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Urho Kaleva Kekkonen (1900-1986)


Central figures in the Finnish political scene from the 1930s, prime minister (1950-3, 1954-6) and President of Finland from 1956 to 1982. Kekkonen was also a prolific columnist, whose hidden Machiavellian opinions influenced decades public discussion and political maneuvering. As a member of parliament, he represented the Agrarian Party (Maalaisliitto) - a natural political home for Kekkonen due to his rural background.

"Kirjailijana en itseäni pidä. Sitä suuremmalla syyllä, koska en ole koskaan kirjoittanut yhtään ainoata runoa." (I don't consider myself a writer. Especially because I haven't even written a single poem. -  Vastavirtaan, 1983)

Urho Kekkonen was born in Pielavesi. His father, Juho Kekkonen, was originally a farm-hand but later gained the position of a forestry manager. Kekkonen's mother, Emilia Pylvänäinen was a farm-owner's daughter.  To illustrate Kekkonen's humble beginnings, a myth was created that there was no chimney in his birth place in Lepikon torppa, a small farmhouse.  

Undisciplined at school, Kekkonen was once punished for pissing in a wastebasket. Under the influence of Jack London, Jules Verne, and Mark Twain, he composed short stories, planning a career as a writer. He also finished some plays and participated - without much success - with a short story in a writing competition arranged by the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti. He changed then from fiction to sport and journalism. During the Finnish Civil War (1917-18), Kekkonen worked a war correspondent, reporting the events from the side of the White troops and took part in fighting in Eastern Finland. He also witnessed the execution of six Red Army prisoners as a commander of an execution patrol squad. After the war, he moved to Helsinki, where studied law at Helsinki University, and worked at the Ministry of Agriculture before entering parliament. In 1936 he completed his doctoral dissertation.

Kekkonen's career as a journalist started in newspaper Kajaanin Lehti (1919-20). In the 1920s he was a columnist on magazine Suomen Heimo and as the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper Ylioppilaslehti (1927-1928). From 1924 he was active in the Academic Karelia Society, but also created important social and political connections through his career in The Finnish Sports Organization and the Finnish Olympic Committee. As an athlete Kekkonen had won high-jump championship in 1924.

In 1924 Kekkonen visited Germany and witnessed Hitler's rise to power. Next year he joined the Agrarian Party and published a pamphlet entitled Demokratian itsepuolustus, in which he warned of the threat from the extreme Right. However, Communism was considered more dangerous and the Communist Party was banned in Finland. In the mid-1920s,  Kekkonen was employed as an interrogator by Etsivä keskuspoliisi (the Central Detective Police). In his job he was as cunning and ruthless as he would later be as a politician.

In 1936 Kekkonen became a member of the parliament and the second Minister of the Interior. During the period of the Second World War Kekkonen served as the director of the Karelian evacuees welfare center (1940-1943) and then as the ministry's commissioner for coordination from 1943 to 1945. In 1942 he began writing on political issues under the name of Pekka Peitsi ('Peter Pikestaff') for the weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti. His other pseudonyms on were Olli Tampio, Veljenpoika and Liimatainen. In Ilmari Turja´s magazine Uusi Kuvalehti Kekkonen published columns under the name Veljenpoika (1952-54) while working as Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

After the war Kekkonen started to create actively good relationships to the Soviet Union, based on mutual understanding and commercial relationships. He lost in 1950 the presidential election to Juho Kusti Paasikivi. In 1954 Kekkonen published his topical pamphlet Onko maallamme malttia vaurastua ('Does our country have the patience to get rich?'), in which he presented his ideas on economic policy. In 1956 Kekkonen was elected President - he won his rival by two votes. With the help of the so-called Note Crisis, he was re-elected for a second term. At the peak of his power, his term in office was extended by the 1973 emergency law.  Kekkonen remained in power until illness (arteriosclerosis) finally forced his retirement in 1981. The government decided to allow him to continue living in the president's residence Tamminiemi.

