Urho Kaleva Kekkonen

Urho Kaleva Kekkonen

[kek-uh-nuhn; Finn. kek-kaw-nen]
Kekkonen, Urho Kaleva, 1900-1986, president of Finland (1956-81). The leading spokesman of the Center party (known as the Agrarian party until 1965), he held various cabinet posts from 1936 and was prime minister from 1950 to 1956. He succeeded Juho Paasikivi as president in 1956. He was reelected in 1962 and 1968, and in 1973 the Finnish parliament voted to extend his term, which was to expire in 1974, until 1978, when he was elected to his final term as president. He resigned for health reasons in 1981. Throughout his career, Kekkonen succeeded in maintaining friendly neutrality with the USSR.
Kekkonen redirects here. For other uses, see Kekkonen (disambiguation).

Urho Kaleva Kekkonen (IPA ) (September 3, 1900 PielavesiAugust 31, 1986 Helsinki) was a Finnish politician who served as Prime Minister of Finland (1950–1953, 1954–1956) and later as President of Finland (1956–1982). Kekkonen continued the "active neutrality" policy of President Juho Kusti Paasikivi, which came to be known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen Line. This policy allowed Finland to retain independence and trade with both the nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Warsaw Pact. Kekkonen was the longest-serving President of Finland.


Early life

Kekkonen was born in Pielavesi in the Savo region of Finland, the son of Juho Kekkonen and Emilia Pylvänäinen, but spent his childhood in Kainuu. His family were farmers (though not poor tenant farmers, as some of his supporters claimed). His father, originally a farm-hand and forestry worker, eventually became a forestry manager and stock agent at Halla Ltd. It was claimed that Kekkonen's family had lived in a poor farmhouse without a chimney; however, it was later found out that the photographic evidence to back up this claim was fake, and that the chimney had simply been retouched off the photographs depicting Kekkonen's childhood home. His school years did not go smoothly. During the Finnish Civil War, he fought for the White Guard and led a firing squad in Hamina. Kekkonen personally admitted to having killed a man in battle, but not to a mass execution of Red troops committed by his squad. However, a photograph taken at the time seems to prove that Kekkonen was there during the execution.

In independent Finland, Kekkonen first worked as a journalist in Kajaani. He moved to Helsinki in 1921 to study law, graduating as a Master of Laws in 1926. During his studies he worked as a policeman from 1921 to 1927. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Sylvi Salome Uino (1900–1974), a typist at the police office. They had two sons, Matti (born 1928) and Taneli (1928–1985). Matti Kekkonen served as a Centre Party member of Parliament from 1958 to 1969.

In 1927, Kekkonen became a lawyer and worked for the Association of Rural Municipalities. However, he had to resign in 1932 due to abrasive comments. Kekkonen became a Doctor of Laws in 1936. At Helsinki University he was active in the Northern Ostrobothnian student nation and was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper Ylioppilaslehti 1927-1928. He was also an active athlete. His best achievement as a sportsman was to become Finnish high jump champion (1.85 m) in 1924. The standing jump was his best discipline.

Early political career

Politically, he was a nationalist and his ideological roots lay in the nationalistic student politics of the newly independent Finland and the radicalism of the right. In 1933, Kekkonen joined the Agrarian League (later renamed the Centre Party). That year he also became a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture and made his first attempt to get elected to Parliament.

His second try to get elected into Parliament succeeded in 1936 and he became Justice Minister, serving from 1936 to 1937, where he committed a procedure that was known as the "Tricks of Kekkonen" (Kekkosen konstit) when he tried to ban the right-wing extremist Patriotic People's Movement (Isänmaallinen Kansanliike, IKL). The procedure was not entirely legal and was halted by the Supreme Court. He was also Interior Minister from 1937 to 1939.

He was not a member of the cabinets during the Winter War or the Continuation War. He opposed the Moscow peace treaty in Parliament in March 1940 (being the sole member to vote against the treaty) and during the Continuation War, he served as the director of the Karelian Evacuees' Welfare Centre from 1940 to 1943 and as the Ministry of Finance's commissioner for coordination from 1943 to 1945, his task being to rationalise public administration. By that time, he had become one of the leading politicians within the so-called Peace opposition. In 1944, he again became Minister of Justice, serving until 1946, and had to deal with the war-responsibility trials. Kekkonen was a Deputy Speaker of Parliament 1946–1947, and was Speaker from 1948 to 1950.

