The Death of a Forced Friendship: Russian Invasion of Ukraine Ends an Era in Finland. Source: Spiegel International

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In Kotka, they allowed Lenin to stick around longer than anywhere else in Finland. But in October, the statue was finally taken down.

In Kotka, they allowed Lenin to stick around longer than anywhere else in Finland. But in October, the statue was finally taken down. Foto: Sasu Makinen / Lehtikuva / IMAGO

The Death of a Forced Friendship Russian Invasion of Ukraine Ends an Era in Finland

Russia and Finland once maintained close relations that were partly imposed by Moscow. Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, though, the Finns are strengthening their defenses and striving to join NATO. For many, it marks the end of an era.

By Nadia Pantel

15.12.2022, 11.58 Uhr

All that remains of Lenin is a bit of red glue on a marble pedestal. For 43 years, it stood in a small park in the southern Finnish coastal town of Kotka. At times, people smeared it with paint, and the local council regularly argued over whether its presence trivialized Stalinism. But Lenin remained. In 1995, a Polish artist gave him a left arm, which the statue had been lacking. And from then on, Lenin held a bronze cigarette in his hand. DER SPIEGEL 50/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2022 (December 10th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL. SPIEGEL International

Recent months, though, have seen movement on the issue. First, the city of Turku took down a Lenin statue, followed by a Soviet monument in Helsinki. In October, the Kotka City Council finally sent a demolition squad to Finland’s last remaining Lenin.

Two-thirds of respondents had told the local newspaper that they could no longer stand the statue: Russia invades Ukraine, yet a Lenin statue installed by Moscow is still standing exactly where the Soviet army first attacked Kotka in 1939? It was too much.

Lenin had actually arrived as a friend. In 1979, Moscow commissioned an Estonian sculptor to create it as a symbol of Soviet-Finnish solidarity. But in 2022, the people of Kotka and Finland finally lost patience. Enough Lenin. Stay away Moscow.


The Baltic Sea Goes NATO

Even the Baltic Sea, which lies under the gray sky just a few paces behind Lenin’s pedestal, will soon no longer be the same. Finland expects to be admitted to NATO next year, together with Sweden. Northern Europe is saying goodbye to the idea of neutrality. And the inland sea will soon become almost completely under NATO control, with a bit of Russia at its easternmost tip. Over the summer, U.S. President Joe Biden said: “Putin was looking for the Finlandization of Europe. He’s going to get the ‘NATOization’ of Europe.”

“Finlandization” was the term used in West Germany in the days of the Iron Curtain to describe the enforced closeness with which Moscow made Helsinki an acquiescent neighbor. Given that most Finns are polite people, they refrained from coining the term “Berlinization” to describe the period after the fall of the Wall – the phase during which Germany behaved as if defense and security issues were concerns of the past. It’s an attitude that Finland, which shares a 1,340-kilometer border with Russia, could never afford.

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Driving along that border, you learn that every city has a well-maintained system of air-raid shelters, which are currently being used as swimming pools, gymnasiums and storage rooms. After all, they want the present to be as normal as possible, but completely ruling out a Russian attack seemed cavalier. It is also a country that nonetheless maintained serene and pragmatic contact with its large neighbor. Russian tourists, businessmen and friends are quietly yet painfully missed in Finland.

When Lenin was brought to Kotka in 1979, Esa Lassi, the local representative of the Communist Party of Finland, picked up the Lenin sculptor from the ferry arriving from Tallinn. Lassi still has metal pins with a miniature version of the statue in his kitchen today. Like the original, without the left arm. When Lenin was dismantled this fall, Lassi wrapped a red flag around his walker and protested. Lassi isn’t just Kotka’s best-known communist. He is also a relic of “Finlandization.”

“I would have loved to put the red flag around Lenin’s shoulders as a farewell, but there were construction workers and they were stronger than me,” Lassi says, sitting in his living room. His respirator is set on the bookshelf behind him on a tome about Scandinavian social democracy. There are pictures on the walls of Lenin and trips Lassi made with the Communist Party during his youth. During the 1970s, Lassi studied briefly in Moscow. For him, Russia represented the “promise of brotherhood and freedom.” Although he wanted a communist Finland, he never wanted a Russian Finland.

