Estonian historians, the scholars of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, all very nice people, as we talk about all kinds of historic details, including the smallest episodes, ransack the dramatic story of the extinction of their independence by the Russians in 1940. Some of them are troubled by their present politics. It is not easier to be free than not to be free. A new form of government and state seems to be congealing everywhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps almost everywhere in the world: the one-party state of a new kind. Not the party-state of the Nazi or Fascist or Communist type: those were police-states as well as party-states. Now the tyranny of the state police will be limited (though far from gone). Here, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the pushy squeegee tyranny of the majority will prevail, as it indeed already prevails: a nationalist government party that will extend its rule over the entire state apparatus, including the television news (very important now). The minority will be allowed to grumble (within bounds), it will keep a newspaper or a magazine of its own, but its chances of becoming a majority will fade month by month, year by year; it will be about as effective as the American or the British or the French or the German liberal intelligentsia, a class gradually absorbed by the soft soapy sponges of the universities, irrelevant, on its way to extinction.
I spend most of the day walking in the old baronial, Hanscatic city of which Estonians are justly proud. Only; it was all built by Germans. It is appealing and beautiful, as the old city melts gradually into the wider streets. Above and between the towers the stony passages, the strong and solid Germanic houses, still showing a sharp hierarchical sense: for the German guildmasters and burgesses here in the east of Europe were something different from bürgerlich and bourgeois. Many Lutheran churches; in some of them the impressive lodges—more than boxes—of the German or Swedish noble families, hang above the church floor, across the pulpit, crystal-paned. I can imagine the women in their tremendous dark skirts and white ruffs, sitting there bored, stiff, and haughty. There was a small and constricted and humorless but strong little civilization here in the Middle Ages and later, even at a time when the words “civilization” and “civilized” did not exist. Please keep in mind that these very words and their meaning arose only three or four hundred years ago. “Civilized,” in English, appears in 1601: “to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism; to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine.” A century later (Oxford English Dictionary, 1704) appears the very word “civilization.” How long will it retain its meaning? There are already hordes of young people—here and in Detroit and in New York—to whom not only the meaning but the word has become incomprehensible.
At night I take the secretary of the Academy to dinner. There is hope yet: a private restaurant, with the waiters well-dressed. But it is in a cellar, and I fear that by the 21st century all good private restaurants may be in cellars. Three courses, for both of us, payable in rubles: the total bill comes to something like one dollar and twenty cents. They pronounce ruble in English as rubble. So it is. The wine I must pay in Finnmarks: that costs about twenty dollars, red rot gut served in brandy glasses. No matter.
Back in the West: Helsinki on an empty, chilly Sunday. I find a Catholic Church beyond a frozen city park, a brownstone building, with a northern touch (the very large Russian Orthodox Church, on another hill, retains something of a brownstone-Nordic touch, too). The church is cold, we sit and kneel in our overcoats, not too many of us, about half are serious Vietnamese women and their children. The Mass is in Latin, which is more than cold comfort.
In the afternoon the boat to Stockholm. I was looking forward to the ship, to the pleasure of a seaborne departure, which is the very best (alas, now so rare) of departures (after which comes, on a lower scale, the petty pleasure of finding one’s single compartment in a sleeping ear and then leaning out the window in an old railway station of a European city; being uneasily tied down to one’s cramped seat in an airplane is no departure at all). The rising throb of the boat is fine and so is the haunting, beautiful whirl of the dark icy water. Then comes the departure ritual: going for the first drink at the first bar. The pleasance is, however, compromised by the pounding of ubiquitous rock music and by the proliferation of cardboard signs on the counter: Tonight Our Special is an Elvis Cocktail; every Thursday in January is New Orleans Night; this month the program of the ship is pronounced to be a HULABALLOO. This in the middle of a Baltic winter, on a ship where there are few Americans.
The ship is enormous, laden with all kinds of technological conveniences, including television with CNN in the cabins (the global equivalent of USA Today, the ceaseless pictorial bilge paraded as information for illiterate functionaries). Large, coarse Scandinavian men and boys in the sauna, drinking beer. Four different restaurants in this ship, all of them acceptable, though quite expensive. Along one entire deck the inside of this tremendous ship has been gouged out for a shopping mall. The discos beat. I go to bed early and wake up early. The ship moves fast through low waves on an inky dark morning. Breakfast available only in the Scandinavian buffet manner, as almost everywhere now in the world. Droves of shuffling people, sleepy women, unshaven men, sidling uneasily with their plates, standing in line for the juice pitchers, speechless with a queasy mix of appetites and embarrassments. The waitresses come and go, whipping away the plates as soon as they can. The democratic feeding of travelers. It is all very middle-class. But that word has already lost its meaning: here, back in the West, there are virtually no proletarians and no upper classes left. Should one therefore distinguish the upper-middle from the lower-middle classes? None of that is important or significant any longer, which means not only that the Ralph Laurens are ridiculous but also that fine writers such as Evelyn Waugh will soon be read only as period pieces. Cold comfort again.
The old town of Stockholm is beautiful and inviting, too, because it is still lived in. There is a Stockholm of broad avenues, giant department stores, blaring electronics shops, office skyscrapers, glass-and-steel buildings of the 1960’s and 1970’s, endless traffic; but there is a sense of carefully protected interior lives, too, an instinctive rediscovery of older virtues that is more than an interior decorator’s fad or nostalgia.
Such impressions are reinforced when I talk with Swedish friends in their apartment after dinner. How different is this fin-de-siècle from the one a century ago! We talk about Knut Hamsun, whose fame burst upon the world 100 years ago. He, even more than Ibsen and Strindberg, opened the windows of the world in the Scandinavian direction, bringing in a fresh strong wind, about the same time the fame of the great Russian writers arrived in the West. But Hamsun had more to say to the West than had the Russians. Even second-raters such as Hemingway were ruffled by the Hamsunian wind. Hamsun hated everything about the bourgeois world, its crampedness, its stuffiness, its coziness, the interiority of its lives, its intellectual philistinism, its convenient liberal categories of thinking—all of these stiflingly prevalent in the Norwegian townlets of Hamsun’s time.
Next night, as I sail out of Stockholm, as the large ship wends its way among the outer islands, I see the serried lights of the social-democratic apartment houses on the low hills, here where the nightfall in winter means the slow brightening of lights in people’s windows. It is unlike the sharp exterior glitter of New York, of that “numb brilliant jittery city” (as Malcolm Lowry and Julien Green wrote nearly 50 years ago; they must have meant the traffic and the hustle, but now that jitteriness is all inside). Here a somewhat chilly coziness exists but still with some measure of an interior tradition. Cold comfort.