Welcome to the nerve-wracking reality of being Finland.
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Welcome to the nerve-wracking reality of being Finland.
A year ago, Sofi Oksanen, Finland’s preeminent contemporary writer, took the podium at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City. “Good evening, everyone,” she said, failing to smile. “I bring greetings from the bordering countries to Russia.” She paused to let the gravity of her nation’s geographic location sink in. She would devote the rest of her allotted seven minutes to a single, grim topic: the danger Russia poses to Western civilization. Other writers speaking that evening at Cooper Union’s Great Hall addressed societal and personal ills, some of staggering dimensions. But only Oksanen sounded genuinely scared. Indeed, she sounded like someone bringing a message from a country at war.
Three weeks later, Alexander Dugin, a once marginal philosopher whose ideas now seem to form the core of Putin’s politics, addressed a large crowd in Helsinki. He spoke of the threat that Western civilization poses to humanity and argued that Finland had a choice to make. It could stay with the West, which would increasingly pressure it to accept what he called a “posthuman,” and “postgender” reality, or it could side with Russia, which alone among the world’s powers was working to protect the traditional way of life. Dugin, whose long gray beard and dome-shaped forehead suggest a Russian Orthodox priest in civvies, stressed repeatedly that the choice would be Finland’s to make. “I am not advocating the annexation of Finland,” he said over and over again. “If I were, I would tell you.” If such a reassurance has ever calmed anyone, this was not the occasion.
Things have not calmed down since. In April, the defense ministers of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland issued a rare joint statement, in which they called for greater military preparedness because “the Russian military are acting in a challenging way along our borders.” Vladimir Putin, for his part, ordered Russian brigades on the Finnish border to full combat readiness. In May, Britain and Germany, among others, joined the Nordic countries in exercises dubbed “The Arctic Challenge Exercise.” In June, the Finnish military held its first live bombing exercises since World War II.
Welcome to the nerve-wracking reality of being Finland. To a casual visitor, it seems like yet another Western European country, a placid paradise with its abundance of bicycles, its obsession with its own mid-twentieth-century design, and stores that close punctually at six in the evening. The Finns feel otherwise. When they go to neighboring Sweden, they say they are “going to Europe.” As it happens, neither country is a member of NATO, but only Finland has a long land border with Russia—and a living memory of having been invaded by the Soviet Union.
Finns find it difficult to talk about the Winter War. Its history—both the official version in the schoolbooks and the unofficial version recalled by the older generation—is unsettled and unsettling. In November 1939, three months after signing a pact with Nazi Germany, the Soviets attacked Finland. Unlike the other countries whose land the USSR grabbed that year, Finland resisted fiercely. Despite the Red Army’s clear advantage—it had far more men, planes, and tanks—the war raged through the winter. The Western powers were still pondering whether to aid Finland when the Soviets stopped fighting in March and signed a peace treaty that let the USSR keep 11 percent of what had been Finnish territory.
In the summer of 1941, when Germany attacked the USSR, Finland took up arms against Moscow once again. This conflict is officially called the Continuation War—a sequel, that is, to the first winter struggle against Soviet aggression—but it unofficially embarrasses the Finns, since it means they fought alongside Nazi Germany until the end of World War II.
A period of fear, shame, and uncertainty followed. Finland opted out of the Marshall Plan and, later, NATO, making nervous overtures toward the Soviet Union, signing bilateral agreements but resisting pressure to join the Warsaw Pact. Under President Urho Kekkonen, who was first elected in 1956, the country developed a schizophrenic persona that straddled parliamentary democracy and Soviet-inflected authoritarianism. Kekkonen convinced the Finns that he alone could keep the USSR at bay—and as a result, he ran the country for a quarter century, seven years longer than his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev.
Throughout this era, Finland avoided anything that might wake the sleeping bear. The first volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was not, for example, published in Finland (the Swedes ultimately supplied their neighbors with a Finnish translation), and the film based on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was kept out of the theaters until two years after the Soviet regime had collapsed. In Finnish classrooms, the story of the Winter War was softened beyond recognition. When Finland signed a free trade agreement with the European Economic Community in 1973, it signed a similar one with the USSR—an absurd gesture, given that nation’s planned economy, but a delicate bit of diplomacy. This policy of concerted appeasement was known as Finlandization, a term coined in Germany and taken in Finland, at least at the time, as an insult.
