Lapplandia Market, close to the Russian border, in 2022.

Lapplandia Market, close to the Russian border, in 2022.

Features Hopes and worries at the Russian-Finnish border

Statistics show that around 40 000 Russians escaped through Finland from the day that President Putin declared the mobilization and during the nine days that followed until the border closed. I am on my way to Karelia, a region along the southern part of the Finnish-Russian border where some of the most intense battles between two countries took place during the Second World War. As I write this October 2022, the atmosphere around the border is tense, the relations between the two countries are colder than in a long time, and people on either side of the border have difficulties even seeing each other. That, however, has not always been the case...

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2022:3-4, pp 28-34
Published on on January 18, 2023

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Statistics show that around 40 000 Russians escaped through Finland from the day that President Putin declared the mobilization and during the nine days that followed until the border closed. I am on my way to Karelia, a region along the southern part of the Finnish-Russian border where some of the most intense battles between two countries took place during the Second World War. As I write this October 2022, the atmosphere around the border is tense, the relations between the two countries are colder than in a long time, and people on either side of the border have difficulties even seeing each other.
That, however, has not always been the case — in this article I will describe the thriving contacts across the border before the large-scale invasion of Ukraine (and the pandemic). And I will discuss what happens now that the contacts have come to an almost complete stop.
Lappeenranta is located some 230 kilometers east of Helsinki, and only 20 minutes by car from the Russian border. From the flagpole in front of the City Hall hangs a Ukrainian flag.
“When Russians started to come back in larger crowds last summer, before the entry ban, we also played the Ukrainian national hymn from the loudspeakers”, says Päivi Pietiläinen, Head of International Affairs at the Municipality. “The Russian visitors should all know where we stand on this issue.”
She is a very suitable person to give us an insight into the dramatic developments in the border area from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 until the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020 when most borders around the world closed due to health reasons.
“The opening of our border to Russia actually started already in the late 1980s during Glasnost”, she tells me as we sit down for a cup of coffee in a mall opposite the town hall. “We signed a city agreement as early as 1987 with Vyborg, which is located only some 60 kilometers from here. Cultural and sports exchanges between our two cities started before the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
It is with fascination that she describes the quick development that followed during those early years of the 1990s: “In the parking lot here outside the town square eight out of ten cars were Russian some days.” So why did they come in thousands? And what did they do during their visits to Lappeenranta? Pietiläinen describes a change over time:
“At the beginning, they came to buy pretty much anything. At that time our supply of merchandise was so much richer than in their post-Soviet society. Food, clothes, electronics — you name it! After a couple of years, it changed a bit. You had a growing number of Russian customers who had quickly become rich. Suddenly you found stores in this mall which sold luxury clothes that you had not seen before in Lappeenranta.”
She points at the store across from the café where they sell leisure clothes today. Some years ago, those same premises marketed something completely different: glitter and high heels, fancy dresses, and jewelry. “Those kinds of shops are gone today, not only because of the closed border during the pandemic and the tensions with Russia; they also disappeared because of changing tastes. Middle class Russians today are more like us, they consume the same things; a couple of decades of yearly visits to the west have changed them.”

After 2014, when the West introduced sanctions to punish Russia for the annexation of Crimea, the type of merchandise that Russians were interested in changed somewhat. As a response to the sanctions, the Kremlin decided, among other things, to stop the import of Western cheese. It had a direct effect on cross-border trade, says Pietiläinen. “They were allowed to import five kilos of groceries per person. But many bought more and had different imaginative methods to smuggle them into Russia. Some hid them in secret compartments in the doors of their cars, others rented buses and paid old Russian ladies, babushkas, to join the bus so that they could add up more individual rations.”
Even if Russian tourists more or less have stopped coming, the intense contacts over the years have left clear traces: There are 3 300 people in Lappeenranta with Russian as their mother tongue, that is around five percent of the population. Before 1991, there were barely any. Most of the Russian-speakers came in the 1990s. Where do they work today?
“In here, for example”, she says and points down the aisle in the mall, “almost all the shops have Russian-speaking personnel. That’s how it is in Lappeenranta”. Pietiläinen tells me that she has three neighbor families where the husbands are Finnish and the wives Russian. And she lets me know that “it’s public knowledge that the mayor is married to a Russian lady”.

