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Relander, Lauri Kr. (1883 - 1942)

President of Finland

Lauri Kr. Relander
Uusi Suomi Photo Archives

Lauri Kristian Relander is the least known of Finland's presidents. He has often been depicted as a weak and colourless president who allowed himself to be led at a time of dissension in domestic politics and who had no clear line of his own. In the field of foreign politics, the Relander era saw the continuation of an isolationist policy, although the president did do valuable work in representing Finland abroad and in creating relationships with neighbouring countries at a head-of-state level.

The election of Lauri Kristian Relander - governor of the Province of Viipuri and a fairly unfamiliar figure in national politics - as president of Finland in February 1925, after Ståhlberg had declined to stand again, came as quite a surprise. Known as Reissu-Lassi ('Travelling Larry' ), the president was constantly making state visits and was also in demand as a guest at public events in Finland. As far as domestic politics were concerned, Relander's presidency was a time of dissension. As for foreign politics, the country's isolationist policy was - given the constraints of the time - continued. The end of his presidency was characterised by an intensification of anticommunist activities, by the rise of right-wing radicalism. Quarrels with the strongman of the Agrarian Party (Maalaisliitto), Kyösti Kallio, and an excessively sympathetic attitude towards the Lapua movement led to the Agrarian Party's not putting Relander up for president again in 1931.

The research worker

Lars Kristian (his first name was finnicised to Lauri during his time at school) was born in the Karelian parish of Kurkijoki, situated on the shores of Lake Ladoga halfway between Sortavala and Käkisalmi. His father, the agronomist Evald Kristian Relander, was the son of the assistant vicar of Kiihtelysvaara, and his mother, Gertrud Maria Olsoni, was the daughter of a senior clergyman. Having received average marks in his university entrance examinations, Lauri Kristian followed in his father's footsteps by studying agronomy.

His major subjects for his Master's degree were agricultural chemistry and agricultural economics. When Relander was a student, university teaching in agriculture was just taking its first steps. Modern agriculture required more than just knowledge and skills handed down from father to son; it was increasingly taking advantage of the latest scientific findings in crop and animal husbandry. Thus agricultural education was making rapid progress at the time, and it became the area in which Relander started his first career. After obtaining his degree, he spent ten years (1908 - 17) as a research worker at a state agricultural experimental institution. His doctoral dissertation, written in German and dealing with the germinative capacity of seeds, makes Relander one of the most important developers of agricultural experimentation and plant improvement in Finland. However, his research results and methods were strongly criticised when he attempted in vain to obtain a lectureship at the University. The crucial negative assessment was given by Professor Aimo Cajander, who later became prime minister.

Member of the Agrarian Party

Having been frustrated in his academic career, Relander, who had been a member of the Agrarian Party for many years, became a civil servant and politician. The fact that Relander, who had just won his academic spurs, joined this small and poor rural-based party in 1907 was the result of ideological identification. It was certainly not an act of opportunism - at any rate, not after the party had won only nine seats in the first elections for the new single-chamber parliament - a result that was a great disappointment to its members. The party did not realise its ambition of becoming a party representing the majority of the people - the main party of farmers and the rural population in general. Considering his background, Relander was in any case something of an oddity in a party inimical to the gentry. On the other hand, it was precisely his educational level that gave him political clout. The sociable and conciliatory Relander was elected an MP for the first time in 1910. He rose to the ranks of the Agrarian Party's leadership around 1917.

Finland's achievement of independence and the outcome of the Civil War gave a swift boost to Relander's political career. The Agrarian Party grew in strength, and its parliamentary representation increased from election to election (26 seats out of 200 in 1917 and 42 in 1919). This brought with it ever more important duties for the party's representatives; and the academically trained, linguistically gifted and personable Relander was a highly suitable choice for such tasks. He was the speaker of parliament for its 1919 session and part of its 1920 session. In the latter year he was appointed governor of the Province of Viipuri. There was multiparty support for this appointment among MPs from the province.

The recipe for political action that Relander was to employ as president had already became very clear during his tenure of preceding offices. Dearest to his heart was the rural population and in particular the success of agricultural producers. As governor of a border region, Relander spoke and acted in favour of maintaining discipline and order in the area, and he participated energetically in voluntary defence activities.

Both as a man and a politician, Relander strove to avoid conflict. But he was not prepared to seek compromises on any terms whatever. Relander believed that national harmony required acceptance by the Left of the ground rules of democracy, approval of the republic on the part of the Right, and moderation from the nationalists on the language issue. He did not mince words when presenting his opinions in discussions and newspaper articles - even in a fashion which angered leading figures in his own party.

Relander did not become a minister, let alone prime minister, in the 1920s, though there were speculations to that effect. He was thwarted by the fact that not once did President Ståhlberg choose him to form a government. A minister's post remained beyond reach because at decisive moments Relander did not enjoy sufficient support within his own party. The Agrarian Party's strongmen Santeri Alkio and Kyösti Kallio in turn became fed up with Relander's political private entrepreneurship.

