Diplomatic lives in and around Finland: Arthur J. Collingsworth, Yuri Deryabin, Krister Wahlbäck

This summer saw the death in close succession of three retired diplomats who had been in contact with Finland during the Cold War: Arthur Collingsworth, Yuri Deryabin, and Krister Wahlbäck. All three showed, at different stages, with different reasons and at different degrees of intensity, considerable interest for this country; one of them, Deryabin, can even be seen as an important part of Finland’s contemporary history. Out of scholarly interest for its history, personal ties with its people, or political interest for the peculiarities of Cold War situation, or just because they thought immersing themselves in the society they were commissioned to was the best way to do their job, these diplomats built strong links to Finnish society.

The first to die, on July 23rd, was Arthur J. Collingsworth. While Wahlbäck and Deryabin were in the business of bilateral relations between their country and Finland, the boy-wonder from Michigan, born in 1944 and educated in Ann Arbor, specialized in multilateral relations. He worked mostly for the UN, and moved into circles that modern research would call “transnational”: UN offices, associations and international organizations specializing in education and exchange policy, humanitarian fund-raising, innovation policy and the like. He specialized in the kind of sub-political international relations conducted in organizations and through networks distinct from the traditional diplomatic circuits. At the end of his life, he branched almost naturally from the work of these agencies into private consultancy work. All in all, the man cuts a modern figure of “public”, “multilateral diplomat.”

His interest in Finland originally came from the contacts he built through Youth For Understanding* trips, and the networks he built with Finnish personalities who treated him as an “esteemed foreign guest.” Innovation policy and development aid were the main parts of this relation with Finland. He managed with Finnish authorities the creation in Helsinki of the World Institute for Development Economics Research, and was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Millennium Technology Prize in 1999. In the coming years, anyone interested in these two aspects (development aid, “technology” diplomacy) of Finnish diplomacy should certainly pay attention to the eventual opening of Mr. Collingsworth’s papers…

Collingsworth stands in sharp contrast to his two colleagues. Where the American moved in transnational circuits, and dealt with technical or cultural aspects of international relations distinct from the high politics of traditional diplomacy, Youri Deryabin for example was a staunch G-man in the Soviet ambassadorial tradition. Where Collingsworth mostly saw Finland through his networks amongst the country’s academic, diplomatic, political and intellectual circles, Deryabin and Wahlbäck shared a profound acquaintance with the country, its history, its language.

Krister Wahlbäck, who passed away two days after Collingsworth,was first and foremost an academically trained scholar, whose specialty in the History of Swedish Foreign Policy pushed him towards studying Sweden’s relations to its former eastern part, lost in 1809 to the Russian empire. He was a professor in international relations for most of the 1970s, and entered the diplomatic corps almost as an afterthought to this academic career. He was sent to Helsinki at the end of the 1980s.

When he arrived in Finland, Wahlbäck had already conducted most of the research that will inform his excellent Jättens andedräkt. Finlandsfrågan i svensk politik 1809-2009 (The giant’s breath: The Finnish Question in Sweden’s Foreign Policy, 1809-2009), published in 2009. The Finns have had complex, at times conflictual but mostly distant relations with foreigners writing about their history, and Wahlbäck’s study hasn’t been translated in Finnish yet. Despite that, the book was noted by scholars for his vast knowledge of both Swedish and Finnish material. Wahlbäck got beyond “esteemed foreign guest”, up to the level of someone “who knew about the history of Finland”; high praise indeed, leveled by Helsingin Sanomat in the title of Wahlbäck’s obituary.

Yuri Deryabin, last but not least, managed to climb even further in the ecosystem of “Finland’s friends”: he carved for himself, as the most powerful representative of the Soviet Union in 1970s Finland, a very specific position. Deryabin’s position as a Soviet diplomat in those years obviously gave him a certain status: he had worked in Norway in the beginning of the 1960s, and upon coming back to Moscow led the Nordic division of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His interest for Nordic and Scandinavian affairs brought him back to Northern Europe, and he was nominated in Helsinki as a deputy chief of mission in 1973. There he became the main Soviet interlocutor of the Finnish leadership. In a context where the Soviet Union was the first circle of Finnish foreign policy, Deryabin’s advise was sought after, and his oracles dissected to find out what “Moscow was thinking”. A supporter of Yeltsin, he was minister for a short stint in 1991, then came back in 1992-1996 as Russia’s ambassador to Helsinki.