Nostalgia over Karelia

At the peak of cross-border cooperation, in 2012, there were almost 13 million crossings of the 1 340-kilometer-long Finnish–Russian border — the longest of all EU-Russia borders. Most of them took place in Karelia. When it comes to movement in the other direction — Finns crossing the border to Russia — in the early 1990s, these journeys were dominated by a phenomenon called Finnish nostalgia tourism: Finns wanted to visit the places on the other side of the border which were a part of Finland before 1939. After the Winter War (1939—40) and the Continuation War (1941—44), the border became heavily guarded and closed for private crossings. For Finns, the loss of territory meant not only the loss of economically and symbolically important parts of Karelia, but the relocation of approximately 400 000 inhabitants of the former Finnish territories. The memory of lost Karelia has been vivid since the war — in the early 1990s many still had their own memories and wanted to see what had happened to their homes and their neighborhoods.
An additional group of people crossed the border, especially in the early years, in organized bus trips to hear guides describing battle fields, the fighting units, the number of soldiers killed and other detailed information. Organizations like the Association for Cherishing the Memory of the Dead of the War, whose membership is largely male, have searched for the bodies of Finnish soldiers. During the wars, approximately 13 000 Finnish soldiers were either lost on the battlefield or reported missing, many of them in Karelia. Around 1 200 of them have been found. Remains that have been identified (approximately one third) are laid to rest in their hometowns; the majority of the unidentified are buried here in Lappeenranta.
For residents of Lappeenranta, most trips over the years have gone to Vyborg, easy to reach by car or bus and only half an hour away by train. Or they have taken the ferry along the beautiful Saimaa canal. At the peak of these travels to Vyborg and other parts of Russian Karelia, research has shown that 700 000 Finns crossed the border every year. But because of the lack of some key elements for tourism development, the Finnish tourist flows to the region dropped dramatically to just 150 000 per year in the mid-1990s.
Many of those who went there for nostalgic reasons, felt disappointment with what they saw, says Pietiläinen: “I have several friends who had to witness how their old houses had been abandoned or demolished and how the whole town was worn down. Many didn’t want to return again. Some brought back plants and plant shoots from their former gardens. I understood their feelings, I felt a similar sadness visiting Vyborg, even though my family lacks roots there”.
Low prices, however, made many Lappeenranta citizens return to Vyborg over and over again. “It was, for example, popular to go to the hairdresser or just to pop over to buy some cheap goods”, she says. A study from 2008 showed that about 70 percent of the Finns crossing the border did it “in order to save money”. The most popular types of goods were alcohol, cigarettes, and gasoline. But they also bought sweets and handmade local souvenirs, the study concludes.
In 2016 it became evident that cheap liquor and tobacco had indeed been a major reason for Finns to make the journey. When a change in the Finnish tobacco law took effect that year, requiring a stay outside the country more than 24 hours to be able to bring back tax-free cigarettes — the border crossings fell by 25 percent.
A survey from 2021, conducted just before the pandemic broke out, by asking people at the border about their opinion, showed that many did short but frequent visits. Buying cheap goods was the major reason for those answering the questionnaire, but many also stated “visiting relatives and friends” as a reason or that they went to Russian Karelia to enjoy its beauty, the authentic architecture, and the traditions of the region.