In the 1950 Presidential election, Kekkonen was chosen as the candidate of the Agrarian Party and conducted a vigorous campaign against the incumbent President Juho Kusti Paasikivi. Kekkonen finished third in the third and final ballot, receiving 62 votes in the electoral college, while Paasikivi was reelected with 171. After the election Paasikivi appointed Kekkonen as Prime Minister. In all his four cabinets he emphasized his role to create and maintain friendly relations with the Soviet Union. He was authoritarian and embarrassed his opponents in public. He was ousted in 1953, although he returned as Prime Minister from 1954 to 1956. Kekkonen also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs for periods in 1952–1953 and 1954 whilst he was Prime Minister.

President of Finland

In the presidential election of 1956, Kekkonen defeated the Social Democrat Karl-August Fagerholm by two votes in the electoral college (151-149) and was elected President. As president, Kekkonen continued the neutrality policy of President Paasikivi, which came to be known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line. From the beginning he ruled with the assumption that the Soviet Union accepted only him; the country at the time was some times called Kekkoslovakia. Because of defectors like Oleg Gordievsky and the opening of the Soviet archives it is known that keeping Kekkonen in power was the main task of the Soviet Union in its relations with Finland.

During Kekkonen's term, the balance of power between the Finnish Council of State and the President was heavily tilted towards the President. In principle and formally, parliamentarism was followed; councils were accepted by a parliamentary majority. However, Kekkonen-era councils were often in bitter internal disagreement and the alliances broke down easily. New councils often tried to reverse their predecessors' policies. Kekkonen extensively used his power to nominate ministers and railroaded new council compositions through the parliamentary process. He also used (publicly and with impunity) the old boy network to bypass the council and communicate directly with high officials. Only after Kekkonen's term, councils began to remain stable throughout the entire period between elections.

Kekkonen's policies, especially towards the USSR, were criticised within his own party by Veikko Vennamo, who broke off his Centre Party affiliation when Urho Kekkonen was elected president of Finland (1956). In 1959, Vennamo established his populist Agrarian Party, forerunner of nationalist True Finns.

In April 1961 Kekkonen was already planning to dissolve parliament in order to influence the alliance behind his potential presidential rival Olavi Honka. In addition, the Soviet Union sent a diplomatic note in late October, citing an article of the FCMA treaty referring to the threat of war. Concerning this 'note crisis', the most common view is that the Soviet Union was motivated by a desire to ensure Kekkonen's re-election. After Honka dropped his candidacy, Kekkonen was re-elected by an overwhelming vote of 199 out of 300 electoral college votes in the 1962 Presidential election. In addition to his own party, Kekkonen had received the backing of the Swedish People's Party and the Finnish People's Party. As a result of the note crisis, genuine opposition to Kekkonen disappeared, and he acquired an exceptionally strong - later even autocratic - status as the political leader of Finland.

Throughout his time as president, Kekkonen did his best to keep political rivals in check. The Centre Party's rival, National Coalition Party was kept in opposition despite good performance in elections. On a few occasions, the parliament was dissolved as the political composition did not please Kekkonen. Too prominent Centre Party members often found themselves sidelined, as Kekkonen negotiated directly with the lower lever. The so called "Mill Letters" of Kekkonen were a continuous stream of directives to high officials, politicians, journalists etc. Nevertheless, Kekkonen did not use coercive measures and some leading politicians, most notably Tuure Junnila and Veikko Vennamo, "branded" themselves as anti-Kekkonen.

In the 1960s Kekkonen was responsible for a number of foreign-policy initiatives, involving for example the Nordic nuclear-free zone, the border agreement with Norway and a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1969. The purpose of these initiatives was to avoid the enforcement of the military articles in the FCMA treaty - in other words, military cooperation between Finland and the Soviet Union - and thus to strengthen Finland's attempt to practice a policy of neutrality. Following the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 pressure for neutrality increased. Kekkonen informed the Soviets in 1970 that he would not continue as president, nor would the FCMA treaty be extended, if the Soviet Union was no longer prepared to recognize Finland's neutrality.

Kekkonen was re-elected for a third term in 1968. In that year's election, he received the support of five political parties - the Centre Party, the Social Democrats, the Finnish People's Democratic League, the Workers' and Smallholders Social Democratic League, and the Swedish People's Party. Kekkonen received 201 votes in the electoral college, with the National Coalition party's candidate finishing in second place with 66 votes.

