Book Review: Finland – A Lone Wolf – by Max Jakobson

Since I was fortunate enough to marry a Finn, Finland has become my second country. It’s a beautiful country with a lot going for it. But it’s not a country I knew a lot about before I got married. I can’t say that I’ve learned enough to really appreciate the Finnish mind-set since.

My wife’s aunt, a wonderful woman, rightly assumes that I would like to know more about Finland and sends us books regularly. Finland: A Lone Wolf is the latest acquisition. I devoured it in about three hours; partly because it’s not a long book, and partly because it was very interesting.

A couple caveats, of course. I enjoy learning about history, politics, and economics. I have a vested interest in learning about Finland. So this was a great book for me. It’s obviously not for everyone. Many would find it boring after the first couple sections.

I really enjoyed it. While running briefly through the history of Finland as a nation (not that long a period, actually) Jakobson focuses in on World War II. If you ever need evidence that WWII was not as black and white as we tend to think, this is it. Finland stood mostly alone in the middle of a battle of titans–and managed to survive.

First Russia, then allied with Germany, invaded. The Finns miraculously managed to hold them off and force a negotiated peace that cost them a small but important piece of territory. But when Germany turned on Russia, the Finns saw an opportunity to regain their lost territory and head off Russian expansionism again. They sided with the Germans–a marriage of convenience, not of ideology–and attacked the Russians, regaining their lost territory and then some.

But as we know, the German invasion of Russia turned into a major setback for Germany. The Finns, too, suffered significant reversals, and only through a combination of strategic stalling and diplomatic tap-dancing managed to end their part of the war an independent country, though they made heavy concessions to Russia to accomplish it. They lost the territory they had regained, had to arrest and try many of their government leaders, and pay reparations to Russia (which they only completed around 1970).

Yet Finland accomplished the nearly-impossible. Every other European country with a border with the USSR became a satellite state. Finland managed to remain free. Though the next 50 years were marked with continual tensions and diplomatic jujitsu, Finland managed to keep on good terms the Soviet Union while gradually building up relations with the West. When the USSR finally fell apart in the 1990s Finland was ready to join the West.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union was not without its cost: Finland had been a major exporter to Russia, and the loss of that income threw their economy into a tailspin. That was the point when Finnish businessmen took the baton from the Finnish diplomats and remade their economy. In a few years they went from a troubled economy to one of the strongest in Europe and a significant player in the EU.

This book, while short, really helps spell out what an amazing feat it is that Finland is in the position it is today. Jakobson does a good job (conversations with my wife and father-in-law back this up) of explaining the path Finland has taken and what makes their culture so unique and resilient. Not that they don’t have their problems. But, quite frankly, I have more faith in Finland’s ability to solve its current problems than I have in my own country’s abilities to solve ours.

The main problem with this book is it’s out-dated. It’s six years old, but in a book primarily discussing politics and economics, that leaves out a significant period. I’d love to see a newer edition of the book covering the recent economic and political turmoil. Threats to Finland’s future at the time are even stronger now, and I’d love to know what Jakobson thinks of it all.

The other problem is that this book is written in English by a Finnish speaker. It was not translated by a professional translator. Some of the euphemisms aren’t quite right. There are incorrect word choices. Most of these should have been caught by the editor and weren’t. It’s not a problem of clarity (you know what he’s trying to say) so much as flow. Hitting some of these errors throws you out of the text for a moment.

As I said, this is not a book for everyone. Only the serious student of international politics or economics, or the serious student of Finland, will be interested in this book. But in my somewhat unique circumstances I’m grateful to have read it, and grateful to my aunt for having sent it. If you’d like to read it and live near me let me know. We’ll see if we can work out a loan. Though I link to it on Amazon, it’s only available used currently, and the two people selling their copies seem to think they can get $99 for it. Unless this book is absolutely critical to your research or something, don’t pay that.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Finland – A Lone Wolf – by Max Jakobson

  1. Terhi says:

    I just wish all the Finns (particularly the youth) would read that book – or something similar. It would make them appreciate Finland more and take better care of that beautiful country.

    • Thom says:

      Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s limited to Finland where the youth (and many of the adults) don’t appreciate what they have or what it takes to keep it.

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