Petrozavodsk, situated on the shores of Lake Onego, is an attractive green city and the region’s capital with several concert halls, 17 museums and art galleries. The city also hosts the Republic of Karelia National Theatre, the only one outside of Finland regularly performing plays in Finnish. At least it used to.
Trips across the border have also included visits outside of Karelia, especially to the magnet city of St Petersburg. Pietiläinen describes how a family chat in Lappeenranta could be played out before everything changed with the pandemic: “Let’s go to the ballet in St Petersburg this weekend, and try that nice restaurant close by”, we could say. “Or should we rather go to a hockey game?” She points out how easy everything was back then: “You could just jump on the train and be in St Petersburg one and a half hours later”.
She has a deep personal affection for St Petersburg, since she lived there with her family for a total of ten years, starting in 2007 when she was appointed to inaugurate the Lappeenranta municipal office in the city. “We were not alone doing that; all big cities in Finland, like Helsinki, Turku and Tampere, opened their own offices in St Petersburg. There was great optimism in the air; we all wanted to support business contacts over the border and develop cross-border tourism”.

Everything changed February 24

The optimism was somewhat dashed by the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, but the cooperation still continued. In March 2020 the office stopped its activities due to the pandemic. On February 24, 2022, everything changed. “It’s over, the office is closed for good. I will never visit St Petersburg again”, she says in a sad voice. Never? But things can change in the future? “We have a proverb in Finnish that I believe in: You can only lose your trust once”. I have lost mine”.
She remembers vividly the very moment she got the news of the invasion on the 24th: She knocked at the door of her daughter’s apartment in Esbo and her daughter had tears running down her cheeks. Something very dramatic had evidently happened. “St Petersburg had been her home for years, now everything had changed”. Today Pietiläinen summarizes her mood in two words: “Sad and mad”. She is mad because of all the efforts they made to develop the relations between the two countries along the border.
According to Ilkka Liikanen, professor of border and Russian Studies, at the University of Eastern Finland, Lappeenranta’s cooperation with Russian partners was part of a broader national Finnish strategy: “to advance EU-Russia relations and actively promote initiatives aimed at overcoming the legacies of the Cold War East-West division”.
On the relations since the early 1990s, he writes:
The EU had gradually broadened the scope of its programs of territorial cooperation to include cross-border cooperation on its external borders […]. With Finnish membership the Russian Federation became a target country of regional cooperation programs.
The cooperation however, gradually lost momentum, especially after the Georgian War in 2008. But it didn’t come to a stop, even after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ilkka Liikanen sends me his chapter in the book by email, adding in a solemn note: “As you can see it’s written before the Ukraine war and many of the policy options discussed in the latter part have been closed since then.”
One of the latest state-funded projects, now cancelled, was to renovate and rebuild the locks in the Saimaa channel, so that longer boats could pass between the countries, more goods could be transported in both directions. In the last few months hardly any boats have actually made the trip, since the risk is too high that the boats could be confiscated by the Russian state. For that reason, insurances are hard to get or at least extremely expensive. All in all, Finland as a whole and the region have become less dependent on Russia over the years, and especially since 2014. The share of Finnish exports to Russia has declined to 5,4 percent and is only slightly higher in South Karelia (6 percent).

I decide to drive towards the border to see it with my own eyes. On my way, I stop by the Saimaa canal, inaugurated in 1856, where the bright autumn colors are reflected in the still water — no boats breaking the surface of the water, no activity whatsoever by the locks. Some ten kilometers from the border is the huge Raja Market department store, the size of a football field. Inside I saw three (3) customers, two of them on the phone, both speaking Russian. The third was a young Finnish man, filling his shopping cart with loads of cheese, butter, cooking oil, coffee, tea and much more. He tells me he will bring it over the border to sell it in Russia. His name? No, he doesn’t want to say: “What I do is a bit in the grey area”, he tells me.
Further down the road, even closer to the border, is another department store, Lapplandia Market, with a reindeer as its symbol on top of the roof. But underneath that, the store is dark, the huge parking lot is empty. It’s over, the whole basis of the business idea is gone. I drive all the way up to the border crossing at Nuijamaa, one of eight international crossings in the country. I wait in the parking lot for half an hour. Two cars leave Finland, no cars enter the country. A week earlier, there were long lines of people who wanted to leave Russia before the border was closed. Well, not totally closed; people with family connections may enter, or if you have property on the Finnish side which has to be looked after.
At the peak of the cross-border traffic, around 5 000 Russians travelled into Finland every day through this crossing. “How many have come today?” I asked a border guard who had walked up to me. He makes a nervous impression, asking me about my ID, and walks back into the building. While I wait, I glance at a sign with the EU flag displaying a message dripping of cruel irony these days: “This border crossing point was improved with the support of the South-East Finland-Russia Program”.
The border guard never returns. I drive away a couple of hundred meters from the border and stop the car by the roadside to look for an address on my phone. In less than a minute, two other border guards are there, asking me what I am doing. I drive yet another kilometer away from the border, again stopping by the roadside to check my phone. The border guards in their minivan have followed me, and again they knock at my window asking what I am doing. It’s evident: the contrast in atmosphere in the border area is like night and day compared to how it was before the invasion.

