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We must not abandon Russians to Putin’s sphere of influence

In this, one of a series of essays on the war in Ukraine from countries in or neighbouring the former Soviet bloc, a Finnish artist and writer argues that cultural ties with Russia remain essential

Iwas 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 in the 1970s, I walked across the bridge into wealthier Sweden to buy trendy clothes, pop LPs and American fashion magazines.

I was 15 when I travelled for the first time across Finland’s eastern border, to Murmansk on Russia’s Arctic coast. I was excited by the city, the Russian language, and the people, who seemed at the same time foreign and familiar. Since then, events happening in the Soviet Union and in Russia have been a part of my life. In the 1980s, I studied in Moscow and made trips to various parts of the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. I have written three books with Russian settings.

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 fighting over the last chicken in the grocery store.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s term as leader was brief but it 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. And throughout his life, Gorbachev emphasised the importance of dialogue.

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

After Boris Yeltsin’s rise to power, things started to change. Some of my Russian acquaintances became multimillionaires, 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.

For Russian citizens, Vladimir Putin’s first years as president seemed hopeful. But in 1999 he blamed a series of explosions in Moscow on the Chechens and started the war in Chechnya, which 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 Putin’s thought processes. He has long complained about the shame of Russia’s loss of superpower status, the west’s broken promises and Nato’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders.

Since the end of the second world war the Finnish government, no matter who was in power or the composition of parliament, has made a habit of not commenting pointedly on the political situation in Russia. Pursuing good relations with all of our neighbours has been the foundational premise of Finland’s foreign policy.

The postwar economic relationship between Finland and the Soviet Union, deliberately unencumbered by disputes over human rights, served both sides. Finnish companies expanded their activities in Russia, where cheap raw materials and cheap labour were on offer. Wealthy people from the St Petersburg area bought vacation properties in eastern Finland, and Finns bought investment homes in St Petersburg. In Lapland and eastern Finland especially, trade and tourism flourished, thanks to Russian tourists shopping and holidaying.

More border crossings were built and a fast train connection between Helsinki and St 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 universities in St Petersburg and Moscow. There was active cultural and scientific exchange. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the border between Finland and Russia was once again a lively space, as it had been before the 1917 revolution.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February of this year, Finland’s political leadership began urgent negotiations to join Nato. Some rejoiced at the decision, others didn’t. The tremendous rush to membership surprised me.

Finland has long projected itself as a peace broker and our military non-alignment has been a source of pride. After Russia attacked Ukraine, a clear majority of Finns said they favoured joining Nato. The change was surprising because just one month earlier only 28% supported membership.

Vladimir Putin and Finland’s president Tarja Halonen chat after inauguration of the high-speed train connecting Helsinki and St Petersburg at the railway station in Vyborg, Russia in December, 2010. The service is now suspended.
Vladimir Putin and Finland’s former president Tarja Halonen chat after inauguration of the high-speed train connecting Helsinki and St Petersburg at the railway station in Vyborg, Russia in December, 2010. The service is now suspended. Photograph: RIA Novosti/Reuters

Russia’s aggression has brought about other huge changes in Finland. With EU sanctions, the period I described above has been relegated to history. The train connection between Helsinki and St Petersburg has been severed and crossing the border is difficult. Finnish companies have sold their Russian businesses to Russian buyers.

Increased energy costs, rising food prices and inflation, meanwhile, are punishing Finns and the whole of Europe. Unable to buy wood from Russia, the forestry 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 crisis is tough on the 35,000 people living in Finland who have both Russian and Finnish citizenship. If it continues to escalate, their dual citizenship could cause them problems.

The measured tone of Putin’s response toward Finland’s Nato application was a surprise. I thought that Russia would react immediately and aggressively because Putin has long stressed the importance of Finland’s military non-alignment. Our 1,340-km (833-mile) border will soon become the longest common border between Nato and Russia.

But it is impossible for me to see Nato as an alliance that will foster peace. With Finland and Sweden joining, the military significance of the Baltic Sea, which we have long called the Sea of Peace, will totally change. And I fear that, as a border country, Finland will be on the frontline if a nuclear war begins.

And because the economies of the US and Europe are headed for recession, the uncertainty risks fuelling rightwing populism. People’s memories are short, and old mistakes are being repeated in the expectation of a different result. In this fog of interconnected crises, the western world has isolated Russians. The Russian government, for its part, punishes its own citizens when they oppose the war and when they seek democracy.

Finnish border guards look at cars queueing at the Vaalimaa border crossing between Finland and Russia

What concerns me especially are Finnish and EU plans to cut any remaining scientific and cultural ties with Russia. Severing these connections merely helps the Putin government in its efforts to isolate Russia from Europe’s supposedly decadent sexual mores, pluralism and human rights.

If Russian people are isolated and left entirely to the Putin sphere of influence, there is a risk that what happened in the Weimar republic after the first world war could repeat itself. If we build walls between people and isolate the Russian people from the rest of Europe, the consequences could be appalling.

Every war, whether short or prolonged, has thus far ended in a peace agreement and subsequent reconstruction. The higher we build the wall to separate Russia’s 146 million people from the rest of Europe, the longer the negotiating table for our peace agreement will grow.

My novel Compartment No 6 and Juho Kuosmanen’s film of the same name are set on the Trans-Siberian railway, and both deal with how connections between people are possible despite their cultural differences, their fears and antipathies. The story beings when two people, a Finnish woman 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 and think that they have nothing in common. But once into a dialogue, they begin to come closer, and eventually even to understand each other.

Such a conversation between Russia, Ukraine and the west is my hope. Literature, art and research have the capacity to bring people together to build bridges to peace – even those living in different realities.

  • Anni Ylävaara, AKA Rosa Liksom, is a Finnish writer and artist. The film adaptation of her novel Compartment No 6 won the Grand Prix at the 2021 Cannes film festival. In 2016, France appointed her a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.
  • This essay is part of a series, published in collaboration with Voxeurop, featuring perspectives on the invasion of Ukraine from the former Soviet bloc and bordering countries.
    It was translated by Lola Rogers.

Where will it all end? The conflict in Ukraine appears further than ever from resolution. Nuclear threats, mass graves, the sense that both sides are “all in”.

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