In the generally low-profile world of Soviet diplomats, Deryabin stands out as a particularly flamboyant figure. Under two Cold War presidents, from Urho Kekkonen to Mauno Koivisto, he commented in books, articles, editorials and in conversations the position of Finland and the intricacies of the “Eastern relation” that linked the country to the USSR. Having learned the language, Deryabin wrote books and columns under a rather transparent pen-name (Yuri Komissarov), and took a strong part in the Finnish debates. Deryabin’s gusto, his strong positions on the necessity of close and confident Finno-Soviet relations, his knowledge of Scandinavian and Finnish realities, and his handy links with the Finnish political world, guaranteed that he stood at the very heart of finno-soviet relations. He was part of a network of interlocking personal bonds that extended from the political circles in Helsinki to the Soviet leadership in Moscow, and through which the Cold War political and economic relations between Finland and the Soviet Union were largely managed. As such, Deryabin was part of the landscape: he controlled the liturgy of finno-soviet friendship, played the lecturing uncle when the Finns tried to emphasize “neutrality” above “good relations with the USSR”, acted as a reassuring in-betweener in case of concrete problems, and kept everybody civil, for fear of ending on the receiving end of Komissarov’s editorials. After his retirement, he continued to comment Finland’s history, and the country’s international position – for example, the prospect of NATO-membership for the country.

The links of these diplomats with Finland brings forward the question of ambassadors or diplomatic representatives “going native”: should an ambassador understand too much of his country of residency? Is an ambassador who understands and sympathizes too much with the “locals” still a good ambassador, able to staunchly defend the interest of his country even in a crisis with the country of residency?

One finds in Franco-Finnish relations several examples of the contrary: French ambassadors and diplomats nominated for short periods, and who mostly hovered above Finnish realities, blissfully ignorant, stuck in those Helsinki circles where people would have the good manners to speak French. Diplomats, after all, showcase the infatuations and prejudices of their times and cast: for most of French ambassadors in a small country at the time, a local speaking French would look more interesting. Amongst the diplomats I studied for my PhD, few would show some interest for local realities. The most involved would be Maurice de Coppet, who alongside his wife Yseult forged personal, academic, cultural links with the country they lived in. More recently, Jean-Jacques Subrenat was another example of academic diplomats with a knowledge not only of the country but also of the region and its languages.

To conclude a slightly rambling post, one can take Deryabin, Collingsworth and Wahlbäck as examples to suggest the riches hidden in the study of diplomatic envoys for students of international history. All three had fascinating lives in their own rights – my personal favorite being Collingsworth, both for his activities in multilateral diplomacy and because I would like to hear more about being a homosexual republican in the 1970s-1980s United States. But diplomats, and besides them the vast galaxy of envoys, in-betweens, attaches and the like, both at multilateral and bilateral levels, offer more than just biographical anecdotes. In the archives, it is often their voice that we hear, their prejudices and conceptions that we witness. They inform decisions, act as links, sometimes lead the way. Their role can be important in punctual decision-making, at dramatic moments. But it is even more important on the long run, in creating links, spreading information and notions, preparing the ground – or messing things up. One should hope diplomats and other envoys will be rediscovered as essential parts of the mechanics of international relations, by researchers armed with the tools of social, cultural, or transnational history forged in the last 50 years.



* The Finnish branch of YFU has recently been the subject of a fascinating research and archive project conducted within Finland’s National Archives. In the context of Cold War Finland, organizations such as YFU were in the crossfire of political and intellectual debates. Their exchange programs were considered as ” windows to the West” by the US authorities, who were eager to use cultural and academic exchanges as a way to reach out to the Finns, and by some groups in Finland eager to see a wider world, beyond relations with the USSR and Scandinavia.

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