Finland Still Walks a Fine Line Between Defying and Placating Russia

Finland shares a long border with Russia. Pictured: the Imatra, Finland border crossing. (Photo: Alexey Ivanov / Flickr Commons)

Finland shares a long border with Russia. Pictured: the Imatra, Finland border crossing. (Photo: Alexey Ivanov / Flickr Commons)

To many, Finland is another of Scandinavia’s coddled welfare states. Or more accurately, one where a large government combines with the free market to make the state more egalitarian, humanitarian, and prosperous. Finland is also a state whose sovereignty is under a continual state of stress. That, of course, is due to its long border with Russia, with which its had a fraught relationship. Recall how fiercely Finland battled the Russian invasion in World War II.

In the rare Harper’s article that is not behind a paywall titled Perfect Compromise and subtitled “Welcome to the nerve-wracking reality of being Finland,” Masha Gessen writes that after Finland found itself allied with Nazi Germany against Russia…

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. … 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.

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.”

Much of the rest of the article describes those Finns who, for various reasons and paralleling the Ukraine, who sympathize with the Russia. That includes historian, writer, and activist Johan Backman, who, in 2009

… 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.

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.

Some weeks ago, I had watched the first episode of one of a series of Russian TV shows Amazon Prime has been making available. It was only after reading Gessen’s article that I realized the show, On the Edge of the World (however heavy-handed and biased) chronicled the abduction described above.