On a girls’ sauna night out – well that’s what you do in Finland – a few years ago, a journalist asked Sanna Marin whether she was going to be leader of her party, the Social Democrats.
‘She just looked at me as if to say, are you even asking me this?’ recalls Kristiina Tolkki. In a situation where most aspiring politicians would try to hide their ambition, Mrs Marin was refreshingly straightforward.
Two years ago – aged 34 – she fulfilled that ambition and became the world’s youngest prime minister.
Now it’s her moment to step on to the world stage alongside Boris Johnson, who made a historic agreement with Finland (and Sweden) earlier this week to help defend each other if attacked by Russia.
Having a much bigger – and terrifying – next-door neighbour, Finland has long pursued a policy of neutrality. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed everything.
Sanna Marin became the world’s youngest serving leader when she stepped up as Finnish Prime Minister in 2019, after he predecessor stood down
Mrs Marin is married to her long-term partner Markus Raikkonen, a former professional footballer with whom she has a two-year-old daughter, Emma
Even before the conflict began, as Russian troops were massing on the Ukrainian border but the Kremlin was denying any plans to invade, Mrs Marin broke ground in her New Year’s address.
Finland had the right to join Nato, and should consider it, she said. The Russian media was outraged, with critics claiming ‘Moscow was stabbed in the back’.
The Russian crisis has revealed a steely side to the Finnish PM who had previously attracted most attention – perhaps unfairly – for her youth, good looks and progressive social policies.
Some say if the creator of Love Actually was to write the character of a 21st-century female prime minister (akin to Hugh Grant’s dancing PM), he would come up with someone very like Mrs Marin.
Now leader of 5.5million people, she was raised in challenging circumstances by her mother, who had split with Mrs Marin’s alcoholic father Lauri at a young age.
Her mother’s next partner was a woman, meaning Mrs Marin grew up in an all-female environment – or a ‘rainbow household’, as she herself later put it.
Plagued by financial difficulties, the family were often surviving on benefits and Mrs Marin had to work from a young age, working in a bakery and delivering magazines.
And she was far from a child prodigy. Pasi Kervinen, her secondary school teacher in the small town of Pirkkala – on the outskirts of Tampere in southern Finland – told the BBC she was an ‘average’ student, though sometimes asked for extra homework.
In her final year of studies she met partner Markus Raikkonen, a professional footballer who she would date for the next 16 years before marrying in 2020.
Graduating in 2004 at the age of 19, her grades were good enough to get her into university in Tampere – the first in her family to attend – where she studied Administrative Science.
It was while studying that she had her ‘political wake-up call’, when she recalls as a sudden awareness that hard work could not just benefit her own life but the lives of those around her – the poor and women, in particular.
Her affiliation with the Social Democrat party that she now leads began with membership in 2006, and saw her become its first vice president from 2010 to 2012.
Marin’s first foray into active politics actually began with defeat: A loss in the Tampere City Council elections when she was aged just 22.
Mrs Marin has charted a course into NATO, which will almost certainly be followed into the alliance by Sweden (pictured, Mrs Marin meets Swedish PM Magdalena Andersson)
Mrs Marin has impressed with her crisis management since becoming leader – handling the Covid pandemic and now the Russian invasion (pictured with Belgium’s Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel in 2020)
But at the next election, in 2012, she won – and within months had been promoted to council chairman, a position she held from 2013 until 2017.
During that time she was also elected second deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party (2014) and elected to the Finnish Parliament as an MP from the electoral district of Pirkanmaa (2015).
Winning a second council election in 2017, she roe to public attention due to popular videos of her chairing council sessions which appeared on YouTube.
She also won a second election to parliament in 2019, and then took on her first truly high-profile job as Minister of Transport and Communications in June that year.
That role introduced Marin to the global stage, representing Finland at EU summits of other transportation ministers.
It was during her first journey to Brussels, in December 2019, that the crisis erupted which would propel her to the very top of politics.
Marin actually had to depart that summit early after Antti Rinne – Social Democrat leader who had been Prime Minister for just six months – summoned her home to help respond to a crisis involving a postal strike.
Rinne eventually lost the confidence of his coalition partner and was forced to step down, with Mrs Marin taking his place as the leader of a new five-party coalition led entirely by women – only one of whom was aged over 35 at the time.
A politician for the Instagram generation – she has posted pictures of herself breastfeeding and pasta recipes – Mrs Marin’s policies have included raising the school-leaving age to 18 and extending parental leave.
Inspired by her own upbringing, her centrepiece legislation has been an Equality Programme aimed at benefiting women and those from low-income backgrounds.
The programme has so-far included policies to encourage parents to share caring responsibilities equally, crack down on domestic violence, close the gender pay gap and improve education for children from poorer backgrounds and immigrants.
Her handling of the pandemic won her plaudits and a majority of public support, though some accuse her of being too dogmatic and unwilling to compromise.
Somehow, amidst the turmoil of her first year in power, she found time to marry Markus – with whom she has a two-year-old daughter, Emma – in a ceremony held at her Prime Ministerial retreat on the Baltic Sea in 2020.
Raised in a poor household by her mother and her female partner, Ms Marin has made equality for women and helping the poor centrepieces of her legislative agenda
Not long after she took over as head of Finland’s coalition government she caused a sensation by posing for a 2020 magazine photoshoot in a sleek jacket – with nothing underneath.
Some thought the picture eroded her credibility but #imwithsanna quickly took off online, with legions of fans praising her style.
‘In every position I’ve ever been in, my gender has always been the starting point – that I am a young woman,’ she told Vogue.
‘I hope one day it won’t be an issue… I’m no better and no worse than a middle-aged man.’
Now face with another crisis of an entirely different nature – an aggressive and war-minded Putin who violated international norms and security guarantees given to Ukraine by invading – Mrs Marin has once again stepped up.
Tearing up a decades-long neutrality agreement with Russia that has held since the Winter War – Moscow’s ill-fated attempt to invade Finland shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War – Mrs Marin has plotted a course into NATO.
Speaking alongside Finland’s Prime Minister on Thursday, she stated unequivocally that it is in her country’s interests to apply to join the alliance ‘within days’.
Acceptance is all-but guaranteed after Jens Stoltenburg – NATO chief – said both Finland and Sweden would be welcomed ‘with open arms’.
The move represents a complete re-drawing of the security architecture of Europe and marks the beginning of a new phase of post-war relations.
For Finland, the stakes could hardly be higher. Russia has, predictably, reacted with fury – threatening to immediately cut off gas supplies which could railroad the country’s industry and turn out the lights.
Ultimately, the fear is that Russia will invade. That seems unlikely while its military is tied up fighting in Ukraine, but that war will end sooner or later – and Putin is known to harbour grudges.
Any such war would be devastating for Finland which shares a near-indefensible 800-mile border with Russia, meaning any fighting would more-than-likely happen on its territory.
Never-the-less, Mrs Marin has made her determination clear.
“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” she said in a joint statement with the Prime Minister yesterday.
“We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”
It remains to be seen whether the gamble will pay off.