Lassi considers Finland to be “an independent country that can defend itself.” He finds his country’s planned NATO membership to be just as sad as the demise of the Lenin statue. Yet not even Lassi would advise Ukraine to “Finlandize,” to subordinate itself to Russia. “Putin is a traitor,” Lassi says. A traitor to communism, a traitor to the former Soviet peoples. Of course Ukraine should be defending itself against his attack, he says. The way Lassi sees the world, Putin will fall out of power because of his war and Lenin will still be lying in his mausoleum in Red Square, and people will realize “that it is Lenin’s thoughts that can save us.”

Esa Lassi in his apartment. He was present during the 1979 erection of the Lenin statue in his home town of Kotka. Lassi considers Putin to be "a traitor," but he still maintains his belief in Lenin's communist ideals.

Esa Lassi in his apartment. He was present during the 1979 erection of the Lenin statue in his home town of Kotka. Lassi considers Putin to be “a traitor,” but he still maintains his belief in Lenin’s communist ideals. Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

There’s one photo hanging on the wall with a laughing man with blond curls. “That’s me,” says Lassi. “I was 18, all the girls were after me.” Communism was part of Lassi’s youth, too. Lassi, though, is now an elderly man. And for Finland, which belonged to the Russian Empire until 1917, the forced closeness with Moscow is now a thing of what feels like the distant past.


Shopping Right at the Border

Just under 50 kilometers east of Kotka is the Vaalimaa border crossing. Marks in the road left behind by cars and trucks serve as a reminder that, until the summer, thousands of tourists and commuters from Russia drove into Finland every day or headed from Finland to Russia. Since September 30, though, the border has only been open in exceptional cases, for people who want to visit relatives or who have long-term visas.

Four years ago, a shopping center was built right next to the border crossing. It’s called the Zsar Outlet Village, and there is a throne in the center where visitors can have their photo taken wearing a crown. Capitalism is tolerant – if Russians associate positive emotions with the czar, you give them a czar shopping experience. But just like the check-in counters at the border, the shopping center too has become a defunct backdrop to a bygone era. Most of the stores have closed, and the Outlet Village has filed for bankruptcy.

The Zsar Outlet Village in Vaalimaa, Finland, had to declare bankruptcy because it can no longer draw Russian tourists.

The Zsar Outlet Village in Vaalimaa, Finland, had to declare bankruptcy because it can no longer draw Russian tourists. Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Pekka Aho, with his gray hair and a thick jacket, is one of the last customers. He just bought sports shoes for his sons. Aho lives nearby and works as a border guard. There aren’t many other jobs around, he says, adding that it has grown extremely quiet. Until the end of the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain divided the world here in Vaalimaa, with rapprochement only beginning slowly in the 1980s. Vaalimaa went from being a dead end to a transit town – and it became the busiest border crossing on the way from Russia to Helsinki.

Russia’s war has now made Vaalimaa the end of the road once again. “The last 20 years were good,” says Aho. The Russian middle class grew, and so did the number of Russian tourists. Restaurants and stores opened in Vaalimaa, and Russia, at least that’s how it seemed to Aho, gained more freedom and democracy. This year put a damper on the “actually strong optimism” that Aho says he has. “I now have to explain to my children why Russia won’t attack us.” He tells them about the strong Finnish army, and, more recently, also about NATO.

Because Aho doesn’t want to be afraid, he has decided that Finland is actually worthless to Russia, anyway. “If they conquer us, they will just get more forests and more pristine nature. They have enough of that already.”

