HELSINKI, SEPT. 8 -- When Jukka Tiittanen heard last weekend that his city was to be the venue for a snap superpower summit, his first thought was that the international attention would be wonderful for Finland, a country caught between East and West. His second thought was that it would be great for business.

Several days ago, Tiittanen designed a T-shirt emblazoned with the portraits of George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev and the slogan, "Peace of World in Helsinki." Looming over the figures of the two leaders, he drew the brooding face of Iraq's Saddam Hussein with the caption, "I love babies and cemicals {sic}" and a label, "Handle with Care."

The summit has not even begun, but the T-shirts are a hot item, selling at $30 apiece, outperforming such standbys as "All we need is glasnost" and "History in Helsinki." A steady stream of tourists and journalists have been stopping by Tiittanen's store, just opposite the Finlandia Hall where some of the summit events are being held, to snap up the T-shirts while stocks last.

A nation of 5 million people on the periphery of the old Russian empire, the Finns have discovered the art of turning their precarious geopolitical position to their advantage. For much of the past four decades, the term "Finlandization" was a sneering epithet used by conservatives in the United States to describe the domination of a small, defenseless country by its huge neighbor. But, as the Soviet Bloc collapses and the Soviet Union opens its doors to the outside world, Finland is well placed to reap the benefits.

For the growing international community in Moscow, Helsinki is the world's largest mail-order catalogue. Meat, bread, cigarettes and all the other necessities of everyday life may have vanished from Soviet supermarkets -- but they can all be shipped in from Finland. Increasingly, the Soviets themselves are also relying on Finnish firms and Finnish products to make up for the appalling deficiencies of their own planned economy.

Politically, too, the Finns have long made a virtue of bringing East and West together. In 1975, Helsinki hosted the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the first tentative attempt to overcome the postwar division of the continent. The Finlandia Hall, where Bush and Gorbachev will hold their joint news conference Sunday, was the site of the Helsinki Declaration.

Bush may have come to Helsinki with a brand-new plane, but Gorbachev has brought a brand-new press secretary. The Kremlin's answer to Marlin Fitzwater is a soft-spoken professional journalist named Vitaly Ignatienko, who has edited the Soviet news magazine New Times for the past four years.

A youthful-looking 50-year-old, Ignatienko speaks in almost Western terms about his job. He says many of the Soviet leader's political problems are essentially public relations problems: Soviet citizens don't see the real Gorbachev. Ignatienko wants to humanize his boss and explain the thinking behind his policies to the nation.

But although Ignatienko has similar aims to Fitzwater, the means available to the two press spokesmen could hardly be more different. Compared to the well-oiled White House press machine, the Kremlin's presidential press service consists of the boss and a couple of secretaries. Ignatienko still works out of his old office at New Times. Unlike the suave spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry, Gennadi Gerasimov, who is often on American talk shows, Ignatienko speaks little English.

When the White House press corps travels around the world, it is preceded by a small army of advance men from Fitzwater's office who do everything from issuing transcripts of presidential statements to organizing pools and handling baggage. The Kremlin press corps, by contrast, is left to fend for itself.

The difference in standing is all too evident. When Western journalists based in Moscow tried to check in to the Helsinki Intercontinental with confirmed reservations, they were told that their rooms had been reallocated to their colleagues from Washington. "If you don't like it, you can sleep on the street," said Tuomo Venemies, the hotel's assistant manager, when a Moscow-based correspondent rejected an offer of a room in a different hotel.

In the absence of hard news, the eve of the summit was taken up with the battle of the walkabouts. Not to be outdone by Gorbachev, who has made leaping out of cars and diving into crowds his political trademark, Bush was mingling with the people before the Soviet leader touched down in Helsinki. Bush's limo also has a loudspeaker, a high-tech touch that the Soviets don't seem to have thought up yet.

Working a Finnish crowd is not that easy, however. The reception for both leaders has been polite rather than ecstatic. Samples of Bush chitchat with the crowd at an open-air food and vegetable market along the Helsinki waterfront included an offer to trade his tiepin for a partly eaten apple and a suggestion that he pose for photographs with tourists.

The Finnish government, meanwhile, was distributing its own officially approved T-shirts and umbrellas of the summit to the thousands of accredited journalists. The souvenirs could turn into collector's items. Because of an oversight by the printers, the Soviet leader's name was misspelled as "Gorbatchev."

In general, Finnish officialdom seems to take a fairly relaxed view of the summit. The government hired a U.S. public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, to generate favorable publicity about Finland. News organizations in Moscow received telexes offering exclusive interviews with the Finnish president, prime minister or foreign minister on "Finland's role in summitry." Those interested were invited to contact a Ralf Freiburg of the Finnish Foreign Ministry.

There was only one problem: Mr. Freiburg was nowhere to be found. Perhaps, like every other sensible Finn on the weekend the international media circus hits Helsinki, he had retreated to his sauna.