What does the neighbour think?

26 April 2013 | Essays, Non-fiction

venalaisetFor more than 20 years journalist Leena Liukkonen has been thoroughly involved with Russian culture, commerce, language and psyche. The subtitle of her new book of essays Venäläiset tulevat! (‘The Russians are coming!’) is ‘What we think and know about them’, and refers to the fact that the Finns do not really know their eastern neighbours very well. Liukkonen writes with insight about the differences in history, mentality and world view

Extracts (under original subtitles) from Venäläiset tulevat! Mitä me heistä luulemme ja tiedämme (Siltala, 2013)


In café conversations with other visitors to Russia, we often react with exasperation to the fact that discussions in Finland only ever start with the Winter War. Sometimes we wonder why the threshold between us and our neighbour to the east is still so high. My own living contact with the past, however, makes it clear to me that everything the elderly carry round with them could not have been simply shaken off with the passage of time. Nor can the next generation just break away from it. My own experience also reminds me how distant our eastern neighbour was during peacetime. After all, a very few have made the long journey to the country next door. To many people, the old story was the only story there was about Russia.

Clearly, war and the shadow of destruction which passed through our neighbouring country and fell on us lived on among us, in everything we knew, even if we didn’t give the Russians a moment’s thought. It is only now that I see the nature and effects of these things, when I observe adults who no longer know nothing about it. Nor did they think of it in their daily lives: real people do not really do this. War and danger continued to live on silently in everything I knew. (….)

All the men had been in the army or were headed there. For obvious reasons, the presumed enemy came from the East, and the most comprehensible history was the recently fought Great War (1941–1944): it governed the Finnish national identity as much as the Kalevala, the national epic. Just as the Great Patriotic War did for the Russians. The walls of our village school were hung with memorial plaques bearing the names of locals who had died in the war, along with their dates of birth and death. Pro Patria. Every day, every moment. Like many others of my generation, I have also spent many bored moments staring at Marshal Mannerheim’s order of the day, where so-and-so many enemies stare with a shattered gaze at our starry sky.

Next to the village church there were neat rows of white crosses, and on the day we graduated we took roses to the graves of boys who would forever be our own age. In the evening we went out to celebrate, while those youths went on sleeping beneath their crosses and their children were absent from our group. (….)

The complex, contradictory history in the years preceding the Great War and for centuries between other wars remained beneath the black-and-white noise – all the fighting throughout my formative years over whether the Soviet Union was good or evil, which one grew thoroughly tired of – just as one grew tired of President Urho Kekkonen and the talk about him.

Actual fighting between the two countries is not a current issue between these neighbours, but when a Russian general delivers a standard anti-NATO speech in Helsinki in the 2010s, it activates deep-seated memories, including memories of the last great war. Admittedly, with ever-decreasing vigour. In an opinion poll, two-thirds of Finns said the general’s speeches had no influence on their views towards NATO.

The issue was not about the war itself, but about its aftermath. Those who fought in the war don’t even talk about war all that much, either. War does not constitute the same part of people’s lives as the narrative about war. A contemporary Russian author had the brilliant insight that the best writers about war are those who have never witnessed it themselves.

With hindsight, growing up in the climate of quiet, self-evident truths concerning war and the Cold War made us accustomed not only to blocking the Soviet Union from our minds, but also to a certain fatalism. We did not need to really fear the Soviet Union, but we should always remember what it was, and we too might end up fighting, for reasons independent of ourselves. And we would enter into a league with the Devil himself if it became necessary, for the superpowers seem to be interested in the smaller countries for about as long as they could gain some tactical advantage from doing so. Go ahead and carry on with the Winter War even though you are being destroyed, you are weakening the Soviet Union. Just don’t start a war against the Soviet Union now! Come on, what are you doing, paying too much attention to the Soviets?

Then again, in the 1970s maybe people did think that peace would last, for a couple of generations – after all, it had lasted for thirty years so far. I have never heard a single war veteran fomenting hatred of the Russians. Even though they knew full well that the threat came from the East. (….)

We left war behind generations ago, but Moscow has kept fighting, in external and internal wars, with veterans who are ordinary Russian men of all ages. They live among their contemporaries knowing a great many things that would be useless to explain to anyone, but which they cannot rid from their heads. If we accept it as given that war brutalises people, there are grounds to examine this matter as well. Civil war in the Caucasus and terrorism that has plagued the civilian population elsewhere are quite recent phenomena, with all their accompanying impacts on society. (….)