A old bunker line that was built during the 1940s between the Winter War and Continuation War to stop an invasion by the Soviet army

A old bunker line that was built during the 1940s between the Winter War and Continuation War to stop an invasion by the Soviet army Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

And the path along the border actually does lead through endless forests. Sixty-five kilometers north of Vaalimaa, the trees are joined by water. It’s the beginning of Saimaa, Finland’s largest lake, which is even home to the Saimaa ringed seal. Lappeenranta is located on the shore, a city that under Swedish rule used to be called “Villmanstrand,” the beach of the wild man. Today, you encounter the wild man as part of the town coat-of-arms, a hairy brute with a bare torso wielding a wooden club. “I really do thing that he’ll now protect us,” says Tuomo Sallinen, the town’s deputy mayor.


Finland Doesn’t Need to Catch Up Militarily

Just a year ago, Sallinen didn’t think he needed any kind of special protection. Lappeenranta, with its 70,000 residents, has benefited from exchange and trade with Russia like hardly any other city in Finland. Relations were so close that Lappeenranta maintained its own representation in Saint Petersburg. “I thought, in economic terms alone, that we were so intertwined that it would make war impossible. I was wrong,” says Sallinen. He has Russian friends and wanted to treat Russia like a normal neighbor. “That trust is now destroyed.”

Tuomo Sallinen is the mayor of Lappeenranta. Behind him is the the "wild man," who is part of the town coat-of-arms.

Tuomo Sallinen is the mayor of Lappeenranta. Behind him is the the “wild man,” who is part of the town coat-of-arms. Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

In conversations in Finland about Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the same shock is evident that one encounters in Germany. And yet there is a crucial difference: Unlike Germany, the invasion isn’t really requiring Finland to radically change its approach, to declare a “watershed,” as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did immediately after the Russian attack, “Zeitenwende.” Finland has never abolished compulsory military service, and defense spending is already 2 percent of gross domestic product, the target figure demanded by NATO that many countries, including Germany, have not yet reached. Finland saw itself as a neutral country, but not as one that didn’t have to defend itself.

And the country’s defenses also include more than just the army. Every two years, Sallinen and his staff have to undergo disaster training. For two days, they rehearse how to keep the city running if there is no electricity, if people are killed, if homes are burning. “Being prepared,” Sallinen says, “is part of who we are as a nation.”

It becomes more difficult for Sallinen when he is asked to talk about the city’s future. We’ll just have to adapt, he says. But at City Hall, they have calculated that every day the border to Russia remains closed, it costs the city 1 million euros. They had grown used to being the gateway to the east.

The members of the Lions Club Lappeenranta make preparations for their stand at the local Christmas market. As businessmen, electricians and home-builders, they have all felt the economic repercussions of the war.

The members of the Lions Club Lappeenranta make preparations for their stand at the local Christmas market. As businessmen, electricians and home-builders, they have all felt the economic repercussions of the war. Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Esa, Juho and their friends meet in the basement of an apartment. Why should Finland join NATO? "Because we're realists."

Esa, Juho and their friends meet in the basement of an apartment. Why should Finland join NATO? “Because we’re realists.” Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

A few minutes’ drive from City Hall, in the basement of an apartment building, 10 men are meeting on this Wednesday afternoon in Lappeenranta to mix 200 liters of salad dressing. They are members of the local Lions Club and are preparing for their charity booth at the local Christmas market. The bottling of the salad dressing is going smoothly, and the first beers have been popped open, but they don’t expect it to be a very good holiday season. Almost everyone here is affected by the border closure.

There is Esa, who exported electrical technology to Russia. Joel, who sold expensive cheese to the Russians. Juho, who built luxury homes on the banks of the Saimaa for Russian millionaires. “I’d be happy if the Russians came back, but I wouldn’t show it,” Joel says. He’s talking about tourists. Then he adds: “If the Russians, come, I know what I have to do. I’m a reservist.” This time, he’s talking about the soldiers.


  • Everyone here in the basement shares the feeling that they have been deceived. They didn’t consider Russia to be dangerous, despite the annexation of Crimea in 2014, despite the Caucasus War in 2008. And they thought Finland could do well without NATO. “We’re not afraid,” says home-builder Juho. Then why does the country want to join NATO now? “Because we’re realists. And as a realist, you adapt to external conditions.”

