Last year, when I was in Helsinki, I made a great discovery:, probably the best informed people on Soviet affairs are the Finns, whose Russian-watching goes back almost two centuries, long before the Bolshevik coup of 1917.

I was in Finland talking with veteran analysts, official and unofficial, about the overpowering Soviet military presence that has Norway, Denmark, Finland, and especially Sweden deeply worried. In Finland, where they have learned to take a cultivatedly relaxed attitude about the Soviet Union, the focus of interest was Gorbachev’s reform program. One Finnish diplomat, with years of residence in the USSR, summed it up best: “All that Gorbachev is doing is trying to reform the system within the system. It simply can’t be done.”

That sentence said it all: the problems of the Soviet people won’t be solved by de-Stalinization or some new gimmick, like re-Trotskyization. The country’s socioeconomic problems can only be solved by de-Leninization—in other words, an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly of everything. The Finns are so expert about their superpower neighbor because their lessons have been learned the hard way. Finland was a czarist colony for more than a century. Its national hero, Marshal Mannerheim, who fought the Soviets to a standstill in the Winter War (1939-40), was, until Finland achieved its independence in 1917, a czarist general with an irrepressible Finnish nationalism.

Finland has a long land frontier with the USSR. She’s fought two bitter and unsuccessful wars against the USSR since 1939, and there was a civil war during and after the Bolshevik Revolution. After these defeats (and pyrrhic Soviet victories), Finnish territorial losses to the Soviet Union were huge. notably the loss of the Karelian Isthmus. There is, however, no irredentist movement in Finland. Yet as I talked to Finns I was reminded of the motto of the French military after the loss of Alsace- Lorraine to the Prussian Army in 1870: Toujours en penser, jamais en parler, or “Always think about it; never talk about it.”

Finland is a small country with big clout. Although its population is barely five million, it is ninth among the world’s wealthiest nations. It has achieved this by pulling itself up by its own bootstraps after the war and in spite of heavy reparations paid to the Soviet Union until 1952. In short, Finland reached the top with no foreign economic assistance and, as older Americans may recall, Finland paid its World War I war debts to the US right on time (with no complaints), while the other European debtors defaulted.

Unlike other noncommunist European countries, Finland benefited little from US largess. This may explain why Finnish public opinion, compared to other democratic countries, is low on the hate-America scale. President Reagan was warmly received when he rested up in Helsinki before going on to Moscow for his fourth meeting with Gorbachev. There were no “Yankee, go home” posters in Helsinki streets and no anti-Reagan demos.

Finland is a constitutional democracy with an efficient market economy. In 1985, it was seventh in per capita GNP, ahead of Japan, although its inflation rate is more than double that of Japan (dinner for two in a good hotel costs $75 or more). Like its Scandinavian neighbors, Finland cherishes its political freedoms. Officially, it is a bilingual country; Swedish is the second language. English, however, is the real second language. It is spoken by nearly everybody except, perhaps, the reindeer. Given a choice of foreign languages in high school, 95 percent of the students pick English, while only a handful choose Russian.

As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, Finland is officially neutral. The Russians know, however, that its heart belongs—unreservedly—to the Western democracies, especially the United States. Neutral as it may be, Finland worries quietly but openly (as do Norway and Sweden) about Soviet intentions in the far north at the Kola peninsula. There, in nuclear bombproof solid rock submarine pens are docked six ICBM-armed nuclear submarines. So much for glasnost.

There are two Communist parties in Finland, one of them pro-Moscow and the other “Euro-Communist,” but they have little importance even though in the March 1988 elections together they won almost 14 percent of the vote. They represent no significant intellectual force in a country where elite intellectual opinion is quite influential. Interestingly, while there have been serious KGB penetrations into the highest diplomatic and military circles in Norway and Sweden, Finland has been singularly free of such embarrassments.

What irritates the Finns as much as anything is the term “Finlandization,” popularized some years ago by the historian Walter Laqueur. The epithet purports to describe postwar Finnish-Soviet relations that incrementally led to the loss of Finland’s autonomy in foreign affairs, and that illustrate, by analogy, a danger posed to Western Europe by the Soviet Union.

