Who remembers 2nd Secretary Ivanov?
The Russian First Deputy Prime Minister spent six years in Helsinki in the 1980s
By Heikki Hellman
Sergei Ivanov. Sergei Borisovich Ivanov.
The very name is so archetypically Russian that it almost immediately has a familiar and sympathetic ring to it.
There is no shortage of Sergei Ivanovs out there. Off the cuff, several come to mind: Sergei Ivanov the volleyball player, many times a Finnish champion; Sergei Ivanov the Russian chess grandmaster; Sergei Valeryevich Ivanov the professional cyclist, a three-time Russian champion and participant in the Tour de France...
But this article is not about them, but about the recently-appointed First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and former Minister of Defence Sergei Ivanov. A man who is regarded by many as possibly the strongest candidate to succeed President Vladimir Putin .
In a recent interview in a Russian newspaper, Ivanov expressed his quiet satisfaction that his very humdrum name also protected his wife and his two sons, both now adult.
They have been able to live in peace without many people ever stopping to think that they are related to that Ivanov.
In the 1980s, Sergei Ivanov lived in Helsinki, working under the title of a 3rd (and later 2nd) Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in the capital.
Over a period of nearly six years he thoroughly familiarised himself with Finland and met a great many Finnish politicians, businessmen, and university people.
For many Finns active at that time, he is simply Sergei. That old acquaintance of theirs who - before he acquired ministerial status some years ago - might call them up in their Moscow hotel room with a cheery: "Hi! It's Sergei."
Perhaps we ought to back up a little way and consider regarding Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as a kind of "Finnish champion", too, on the strength of how much he knows about Finland and the Finns.
But what do the Finns know of him?
Who recalls Comrade Ivanov from those days?
The surprising thing is that while many remember Sergei Ivanov, there is very little to be said about him.
It could of course be that if the pundits are right and if Ivanov does become the Russian leader after the 2008 Presidential Elections, more acquaintances from the past will break cover. Suddenly they will remember that, yes, he and I were buddies already a couple of decades ago, and yes, we'd go out to lunch and for a drink, and all the jokes we used to laugh at together...
Nevertheless, by all accounts the relationship of Sergei Ivanov to Finland has less colour to it than that of Vladimir Putin.
When Putin became President at the turn of the millennium, he was a relatively unknown figure outside of Moscow.
Not in Turku, however.
The Turku folks immediately recognised that the new man in the Kremlin was none other than their old mate Vladimir Vladimirovich.
In the early 1990s, Putin was responsible for international affairs in the Mayor's office in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it still then was. Before long he became Head of the Committee for External Relations, and a few years later he was appointed First Deputy Head of the city's administration.
Now with Turku and St. Petersburg being twinned since 1953, Putin was a more than regular visitor on Finland's south-west coast.
Vladimir Putin is remembered fondly for putting on his football boots and turning out for the City of St. Petersburg Select XI when they played a friendly match in Turku against "The Bishop's Boys", a team of Finnish clerics led by Archbishop John Vickström, in early 1994.
The Finnish hosts won 2-1.
For the most part, Putin's Turku friends were involved in the city administration, but he also mixed with local entrepreneurs, as his remit in St. Petersburg was to bring in foreign investment to the city.
As a result, quite a few people struck up a close friendship with him, and when their Russian visitor turned 40 in October 1992, the Turku crowd took Putin up to Ruka in Southern Lapland to celebrate the event.
The Finns - and particularly those from Turku - have so much information about Putin that they have not been bothered to release it all.
So how come there isn't much to say about Sergei Ivanov?
In the first place, because Ivanov was stationed in Helsinki on intelligence business.
His real employer was not the Soviet Foreign Ministry but the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, responsible for foreign intelligence gathering operations - and all his Finnish acquaintances seem to have been well aware of this fact.
When the gentleman tucking in to his steak tartare across the table from you in the Kosmos Restaurant was a spy, then you did not get into deep personal discussions.
"Naturally we all knew which team he was playing for", says Antti Peltomäki, nowadays the Head of the European Commission Representation in Finland.
Between 1988 and 1991, Peltomäki served as the Head of the National Coalition Party's International Office. These were the final days of the collapse of the socialist empire and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Ivanov met with members of the conservative party and with people from the Swedish People's Party, and even attended party conferences.
According to Peltomäki, Ivanov's contacts were regular. They would meet once every month or two. "But I did not know who all the others were with whom he had connections", says Peltomäki.
The reason why - with one exception - it is worthless trying to locate Sergei Ivanov's name for instance from books on Soviet espionage and intelligence work is that in the great scheme of things he was for a long time just one of the rank and file. A foot-soldier who even in Finland only mixed with the middle-ranking figures. Ministers and party leaders were not numbered among his luncheon partners.
Ivanov's time in Finland can be tracked from the typewritten cards on members of the diplomatic corps stationed in Helsinki, which are to be found from the archives of the Foreign Ministry's Protocol Department.
According to the typewritten notes, Sergei Ivanov got his first taste of Helsinki when the city is usually at its darkest and least welcoming, towards the end of November. However, Ivanov was lucky: a strong high-pressure system was drifting slowly across Finland towards the east. Even in the south it was a few degrees below freezing, and there was a thin coating of snow on the ground to brighten things up.
