WASHINGTON -- Why, this week -- when the world seems to be collapsing around us and an American president seems singularly incapable of catching it -- should I write about Finland?
It's a nice enough country, way up there on the way to the Arctic, and it is now one of the most solid democracies in the world. It's a loyal member of the European Union -- an enthusiastic member, which is something in itself in this age of doubt and indecision -- and it seems mysteriously to have learned, after two centuries of travail, how to get along with its troublesome neighbors the Russians.
This week, peaceable Finland is celebrating its 100th birthday. For two days, the entire country will be illuminated with blue and white lights, its national colors. And the descriptive phrase they're using for the celebration is "with dignity and joy."
But there is more to my interest in Finland than its centennial. Let me share some stories.
It was a high-winter day in Helsinki in the early 1990s, gray as a battleship, and we were going out for -- what better? -- a ride on an icebreaker, smashing through the thick ice to the seas west of Turku. One might think this would be a charmless voyage, but no.
We boarded the ship, also gray, at 10 in the morning, and the party was already "on." A band was playing, people were drinking and dancing, and when the revelers needed a refreshing break from all that giddiness, they retired to the sauna.
We were on our way to the Aland Islands, which sit smartly between the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic Sea and between Finland and Sweden. You have never heard of the Aland Islands? Neither had I. But it seems that these isles were the center of a number of military dramas in their time. From the early 1800s on, Sweden, Russia and Finland all claimed them, and a perfectly bloody ruckus ensued until the countries involved finally came to a negotiation.
Today the islands are an example of a wisely split difference. Officially, they belong to Finland, but Swedish is the formal language and Swedish culture is highly respected. Russia is out of the picture.
In 1987, just before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, I got clues about what was about to happen and why from interviews with two young diplomats in the foreign office in Helsinki.
The Russians by then owed the Finns 800 million rubles (about $800 million). Leif Forgeros, one of the diplomats, told me that day: "We tell the Russians, 'You have to pay us. We're a small country. We can't subsidize a superpower.'"
And that conversation was one of the first solid indicators I had that the "all-powerful" Soviet Union was falling apart, in hock to a country it had dominated since the 19th century.
The special inner wisdom of Finland -- and what I am celebrating on this 100th birthday -- goes beyond its successful escape from the clutches of the marauding Russian bear. It even goes beyond Finland's brave fight against the Russians in the legendary Winter War of 1939, when white-uniformed Finnish soldiers on skis swept out of the Finnish snows to stagger their adversaries.
The Russians "won" the war, taking a big bite of Finland and making it as downtrodden as the rest of the Soviet Union. But Russia's "victory" over Finland was less than complete. A new word in the global dictionary, "Finlandization," came to mean a country that was effectively neutralized on the world stage but whose system, in this case democratic, was left intact, unlike most of Moscow's targets of interest.
What impresses me most is that, not only did Finland become free when the Soviet communist state collapsed in 1991, but through all of the dark times, the Finns never lost their spirit and common sense.
Whereas so many countries and peoples are busy making the worst out of the best, the Finns have always made the best out of the worst. I offer as a prime example our frolic on the icebreaker.
The brutal Russian demands for reparations after the Winter War would have broken most societies, but Finland looked at the resulting expansion of shipping and heavy industries as a way to transform Finland from a producer of pulp and wood products into a highly advanced industrial state.
All along, through their Lutheran faith and their pragmatic realism -- and through good leadership, from the great general of the Winter War and then president, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, followed by Urho Kekkonen and Mauno Koivisto -- the Finns have exemplified the difference between real victory and short-term conventional defeat.
Another day in Helsinki, the famous Finnish historian Max Jakobson mused with me how, even through Finland's dark decades, her "social fabric remained intact, and the continuity of her political institutions unbroken ... an achievement that transcends the conventional meaning of such terms as 'defeat' in history."
I can't think of a better way to say, "Happy Birthday, Finland!"