WEEKEND: Uncovering 100 Years Of Finland’s Diplomatic Secrets

Digitized archive includes more than 36,000 documents from the earliest days of Finland's diplomatic service.

Front page of a report sent from the nascent Finnish Embassy in London in 1918 / Credit: Ulkoministeriö

The Finnish Foreign Ministry is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its official founding, in June 1918.

To mark the centenary, the ministry has embarked on a public relations charm offensive, with a photo exhibition, and a roadshow to Finnish cities explaining the work of diplomats stationed at embassies around the world.

But the most ambitious project, and the most intriguing, is an effort to digitize almost 40,000 documents from the earliest days of the diplomatic service: a time before technology, when reports from ambassadors in distant lands were typed or written by hand, and took days or weeks to reach Helsinki.

The archives were put onto microfiche film in the 1990s, but Jyrki Paloposki, Head of Information Management at the ministry had the idea to put them online during the centenary year.

“First of all I like history, I’m a historian. It was the reason I came to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 25 years ago” Paloposki tells News Now Finland.

“The [Finnish] national archives have digitized millions of documents to the net. Our national library has digitized newspapers, and I know how useful these services are” he explains.

The Early Days Of Diplomacy

Finland’s early diplomatic efforts were modest. Unofficial offices in friendly countries were upgraded to legations and later full embassies.

Berlin and Stockholm were the first Finnish embassies: Sweden as a neighbour and former colonial power, where an unofficial delegation had helped the independence effort; and Germany because Finnish troops were serving on the eastern front, and there was already a liaison office in that country.

“Next were Copenhagen and Oslo. London came in 1919 or 1920 because during the First World War we were so close to Germany, so Britain and USA didn’t recognise our independence until 1919 and after that we established diplomatic relations” explains Paloposki.

By 1920, Finland had ten embassies in Europe, with Washington, Tokyo and Buenos Aires following soon after. The Moscow embassy opened in 1921.

Finland’s ‘Proto-Diplomats’

When Finnish diplomats go on overseas postings now, they complete specialist training programmes in advance of their assignment.

Back in the days after independence it was all much less formal, but Paloposki says the documents those early diplomats wrote, shows how professional they were even if they were a little bit untested in the world of international affairs.

“When our ambassadors went abroad, actually they were ministers or envoys in those days as Finland didn’t have the ambassador title, they were so professional! In 1917 or 1918 when we sent the first minister abroad we didn’t have diplomatic training”

“The ministers knew something about international matters, but they were guys from universities, they were professors and businessmen. We had all other kinds of civil servants, we had all these government departments in Russian times but we didn’t have a foreign ministry. Foreign services was something new but when you read these reports they are quite good and almost like real diplomats already” says Paloposki.

Document from the Finnish Embassy in London / Credit: Ulkoministeriö

Writing Secret Reports

To date, the Foreign Ministry has digitized 39,000 pages of political reports covering the years from 1918 until 1926.

Jyrki Paloposki, who has been reading the documents for more than two decades, feels like he knows the writers, just from the words they wrote a hundred years ago.

“In Stockholm you only wrote short reports, because it took just three days to get to Helsinki. From Tokyo you collected more information and wrote 40 or 50 pages and put it together like a short novel and then send the whole bunch to Finland” he explains.

Those Tokyo reports took five weeks to get back to the young Foreign Ministry in Helsinki, going over the Pacific to the west coast of America, by train to the east coast, and then over the Atlantic to Europe.

There was a shorter route through Russia, but it had its drawbacks.

“We didn’t trust the Soviet Union in those years, and these spying things were going on. That was a problem”.

So diplomatic dispatches from the new Finnish Embassy in Japan took the long route to Finland, to avoid the risk of being intercepted by Soviet intelligence agents.

Deciphering Russia

One of the most critical diplomatic missions for the newly independent nation of Finland was the position of senior diplomat in Moscow.

The turbulent political situation next door was of utmost interest to the Finns. So envoy Antti Hackzell – who went on to become Foreign Minister in the 1930s, and Prime Minister in the 1940s – was tasked with keeping a close eye on who might succeed Lenin as Russia’s leader.

Jyrki Paloposki recounts one dispatch that Minister Hackzell sent home.

“Our Minister said maybe it is Trotsky. But Lenin’s successor is not Stalin. Stalin is an idealistic former student and he has no strength to be a leader”.

“He was a little bit wrong. But the good Ministers and Ambassadors tried to guess how things were going. It was not too difficult to take references from newspapers and send that information, but the skill was trying to analyse what was heard or read”.