Presidential elections

Finland's first president, Ståhlberg, was elected by parliament. In 1925, an electoral college of 300 members was employed to elect the president. The election of the members took place on 15/16 January 1925, and bad weather conditions led to a low voter turnout - 39.7 percent. Supporters of the left-wing parties were particularly remiss in voting, because it was known in advance that the president would be elected from amongst the non-socialist candidates.

Lauri Kristian Relander, who was only 41, was chosen as the candidate of the Agrarian Party only after the voting for the electoral college - one day before the final vote. He was a surprise candidate put forward by his party's Karelian wing, and his choice came at an opportune moment, since the party's other big names, Santeri Alkio, Kyösti Kallio and Eero Pehkonen, had declined to stand. Kallio, for example, was opposed to the party's putting up a candidate of its own, favouring the election of Risto Ryti of the Progessive Party (Edistyspuolue).

In the electoral college voting, the key to Relander's election as president was the fact that he attracted less opposition than Risto Ryti, whom the Agrarians and some of the Progressives regarded as an anti-agriculture politician. But the Progressive Party held to Ryti and could not be moved to support Juho Vennola, the Progressive most favoured by the Agrarian Party. As a right-wing Agrarian and champion of national defence, Relander suited the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus), and from the viewpoint of language policy, he appealed as a moderate to the Swedish-speaking members of the college, who remembered that his wife was Swedish-speaking. As Georg Schauman quipped after the election: "We voted not for Lauri Kristian but for Mrs Relander" ("Int' röstade vi på Lauri Kristian utan fru Relander"). In the third round, Relander received the votes of the Agrarian Party, the National Coalition Party and the Swedish People's Party (Svenska Folkpartiet) and beat Ryti by 172-109 votes. The Communists abstained.

A president who aroused conflicting emotions

During his presidency, Relander aroused highly conflicting emotions amongst Finland's political elite. On the one hand he continued to make many independent decisions, and this annoyed his fellow Agrarian Party members. On the other hand, the president was susceptible to influence; and he listened to rumours, being readily offended by them. He was quick to believe those in whom he trusted, but because of his poor self-esteem, relationships with these trusted people may often have been strained. His lack of a thick skin is clearly evident in Relander's posthumously published diaries.

In Relander's presidency, it was not only his lack of experience in national politics that was a stumbling block but also his youth, which prevented the political elite from really taking him seriously. The energetic and talkative president sometimes acted without a clear line, a habit which his political opponents were quick to seize upon. And the lack of a clear line also wore away support for Relander among those who had initially had a positive attitude towards him.

Unlike Ståhlberg, Relander was no implementer of a political programme but rather a solver of matters and problems as they came up. His verbal line, with its constant emphasis on fairness and even-handedness, sometimes looked like a manifestation of weakness. The vexatious shadow of Ståhlberg followed Relander everywhere; the two were constantly being compared.

In particular, Relander came into conflict with the Agrarian Party's strongman Kyösti Kallio. The Karelian wing had earlier already been - covertly or overtly - the strongest opponent of the dominant position of Ostrobothnians in the party. It was also a matter of personal chemistry and later also of drawing political lines. Relander had, for example, a more positive and tolerant attitude than Kallio towards the emerging right-wing radicalism. In the battle for the leadership of the Agrarian Party – a struggle which ultimately became a personal contest between Kallio and Juho Sunila - Relander's sympathies were on the side of the latter. Sunila, who was also an agricultural research worker, had long been an acquaintance of Relander's. It is, however, indicative of the president's touchiness in personal relationships that his relations with the strong-willed Sunila, who when necessary swiftly and disrespectfully admonished him, were sometimes completely non-existent.

With one exception, the governments of Relander's presidency were minority administrations. The repeated failures to form majority governments were not, however, due to Relander personally. Relations between the parties were strained and conflicts between individuals considerable.

Although Relander was emotionally opposed to the Left, in late 1926 he allowed Väinö Tanner, whom he regarded highly, to form a Social Democrat minority government. He wanted to bind the Social Democrats more firmly to the parliamentary system and at the same time - by showing that there were other ways of forming a government - to persuade the squabbling non-socialists to cooperate with one another.

In addition to being prime minister, Tanner also had to perform the president's functions for three-and-a-half months after Relander fell ill with a joint ailment, evidently an after-effect of influenza, in the spring of 1927. The illness was at times so serious that his doctors doubted that Relander would recover. While the president was on sick leave, Tanner reviewed the army's Flag Day parade at Senate Square in Helsinki, an action that led to criticism from the left of the political spectrum and astonishment in right-wing circles.

In matters of foreign policy, the president placed especial trust in Hjalmar J. Procopé, who was foreign minister from December 1927 to February 1931 at the end of Relander's term. In the absence of alternatives, Finland's security policy continued on the path of splendid isolation, aimed especially at maintaining independence from the Soviet Union. Relander's view of the Soviet Union was the same as that of other non-socialists. He would have liked to see the Bolshevik system collapse in Russia. A correct posture towards the Soviet Union meant at most that Relander met the Soviet ambassador to Finland in February 1930, an action that raised a storm of protest among right-wingers. Relander believed that Finland had a bridge-building role as far as Scandinavia and the Baltic States were concerned. From Finland's viewpoint, a Scandinavian-Baltic union with good relationships with Britain and Germany would also ensure peace to the east; he had a negative attitude towards a purely border-state policy.

