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by Bamber Gascoigne

Urho Kaleva Kekkonen (1900-1986)


Central figures in the Finnish political scene from the 1930s, prime minister (1950-3, 1954-6) and President of Finland from 1956 to 1982. Kekkonen was also a prolific columnist, whose hidden Machiavellian opinions influenced decades public discussion and political maneuvering. As a member of parliament, he represented the Agrarian Party (Maalaisliitto) - a natural political home for Kekkonen due to his rural background.

"Kirjailijana en itseäni pidä. Sitä suuremmalla syyllä, koska en ole koskaan kirjoittanut yhtään ainoata runoa." (I don't consider myself a writer. Especially because I haven't even written a single poem. -  Vastavirtaan, 1983)

Urho Kekkonen was born in Pielavesi. His father, Juho Kekkonen, was originally a farm-hand but later gained the position of a forestry manager. Kekkonen's mother, Emilia Pylvänäinen was a farm-owner's daughter.  To illustrate Kekkonen's humble beginnings, a myth was created that there was no chimney in his birth place in Lepikon torppa, a small farmhouse.  

Undisciplined at school, Kekkonen was once punished for pissing in a wastebasket. Under the influence of Jack London, Jules Verne, and Mark Twain, he composed short stories, planning a career as a writer. He also finished some plays and participated - without much success - with a short story in a writing competition arranged by the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti. He changed then from fiction to sport and journalism. During the Finnish Civil War (1917-18), Kekkonen was a member of the Kajaani Guerrilla Regiment, taking part in fighting in Eastern Finland. As a war correspondent, he reported the events from the side of the White troops. At that time Kekkonen was only seventeen years old.

While stationed in Hamina in April 1918, Kekkonen was ordered to join an  execution patrol squad, that shot twelve Red prisoners - he gave the shooting order. The war was already over and the prisoners were executed without trial. ('Kekkosen uhri' by Sami Sillanpää, HS Kuukausiliite, 5/2018) This event stayed with Kekkonen for the rest of his life. After graduating from Kajaani  Lyceum in 1919 Kekkonen moved to Helsinki, where studied  law at Helsinki University and worked at the Ministry of Agriculture before entering parliament. In 1936 Kekkonen completed his doctoral dissertation on Finnish municipal legislation.

Kekkonen's career as a journalist started in newspaper Kajaanin Lehti (1919-20). He was a columnist on the magazine Suomen Heimo and worked as the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper Ylioppilaslehti (1927-1928), where he published one of his most famous humorous pieces 'Minä olin diktaattor' (I was a dictator) under the pen name Lautamies. ("I was called the Mussolini of the North. I ruled with an iron hand.") The text appeared just a year before the rise of the fascist Lappo movement. From 1924 Kekkonen was active in the Academic Karelia Society, but also created important social and political connections through his career in The Finnish Sports Organization and the Finnish Olympic Committee. As an athlete Kekkonen won a high-jump championship.

In 1924 Kekkonen visited Germany, where Hitler took his first steps to power. Next year he joined the Agrarian Party and published a pamphlet entitled Demokratian itsepuolustus, in which he warned of the threat from the extreme Right. However, Communism was considered more dangerous and the Communist Party was banned in Finland. In the mid-1920s,  Kekkonen was employed as an interrogator by Etsivä keskuspoliisi (the Central Detective Police). In his job he was as cunning and heavy-fisted as he would later be as a politician.

In 1936 Kekkonen became a member of the parliament and the second Minister of the Interior. He issued a ban on the IKL (the Patriotic Popular Movement), a Finnish fascist party, but his decision was declared by the court as unconstitutional. During the period of the Second World War Kekkonen served as the director of the Karelian evacuees welfare center (1940-1943) and then as the ministry's commissioner for coordination from 1943 to 1945. Under the pseudonym of "Pekka Peitsi" (Peter Pikestaff) he published writings on political issues in the weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti. While working as Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kekkonen contributed columns under the name Veljenpoika (1952-54) for Ilmari Turja's magazine Uusi Kuvalehti. Among his other pseudonyms were Urho Sorsimo, Olli Tampio, and Liimatainen.

Until the turning-point of Stalingrad, Kekkonen wished for a German victory. In November of 1944, he was appointed minister of justice in the cabinet of Juho Kusti Paasikivi. In this position, under the pressure of the Allied Control  Commission, he was responsible for managing the Finnish war-crimes trials. No-one was executed, and none of the condemned served full sentence. Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim, the commander of the Finnish forces, was never brought to trial. Labeled a turncoat by his political enemies, Kekkonen also started to create actively good relationships to the Soviet Union. Although he had been criticized by Moscow for "keeping a close eye on his own interest" at the same time, he was eventually considered indispensable by the Kremlin. 

