Off The Map: A Personal History of Finland


That is how the quixotic, widely misunderstood—and implicitly coercive—relationship that existed between Finland and the former U.S.S.R. for half a century, from the end of World War II, when Suomi made a separate peace with its former overlord and hereditary neighbor to the East, through the sudden (and for many Finns, traumatic) break-up of the latter in 1991 used to be called back in the good old bad Cold War days.

“Finlandization,” Western cynics termed the shadowy arrangement, which was understood to refer to a country on or near the Soviet periphery which was run by remote control from Moscow and which included such unfortunate codicils as Finland’s agreement to return any Soviet refugees who happened to make it across the heavily patrolled thousand mile border and fell into Finnish custody to Russian authorities.

The truth, as I saw, during my first eye-opening (hey, does the sun ever set around here?) action- packed (Soviet airliner hijacked! feelers from the CIA!) and romantic (stolen kisses from my interpreter at the Arctic Circle!) visit to Finland in 1977, when that nebulous “friendship” was at its apogee (or its perigee, depending on how you looked at it), fell somewhere in the shadowy middle.

Indeed, if ever there was a place in postwar Europe that could be called a twilight zone, it was Finland in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ah yes, where have you gone Urho Kekkonen, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you?

Ah yes, those were the days, my friends, when Helsinki had about three decent restaurants, Finns didn’t smile (or so it seemed), nor spoke English (or at least pretended not to), and the proud Finnish nation, still smarting from the loss of Karelia as a result of the three wars the Finns fought with the Soviets during World War II—including, most memorably, the 1939-40 Winter War–seemed ready and eager to go to war with the “Russkies” again, damn it all!


TO BE SURE, as many are well aware, I too have a rather unique relationship with Finland, one that has endured and thrived for over a third of a century, witness most recently the publication and Molotov cocktail-like success of Taistelu Suomesta—The Battle of Finland to you—my much-labored over history of the Talvisota, ditto the myriad articles and essays about Finnish film, Finnish design, Finnish cuisine, Finnish archipelagoes, Finnish models and other Fenno-phenonmena darting about this salty, Suomi-rich site.

Holy sisu! How did this singular transatlantic relationship come about?

How did a nice Jewish boy from Queens with no discernible ties to Finland or any of the Nordic countries for that matter, come to be one of the leading interpreters of Finnish affairs for the English-speaking world, no less a boldface name in better Fenno-Ugric circles?

What in heaven’s name moved the author to visit Finland, of all places, all the way back in 1977? And more to the point, why does he keep on coming back?

Why is it that the author’s visits to Finland seem to coincide with breaking world news events?

What was it like to hang out with Matti Pellonpaa, the late great Finnish movie star, and his reclusive cohort in cinematic crime, Aki Kaurismaki?

What was the Radio City phenomenon all about?

Why was Helsinki in the early to mid-1990s arguably the coolest city in Europe?

And how has this former Northern European backwater morphed in the space of a few years into the bustling, cutting-edge, if perhaps no longer so cozy city that Monocle Magazine recently crowned “the world’s most livable city?”
Who were the members of the Helsinki “media mafia?”

How did the cellphone change Finnish culture?

What happened to Nokia?

What does the writer find so intriguing about the Aland Islands, that little-known Swedish-speaking archipelago-cum-Finnish province lying betwixt Finland and Sweden which he has visited half a dozen times and where he once nearly drowned?

How did the writer nearly meet his end on the Helsinki to Tallinn ferry at the hands of the Russian mafia?

What made Paldiski, the former headquarters of the Baltic Soviet nuclear submarine fleet the scariest place the author had ever visited?

What is it with Finns and design? What major project of Finland’s former design wunderkind, Stefan Lindfors did the author helped catalyze? And who, in his estimation, is the true heir to Alvar Aalto?

Why does Finland continue to have the world’s only Lenin Museum?

These are some of the serious, and not so serious questions I assay to answer in my forthcoming high-low, serio-comic, seminal memoir about my very special relationship with Europe’s coolest, and still, in many respects, most misunderstood country, illustrated with my own photographs. Tentatively entitled My Finland, this very special book-cum-introduction to Suomi, is scheduled to be published this month by Gummerus, the esteemed Finnish publisher.

In two languages, no less (Finnish and English).

This is the one you’ve been waiting for Sander fans! The book that unlocks the secret to that wild and wooly, yet oh so civilized country somewhere up there in the far far North! Check it out! Sneak preview attached! Kiitos kiitos! Hei hei!