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The Sauna – a Site for Power Politics?

Written by: Matti Spara

In the so-called “practice turn” in IR, a diverse body of theoretical literature that emphasises the everyday practices of international relations, Merje Kuus and others have asked interesting questions about the “where?” of international politics and to what extent diplomatic sites matter in foreign policy.

Sauna is one such setting. It is a wooden room with a kiuas (sauna stove), that is heated to a high temperature where one sits and relaxes. Sauna plays an important role in Finnish identity, and it has an interesting history in the country’s foreign policy. Indeed, around four fifths of Finnish embassies around the world have a sauna. Sauna diplomacy, the conduct of diplomatic relations in the sauna, is making a comeback in the Finnish public discourse and academic literature. Special attention has been given to President Urho Kekkonen’s (1956 – 1981) relations with the Premiers of the Soviet Union during the Cold war, and how the Finnish President managed to keep Finland independent by strongarm sauna diplomacy.

The logic of this strongarm narrative is based on the idea that as a Finnish cultural context, the sauna transforms identities and affects the “sense of place” of the Soviets and the Finns by making Finns somehow dominant in that setting. Both parties internalise the “rules” of the sauna and act accordingly. In the sauna, Kekkonen was at his cultural and symbolic home, making the Soviets cultural and symbolic guests, giving the Finnish Premier symbolic power. Thanks to an intimate, exotic and extremely hot milieu where beer and vodka were consumed, Kekkonen was able to persuade Premiers Nikita Khrushchev (1953 – 1964) and Aleksei Kosygin (1964 – 1980) from conducting foreign policy harmful to Finnish national interests. Nudity also helped. In the sauna, Kekkonen was able to turn the tables and transform power relations. Sauna became a setting where a small state turns into a superpower, and the Gulliver shrank into the size of a lilliput.

This power political reading of sauna diplomacy is a Finnish national myth.

Instead of being a context of power politics and coercion, the sauna is a diplomatic site for forging friendships and cultivating diplomatic communication.

Indeed, in his memoirs, Khrushchev reminisces his visit to Kekkonen’s residence in 1957: “I met the President of Finland many times and I travelled there myself. We met in different ways, washed in his own sauna and drank beer there.” The sauna made such a special bond between the two leaders that Kekkonen even sent his Soviet counterpart a Finnish sauna, which was placed before Khrushchev’s dacha.

The special relationship of the two is best captured in an archived video from November/December 1963, when Kekkonen and Khrushchev go hunting together in Zavidovo. When Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, Kekkonen wrote in his diary “The ousting of Khrushchev was a shock to me, it worries and saddens me.” Sauna played a crucial role in the friendly relations between Kekkonen and Khrushchev.

Khrushchev (on the left) and Kekkonen (second from the right) in Zavidovo. This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

Similarly, Kosygin was always happy to accept Kekkonen’s invitation to the Tamminiemi residence. In 1966, Kosygin and Kekkonen spent several hours in the sauna at least on three different sessions during his one-week diplomatic visit.

To this day, the sauna is used by Finnish diplomats in their everyday work. A mid-career diplomat comments: “I had never talked to [a counterpart from another European embassy] for more than a couple of minutes in the sidelines of a meeting at the EU delegation. In the sauna, we discussed our families, reasons for taking up our current positions. … Now it’s much easier to call them if I need any help at work.” Sauna is an informal site where diplomats find it easy to connect with each other. It lowers communication barriers and facilitates cooperation.

Moreover, the Finnish Embassy in the United States recently re-launched its Diplomatic Sauna Society after a pandemic-induced hiatus. The Diplomatic Sauna society is a networking club for decision-makers and diplomatic elites in Washington D.C. Foreign policy wonks have invoked concepts such as “soft power” to describe Finland’s initiative. Indeed, an afternoon in the Löyly (sauna steam) can be a fun cultural experience for anyone, spreading a good Nordic vibe and boosting Finland’s standing in international society.

However, soft power is not the only form of power at work here. Sauna is more than a marketing tool. It plays an integral part in Finnish foreign policy. However, it is not a site of power politics and coercion. It is a diplomatic site where social magic is at play, and friendships are forged.

Featured image by Kukkakauppias (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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