"Minulle eletty aika ei ole antanut sitä tyyntä viisautta menneeseen nähden, joka on syrjästäkatsojan ja jälkipolven etuoikeus. Sen on antanut vain kokemuksen siitä miten vähän ratkaisuja tehtäessä niiden seurauksista on tiedettävissä, ja rohkeuden tehdä niitä." (from Vastavirtaan)

Although Kekkonen was very productive writer, and he kept a diary in which he recorded his thoughts, he never finished his memoirs. The first volume, Vuosisatani I (1981) was actually written by the poet, novelist and dramatist Paavo Haavikko who has scrutinized in his many works power and leading politicians in harsh light. "Demokratia itse voi suorastaan synnyttää ja kehittää vaikeita valtiollisia epäkohtia. Sellaisissa oloissa demokratian puoltajien on oltava valmiit juuri kansanvallan säilyttämiseksi tarpeen tullen luopumaan jostakin demokratialle vähemmän, tai ehkä enemmänki, oleellisesta, voidakseen pelastaa sen, minkä turvin kansanvalta voi sitä vastaan kohonneen myrskyn ajan säilyä ja sitten olosuhteitten rauhoituttua puhdistuneena ja selkeentyneenä taas kehittyä demokratian sisäistä olemusta enemmän vastaaviin muotoihin." (Kekkonen in 1933, from Vuosisatan I, 1981) The most comprehensive biography of Urho Kekkonen was written by Juhani Suomi. Kekkonen's life work and his exercise of power has been under re-evaluation especially from the 1990s. This was because the president, as the director of foreign policy, used his influence also in domestic affairs through his personal network of friends and other acquaintances. He also did not hesitate to dissolve parliament when he saw it necessary. Often he expressed his opinions in personal letters, more or less poignantly. A selection of them, Kirjeitä myllystäni  I-II, was published  in 1976.

The highlight of Kekkonen's career was the Conference on Security and Cooperation (CSCE) in 1975. After resignation in 1981 Kekkonen remained at his Tamminiemi residence until his death in 1986. The cause of his death was a "circulatory disorder in the brain." In Tamminiemi Kekkonen kept always a pen and a notebook near his hand; especially before his resignation, writing was for him also a way to remember things. At the bedroom table he had a book by Anatole France, The Opinions of Mr. Jerome Coignard (translated into Finnish by Eino Leino), which he had bought in 1926. Like President Paasikivi, his predecessor, he had a copy of Machiavelli's classic work of politics, The Prince. His favorite novel was Cervantes's Don Quixote - its central theme, the eternal battle between idealism and realism, was one of the undercurrents of his own political career. Other writers in Kekkonen's large bookshelves included Mika Waltari, whom he admired greatly, Väinö Linna, Kalle Päätalo, Maiju Lassila, Paavo Rintala, Viljo, Kojo, Ilmari Kianto. Tamminiemi was turned into the Urho Kekkonen Home Museum. On the same year that President Kekkonen died, Jörn Donner published Presidenten (1986), his roman à clef, in which the republic's long-time leader is seen through the eyes of his mistress. A wise and sensitive Kekkonen made a cameo appearance in Christer Kihlman's novel Dyre prins (1975). His character has inspired a number of other writers, too, among them Jari Tervo, whose Myyrä (2004, Mole) is actually a thriller about espionage, Finland and her neighbor the Soviet Union, "the largest concentration camp in the world." Tervo portrays Kekkonen at the same time as a mythical historical figure and a cynical, masterful political player. "The silence of the President is seen by political scientist as wisdom," Tervo said in Helsingin Sanomat, "even though it was not much different from the life of the baker of Treblinka."

Urho Kekkonen was married from 1926 to author Sylvi (Uino) Kekkonen (1900-1974). His contacts with writer's, artists and the cultural élite were wide before the beginning of his presidency. Sylvi Kekkonen had worked for a short time for Friends of Finnish Handicraft and then at the secretariat of the security police, where she met Urho Kekkonen. Her first book, Kiteitä (1949), was a collection of aphorisms. It was followed by Kotikaivolla (1952), a collection of reminiscences. After giving up paid employment and becoming a writer, Sylvi Kekkonen created a small literary circle. Her book of memoir, Lankkuaidan suojassa, came out in 1968. Sylvi Kekkonen´s best know work, Amalia (1958), has been translated into Russian, Estonian, Czech, Romanian, Slovakian, Polish, Hungarian, German and Swedish. In spite of suffering rheumatoid arthritis, she performed her public duties. She also overlooked her husband's extramarital affairs. It is very possible that Urho Kekkonen had more than one mistresses, though only one wrote her memoirs.   