Life without Russians

I continue driving in the north-eastern direction, towards Imatra 35 kilometers away, a town with world-wide popularity due to the impressive waterfalls in the middle of the town. The Russian border is only ten minutes away, which, of course, has contributed to many thousands of Russians visiting over hundreds of years — it is well documented that in the late 1700s, Catherine the Great came to admire the power of nature where the masses of water came rushing down the cliff.
Trying to check into my three-star-hotel in the outskirts of Imatra, I realize that the dependence on Russian tourists has not disappeared — the hotel is unattended and the person answering the phone only speaks Finnish or Russian. No English. Eventually, he finds an English speaker and I am let in. English speakers are evidently not the main customers.
The following day I had my breakfast at the beautiful Scandic Imatra State Hotel in the center of town, close to the falls and the hydroelectric plant which was built in the 1920s to take advantage of the power from the falling water. The hotel, in the European art nouveau style, was inaugurated in 1903 at a time when Finland was a Grand Duchy and an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. The targeted guests were almost exclusively aristocrats from St Petersburg. According to the information sheet they gave me at the reception desk, “In the beginning the personnel of the hotel were Russian and the service languages were Russian and French; only the porter could speak Finnish”.
The hotel was sensitively renovated in the 1980s, but traces of its Russian heritage can still be found, such as a couple of tea samovars and a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II’s wife Alexandra Feodorovna in the dinner hall, a room which originally was the tsar’s family quarters. But the dependence on Russian guests is evidently not there anymore; the hotel was fully booked during my visit, despite the entry ban for Russians. And its international character becomes evident when considering the languages used to inform the guests about the breakfast buffet: Apart from Russian, it is also written in Finnish, English, German, Swedish, Chinese and Japanese.

How important are Russian guests these days? The general manager, Joni Erinko, could not take my questions that morning but responded diplomatically via email the day after: “All guests are important to us, no matter the nationality”. And then he adds: “I don’t see a problem with Russians not returning. They haven’t been able to visit us for the past two years because of Covid-19. So we are already prepared.”
When I asked Päivi in Lappeenranta to list the companies in the region that she believes have the biggest challenges after losing their Russian customers, she mentioned some shops and the whole service sector, for example the Imatra Spa Resort on the shores of lake Saimaa. “Russians were totally dominating there, I experienced it myself visiting the spa”. Via email, the Chief Operating Officer of the company, Harri Hirvelä, informs me that 45 percent of the customers were Russian before the pandemic. How can the company survive losing almost all of them? “We have adapted, primarily by targeting domestic customers”, he said.
I drive there to see it with my own eyes: in the parking lot there are approximately 200 cars, all of them with Finnish license plates — except one which has a Russian one. Inside the lobby there are Finnish and EU flags, the information brochures presented are only available in Finnish and English, a billboard advertises upcoming Finnish hit singers. It is almost as though the Russians had never been there (apart from a couple of remaining smaller signs about rules and regulations in Russian).