A card was issued in Ivanov's name on November 27th, 1984.
At that time the Soviet Union was still under the brief stewardship of CPSU Secretary Konstantin Chernenko (1911-1985).
Initially Ivanov was listed as the 3rd Secretary. In April 1988 he was promoted to 2nd Secretary. The card indicates that he left Finland on August 17th 1990, in the final phase of Mikhail Gorbachev's time at the helm.
The previous autumn had seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, and by Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.
One who remembers Ivanov's departure quite clearly was the then Swedish People's Party Secretary Peter Stenlund, now the Finnish Ambassador in Oslo.
Stenlund and his wife had invited Ivanov and his wife and two sons on a summer excursion to their home turf near Kristiinankaupunki, on the west coast. The party spent the night in the idyllic surroundings of Siipyy, in the guest house attached to the Kiili Local Museum. They ate and drank well, and enjoyed high summer on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia. "It was a kind of farewell visit", Stenlund recalls.
Even though Ivanov also spoke Swedish, even with the Stenlunds he preferred to chat in English.
"We said our goodbyes the next day at the main square in Kristiinankaupunki, in the middle of the market day bustle", says Stenlund. "That was probably as private as it ever got between us."
Relations with the young Soviet Embassy official were thus kept on a polite, but for the most part fairly distant level. That was the way it was done.
It was also the Finnish way of that time that many, many similar relationships flourished.
The network of contacts that existed between prominent Finnish individuals and the dozens of KGB officers working out of the Embassy on Tehtaankatu is now well-documented.
Until the collapse of the USSR, every self-respecting Finnish politician and anyone who had an eye for the lucrative Russian trade had their own so-called kotiryssä [the direct translation is "Home Russian", though "Pet Russian" comes close], who kept in touch, was keen to discuss things, and offered advice.
The system had begun to take shape in the 1950s, and gradually it replaced to a large extent the traditional spycraft tools of surveillance and recruitment.
From the Soviet perspective, this was the building of "confidential relationships", a softer way of gathering information and intelligence and binding the Finns.
Many a Finn used the meetings as a means to further his career. A still greater number, however, were probably only in it to try to stay on reasonable terms with the Big Russian Brother living next door.
Finnish politicians often referred euphemistically to the Tehtaankatu KGB officers as "representatives of the party line", to distinguish them from the real diplomats on the staff.
The "party-liners" took their orders from the KGB legal resident, the bureau chief or local director. The best-known of these was Viktor Vladimirov, whose contacts stretched as far as President Urho Kekkonen and the Foreign Minister and two-term Prime Minister Ahti Karjalainen.
The last Tehtaankatu resident was Felix Karasev, who would keep in touch with President Mauno Koivisto - at least until 1991, when Koivisto announced that henceforth he would be carrying on his Russian relations solely through the accredited Ambassador.
Finland's Security Police (SUPO) were naturally well up to speed on the Russians' activities, and they kept a discreet eye on meetings.
For example, in a book on the time, Prof. Kimmo Rentola has listed in detail - leaning on SUPO archive sources - the names of which Finns the key KGB agents met with on a regular basis between 1969 and 1971.
Ivanov's meetings will doubtless be noted down in the same SUPO archives, but in accordance with the 25-year ruling on classified documents such as these, the researchers will only be able to get their hands on them a few years from now.
SUPO also gave advice and warnings to the Finnish parties about the dangers of these encounters.
Over the years, representatives of both sides were guilty of lapses of judgement that led to official action. In the case of the Finns, the consequences could be very awkward: a charge of espionage. Around forty KGB officers have been expelled from Finland since 1975 for "conduct unbecoming a member of the Diplomatic Corps".
It is known, for instance, that Viktor Vladimirov was expelled from Canada while he was stationed in Ottawa. However, he was allowed to operate in Finland. Some sources allege that Sergei Ivanov would have been asked to leave London and the U.K. before his next assignment was announced - Helsinki.
If Ivanov's employers were known, then the question inevitably arises - what on earth did those who were in contact with Ivanov DO with him?
"We ate lunch together in various downtown restaurants", says Anti Peltomäki. "We talked generally about politics, not just about Finnish matters but world politics in general."
Peter Stenlund remembers one particular feature of their meetings: "Never the same eatery twice. There was no regular place to go out to."
The then Helsingin Sanomat editorial columnist Martti Valkonen has written in a book on the relations with Finland of the KGB and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) that he was introduced in the summer of 1985 to a young Soviet Embassy official who spoke excellent English.
The meeting took place at a reception held in Kaivohuone, a restaurant in the "Embassy Row" district of Kaivopusto, and the young man was Sergei Ivanov. Ivanov suggested lunch soon afterwards, and their acquaintance continued well into the following winter, according to Valkonen.
Who picked up the tab for lunches with the man from the KGB?
Usually the restaurant bills were handled on an alternating basis. Ivanov clearly had a decent expense account, and equally clearly he did not need to report in any great detail how he spent it.