Now that the bear has stirred, the concept has made a sudden reappearance. Writing in the Financial Times in February 2014, when Russia was annexing Crimea, Zbigniew Brzezinski declared that the “Finnish model is ideal for Ukraine.” The next month, Henry Kissinger sounded the same note in a Washington Post piece, arguing that Ukraine should “pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland”—i.e., tiptoeing deference to its powerful neighbor. To much of the Finnish intelligentsia, this use of what they consider a shameful period in their history as a policy prescription has only added insult to injury.
But according to Oksanen, the talk of Finlandization is not only insulting but dangerous. She and I met at a café near her house, in the neighborhood of Kallio, a twenty-minute walk from downtown. Oksanen embodies everything that Alexander Dugin despises about the decadent West. Her voluminous hair is braided in dreadlocks and streaked with purple; her colorful jacquard-cloth dress is postethnic; her books are mainly populated with women, some of them lesbians, and permeated with the fear of Russia. Three of her four best-selling novels center on the legacy of Stalin and the Soviet Union, and she is currently exploring the same topic in a new book. She is, in other words, consciously, openly, and profitably obsessed with the influence Russia has had on the Finnish psyche.
Oksanen was a teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed, and though she always knew she would be a writer, she was in no hurry to excavate the Soviet past. But then a KGB agent came to power in Russia—and she noticed that the world did not recoil in disgust, as it surely would have “if a Gestapo man had come to run Germany. No one was noticing this, and I decided it was a good time to write a novel.”
She published Stalin’s Cows (2003), about three generations of women in Estonia and Finland, when she was twenty-six. The novel established Oksanen as one of Europe’s most important young writers. But especially since Russia’s move into Ukraine, she has devoted herself to speaking out against the destruction of the world as we know it—and the West’s quick and easy acceptance of this alarming status quo. Oksanen fears that her country may be on the brink of relapsing into the quiet panic and pervasive self-censorship that was a hallmark of Finlandization. But this time, the country could function as Russia’s agent, its smooth-talking ringer, inside the European Union, which Finland hesitantly joined in 1995.
There are good reasons for the fear, says Saska Saarikoski, one of Finland’s most prominent journalists. He quoted a proverb: “No matter how weak the Russians are, they are always too strong for us.” That explains why Finland was reluctant to antagonize its neighbor even during the 1990s. “We didn’t even try to open a discussion about Karelia,” he told me. “We are always careful not to bother the Russians, because they always come back.”
Karelia is a northern region divided between Finland and Russia, which held onto the territory it annexed in 1940. The Russian sector includes the city of Vyborg, a remarkable outpost of Finnish architecture, which was closed to visiting foreigners between 1945 and 1991. The Helsinki-Leningrad train stopped there for forty-five minutes, but non-Russians had no right to disembark, and any violators would be reported to the authorities the moment they attempted to get a hotel room or a meal.
Still, one day in the late 1970s, Saarikoski’s grandmother dragged the future journalist off the train in Vyborg. She took him to an apartment building, he recalls, and knocked imperiously on the door. “My grandmother wasn’t usually that kind of person,” he told me. “She wasn’t arrogant. This Russian woman opened the door, and my grandmother gestured: This is my place. The woman understood and let her in, and my grandmother took this three- or four-minute tour of the place, checked all the rooms. I was terribly embarrassed. And then we went back to the train.” Only later did he understand the motive behind this hit-and-run visit. “It was to show me her home. It was the last time she saw it.”
This is the nature of Finlandization. For those who survived the Winter War, it was heartbreaking. For those born in the 1960s, it was mortifying—because their parents were scared enough to keep Kekkonen in power until he was senile, and to censor their own newspapers and raid their own public libraries, removing the anti-Soviet books without even being told to do so. Saarikoski, who is fifty-one, is old enough to remember when the term was used to stigmatize Finland. To some degree, he defends the nation’s deferential behavior: “We gave in as little as we could. We knew that our road to the West went through Moscow.” And yet, he adds, “it had a corrupting influence.”
The most charitable view of Finlandization I’ve heard was offered by Pekka Sutela, an economist who until four years ago was the Finnish government’s leading Russia expert. In his retirement, he lectures at a business school—and lecturing is clearly Sutela’s calling. Our interview consisted of a two-hour monologue delivered over lunch at one of Helsinki’s oldest restaurants. In his view, Finland was, at least in part, a cunning and crafty manipulator during the heyday of Finlandization. It extracted raw materials from its supposed patron, Finnish companies benefited from trade with the USSR, and it could push back when the Soviets overstepped. But the true art of Finlandization, Sutela told me, was the perfect compromise. When Finland went nuclear, it bought two reactors from Sweden and two from the Soviet Union. The concrete housing, however, came straight from Westinghouse.