Entangled identities and languages

To complicate matters further: Who is actually Russian and who is Finnish in the Karelia region? Well, the answer is not simple. My third stop along the border is Joensuu in Northern Karelia, where I have an appointment with Olga Davydova-Minguet, professor of Russian and border studies at the Karelia Institute, which is a part of the University of Eastern Finland. She moved to Joensuu in 1991 from Petrozavodsk in Russian Karelia where she grew up. So, is she yet another Russian moving to Finland after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
“No I don’t call myself a Russian,” she says when we meet on campus. “My mother was an Ingrian Finn; she grew up in the outskirts of St Petersburg as part of this Finnish-speaking Lutheran minority. Over the centuries, they have kept their faith and their language in the Orthodox and Russian surroundings.” So what does she call herself? “I try to escape ethnic terms; I am of mixed ethnic origin. I rather identify myself as a Finnish citizen, dweller of a border region.”
During her childhood, they spoke some Finnish at home, but mostly Russian, since her father was Polish-Russian. While she was studying Finnish at the university in Petrozavodsk, the Soviet Union collapsed, the border opened and eventually she moved to Joensuu — initially working as an interpreter for the growing number of Russian and Finnish companies cooperating. Later, she launched an academic career at the university.
Her research focus has been on the people who have crossed the border — or who have been living by the border over the years. She has interviewed several hundred of them and concludes that they constitute a wide variety of people. The day before we met, for example, she spent a couple of hours interviewing with her colleagues Father Ioannis Lampropoulos, an Orthodox priest in the town of Illomantsi, a few kilometers from the border.

Her most recent area of interest is burial traditions in a border area, to some extent influenced by the death of her mother the previous year. After her father had passed away, she convinced her mother in 1999 to come and live with her on the Finnish side. Being an Ingrian Finn, the mother had no problems getting permanent residence — president Mauno Koivisto had already declared in 1990 that “they are Finns” and could therefore re-immigrate.
“My mother spoke Finnish and Russian as native languages, so for her moving to Finland was easy in a way. She could talk with neighbors, and people were friendly to her, interested in her ‘typically Ingrian’ history.” And this history was indeed a dramatic one: she and her family were among 63 000 Ingrian Finns who were transferred to Finland during the war under the German occupation of Leningrad oblast. But in 1944, after Germany and Finland had lost the war against the Russians, these people were returned to the Soviet Union. Therefore, she ended up in Petrozavodsk where she lived the greater part of her life. “At the end of her life, living here in Joensuu, she suffered from Alzheimer’s, and kept longing for home. I was her only child and I had trouble deciding what she ment by ‘home’. Was it Petrozavodsk or her native home in Strelna near St Petersburg?”
Her mother is now buried in Joensuu, but Olga Davydova-Minguet has already collected soil from her grave which she will bring to her father’s grave in Petrozavodsk — and, hopefully, she will also be able to take some soil to Strelna, where the family had lived since the 1600s.

Davydova-Minguet has felt satisfaction over the years, seeing first-hand how people on either side of the border are connecting, how the number of Russian students grows, how intermarriages become more frequent, how mutual prejudices are toned down, how she gets new Russian-speaking acquaintances as the years go by (in the corridor she greets a cleaner in Russian). Against that background, she feels a deep sadness at what is happening right now. “If it wasn’t for the war, all this positive development would continue. What we see now is not only a loss for the people living on both sides of the border; it is also a loss for North Karelia as well as Russian Karelia. Both regions are among the poorest in their respective countries. With less business cooperation, with fewer Russians coming here to work, with less tourism, both regions will become poorer.”
The weekend before we met, she had planned to visit family and friends in Petrozavodsk — as she had done hundreds of times — but she cancelled the visit. It did not seem safe to go. Today she wears a sweater with the word “Culturas” printed on it, a foundation which promotes dialogue between Russian speakers and other population groups. Among other things, Culturas has done a survey on Russian speakers’attitudes towards — and experienced consequenses of — the war in Ukraine. “I was glad to hear that the survey showed that 80 percent of the Russian speakers in Finland don’t experience discrimination as a consequence of the war; most people here still make a clear distinction between them and the regime in the Kremlin. But I’m afraid that might change,” Davydova-Minguet concludes.
It made me think of my visit to the North Karelian Museum in the centre of Joensuu earlier the same day and the risk of history repeating itself: The museum displays a description of how Karelian Russians in Joensuu experienced growing anti-Russian sentiment in the late 1890s. They were merchants and traders with the names Kononoff, Tichanoff and Moldakoff. Later on, most of them fennicized their names to get accepted.
Davydova-Minguet is critical of the decision to stop the entry of Russians with tourist visas, since it underlines the notion that all Russians are responsible for the war. “It’s a very complicated issue. Yes, it is offensive to witness how Russians can go on vacation while their government conducts a terrible war. And yes, there is a risk that people close to the government could get out and possibly do damage in countries supporting Ukraine. But still: the question of human rights should carry more weight. Individuals criticizing the war should have a chance to get out.”

