Risto Ryti was born in Satakunta in landholder's family. He enrolled the university in 1906 to study law. In Spring 1914 he moved to Oxford to study Sea Law, but the First World War forced him to return. In 1917 he had to witness, together with his wife, how a Russian Bolshevik killed his wealthy supporter Alfred Kordelin.
During the Civil War in Finland Ryti had to hide in the Red-dominated Helsinki. Afterwards he was elected member of the parliament as one of the youngest representatives for the Nationalist Liberal "Progressive Party" (Kansallinen Edistyspuolue). Already in 1921 he became finance minister for the first time. In 1925 president Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg appointed him as chairman of the Bank of Finland.
In 1925 Ryti was also nominated as the presidential candidate for the first time but his opponents concentrated their votes on Lauri Kristian Relander. His support increased over the years but was never enough in elections. During the 1930s he withdrew from daily politics, but influenced economic policies. He was successful enough that Wall Street Journal complimented him.
From Winter War to bitter peace
Ryti was selected as a prime minister in the beginning of the Winter War. He tried to concentrate on a realistic analysis of the situation, instead of pessimism or overt optimism. He convinced the rest of the Cabinet to sue for peace and was one to sign the Moscow Peace Treaty March 13th, 1940. The peace, in which Finland lost large land areas and faced the burden of resettling 400,000 refugees, was generally considered crushing. In the following precarious times Ryti bore the heavy responsibilities of the state leadership together with Field Marshal Mannerheim and the Social Democratic leader Väinö Tanner as President Kyösti Kallio was struck by illness. Ryti vas selected as retired Kallio's successor just some weeks before the latter got a leathal stroke during a farewell gathering in December 1940. During Ryti's precidency the power of the Commander-in-Chief remained with Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, somewhat insufficiently motivated by the World War in Finland's neighbourhood, and Russia's threatening pressure on Finland.
Towards German orientation
Finland's changed policy from a Scandinavian orientation up to, and during, the Winter War, to a German orientation after the Winter War, was not the least pursued by the convinced Anglophile Risto Ryti. Traditionally Finland had been associated to Great Britain by stronger commercial ties, but as the Baltic Sea was dominated by the Germans, lost markets had to be found elsewhere, and Germans were willing to trade.
The relatively limited space given to Nazi German propaganda and ideology, or their domestic symphatizer fringe groups in Finland, can probably be seen as one of the many important joint-contributions of Ryti, Tanner and Mannerheim. Ryti's government must also be credited for the fact that Finland remained a genuine democracy unlike any other continental European country that participated the WWII.
In August 1940 Ryti also agreed to secret military cooperation with Germany, in order to strengthen Finland's position vis-à-vis the threatening Soviet Union. Over the time it became increasingly likely that the peace between two great totalitarian powers would end, and the experts' opinion - even among the enemies of Germany - was that in case of invasion the Soviets could not stop the German war machine. Ryti apparently turned, step by step, to being in favour of seizing the opportunity to secure Finnish claims to areas he saw to be in the country's interests, in case the great realignment of ownership of East European territory by force would materialize. Thus the cooperation begun in late 1940 ultimately developed in 1941 into preparations for re-annexation of the territories lost after the Winter War, in case Nazi-Germany would realize the rumoured plans on an assault on the Soviet Union. The Continuation War, when commenced, would also come to include occupation of East Karelia, which Nationalist circles had championed since the 1910s.
The Continuation War (1941-44)
When Germany's assault on Soviet Union begun in June 1941, Finland remained formally neutral until Soviet air raids gave an expected reason to fullfill the invasion plans some days later. Finnish troops soon regained the territory lost in Winter War and substantial buffer zone beoynd. Remarkable number of the MP:s were not excited by the idea of crossing the old borders, but obviously Risto Ryti convinced Väinö Tanner and the Social Democrats to remain in the Cabinet despite their opposition against the conquest of East Karelia. His ability to thus maintain a broad coalition government strongly contributed to the morals and perceived national unity.
Ryti's mandate as a President was intended to extend only through the rest of Kallio's term, i.e. to 1943, but as the government could not organize elections during the Continuation War, the electors from 1937 gathered to re-elect him.
The Soviet Union's major offensive begun in June 1944, in a situation when Finland's relations to Germany were strained due to earlier attempts to sue for a separate peace. Finland was in dire need of food, but in particular of weapons and ammunition, as the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop demanded guarantees that Finland would not again seek a separate peace. Ryti gave this, expressed as his personal guarantee that Finland under his presidency would not. Soon after the situation was stabilized, Ryti resigned and peace negotiations could began again, this time from a stronger position although most territorial gains were lost again.
After the WWII
After the war Ryti attempted to return to the Bank of Finland. However, in 1945 Finnish communists and the Soviet Union demanded he should be tried as "responsible for the war". After considerable pressure from the Soviet Union, Ryti was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, in a trial widely held as a illegitime miscarriage of justice. President Juho Kusti Paasikivi pardoned him in 1949 after he'd become hospitalized.