Of course, Finland is not the only nation shaped by anti-Russian sentiment. The other countries mauled by the USSR under its 1939 pact with the Germans—Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—have all based their post-Soviet security policies and their national identities on deep-seated fear and resentment of Moscow. All five scrambled to join the European Union and rushed to be accepted into NATO. Finland, where the fear was vague but the shame over Finlandization ran deep, backslid into the European Union and has yet to join NATO. In the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, support for joining NATO has increased. But it remains at well under 50 percent, probably because none of the leading Finnish parties is willing to throw its weight behind such a glaring affiliation with the United States.
The political risks of advocating NATO membership are clear: anti-American sentiment runs high, and the idea that Finland can forge an identity independent of either giant continues to be important. The Green League politician Heidi Hautala calls it “the national myth of being always left alone.”
Hautala met me at a Helsinki bakery between campaign appearances. She was running for the European Parliament, where she has represented Finland twice before, and has also served in the national parliament and in the cabinet. On the campaign trail, she told me, she has been saying that she wants to “yellow-light” NATO membership for Finland. What in the world did that mean? “Yellow light means you have to stop and think,” she explained. “Being nonaligned is no longer an option.” Hautala seemed to be suggesting that if Finns gave any real thought to their self-defense and self-interest, they would support NATO membership—but she couldn’t quite come out and say that.
It is hard to be a European left politician and support NATO. It is also hard to be a Finnish politician. But it is especially hard to be Heidi Hautala—who has been personally targeted by a man who claims to represent Russian interests in Finland. Johan Bäckman, historian, writer, and activist, has been running a spectacular smear campaign against her for the past few years. In 2007, he published a book called Saatana saapuu Helsinkiin (Satan Arrives in Helsinki), whose cover featured a heroic, youthful, tuxedo-clad Vladimir Putin overshadowed by a frumpy likeness of Hautala holding a blood-spattered doll. The book claimed that the 2006 murder of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was arranged by those who wanted to discredit Putin—including, for instance, Hautala herself.
I first heard of Bäckman when I visited Helsinki in 2012. Everyone I met then seemed to be talking about him. Here was a man who had driven Finland crazy. A sociologist by training, he had published several books, including one about the Siege of Leningrad that blamed Finland for the Winter War (which earned a special literature prize from the St. Petersburg municipal legislature). In 2009, however, he refashioned himself as a human-rights crusader fighting for Russian citizens abroad. He began with the messy case of a Russian woman accused by her Finnish ex-husband of kidnapping their son to take him to Russia. The Finnish authorities sided with the father and, according to some accounts, actually aided him in smuggling the child back across the border into Finland—in the trunk of a car with diplomatic plates. Bäckman claimed the incident was representative of Finland’s contemptuous attitude toward its Russian-speaking minority. He also began highlighting the cases of dozens of Russian women whose children had supposedly been removed by social services.
 His title of docent (a rank below a full professorship) cannot be revoked, despite various options explored by Helsinki University, but Bäckman does not actually teach at the school.
The Russian media kept the story alive for months. Some of the rhetoric would eventually seep into the larger anti-Western, antigay campaign: Russian readers were informed that social-service functionaries all over Europe were removing children from straight households to place them with same-sex parents. Meanwhile, many of Bäckman’s claims turned out to be false. But it didn’t matter, since he had gained a firm foothold in the Finnish media. His opponents on talk shows and debates kept floundering: it seemed none of them knew how to grapple with falsehoods. The spectacle embarrassed the public intellectuals of Helsinki, a couple of whom even confessed to me that they were ashamed to be affiliated with the city’s university, where Bäckman holds the title of docent. But it made for very lively television.
Several of my Helsinki acquaintances actually begged me not to interview Bäckman. When I asked why they continued to include him in events and panels, a publishing friend told me that there was a Finnish saying that explained the phenomenon, although she apologized for using it: “You need color in your vomit.”
I met Bäckman, who was returning to Finland from Crimea, at the Moscow airport in June. I asked what he was doing in Crimea, and he smiled like a five-year-old who just got a bike for his birthday. “It was wonderful there!” he exclaimed. “We had a forum. It was a celebration of the liberation of the Crimea.” Meaning its annexation by Russia.