The Russian psyche has not been fundamentally altered by the Age of Enlightenment, religious reforms or Freud. In fact, the Enlightenment had a rather limited impact when it reached Russia, much like all Western influences, notwithstanding the interest and erudition of Catherine the Great, and it also met with philosophical and political counteractions. There was no religious reform. The Russian Orthodox Church regards itself as the representative of an unbroken continuum of Christianity. And while the Roman Catholic Church maintains that it has not undergone any reforms, Western Christianity has nevertheless experienced the effect of Protestantism’s emphasis on individual responsibility. In the Soviet era, Freud was considered an example of Western decadence, but the mania for rooting around in the human mind which he kicked off did not achieve a breakthrough in all aspects of culture, as was the case in the Western world.

These three waves have altered the Western notion of humanity in countless ways, affecting what we ‘Romans’ have become: self-asserting self-observers who need to explain even instinctively made decisions to ourselves. At least men seem to have a need to do this.

Yet this pure-cultivated ‘rationalism’ begins to lose the upper hand in explaining the complex conditions in the world by reasoning alone. Daniel Kahneman, who began his career as a psychologist, received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for explaining to the world that even though it is theoretically possible to be entirely rational, the rationality of a living human being is always a highly inconsistent thing.

We no longer need to settle for Freud, studies of human behaviour or asking people themselves for justifications. Modern imaging methods have given cognitive researchers the opportunity to see what happens inside the human brain when we make decisions. For example, neuro-economics studies the ways in which thought processes influence our choices. Many people would be amazed if they knew that we believe in news stories more if we think we have received them via the right news outlet.

It is impossible to deny the limits of rationalism in Russia. Another writer summarised it by saying that the anima and dreams are closer to the surface in Russia. I see more guiding power accorded to intuition, subliminal and emotional impulses in interpersonal relationships in our neighbouring country. Russians’ use of language is more emotional. Beliefs in superstition, horoscopes, clairvoyants and faith healing are clearly permitted to a greater extent. The truth value in these phenomena has fallen victim so ruthlessly to relativism that the Finnish Association of Skeptics might only see them in their nightmares.

Violence is culturally more acceptable if a person ‘couldn’t control his temper’. Emotional factors, aesthetic values and intangible reasons in general are more acceptable grounds for choices, purchases, interpersonal relationships and even work-related decisions than in Protestant areas of Europe at least. ‘Without the essentials I will get by; without the extras I won’t.’ Issues are primarily interpersonal. Or if they are not, there is no obligation to pursue them.

Some researchers of my acquaintance have disputed this, claiming the truth is that Russia’s foreign policy is always rationally based on the country’s own interests. They belong to the school of thought that believes that the issue always centres on traditional, hard-line security policies or material benefits, which various national ideologies and controls are merely made to serve. There is an opposing school of thought that regards the philosophy of Russia’s domestic policy as the engine of its foreign policy, whether it be Orthodox Messianism, Soviet hubris about a global revolution or the current multipolar objective to ward off the Western superpower.

Then again, the mindset which seems most plausible to me is the one which accepts that everything influences everything else. What is in the national interest must, after all, always be defined subjectively. Are the enormous resources devoted to managing the largest possible geographical area and the pursuit of maintaining global superpower status at any price among the eternal, immutable national interests of Russia? They may be, if the local outlook on the world and contextual rationalism look that way in Moscow. (….)


Contrary to popular claims, in Finland there is no widespread interest in Russia as an everyday reality. Because of the small pool of people with knowledge of Russia and the lack of strong, broad-scale competition, people become designated as ‘Russia experts’ on the basis of slimmer merits than in many other subjects. I take the view that there is no such thing as a Russia expert, if we want to take the second part of that term seriously. There are professionals in various fields who are experts in research or practical knowledge in different areas. International relations, economics, social development and even cultural research are distinct fields. One Russian researcher griped that the reason we feel there is a lot of expertise on Russia in Finland is because so many people have such strong opinions on the subject.

However, I occasionally note a demand for a ‘long-winded’ discussion style in public discourse which would illuminate broad social phenomena. Instead, our attention spans also dictate that people taking part in public discussions on Russia are expected to adhere to certain basic Finnish domestic policy formulas, to have diametrically opposing views that are easy to guess in advance, and preferably to blast sharply pointed opinions at each other. Aspects which do not fit into this model – particularly things that are difficult to place on the good-bad axis or characterise in terms of how they affect Finland or the Finnish climate of opinion – receive very little attention. As a result of a lack of language skills and interest, the majority of people are unable to form views on the issues.

