In memoriam: the cold-cut warrior
The strange tale of TV butcher Väinö Purje and how his Finnish sausages helped to finish the Cold War.
An extraordinary chapter of Cold War history ended with the announcement in Finland that Väinö Purje passed away on 8 March at the age of 81.
While Purje is virtually unknown in the West his exploits are legendary in the Baltic States, especially in Estonia. Alo Lohmus of Estonia’s leading daily Postimees referred to Purje’s contribution to the Cold War as part of a ‘spiritual nuclear bomb’ that blew apart a corrupt system.
High praise, indeed, for a modest tradesman. That a butcher could gain such a position in a global conflict is one of the most curious chapters of Cold War history.
Due to its proximity to the Baltic Soviet republics, Finnish television broadcasts penetrated the Iron Curtain, into Estonia and on occasion Latvia. Purje, who was the star of Finnish retail chain Kesko’s food adverts, became a cult figure in Estonia. From 1974 to 1981 he featured in more than 100 television spots showcasing sausages and cutlets, all virtually unknown in the then Soviet republics.
This glimpse into Western abundance was no minor matter for Soviet ideologues. The issue was taken up at an Estonian Communist Party meeting and the chairman of the Estonian Communist party, Karl Vaino, sprang into action, planning a 100-metre high chain link fence on Estonia’s coastline to block the Finnish television signal.
As with so many other Soviet undertakings this, too, came to naught. The Soviets did, however, do their utmost to block Finnish TV signals. The craving for Western entertainment and advertising led to a cottage industry in Estonian antennae manufacturing, including one design which converted a thermostat into a signal receptor.
Unable to block the signals, the Communist Party launched a massive counter-propaganda effort. The party claimed that the sausages displayed in Finnish television were made of plastic and that Purje was a CIA agent. The commotion forced a jovial butcher to give interviews denying his role in a superpower conspiracy.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Purje was invited to host a cooking show on Estonian television. Even at the height of the controversy, the affable butcher never lost sight of the absurdity of the situation.
Eero Iloniemi is a political consultant based in Helsinki
One of Väinö Purje’s controversial cold-cut commercials:
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