"He didn't bother to pick up the bill from the table as we went out, but left it there as a souvenir for the waiter", writes Valkonen.
One party official from the National Coalition Party reports that in addition to lunches there were sauna evenings with the short but very fit Russian. "In Hotel Hesperia, in Hotel Palace..."
This NCP official recalls having also gone to Ivanov's home for a dinner party. In those days, in the mid-1980s, the young 3rd Secretary still lived in Kaivopuisto, close to the Embassy.
Another of Ivanov's acquaintances was a university lecturer, who believes that the KGB man got in touch with him as a result of his research on arms control and Finnish neutrality.
He, too, was invited to dinner at the Russian's home, but by this time Ivanov had been promoted and was already living in the West Helsinki suburb of Lauttasaari. He reportedly had a small but comfortable apartment, and the living-room was dominated by a large round dining table.
But when all is said and done, a spy is a spy is a spy - even over aperitifs and lunch.
Martti Valkonen has reported that wherever he went, Ivanov carried an attaché case that he left by the leg of the table during meals. Every 45 minutes or so, Ivanov would depart to the gents, accompanied by his case. If the lunch engagement dragged on, he would go off to the WC again after another 45 minutes.
Based on this observation, the KGB tape recorders probably used C-90 cassettes. Or then again perhaps Ivanov went off to jot down some notes in the cubicle, seeing as to do this at the table would not have looked very polite.
Others do not remember the briefcase. In any event, none of those contacted recalls Ivanov as being from the aggressive, pushy kotiryssä school - quite the opposite, in fact.
Almost without exception, his Finnish contacts remember him being not just relaxed and pleasant company, but also an intelligent discussion partner who was well able to listen to the other side's arguments.
"He was inquisitive, yes, but not in the style of the classic Soviet spook. Intelligently curious", is the description from an influential National Coalition Party member from the 1980s.
"Very definitely from the smarter end of the Embassy's schmoozing officers", is Antti Peltomäki's assessment. "It was always pleasant to meet him. He was quite capable of examining issues critically, even the current state of the Soviet Union, and he was happy to talk about such things as glasnost and perestroika."
Peter Stenlund also confirms that Ivanov did not shy away from even critical appraisals of his homeland's affairs.
"I got to hear quite realistic analyses of the developments going on in the Soviet Union. I guess that at that time the KGB had access to the best information on what was really happening", says Stenlund.
When Stenlund took over as SPP Party Secretary in 1981, he inherited his predecessor's Soviet pointman. This individual was cut much more in the in-your-face, pressurising mould, and not at all a pleasant acquaintance.
"When he was replaced by Ivanov, it was a real change for the better. The discussions became much more thoughtful and analytical", enthuses Stenlund.
During Ivanov's time, copious amounts of alcohol were not required to keep things sweet. Ivanov made sure it stayed businesslike.
Of the two men who are currently being touted as the most likely successors to President Putin, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is generally regarded as doveish, while Sergei Ivanov is seen as a hawk. Medvedev has a purely civilian background, while Ivanov held the rank of Lt. General in the KGB, although he gave up his title on becoming Defence Minister in 2000.
Hence it is something of a surprise to hear that Ivanov's Finnish contacts look back on him more as a dove than anything else.
"He was very soft", comments the NCP official. "He seemed to understand the Finnish way of thinking."
Nevertheless, many do remember one thing that Ivanov found politically sensitive: the independence aspirations of the Baltic States.
"Yes, then his brows would knot into a frown", recalls Antti Peltomäki.
The symptoms of the impending collapse of the Soviet Union gave Ivanov other causes for concern. When one Finnish political researcher met him back in Moscow shortly after his Helsinki term was over, he found a man in a rather pessimistic frame of mind who was planning to make a return to his home city of St. Petersburg.
After Helsinki, Ivanov had briefly been stationed in Kenya, and he was aware that Nairobi was definitely not the hub of world politics.
At that time, Ivanov did not believe he had much of a future, either in the KGB or within the Kremlin hierarchy.
He was then living in a large apartment block in some Moscow suburb. The family's apartment was modest, but was decorated with Finnish pieces of furniture. On the coffee table was a classic Alvar Aalto vase.
Ivanov paid an official visit to Finland in his capacity as Russian Defence Minister in July 2002, but he is also known to have been here unofficially, on vacation. His wife has gone shopping in Helsinki.
"Of the times he has spent abroad, Finland and Helsinki is the longest stint. That has to have had some impact", believes a political expert who prefers to remain anonymous.
None of Ivanov's old Finnish contacts would stretch to describing him as specifically a politician, nor as a charismatic superpower leader in waiting.
"He is a civil servant, an expert", is one description.
"A typical intelligence officer, analysing and drawing conclusions", comments another who knew him.
Russia could have as its next President a grey but astute managing director type.
To judge from the recent opinions of the Finnish public, there is a demand for that sort of individual these days.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.4.2007
More on this subject:
Birds of a feather, upwardly mobile
Previously in HS International Edition:
Seven years ago... an article in a similar vein about Vladimir Putin (9.1.2000)
Sergei Ivanov (Wikipedia)
HEIKKI HELLMAN / Helsingin Sanomat