Obituary / Politics

“He Was Modest and Self-Reliant”: Remembering President Mauno Koivsto of Finland

MAUNO KOIVISTO, the cautious but chummy long-term president of Finland enraged reporters by holding press briefings in a sauna…

Mauno Koivisto, while president of Finland, enjoyed holding off-the-record briefings for the press — whom he occasionally termed “lemmings” — in the sauna. “The sauna is good because a man without clothes cannot be very stuck-up,” he said.

And if the gimmick enraged the female reporters excluded from the steam room, it substantially increased the popularity of “Manu” (his widely used nickname). Finns relished Koivisto’s down-to-earth image, dry wit and philosophical meanderings.

That, at least, was in public. In private political gatherings, Koivisto proved a canny strategist who wasted little time in petty argument, focusing instead on whatever masterplan he wanted to push forward.

The first Finnish president of working-class origin, Koivisto set his country on the path to EU membership in the winter of 1992. According to the constitution, only the president could initiate this decision and the negotiations ended on March 1, 1994. Hours earlier, Koivisto had stepped down as president. This marked a fitting end to his tenure, for as the Soviet Union disintegrated, Koivisto had cautiously steered Finland into a new role on the world stage.

His supreme challenge was that faced by any Finnish leader: negotiating good relations with Russia, his country’s huge, historically dominant neighbour. Once part of the Tsarist empire, Finland had always struggled to assert full independence. With a population of five million, it was formally neutral, but the existence of an 800-mile shared border with the USSR meant that it lived an uneasy truce with Moscow. Traditional Finnish policy was to avoid doing anything to deeply upset the USSR, while trying to prosper from proximity to the Soviet market and simultaneously preserve connections to the West.

In this context, Koivisto’s two terms as Finnish president from 1982 to 1994 spanned an extraordinary transition. A speaker of German and English, he kept lines open to the West, but his first priority was handling relations with Finland’s nearest neighbour amid the disintegration of the vast communist empire. At first Koivisto dealt with geriatric Soviet leaders who could barely stay awake in meetings, yet remained in charge of massive armies and nuclear arsenals. Then Mikhail Gorbachev took control in Moscow and Koivisto had to navigate a dramatic new landscape.

Fluent in Russian, he swiftly bonded with the dynamic Gorbachev to the point that the Soviet leader once approached Koivisto at an international gathering pleading for help. He said he was “in great trouble” over the Baltic states’ push for independence. Koivisto discreetly passed Gorbachev’s concerns on to Washington, and in 1990 he hosted a summit in Helsinki between President Bush and Gorbachev.


“Gorbachev once approached Koivisto pleading for help. Koivisto discreetly passed his concerns on to Washington, and in 1990 he hosted a summit in Helsinki between Gorbachev and President Bush”

Affable yet cautious, Koivisto was awake to Finland’s geographic vulnerability. He kept a globe in his office to show visitors that in a nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR, missiles would fly straight over Finnish territory.

Mauno Henrik Koivisto was born in 1923 in Turku in southwest Finland. His father, Juho, was a carpenter who had undergone a religious awakening while at sea. His mother, Hymni Sofia Eskola, the daughter of a cantor, died when he was only ten. At 13 he left school and he later fought in the Second World War against the Soviet Union. In 1944 the Finns were defeated after losing more than 80,000 soldiers, and were forced to cede further territory and port facilities, and to pay reparations to the Soviets. In 1948 a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance was signed with Moscow. Most Finns felt the price worth paying if they could avoid becoming a fully dominated Soviet satellite state.

Koivisto, who during the war developed a habit of weighing up both sides of a question, decided to join the Social Democrats in Turku. By day he was a harbour master. By night he took evening classes. In 1950 he came to England for a season picking strawberries and the next year became a teacher. He obtained a philosophy degree in 1953, the year after his marriage to Tellervo Kankaanranta, by whom he had a daughter, Assi. She later entered business. His wife and daughter survive him.


The offer of a post as deputy manager of a workers’ savings bank in Helsinki led Koivisto to abandon plans to enter academe, and in 1966 he was appointed Finland’s minister of finance. He quickly became governor of the Bank of Finland and, by 1968, was prime minister.

Lanky and with a boyish air, he won fans with his unstuffy appearances on television, even inspiring a film character called Vara-Manu. Also popular were the laconic television interviews about Koivisto, given by his wife. She served a term in parliament, and later attracted about 50,000 votes while standing for the electoral college. Her husband’s first term as prime minister ended in 1970. He returned to the post between 1979 and 1982. Then he fell foul of Urho Kekkonen, Finland’s autocratic president, who tried to get shot of him. Koivisto refused to resign. When Kekkonen stepped down due to illness in October 1981, Koivisto launched a campaign to be elected his successor.

The popularity of “Manu” increased steadily. Finns took to the calm, reassuring presence of this tall, intellectual figure with a wry sense of humour, seen somehow as above the sordid squabbling of routine politics. There were occasional eruptions of anger, but mostly he appeared modest and self-reliant. Koivisto took regular breaks in a log cabin, and whittled wood. He was a keen volleyball player.

In 1982 he became the first Finnish Social Democrat to be elected president and was re-elected in 1988. As the final collapse of the USSR became evident Koivisto asserted his country’s independence more fully and joined the debate about how far Finland should turn West. But the sudden loss of the Soviet market to Finnish companies was disastrous, producing a sharp recession, failing banks and 20 per cent unemployment. This harmed his popularity. He left office in 1994 widely perceived as having become a weak leader.

In retirement he always travelled by tram and lived in a modest flat in Helsinki, where he wrote his memoirs.

MAUNO KOIVISTO was born on 25th November 1923. He died of Alzheimer’s on May 12, 2017, aged 93.

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This article has also been published in The Times.

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