Despite his dynamic campaigning, Kekkonen lost in 1950 the presidential election to Paasikivi, who had been reluctant to run for the Presidency due to his old age. Kekkonen's topical pamphlet entitled Onko maallamme malttia vaurastua (1952, Does our land have the patience to prosper?) advocated  massive state-sponsored investments in producctive equipment. This rather theoretical work did not gain a wide audience. Its state-capitalist ideas were greeted by hostile reviews in right-wing newspapers.

On his second attempt in 1956 Kekkonen was elected President - winning his Social Democrat rival K.-A. Fagerholm by two votes. Noteworthy, the Soviet press supported Kekkonen. With the help of the so-called Note Crisis, in which the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev proposed military consultations between Finland and the Soviet Union, he was re-elected for a second term. It has been claimed the crisis was deliberately staged and initiated by Kekkonen himself.  (Constructivism, Narrative and Foreign Policy Analysis: A Case Study of Finland by Christopher S. Browning, 2008, p. 225) The note, which referred to "West German militarists and revanchist penetration into North Europe and the region of the Baltic Sea", was sent when Kekkonen was on vacation in the Hawaiian Islands.

When the concept of "Finlandization" entered into common usage, Kekkonen tried in his speeches to whitewash its offensive meaning by arging that there was indeed such a thing but it should be seen as a positive phenomenon. This same view was shared by the American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, who objected the usage of the term as signifying something humiliating and spineless. (The Political Psychology of Appeasement: Finlandization and Other Unpopular Essays by Walter Laqueur, 1980, p. 12) At the peak of his power, Kekkonen's presidency was extended by the 1973 emergency law. The highlight of his career was the Conference on Security and Cooperation (CSCE) in Helsinki in 1975, when 35 leaders from Europe and North America, including President Ford and Secretary General Brezhnev, signed the Final Act (Helsinki Accords). Kekkonen held the office until illness (arteriosclerosis) finally forced his retirement on October 27, 1981. The government decided to allow him to continue living in the president's residence Tamminiemi.

Kekkonen died on August 31, 1986, at age 85. The cause of his death was a "circulatory disorder in the brain." He was buried next to his wife at the Hietaniemi cemetery in Helsinki. "While insuring Soviet acceptance of Finland's foreign policy, he also sought Western recognition of Finnish neutrality and in the early 1960's made a series of trips for that purpose, the principal one being to Washington in 1961. The acknowledgement he received from President Kennedy, who publicly expressed his ''understanding of why Finland is neutral,'' reflected State Department reluctance to ascribe neutrality to Finns but nevertheless was welcome as the first statement of its kind from the White House." ('Urho Kekkonen, 85, Is Dead; Finnish Presidend for 25 Years' by Werner Wiskari, The New York Times, August 31, 1986)

"Minulle eletty aika ei ole antanut sitä tyyntä viisautta menneeseen nähden, joka on syrjästäkatsojan ja jälkipolven etuoikeus. Sen on antanut vain kokemuksen siitä miten vähän ratkaisuja tehtäessä niiden seurauksista on tiedettävissä, ja rohkeuden tehdä niitä." (from Vastavirtaan)

Kekkonen was 5 feet 11 inches tall but in pictures he stood a little more taller than others around him. An outdoor man by nature, he loved fishing and hunting and kept himself physically fit by jogging and skiing. To the astonishment of photographers, he once climbed a palm tree in Tunisia. On hunting trips to Zavidovo with the Soviet leaders, Kekkonen was perhaps the only Western politician who was allowed to carry a loaded shotgun near them. Besides his politics, cartoonists made fun of Kekkonen's baldness and large-framed eyeglasses that looked like they had been styled by the same person who had designed Lada's headlights.

Throughout his life, Kekkonen was very productive writer, and he kept a diary in which he recorded his thoughts, but he never finished his memoirs. The first volume, Vuosisatani I (1981) was actually written by the poet, novelist and dramatist Paavo Haavikko who has scrutinized in his many works power and leading politicians in harsh light. "Demokratia itse voi suorastaan synnyttää ja kehittää vaikeita valtiollisia epäkohtia. Sellaisissa oloissa demokratian puoltajien on oltava valmiit juuri kansanvallan säilyttämiseksi tarpeen tullen luopumaan jostakin demokratialle vähemmän, tai ehkä enemmänki, oleellisesta, voidakseen pelastaa sen, minkä turvin kansanvalta voi sitä vastaan kohonneen myrskyn ajan säilyä ja sitten olosuhteitten rauhoituttua puhdistuneena ja selkeentyneenä taas kehittyä demokratian sisäistä olemusta enemmän vastaaviin muotoihin." (Kekkonen in 1933, from Vuosisatan I, 1981) The most comprehensive biography of Urho Kekkonen, written by Juhani Suomi, came out between 1986 and 2000. From the 1990s, Kekkonen's political heritage and his exercise of power has been under constant re-evaluation. This was because the president, as the director of foreign policy, used his influence also in domestic affairs through his personal network of friends and other acquaintances. Moreover, he did not hesitate to dissolve parliament when he saw it necessary. Often he expressed his opinions in personal letters, more or less poignantly. A selection of them, Kirjeitä myllystäni  I-II, was published by Otava in 1976.

