Ideas Archipelago Ukraine | Finland

Russia, Ukraine, and the West: The unavoidable conversation

Finland has always played a bridging role between Europe and Russia. Today, the invasion of Ukraine is upsetting this posture and forcing the Finns to choose sides, something they have until now wanted to avoid in the name of collaboration and peaceful coexistence. For the well-known Finnish author Rosa Liksom, it is essential to maintain dialogue with Russian civil society if there is to be a lasting peace.

Published on 1 September 2022 at 10:32

I was born and raised in the western part of Finnish Lapland. Living in proximity to the Swedish border gave me a liberal culture and outlook. As a teenager, I walked across the bridge into wealthier Sweden to buy trendy clothes, pop LPs, and American fashion magazines.

My interest in Finland's eastern neighbour emerged quite unexpectedly in the 1970's. I was fifteen years old when I traveled for the first time to the big city of Murmansk on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. I was excited by the city, the Russian language, and the people, who seemed foreign and at the same time very familiar. I studied in Moscow in the 1980s and made trips to various parts of the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. I have also written three books with Russian settings. Following what is happening in the Soviet Union and in Russia has been a part of my life since the 1970s.

The final years of Leonid Brezhnev's term as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party were a dismal time. There was such a severe food shortage in Moscow that people were literally fighting over the last chicken in the grocery store.

Gorbachev's brief term of office as Soviet leader generated a belief in the future for many of my Soviet friends. During glasnost and perestroika, archives were opened and surviving victims of the gulags had their voices heard. The environmental catastrophes, state terrorism, corruption, and economic distortions that had occurred during the era of totalitarian government could finally be discussed. Throughout his life, Gorbachev emphasized the importance of dialogue. He said in an interview on the eve of his 90th birthday that without a genuine dialogue between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, we will soon be in the middle of a nuclear war.

In 1988 I received an invitation to participate as a visual artist alongside underground Moscow artists in an exhibition of art of the new era. It was set up in an enormous industrial hall in the outskirts of Moscow and was called the Youth Hermitage. People lined up for hours to get in to see the artworks. Installations about the lives of Moscow artists in Soviet times, and energy-charged expressionist works, were hugely eye-opening to me. My concept of Soviet art was totally transformed. Many of the artists who participated in the exhibition are now listed among the western artistic canon.

After Boris Yeltsin rose to power, things started to change. Some of my Russian acquaintances became multi-millionaires, others lived in dire poverty. The streets of Moscow became bazaars where you could buy uranium, a contract killing, a grubby pair of slippers, or a potion to turn frogs into princes. Generations of writers and artists with a critical attitude toward the Soviet past rose to the leadership of cultural life in those years. A diversity of artistic cultures blossomed.

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When Yeltsin stepped aside just before the turn of the millennium he made the surprising choice of the nearly unknown director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Vladimir Putin, as his successor. Some of my acquaintances hoped that, as president, Putin would be a leader who could put an end to the chaos and economic looting that had prevailed in Russia and bring more order to society. Others were terrified that Putin would import the methods of the state security service into the running of the government.

Since the end of the Second World War the Finnish government, no matter who was president or what the composition of Parliament, has not made a habit of commenting pointedly about the political situation of our neighbour to the east. Good relations with all of our neighbours have been the foundational premise of Finland's foreign policy.

Finnish foreign policy has emphasised economic cooperation, and has had no desire to encumber that cooperation with disputes about human rights. Finland's history as Russia's neighbour is a long and varied one and the country has learned many things from it. Sometimes we have been at loggerheads and sometimes we have walked hand in hand, whether under pressure or of our own free will.

After the Second World War, Finland and the Soviet Union, later Russia, created an economic relationship that benefited both countries. Finnish companies expanded their activities in Russia, where cheap raw materials and cheap labour were on offer. Wealthy people from the Saint Petersburg area bought vacation properties in eastern Finland and Finns bought investment homes in Saint Petersburg. In Lapland and eastern Finland especially, trade and tourism flourished thanks to Russian tourists shopping and vacationing. 

More border crossings were built and a fast train connection between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg was opened. Russians moved to Finland to work or to study and the Russian-speaking minority in our country grew to nearly 100,000. Young Finns also studied at colleges and universities in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. There was active cultural and scientific exchange. Particularly following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the border between Finland and Russia was once again a lively space, like it had been before the 1917 revolution.

For Russian citizens, Putin's first years as president seemed hopeful. Then, in 1999, there were explosions in several apartment buildings in Moscow. Putin blamed the explosions on the Chechens and started the Chechen War. It became a bloody and brutal tragedy. The same sort of aggression has been repeated in Georgia, Syria, Crimea, and now throughout Ukraine.