Despite the policy of non-alignment, Relander opened up contacts with the outside world by making state visits to Estonia, Sweden, Latvia, Denmark and Norway. His trips were important in presenting the young nation on the international stage; as well as attracting great publicity, they created an image of Finland in the countries that he visited. The urbane and likeable president reaped goodwill for Finland and provided a picture of a stable and civilised Finnish society. Relander had a natural flair for public appearances, and he was thus also much in demand as a guest of honour or speaker at events in Finland. And he enjoyed making such appearances.

The attitude of the Finnish press to the president's trips was not always favourable, and cartoonists fed upon them. Sneerers quipped that after a jurist president, Finland now had a tourist president. Relander was called 'Raillander' or 'Travelling Larry'. But amongst the public, the president's domestic and foreign trips also attracted much positive interest. They were a notable source of news for magazines and dailies. It can thus be said that Relander 'popularised down' the presidency from the pedestal that the reserved and distant Ståhlberg had erected.

The end of a presidency

Relander's hopes for a second term as president were dashed by the fact that in 1931 the Agrarian Party chose as its candidate not him but Kyösti Kallio, who this time did not say no.

Relander had supported the fight against communism that began with the Lapua movement. At the opening of the parliamentary session early in August 1929, for example, he stated that the nation expected the parliament and government to act resolutely against the communists' criminal agitation. He saw the Lapua movement as a healthy reaction of the people to activities directed against society. Although the president was alarmed by the illegality associated with right-wing radicalism, his attitude to the movement is generally considered to have been vacillating. To Relander's annoyance, circles critical of the Lapua movement interpreted his speeches and actions as those of a person sympathetic to right-wing radicalism. He himself regarded as his worst mistake his shaking hands with the leader of the Lapua movement, Vihtori Kosola, on the occasion of a peasants' march in July 1930. This was used as a symbol of the president's lack of circumspection.

During the presidential election of January/February 1931, Relander, who had seen that his own chances of being elected were nonexistent, played a part - even a decisive one - in ensuring that his fellow party member Kyösti Kallio was defeated in the third round. Relander was satisfied by the fact that the successful candidate was Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, whom he had appointed as prime minister in 1930 to restore legal order to the country. Relander had first made Svinhufvud a sort of shadow prime minister while Kallio's narrowly based Agrarian Party government was still in office. In addition, Svinhufvud had formed a non-socialist coalition government in summer 1930 after Kallio's government had resigned as a result of pressure, even though it had just won a vote of confidence in parliament.

After his term as president, Relander served as the general manager of Suomen maalaisten paloapuyhdistys, a fire insurance company for rural people, until his early death of a heart attack in 1942. Unlike his predecessor Ståhlberg, Relander did not return the political arena after his presidency, although he still followed politics with interest. He continued to participate in state occasions, mainly as guest of honour at many celebrations.

Relander and his wife Signe, the daughter of a Helsinki merchant, had two children. He enjoyed his leisure time in Karelia and Viipuri. From 1924 onwards, he had an imposing horticultural property, Pamppusaari, in Viipuri Rural District, and he cultivated it enthusiastically together with his gardener. Pamppusaari was the place where Relander rested and caught his breath even during his busy and turbulent years as a politician. Even during his Helsinki years it was his real home, where he was to have moved to spend his retirement years. They never came. After the Second World War, Pamppusaari was in the area ceded to the Soviet Union.

Since the Second World War, Lauri Kristian Relander has been the least-known of our presidents, and he has not aroused any political passions. Commentators have been disparaging and unenthusiastic in their assessment of him. Relander was not the sort of popular leader whom people might have tried to attract back into politics in the 1930s. On the other hand, there was no necessity to criticise him, either, as he did not become a political threat to anyone after his presidency. He was and remained on the sidelines.

The political atmosphere after the Second World War merely strengthened the rather negative image left behind by Relander's presidency and sympathy with right-wing radicalism. In Relander's own Agrarian Party - later to become the Centre Party - nobody needed to or found it worthwhile to defend the politics associated with Relander's name. When the president's diaries were released in 1967 - 68, it was possible to establish that Lauri Kristian Relander was not, after all, such a weak president as his political opponents had made out. At the same time, the diaries told in a simple style how the well-intentioned and sensitive Relander was forced, on becoming president, to step into boots that were too big for him.

Jukka-Pekka Pietiäinen

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Lauri Kristian Relander, born 31.5.1883 Kurkijoki, died 9.2.1942 Helsinki. Parents: Evald Kristian Relander, agronomist, and Gertrud Maria Olsoni. Wife: 1906 - 1942 Signe Maria Österman, born 1886, died 1962, wife's parents: Johan Fredrik Österman and Johanna Karolina Jusell. Children: Maja-Lisa (Baeckman), born 1907, died 1990, registrar; Ragnar Olavi Kristian, born 1910, died 1970, painter.

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