Kekkonen kept in Tamminiemi always a pen and a notebook near his hand; especially before his resignation, writing was for him also a way to remember things. At the bedroom table he had a book by Anatole France, The Opinions of Mr. Jerome Coignard (translated into Finnish by Eino Leino), which he had bought in 1926. Like President Paasikivi, his predecessor, he had a copy of Machiavelli's classic work of politics, The Prince. His favorite novel was Cervantes's Don Quixote - its central theme, the eternal battle between idealism and realism, was one of the undercurrents of his own political career. Other writers in Kekkonen's large bookshelves included Mika Waltari, whom he admired greatly, Väinö Linna, Kalle Päätalo, Maiju Lassila, Paavo Rintala, Viljo, Kojo, Ilmari Kianto. Tamminiemi was turned into the Urho Kekkonen Home Museum in 1987.

On the same year that President Kekkonen died, Jörn Donner published Presidenten (1986), his roman à clef, in which the republic's long-time leader is seen through the eyes of his mistress. A wise and sensitive Kekkonen made a cameo appearance in Christer Kihlman's novel Dyre prins (1975). His character has inspired a number of other writers, too, among them Jari Tervo, whose Myyrä (2004, Mole) is actually a thriller about espionage, Finland and her neighbor the Soviet Union, "the largest concentration camp in the world." Tervo portrays Kekkonen at the same time as a mythical historical figure and a cynical, masterful political player. "The silence of the President is seen by political scientist as wisdom," Tervo said in Helsingin Sanomat, "even though it was not much different from the life of the baker of Treblinka."

Urho Kekkonen was married from 1926 to author Sylvi (Uino) Kekkonen (1900-1974). His contacts with writer's, artists and the cultural élite were wide before the beginning of his presidency. Sylvi Kekkonen had worked for a short time for Friends of Finnish Handicraft and then at the secretariat of the security police, where she met Urho Kekkonen. Her first book, Kiteitä (1949), was a collection of aphorisms. It was followed by Kotikaivolla (1952), a collection of reminiscences. After giving up paid employment and becoming a writer, Sylvi Kekkonen created a small literary circle. In 1953 she led a cultural delegation to China. Members of the group included, among others, Matti Kurjensaari, Ritva Arvelo, Kustaa Vilkuna, Aimo Kanerva, Mauri Ryömä, Aira Sinervo, and Pentti Haanpää, who gave an ironic account of his experiences in Kiinalaiset jutut (1954, Chinese tales). In spite of her many responsibilities and the tight schedule, Kekkonen enjoyed the journey – her eyes hidden behind dark glasses, she smiles and looks relaxed in many photograps. This tentative opening toward Mao's China created in Finland a kind of "China boom" in the form of lectures, newspaper and journal articles, and books. Kekkonen's book of memoir, Lankkuaidan suojassa, came out in 1968. Her best know work, Amalia (1958), has been translated into Russian, Estonian, Czech, Romanian, Slovakian, Polish, Hungarian, German and Swedish. Silently suffering rheumatoid arthritis, Kekkonen faithfully performed her public duties. She also overlooked her husband's heavy drinking and extramarital affairs. It is very possible that Urho Kekkonen had more than one mistress, though only one, the wife of an ambassador, wrote her memoirs.   

Kekkonen read widely novels, and often bought books after reading reviews from newspapers. During the 1960s the traditional values of the Church, the fatherland, and the army came under attack by the left-wing radicals, and one of the most crucial literary battles arose when writer Hannu Salama was prosecuted for blasphemy for his novel Juhannustanssit (Midsummer Dance). Salama lost the case and he was duly sentenced in 1968 to a term in prison, but he was pardoned by Kekkonen in the same year. President also sent Salama a postcard later - with the text "greetings from Himalayas". However, there were certain limits for tolerance and pluralist cultural policy. In 1975 the writer and artist Carl-Gustaf Lilius argued that the editorials in Finnish papers preferred not to take critical line towards the Soviet Union and accused journalists of self-censorship. This view has been commonly accepted after Kekkonen's death although in the 1970s it did not find too much defenders among writers.

From the 1950s, the cartoonist Kari Suomalainen criticized in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat Kekkonen and the government more cuttingly than political commentors from left to right. Pentti Saarikoski, a highly influential leftist poet, sent Kekkonen a poem, where he indirectly expressed his admiration - "räntäsateessa liput märkinä ystävyyden merkiksi". Like a number of other authors, he was fascinated by power. Keeping himself informed on cultural matters as well, Kekkonen often invited young radicals, artists, and intellectuals to Tamminiemi. These meeting were called the "children's party". 