Securitization and fences

The young generation of students at the university, what do they think about the sensitive border issues? About living so close to a border that now has become both contested and dangerous? Behind two computers, I found students Veikka Suni and Roope Pakarinen working on a paper about Apple’s new marketing strategy.
“It feels a bit scary having the border so near”, sais Pakarinen. “If I lived further away, I would have more time to escape”. Veikka is a bit less concerned: “Finland is a small country, we would have problems wherever we live if Putin decides to attack us.” Both are positive about Finland applying for Nato membership. “I think it could be an important deterrent”, says Pakarinen. “Finland has been scared of Russia for decades; it is time that we do something about it”, says Veikka Suni.
Further down the corridor, I met two first year students studying theology, Sakari Soini and Vesper Hautamäki. Vesper has dyed her hair red and declares that she’s an anarchist: “I’m against Nato membership, Nato is too dominated by America. And it’s all about Russia being evil. Today’s leadership in Russia is evil, but the country is not. I think our membership in the EU is enough to protect us.” Sakari Soini did his military service the other year. He sees both pros and cons to a Nato membership. “The war has shown that the Russian military threat is exaggerated, they are not so skilled as we thought. And I trust the Finnish defence forces. On the other hand, we won’t get military help from the rest of Europe if we don’t join Nato.”
Vesper Hautamäki’s grandparents got worried when she said she was moving from Tampere to study in Joensuu, coming so close to Russia. “They told me I would be sent to the war to help in some way if the Russians attack.” Sakari Soini says that friends more jokingly told him that he “would die first in the case of an attack”. Both of them are critical of the decision to stop the entry of Russian tourists, to stop people from leaving who are against the war. Vesper Hautamäki tells me that she has Karelian roots. Her grandparents taught her to speak Karelian, a language which is fairly close to Finnish. “People speak Karelian on the Russian side too, we belong together. I am very worried about the tendency to de-humanise all Russians.”

Vesper Hautamäki’s thoughts made me think of a person that Olga Davydova-Minguet quotes in her article “Desires for past and future in border crossings on the Finnish-Russian border”, written with Pirjo Pöllänen and waiting to be published. The middle-aged Finnish woman that they had interviewed describes her personal development: “When I was a little girl, we used to go to the Värtsilä sports hall hill to see the lights on the other side of the border, Russian Värtsilä’s lights. My father is originally from that side of the village. You know, my father yearned for his native place. When I was little, it was almost as if you didn’t dare look at the Russian side of the border, but now it’s different — you just pop over it to buy cheap petrol.”
When people no longer has this chance to “pop over”, the risk increases that a new generation sees those on the other side as aliens, and yes, even as threats.
On October 19, the Finnish Broadcast Cooperation YLE informs that the Finnish government has gotten a green light from Parliament to build a fence along parts of the border to Russia, primarily in the Karelia region.
“The fence is being built in a changed security situation that won’t return to normal for decades, if even then”, comments Interior Minister Krista Mikkonen.≈

Ilkka Liikanen, Remapping security on Europe’s Northern borders (Routledge, 2021).

  • by Påhl Ruin

    Freelance writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously worked and lived in Vilnius. He has earlier reported for Swedish publications from Tokyo and Vienna and worked for several years in Stockholm. Frequently published in Baltic Worlds.

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