Urho Kekkonen served as Finland’s prime minister on two occasions (1950–53, 1954–56) and as the president from 1956–81. His Soviet-oriented foreign policy aimed to win back Finnish territories occupied by the USSR, and neutralize the threat of further Soviet invasion. He was noted for his defence of the country’s impoverished agricultural community. Kekkonen was acclaimed as one of the foremost statesmen of his age.

Early Life

Kekkonen was born on 3 Sept. 1900 in Kajana. He was the son of a forestry foreman, and was educated at the University of Helsinki, where he was awarded bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in law. He began his career as a lawyer but from the 1920s onward he became increasingly interested in the agrarian movement. From 1927–32 he worked for a local government federation before transferring to the Ministry of Agriculture. He became a member of Parliament in 1936, representing the Agrarian Union. Initially he opposed Soviet incursions into Finnish territory, and favoured an alliance with Nazi Germany to prevent further occupation. However by 1943 it was clear that Germany would lose the war on the Eastern front and Kekkonen realized that if Finland wanted to retain its independence it had to conduct a foreign policy that leaned towards the Soviet Union without falling under its control.

Career Peak

In 1948 Kekkonen helped to negotiate the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance which guaranteed Finnish neutrality while upholding the principles of free democracy. After several ministerial and legislative roles (including Minister of Justice and Minister of the Interior) Kekkonen became prime minister in 1950 under the presidency of J.K. Paasikivi. In 1956 he succeeded Paasikivi and continued a cautious and tactful foreign policy which became known known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line. Kekkonen encouraged ‘Finlandisation’. a guarded assertion of national identity, and a means of diplomatic survival in a difficult situation. Kekkonen was re-elected to the presidency on three successive occasions from 1962–78. In 1974 a majority of delegates from all parties voted to postpone the planned presidential elections, bypass the electorate and extend Kekkonen’s tenure by 4 years. His position as president allowed him absolute control of foreign policy which he used to negotiate free trade agreements with EFTA and, later, the EC. This, combined with a thriving trade with the USSR, helped boost the Finnish economy.

Later Life

Kekkonen’s later years were marred by illness which compelled him to resign from office in 1981. He died on 31 Aug. 1986.