Thus we live in the manner of a man who peeps through the keyhole into a locked house, telling people what he can see. A second person looks through another keyhole, shouting over the first that he is anti-Soviet or a Communist, a Russophobe or a Putinist. Behind the shouting parties are small groups of supporters, with people dotted among them who quietly go up and look in through the windows. The rest of the group are basking in the garden, completely unconcerned about whose words have been distorted in the Russian press, who is being accused of cosying up to Russia and who is defaming the country, and who might have submitted a request to investigate whom. This circus would be irrelevant otherwise, but analytical discourse that moves things forward is in danger of being buried underneath it. Perhaps that is the intention. Then again, the same has been done to immigration, environmental issues and many other subjects that should demand serious attention. Discussion can be fruitful no matter how argumentative, but as a shoddy shouting match it is a waste of time.

I think I have been perceiving changing attitudes in the younger generation though. I noticed a column by a senior Russian expat journalist in which he assessed the problems between Russia and the other former Soviet states from the point of view of their mindsets. In the Soviet mindset, there was no politicking; you fought within the mindset and either won or lost. Some of the ‘new’ leaders are exactly the same figures from Soviet times and, to the observer, their mindset has not changed a bit – nor do they have any idea how to make modern policy: they are all Komsomol men, in the view of that journalist.

To some extent, this could also be said about Finland. The game has got stuck at a stage which the next generations do not necessarily acknowledge as necessary. To us, a person like Urho Kekkonen or the wounds from old tribulations that still made people raise their voices were emotionally irrelevant, even though they might have been intellectually relevant. Young liberal Russians and Finns of a similar persuasion may be closer to one another in terms of their mentality and certain issues than to their compatriots of previous generations, some of whom will never climb out of their old entrenched positions. If you’re not with ‘us’, you’re against ‘us’. I myself struggle onwards, even though I am getting to the stage of life where it would be a lot of work to acquire a totally new outlook. I am probably stuck in the rut of the tolerant viewpoints of the late twentieth century. (….)


As the Press Counsellor at the Finnish Embassy in Moscow, I was responsible for media monitoring from 1999 to 2003, and I have followed Russian media representations before and after those dates as well. There is no ‘Russian’ view of Finland or Finnishness; rather, opinions very along with socioeconomic conditions, both locally and individually, just as other phenomena do throughout Mother Russia. Basically, we are still fairly insignificant from Moscow’s point of view, a bit slow, accustomed to austere northern life, industrious and reliable manufacturers of Viola cheese spread and winter boots, and the overall stance towards Finland and Finnishness is generally fairly benignly positive or neutral.

In the great scheme of wars and destruction throughout history, the fighting between our two countries has been small potatoes. The images of the enemy created by Soviet propaganda live on in the works of a certain small rump of writers specialising in that sort of thing and are spread among enthusiasts. Present-day Russians, who have no particular interest in such matters, know Finland from the Russian media as a modern (if a bit restricted) small country with something of a reputation in the IT sector. When they do take notice of us, their small neighbour is fairly successful economically, well organised, and has become a popular destination for Russians on sporting, shopping and leisure holiday trips. It is the land of Santa Claus, ice hockey and the occasional child custody problem for Russian women. Everything goes along swimmingly so long as they can regard Finland benignly from at home, perhaps slightly condescendingly. Finland works well as an example for the reform-minded current generation; a typical Russian blogger might write that there is no use in appealing to natural conditions or vodka traditions in Russia’s societal development. In the same freezing winter weather and with the same hangovers, those Finns are building roads and competing in the international marketplace, just like the Russians.

It is evident that the closer to Finland they are and the more they travel, the more realistic and current the image they have. A common complaint among Russian travellers and immigrants to Finland is that ‘nothing happens’ in Finland. True, Finland has no cultural treasures on the scale of St Petersburg, Moscow or Paris and no impressive dimensions. Everything is small, and there is not much of it, except for free space, of which there is plenty. And this suits many Russians down to the ground. They come on holiday looking for relaxation, and Russian speakers living here appreciate the order and safety – which may simultaneously register as dullness.

In many cases, people living in Finland are bored simply due to their own personal circumstances: a lack of language skills or a restricted milieu. One Russian living in Finland who maintains a website on Finland and Finnish culture as a hobby notes that, now that his language skills have improved, Finland has turned out to have a surprisingly diverse culture, despite the fact that it is ‘very local and a bit isolated’. And that it is possible to adapt to Finland, even though the differences in the two mentalities are greater than those between Russians and Americans. There may be some areas where big countries will always understand one another better.

These life experiences, too, are still highly individual, but it is clear that it is not easy to find your way into Finland from Helsinki’s main railway station, any more than it is to find your way into Russia from Leningrad Station. But every person must go off and search if they want to find it. And there are many who seem to have found what they were after. We live our own lives with a country and a people as they are. Once in a while we might grumble within our own circle, then carry on living.

Translated by Ruth Urbom

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