Juhani Suomi's biography of Kekkonen: Myrrysmies: Urho Kekkonen 1936-1944 (1986); Vonkamies: Urho Kekkonen 1944-1950 (1988); Kuningastie: Urho Kekkonen 1950-56 (1990); Kriisien aika: Urho Kekkonen 1956-1962 (1992); Presidentti: Urho Kekkonen 1962-1968 (1994); Taistelu puolueettomuudesta: Urho Kekkonen 1968-1972 (1996); Liennytysten akanvirrassa: Urho Kekkonen 1972-1976 (1998); Umpeutuva latu (2000). For further reading: Urho Kekkonen by Kyösti Skyttä (1970); Päämies by Eino S. Repo (1985); Miten Kekkonen pääsi valtaan ja Suomi suomettui by Jukka Nevakivi (1996); Sylvi Kekkosen muotokuva by Marja-Liisa Vartio and Paavo Haavikko (2000); Sylvi Kekkosen elämä by Anne Mattson (2000); Urho Kekkonen - Suomen johtaja by Jukka Seppinen (2004); Urho Kekkonen ja Viro by Pekka Lilja ja Kulle Raig (2006); Kekkosen kanssa metsällä ja kalalla by Mauri Soikkanen (2006); Itäsuhteiden kolmiodraama: Kekkonen-Breznev-Kosygin 1960-1980 by Esa Seppänen (2007); "Kekkosen konstit": Urho Kekkosen historia- ja politiikkakäsitykset teoriasta käytäntöön 1933-1981 by Timo J. Tuikka (2007); Kekkografi och andra historiska spånor by Henrik Meinander (2008); Lohen sukua: Urho Kekkonen: poliitikko ja valtiomies by Juhani Suomi (2010); Neukkujen taskussa?: Kekkonen, suomalaiset puolueet ja Neuvostoliitto 1956-1971 by Antti Kujala (2013); Presidentti ja toimittaja by Maarit Tyrkkö (2016); UKK: koko tarina by Robert Brantberg (2017); Kekkonen urheilumiehenä: kilpakenttien Känästä Suomen presidentiksi by Kalle Virtapohja (2018); Koulupoikien vapaussota: Yrjö Schildt ja Urho Kekkonen by Juuso Salokoski (2018); Sylvin matkassa: yksityiset päiväkirjat Kiinasta by Timo Soikkanen, Henna Lohento, Pekka Lähteenkorva (2020); Kolmasti kuopattu: Urho Kekkosen poliittiset taisteluvuodet 1944-1956 by Juhani Suomi (2020) - See also: C.G. Mannerheim

Selected works:

  • Demokratian itsepuolustus, 1934
  • Kunnallinen vaalioikeus Suomen lain mukaan, 1936 (dissertation)
  • Löysin rantein, 1944 (as Pekka Peitsi)
  • Eheytynyt kansa taistelee elämästään, 1944 (as Pekka Peitsi)
  • Tässä sitä ollaan, 1944 (as Pekka Peitsi)
  • Onko maallamme malttia vaurastua, 1952
  • Puheita ja kirjoituksia I-IV, 1966-1972
  • Tuosta poikki – jukolauta 1968 (as Liimatainen)
  • Kirjeitä myllystäni I-II, 1976
  • Nimellä ja nimimerkillä I-II, 1977
  • Matkakuvia Kainuusta ja Lapista, 1977
  • Vuosisatani I, 1981 (written by Paavo Haavikko)
  • Vastavirtaan, 1983 (toim. Maarit Tyrkkö and Juhani Suomi)
  • Rakas häiskä, 1997 (correspondence of Urho Kekkonen and Sylvi Kekkonen 1924-45)
  • Sodan ja rauhan mies: Urho Kekkosen sotavuodet 1939-1955, 1998 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Nuori Urho. Urho Kekkosen Kajaaninvuodet 1911-1921, 1999 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Rillit pois ja riman yli, 1999 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Sanka-rillinen Känä, 2000 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Viidesti pääministeri, 2000 (edited by Ari Uino)
  • Urho Kekkosen päiväkirjat I, 2001 (edited by Juhani Suomi)
  • Urho Kekkosen päiväkirjat II, 2002 (edited by Juhani Suomi)
  • Urho Kekkosen päiväkirjat III, 2003 (edited by Juhani Suomi)
  • Urho Kekkosen päiväkirjat IV, 2004 (edited by Juhani Suomi)
  • Minä olin diktaattori – ja muita kirjoituksia, 2009 (edited by Pekka Tuomikoski)

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