It's not difficult to understand President Putin's thought processes. He has been talking for a long time about the shame of Russia's loss of its superpower status and the West's broken promises, and claiming that according to an agreement made in the early 1990's, NATO should not have expanded closer to Russia's borders. Russia has a past as a great power, and many Russians were raised to be patriots. It's been hard for many Russians to accept Russia's current position in global economics and world politics. Against Putin's wishes, Ukraine has expressed a desire to join both the EU and NATO. Putin, for his part, considers Ukraine part of Russia.

When Russia radically expanded its military operations in Ukraine in February of this year, Finland's political leadership began urgent negotiations to become a member of NATO. The tremendous rush to join surprised me. Some rejoiced at the decision, others didn't.

Proudly non-aligned

In the past, Finland has marketed itself as a peace broker and we have been proud of our military non-alignment. After Russia attacked Ukraine, a clear majority of Finns became in favour of joining NATO. The change was surprising because just one month earlier more than half of Finns opposed joining the alliance.

Russia's brutal attack brought about huge changes in Finland. Since February 2022, with boycotts, sanctions, and other restrictions imposed by the EU, the period I described above has been relegated to history. The train connection between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg was severed and crossing the border has become difficult. Finnish companies have sold their Russian businesses to Russian buyers.

Increased energy costs, rising food prices, and inflation are punishing Finns and the whole of Europe. The fact that Finland's forests are being cut down at a record pace is particularly alarming. In the past, a large quantity of timber was transported to Finland for use in our wood products industry. Unable to buy wood from Russia, the forest industry must acquire an equal amount of timber here in Finland. This situation has led to large-scale destruction of our forests, to the point that it threatens Finland's pledges to the EU regarding forest carbon sinks.

The political situation is tough on the 35,000 people living in Finland who have both Russian and Finnish citizenship. If that situation continues to escalate, their dual citizenship could potentially cause problems for them.

I thought that Russia would react to Finland's NATO application immediately and aggressively. Putin's measured attitude toward Finland's decision was a surprise, because he has in the past stressed the importance of Finland's military non-alignment. Our 1,340-kilometre border will become the longest common border between NATO and Russia.

It is impossible for me to see NATO as an alliance that will foster peace. With Finland and Sweden joining NATO the military significance of the Baltic Sea, which we have long called the Sea of Peace, will totally change. Russian and NATO naval forces in the Baltic will begin to increase. And I fear that as a border country, Finland will be on the frontlines if a nuclear war begins.

Right now, even here in Europe, climate change is manifesting itself in wildfires, heatwaves, drought, and crop failures. And because the economies of Finland, Europe, and the US are headed for recession, nations and governments may become anxious. The end of the spending spree, the uncertainty, the crises, are fuelling conservative populism.

History proves that the black-and-white worldview and simplistic solutions offered by populist politicians cannot lead to anything good. But in spite of this, right-wing populism is on the rise. Unfortunately, people's memories are short, and old mistakes are being repeated in the expectation of a different result.

In this fog of crises, the Western world has isolated Russia. The Russian government, for its part, has cancelled its own citizens when they oppose the war and when they fight for democracy.

If the Russians are merely isolated and left to the Putin government’s sphere of influence, there is a risk that what happened in the Weimar Republic after the First World War could happen in Russia

What most concerns me are EU and Finnish plans to cut scientific and cultural ties with Russia. Due to this cancellation of cultural relations, my visit to Saint Petersburg University, for example, was cancelled, as well as a documentary project set in Moscow that I have been working on for several years.

Finland's foreign ministry does not recommend travel to Russia. I think that severing scientific and cultural ties helps the Putin government, because it aids them in their efforts to isolate Russia from decadent Europe’s sexual mores, pluralism and human rights.

If the Russians are merely isolated and left to the Putin government’s sphere of influence, there is a risk that what happened in the Weimar Republic after the First World War could happen in Russia. If we build walls between people and isolate the Russian people from the rest of Europe, there could be appalling consequences.

Connecting despite differences

Every war, whether short or prolonged, has thus far always ended in a peace agreement and subsequent reconstruction. The higher we build the wall to separate Russia's 144 million people from the rest of Europe, the longer the negotiating table for our peace agreement will grow.

Literature, art, and research have the unique capacity to bring people living in different realities together to build a bridge to peace. My novel Compartment no. 6 and Juho Kuosmanen's film of the same name are set on a Trans-Siberian train and both deal with this difficult subject. Compartment no. 6 is about how connections between people are possible despite their cultural differences and their fears and antipathies.

The story begins when two people, a Finnish girl and a Russian man, are forced to travel together for two weeks in the same cramped train compartment. They feel a deep distaste for each other at first. They think that they have nothing in common. But after their initial hostility, once they get into a dialogue, they eventually begin to come closer to each other, to even understand each other. I hope for the birth of just such a conversation between Russia, Ukraine, and the West.

In association with S. Fischer Stiftung

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