Kekkonen read widely novels, and often bought books after reading reviews from newspapers. During the 1960s the traditional values of the Church, the fatherland, and the army came under attack by the left-wing radicals, and one of the most crucial literary battles arose when writer Hannu Salama was prosecuted for blasphemy for his novel Juhannustanssit (Midsummer Dance). Salama lost the case and he was duly sentenced in 1968 to a term in prison, but he was pardoned by Kekkonen in the same year. President also sent Salama a postcard later - with the text "greetings from Himalayas". There was also limits for tolerance and pluralist cultural policy. In 1975 the writer and artist Carl-Gustaf Lilius argued that the editorials in Finnish papers preferred not to take critical line towards the Soviet Union and accused journalists of self-censorship. This view has been commonly accepted after Kekkonen's death although in the 1970s it did not find too much defenders among writers. The cartoonist Kari Suomalainen criticized Kekkonen and the government from the 1950s in the largest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat more cutting than any author. Pentti Saarikoski, a highly influential leftist poet, sent Kekkonen a poem, where he indirectly expressed his admiration - "räntäsateessa liput märkinä ystävyyden merkiksi". Like a number of other authors, he was fascinated by power. And Kekkonen often asked young radicals, artists, intellectuals to Tamminiemi. These meeting were called the "children's party".

Juhani Suomi's biography of Kekkonen: Myrrysmies: Urho Kekkonen 1936-1944 (1986); Vonkamies: Urho Kekkonen 1944-1950 (1988); Kuningastie: Urho Kekkonen 1950-56 (1990); Kriisien aika: Urho Kekkonen 1956-1962 (1992); Presidentti: Urho Kekkonen 1962-1968 (1994); Taistelu puolueettomuudesta: Urho Kekkonen 1968-1972 (1996); Liennytysten akanvirrassa: Urho Kekkonen 1972-1976 (1998); Umpeutuva latu (2000). For further reading: Urho Kekkonen by Kyösti Skyttä (1970); Päämies by Eino S. Repo (1985); Miten Kekkonen pääsi valtaan ja Suomi suomettui by Jukka Nevakivi (1996); Sylvi Kekkosen muotokuva by Marja-Liisa Vartio and Paavo Haavikko (2000); Sylvi Kekkosen elämä by Anne Mattson (2000); Urho Kekkonen - Suomen johtaja by Jukka Seppinen (2004); Urho Kekkonen ja Viro by Pekka Lilja ja Kulle Raig (2006); Kekkosen kanssa metsällä ja kalalla by Mauri Soikkanen (2006); Itäsuhteiden kolmiodraama: Kekkonen-Breznev-Kosygin 1960-1980 by Esa Seppänen (2007); Kekkografi och andra historiska spånor by Henrik Meinander (2008); Lohen sukua: Urho Kekkonen: poliitikko ja valtiomies by Juhani Suomi (2010) - See also: C.G. Mannerheim

Selected works:

  • Demokratian itsepuolustus, 1934
  • Löysin rantein, 1944 (as Pekka Peitsi)
  • Eheytynyt kansa taistelee elämästään, 1944 (as Pekka Peitsi)
  • Tässä sitä ollaan, 1944 (as Pekka Peitsi)
  • Onko maallamme malttia vaurastua, 1952
  • Puheita ja kirjoituksia I-IV, 1966-1972
  • Tuosta poikki  jukolauta 1968 (as Liimatainen)
  • Kirjeitä myllystäni I-II, 1976
  • Nimellä ja nimimerkillä I-II, 1977
  • Matkakuvia Kainuusta ja Lapista, 1977
  • Vuosisatani I, 1981 (written by Paavo Haavikko)
  • Vastavirtaan, 1983 (toim. Maarit Tyrkkö and Juhani Suomi)
  • Rakas häiskä, 1997 (correspondence of Urho Kekkonen and Sylvi Kekkonen 1924-45)
  • Sodan ja rauhan mies: Urho Kekkosen sotavuodet 1939-1955, 1998 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Nuori Urho. Urho Kekkosen Kajaaninvuodet 1911-1921, 1999 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Rillit pois ja riman yli, 1999 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Sanka-rillinen Känä, 2000 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Viidesti pääministeri, 2000 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Urho Kekkosen päiväkirjat I, 2001 (edited by Juhani Suomi)
  • Urho Kekkosen päiväkirjat II, 2002 (edited by Juhani Suomi)
  • Urho Kekkosen päiväkirjat III, 2003 (edited by Juhani Suomi)
  • Urho Kekkosen päiväkirjat IV, 2004 (edited by Juhani Suomi)
  • Minä olin diktaattori  ja muita kirjoituksia, 2009 (edited by Pekka Tuomikoski)

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