Much to like about the Finns, but not forest raking

In one of my earliest grade school memories, I am lining up in the hallway with my classmates for an air raid drill in late 1939 or early 1940 when the boy next to me asks, “Who are you for, the Russians or the Finns?”

There was only one right answer and I quickly said, “the Finns.” Being for the Finns was automatic for a couple of reasons. They were the underdog in a war with Russia and they were known as an honorable people. “The Finns always pay their debts,” was an oft-repeated statement of fact.  

Today, Finland is known for its stability, health care and an innovative public school system but I was reminded of my early regard for the Finns when they contradicted President Trump’s fable about how the Finns fireproof their forests by diligently raking them.

Back in 1939-40, we were for the Finns because their overmatched army was standing up to the Soviet Union in a half-forgotten episode of World War II known as the Russo-Finnish War. It was a small part of the larger European war that didn’t yet involve us but made us nervous enough to have air raid drills in school.

We were in the hallway to insulate us from broken glass if a bomb dropped near the Robert Fulton School. How we’d do in the event of a direct hit mustn’t have been an issue, although we were all fingerprinted around that time, the easier to identify us.  

We were, after all, in North Bergen, N.J., just across the Hudson River from the French ocean liner Normandie, which had sought haven when Germany invaded France on Sept. 1, 1939, so the war wasn’t that far away.

Russia and Finland fought for 105 days over Finnish territory the Soviets wanted to protect nearby Leningrad, the former and current St. Petersburg. Once part of Russia, Finland had won its independence after World War I and, as Vladimir Putin later explained, the war was fought to correct an error in giving the land to Finland back then. Little Finland lost the war but won the world’s admiration as its ski-borne troops tied up several Soviet divisions for months.  

Before the war with Russia, Finland was primarily known, as my father often told me, for being the only country that pays its debts.

That debt was part of $11.5 billion in loans the United States made to 15 European nations after World War I. Some nations made annual debt repayments until 1931, when, in the midst of a worldwide depression, the U.S. announced a one-year moratorium on debt payments. When the payments resumed, Finland was the only one of the 15 that continued to pay its principal and interest in full.   

The loan was only $8 million, but that was real money then and Finland kept its promise to repay the loan with interest over 62 years. After World War II, an impressed Congress allowed the last payments to be used to encourage Finnish scholars to study here.  

At the same time, Finland was forced to pay Russia $300 million — 7 percent of its national income — for humiliating the Soviet Union in the 105-day war. Finland paid that debt in full by the 1950s.

Life has apparently been good in Finland ever since. One survey by a travel-related organization rated Finland the happiest nation in the world, based on such factors as gross domestic product, life expectancy, generosity of its people and freedom of its institutions. Norway, Iceland and Sweden were next and the U.S. was 18th, behind Belgium and ahead of the United Kingdom.

Finland does have forests — they make up 74 percent of the nation’s land area or 4500 trees for every Finn. It also has forest fires, but they aren’t severe, mostly because it rains “all the time” and is pretty cold most of the year.

So, some were a bit skeptical when President Trump claimed Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told him Finland doesn’t have the same fire problems as California because it spends “a lot of time raking and cleaning” its forests.  

The Finnish president acknowledged speaking with Trump recently in Paris about forest management but he never said anything about raking.

And the people of the happiest nation laughed.

“Rake America Great Again” was the most frequent tweet from the happy Finns, followed by “Rake America Rake Again” and “Rake News.” 

Now, the president, to my knowledge, has never had much, if anything, to say about Finland, except for its raking. It isn’t a member of NATO, but if it were, it would surely have maintained its reputation for honoring financial obligations and won Trump’s admiration. But its sense of humor probably won’t impress this president, who doesn’t seem to have one, especially these days.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.