In 1973, he was re-elected by emergency law which saw his presidency extended by four years. This was accomplished by implying that, if he was not re-elected, the Soviets would not accept Finland's membership in the EEC. The tactic secured National Coalition's support and thus enabled the enactment of an emergency law. The elimination of any significant opposition and competition meant de facto political autocracy for Kekkonen. The year 1975 can be regarded as marking the zenith of his power, when he dissolved parliament and hosted the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki with the assistance of a caretaker government. In the 1978 Presidential election, Kekkonen's candidacy was blindly supported by nine political parties, including the Social Democratic, Centre and National Coalition parties, effectively meaning that there were no serious rivals left. Kekkonen won 259 out of the 300 electoral college votes, with his nearest rival, Raino Westerholm of the Christian Union, receiving 24.

In 1979 Urho Kekkonen was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize.

Later life

From December 1980, Kekkonen begun to suffer from an undisclosed disease that seemed to affect his brain functions, sometimes leading to delusional thoughts. According to one of his biographers, Juhani Suomi, Kekkonen did not give any thought about resigning until his physical condition began to decline in July 1981. The 80-year old President then began to seriously consider resigning, most likely in early 1982. Prime Minister Mauno Koivisto had defeated Kekkonen in 1981. In April, Koivisto had done what none other had dared during Kekkonen's presidency, namely stated that under the Constitution, the Prime Minister and cabinet are responsible to the Parliament and not to the President, and refused to resign at Kekkonen's request. This was generally seen as the death knell of the Kekkonen era. Kekkonen took ill in August during a fishing trip to Iceland. He went on medical leave on September 10, before finally resigning due to ill health on October 26 1981, aged 81. There is no report available about his illness, as the papers have been moved to an unknown location, but it is commonly said that he suffered from vascular dementia probably due to atherosclerosis.

Kekkonen died at Tamminiemi in 1986, three days short of his 86th birthday, and was buried with full honors. His heirs restricted access to his diaries. An "authorized" biography was commissioned from Juhani Suomi, who subsequently defended the interpretation of history therein and denigrated most other interpretations.


Some of Kekkonen's actions are controversial in modern Finland. He often pulled a "Moscow card" when his authority was threatened. Still he was hardly the only Finnish politician with close relations to Soviet representatives. The mildly authoritarian behavior of Kekkonen during his presidential term is one of the main reasons for the reforms of the Finnish Constitution in 1984–2003. In these reforms, the power of Parliament and Prime Minister was increased at the expense of the President. Several of these changes have been initiated by Kekkonen's successors.

  • The terms of a President were limited to two consecutive terms.
  • The President's role in cabinet building was restricted
  • The President is elected directly, not by an electoral college
  • The President may no longer dissolve the Parliament without the support of the Prime Minister
  • The Prime minister's role in shaping Finland's foreign policy was enhanced

Kekkonen was largely responsible for Finlandization, the policy that allowed the Soviet Union to exert power over Finland. The policy spanned his whole presidency and human rights violations associated with Finlandization were carried out under orders from Kekkonen. He for example insisted that all Soviet defectors, who managed to escape across the border to Finland, should be forcibly returned to the Soviet Union.


  • The Urho Kekkonen National Park, Finland's second largest national park, is named after Kekkonen.
  • The Urho Kekkonen museum was opened in Tamminiemi in 1987.
  • Such was his impact on the Finnish political scene that Kekkonen's face was on the 500 Markka banknote during his term as President. The series of Finnish Markka banknotes used at this time was the second-to-last design series in the entire history of the currency. Very few Finns have ever got their face on a Markka note while still alive, and Kekkonen was the last one to do so.

In popular culture

  • The vote count from the 1968 elections was broadcast on the radio, and has been shown numerous times in television documentaries. The monotonous reading out of the votes, in groups of five, is still well-recognized in Finnish popular culture, and broadly quoted and paraphrased; "Kekkonen, Kekkonen, Kekkonen, Kekkonen, Kekkonen."
  • In The Lord of the Rings Online, the leader of the Earth-kin tribe located in the Lone Lands is named "Kekkonen".
  • Matti Hagelberg uses a caricature of Kekkonen as the main character in his comic album with the same name.


External links

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