Bäckman is a very large man in his mid forties. We spoke Russian: like all educated Finns, he speaks very good English, but his Russian is impeccably idiomatic and fluent in a way that can only come with constant practice. He, too, told me about the threat facing Finland—except that in his view, it’s not Putin, but those who oppose him. “There is a Chechen underground operating in Finland,” he insisted. “These are terrorists who have moved to Finland and received asylum there. This movement was founded by Heidi Hautala and Mikael Storsjo.”
Storsjo, a businessman and human-rights activist who lives on a tiny island off the coast of Helsinki, views the situation somewhat differently. He does in fact provide hosting services for Kavkaz Center, a Chechen separatist website. Storsjo told me that he has no involvement in the site’s editorial content—he speaks neither Chechen nor Russian, so it could hardly be otherwise—and that he provides the hosting as a public service, since the site is the only independent source of information from the region. But the Russians have repeatedly pressured the Finns to shut down the website. They have also made use of other forms of intimidation—including, Storsjo told me, stealth visits to his house.
 When I mentioned these scare tactics to Bäckman, he refused to give an inch. “Russia has declared Storsjo to be a terrorist,” he informed me. “And he has been tried for illegally bringing these people into the country.” As with many things Bäckman says, these statements contain a kernel of truth. Storsjo has indeed been convicted for smuggling Chechens into Finland—but the government has acknowledged that these particular refugees deserved asylum and allowed them to stay.
There have been at least ten such visits from Russian operatives or their proxies, Storsjo insisted: “They just want to show that they have been there.” And these visitors have left behind some unsubtle calling cards: a dead bird stuffed inside a vase; an Orthodox cross painted in red on the bathroom mirror; two heavy metal bars moved from elsewhere in the house and placed on Storsjo’s side of the marital bed in the shape of a cross, with a Chechen hat topping the composition. He also found a note in mangled Finnish stuck to his car’s windshield. “We know who you are and you should stop your activities,” it read. “And we know who your children are, something will happen to all of you.”
Futile as such efforts are always and everywhere, I tried to understand the nature of Bäckman’s burning passion for Russia. I knew he was once briefly married to a Russian woman, and things didn’t end well, but that seemed an unlikely source for his Russophilia. In any case, he views the history of Finnish-Russian relations as a beautiful love story—and more. “The Finnish nation was created in Russia,” he told me. Finland was part of the Russian Empire from 1809 until 1917, and during that time, he said, borrowing from the ideas of one of the Finns Party’s members, “It had more independence than it does now as part of the European Union. We had our own currency, our own parliament, and our own political life. And now we don’t have any of that.”
A more traditional way of telling this story would go something like this: After Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809, the czar was in no hurry to assimilate his new possession. He left the institutions and the laws, which were technically Swedish rather than Finnish, intact. Once again, Bäckman’s story contained a kernel of truth—as long as you ignored the twentieth-century sequel.
The reason that Bäckman and a fair number of others are able to turn a blind eye on such historical realities is that Russia offers some very appealing things: simplicity, grand ambition, and war. Contrast that with the European Union, which offers bureaucracy, order, and uniformity. When Dugin, the Putin ideologue, talks about rejecting the “posthuman,” and “postgender” world, he is promising Europeans the right to chuck political correctness, social responsibility, and all the complexity of contemporary politics in the trash. This is where the European far right, such as France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Finland’s own Finns Party (formerly known as True Finns), meets the Russian political mainstream—again.
What distinguishes Finland from France and even Hungary is its geographic proximity and historic intimacy with Russia. So another layer of romance and danger is added: Russia appeals to those who need to side with the more powerful. This is exactly what scares Sofi Oksanen and inspires Johan Bäckman. “We know that the spine, values, memory, and history of the nation can be wiped from the map,” Oksanen warned in a speech in Prague last June. “Finland’s history with Russia is really interesting, but it is Finland’s future with Russia that is truly exciting,” Bäckman enthused during our colloquy at the Moscow airport. A few days later, he told me, he would be hosting Dugin and several other Kremlin-affiliated ideologues in a Helsinki forum called “We Will Build a Greater Russia.”
“What is a greater Russia?” I asked.
“Well, it is a bit early to say,” said Bäckman, and then he got that bursting-with-happiness look again. “There is the geographic concept of Russia, but there is also Russia in people’s hearts, and that’s a broader concept. You could say that, in a way, we are a part of Russia already.”
More from Masha Gessen:
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."