Yet Finland is one country to which the term “Finlandization” does not apply—certainly not today in the aftermath of the fourth Reagan-Gorbachev summit. It is peculiar, say the Finns, that nobody ever talks about “Austrianization,” i.e., the neutralization of Austria by the 1955 Austrian State Treaty underwritten by the then-occupying powers, the US, the UK, and the Soviet Union.

What cannot be overlooked, however, is that Finland has a distasteful United Nations voting record as far as the US is concerned. On a number of key resolutions, such as Afghanistan, Finland has abstained, even though the Afghanistan resolution didn’t even dare cite the Soviet aggressor by name. Similarly, Finland abstained on a resolution condemning Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. A third Finnish abstention vote was on the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons.

Even worse, in November 1983 Finland voted to condemn the US rescue operation in Grenada, even though the operation had the support of the Caribbean states. On El Salvador, Finland voted against the US and. for a Soviet-backed resolution condemning human rights violations in that country. (Here I should point out that this anti-US resolution was supported by all our NATO allies, except for Britain, West Germany, and Turkey; they merely abstained.)

Still, despite these votes, I’ll take Finland anytime. In the case of Finland, even pro-Soviet UN votes are only half the story. The real story about Finland is that it has fought the Soviet Union in two wars for independence. It has resisted Soviet pressures in the Khrushchev-Brezhnev era for an alliance and still does, even though these days the international atmosphere has radically altered. It’s somewhat difficult for a small country to be anti-Soviet after the four Reagan-Gorbachev road shows.

In our own country we have just seen a presidential race in which, for the first time since the end of World War II, neither the Soviet Union nor Communist imperialism nor Eastern Europe’s captive nations were a-campaign issue for either major party or their presidential candidates. And in the House of Representatives sit more than two dozen men whose foreign policy votes consistently parallel, in every particular, the foreign policies of the Soviet Union. “Finlandization”?

On a previous trip from Moscow to Finland, my Aeroflot plane had to land at a Finnish military field, the main Helsinki airport being closed because of a labor dispute. As I disembarked on the tarmac, two camouflaged Finnish fighter jets came thundering down a runway in tandem. The roar was painful to my ears. As the planes leaped into the air, I asked a nearby Finnair guide why send up fighter jets (MIG’s bought by the Finns from.the Soviets) when passengers were still on the tarmac?

“Oh,” said the flight attendant airily, “we always scramble a few jets whenever an Aeroflot plane comes in, sort of to remind them we’re here.” Finland spends a lot of money on defense, although it doesn’t show in the figures, where it appears to be no more than two percent of GNP. According to the London Economist, the figure is deliberately understated to keep Big Brother quiet. Finland’s strategy calls for great investment in air and maritime forces. However, Finnish defense depends on its conscripted ground forces. Its security policy is well described by a recently published Foreign Ministry paper:

It is only with ground forces that such military readiness can be reached as will prevent the country from being rapidly subdued with airborne troops and special forces attacking . . . key points. By making use of the depth of Finnish territory, it is possible to inflict casualties and loss of time on the intruder and thus make it too costly for him to launch an attack in the first place.

The nice thing about Finland is that it speaks softly and, for a small country, it carries a very big stick—one that it used so devastatingly in the 1940 war.

I am not the only American to feel this way about Finland. On this trip a group of US editors and publishers were returning to the United States after a twelve-day tour of the Soviet Union there was little conversation in the Aeroflot passenger plane during the hop from Leningrad to Helsinki. As the Soviet plane rolled to a stop and the passengers began to descend, one of the editors said: “I never thought I’d ever repeat something by Martin Luther King enthusiastically. But I’m about to.”

As his feet touched the airport walkway, the editor rolled his eyes, raised his hands skyward, and shouted out: “Free at last. Oh, God A’mighty! free at last.” As several of his companions lugged their bags to Finnish customs and immigration, they took up the cry, “Free at last,” out there on the ramp. The Finnish attendants grinned knowingly. It wasn’t the first time they’d seen this little ceremony.