Wednesday, December 05, 2007

90 and going strong

At the end of the First World War, and following the unrest in her occupier for little over a hundred years, Russia, Finland decided to declare independence on December 6, 1917. Ironically, Lenin was one of the first foreign leaders to acknowledge this brave step by my forefathers. His motives were not very noble though, as he was sure that a socialist revolution would soon take place and Finland would thus join the empire of the upcoming Soviet Union. This did not happen, although a terrible civil war followed and Lenin openly supported the"Reds". For the Finns, this was a bloody struggle between those who believed in the idea of social equality and thus socialism (which included the milder Social Democrats and revolutionary Communists) and the farmers, other conservatives and those who sensed a danger in the new, untested labor movement. The country was divided geographically; the bigger cities in the south were in the hands of the Reds and everything further north belonged to the Whites. Often a brother was fighting against another, and had it not been for the unpopular Russian, or Soviet, interference on the Red side, perhaps the civil war would have had a different outcome. At the end, the Red side collapsed after fierce fighting and a large number of 'enemies' were put in prison camps, soon to be freed as the young nation couldn't afford to keep such a large part of its population locked up and in miserable conditions. My grandfather was a socialist (not a communist) but at the time he was living well beyond the war front under peaceful conditions and my father was starting first grade far from the unrest. One brother was not so lucky and ended in one of these camps. My grandfather, working for the Finnish Railways, used his free travel privilege to take food and clothing regularly to his brother.

Finland was to have a king, just like all its Scandinavian neighbors. A German prince was elected as such, but in no time the Finns decided that a democratic republic with a president was a better solution for them. The first decades were not easy and the wounds from the civil war were still deep. Only after Stalin and his Soviet Union started to openly threaten and bully Finland, the people managed to unite and fought bravely against the Russians in the Winter War and the following Continuation War. Although they ended up having to give up large areas of land in Karelia and Finland's access to the Arctic Ocean in the north, Finland remained the only 'new' nation which was able to keep her independence after WW II. The country was barely 30 years old when I was born, poor but determined to make it. I remember looking at statistics at an early age and realizing how much more advanced and better off our neighbors were, not to mention a place like the United States. The gap seemed impossible to overcome. Yet today the little country is managing with the best of them and in many ways is among the very top. From having a wood product based industry in my childhood the country has branched out to other areas such electronics (Nokia etc). Just yesterday I read how Finland competes with South Korea for the top spot as the world's best education system. Honesty and literacy are on the very top, and corruption is on the bottom of the list, as is infant mortality. Finland also produces an incredible number of top-rate musicians for its small population of 5.2 million.

When my country celebrated her 50th anniversary, I was a teenager in Los Angeles, studying with Heifetz. The orchestra in Burbank had a special concert honoring the anniversary and I played the Sibelius Humoresques with them, a group of rather unusual pieces, the great composer's only other works for violin and orchestra besides the famed concerto. More freshly in my mind is the diplomatic reception which I think took place in the same hotel ballroom where Robert Kennedy was assassinated a few months later. Although I was a featured artist, people were busy drinking their cocktails and obviously had enjoyed a few before my turn came. The room did not have a grand piano but a large Steinway upright (or vertical). In the middle of one of my selections, I managed to hit my hand on the piano and my bow fell and slid right underneath the heavy instrument. A piano like that is very close to the floor and I was on my knees trying to fetch my bow. But in addition to my being in this ridiculous position, my pianist and his page turner were on their knees as well. Finally one of us managed to get hold of the stick and as if nothing had happened, we continued playing. As said, people were quite plastered and didn't see anything odd having taken place; perhaps they thought it was all part of the act. Every December 6th I relive this memory.

While I'm proud of my country's success, I also maintain that in many ways people were better off when life wasn't so easy. One had to work hard and in spite of very limited free time, people used it very wisely and efficiently. Everyone was physically fit and many Finnish athletes were legendary, especially in long distance running and skiing where speed was less important than being able to remain strong and tough. I often feel that seeing the poverty of my young years and people succeeding against all odds has been one of the greatest gifts in my life. Just to think that only two or three classmates during my first school years had a telephone (our number had three digits, 237) tells me how different life was, yet I have mainly pleasant memories. My childhood best friend was very poor and when I had my one and only birthday party at seven, his mother sent him over with a flower she had cut, instead of a gift. Strangely, that was more meaningful to me than other presents and the only one I can still remember.

Here's a toast to the little country that could!