For Katri Anttila, the new ice age between Finland and Russia is particularly painful. Anttila is the director of three Finnish-Russian schools in Lappeenranta and the surrounding area. Here in southeastern Finland, in Karelia, more than 5 percent of the population belongs to the Russian-speaking minority. In 2010, there were television reports about the Russian schools of Lappeenranta because there were so many applications. The Russian language was booming. “We were approached by parents who had no particular connection to Russia. They just wanted their children to learn a useful language,” Anttila recalls. “Now, our Russian teachers are getting weird looks at the supermarket,” Anttila says.

Education materials at the Russian school in Lappeenranta

Education materials at the Russian school in Lappeenranta Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Lappeenranta’s Russian school is housed in a brightly lit building. From the street, you can see the drawing of a matryoshka nesting doll. There’s no Russian flag to be seen anywhere. “We don’t talk about politics in school,” Anttila says. But she can’t deny that politics is pushing its way into her school. Since the beginning of the war, a growing number of students are arriving fresh from Russia. “These are families who had been thinking about emigrating for a long time and could no longer stand the situation,” Anttila says.


Preparing for the Possibility of Attack

At the same time, the first Ukrainian refugees are now arriving at the school. It’s easier for the children to arrive in a Russian-speaking environment, Anttila says. But she is also realizing what can happen when speaking about politics becomes taboo. It ends in great silence. Anttila long commuted between Finland and Russia. But since Russia attacked Ukraine, she hasn’t visited her friends on the other side of the border. She says she is afraid they might say things she wouldn’t be able to accept.

On the way out of the school, Anttila points to two heavy iron doors. Behind them is what looks like a storeroom for sports equipment, with cross-country skis leaning against shelves. But it’s an air raid shelter. Large red cranks protrude from the wall. If the Russians use poison gas, they can manually set the air filters in motion inside. Both are possible at the Russian school in Lappeenranta: learning the language and the culture of their neighbor. And being prepared for a possible attack from that self-same neighbor.

A dam holds back the Vuoksi River near Imatra. The rapids on the Vuoksi that are unleashed once a day have been a tourist attraction since the 18th century – for both Finns and Russians.

A dam holds back the Vuoksi River near Imatra. The rapids on the Vuoksi that are unleashed once a day have been a tourist attraction since the 18th century – for both Finns and Russians. Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

A little further to the northeast, seven kilometers from Svetogorsk in Russia, lies the small town of Imatra. It is famous for its wild river and for the huge dam that was built to generate electricity. The Imatra rapids became a tourist attraction after Russian Czarina Catherine the Great visited them in 1772.


The Hole of a Shell Impact

Some of today’s tourists find their way to a white house next to Imatra’s main street. It’s the place where Jarmo Ikävalko keeps his childhood toys and photos of his parents’ youth, as well as military uniforms from World War II. He calls his collection the “Veteran’s Museum.” An idyllic mural with farmers and animals has been painted above the sofa in the living room. In front of the left hoof of a horse, there’s a hole. In 1944, a Soviet army shell struck it. Ikävalko has left the shrapnel in the wall.

A visit to Ikävalko is not only about the past, but also about one of the most important strands of the Finnish national narrative: the battles of the Winter War. In 1939, the Red Army attacked Finland, with Stalin expecting to quickly overrun the country quickly, but the Finns resisted for much longer than expected. Finnish soldiers, Ikävalko’s father among them, managed to stand up to the Soviet army for the entire winter. Until Moscow won. But without having conquered Finland.

Jarmo Ikävalko in the living room of his parent's house, where he today runs Imatra's Veteran's Museum.

Jarmo Ikävalko in the living room of his parent’s house, where he today runs Imatra’s Veteran’s Museum. Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Seventy-eight percent of Finns are in favor of joining NATO.

Matias Hilden is the mayor or Imatra. "Of course people wish for a world without fences," says Hilden. But the prototype of Finland's new border fence is to be built in Imatra.

Matias Hilden is the mayor or Imatra. “Of course people wish for a world without fences,” says Hilden. But the prototype of Finland’s new border fence is to be built in Imatra. Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nine months ago, there was once again talk of the Winter War. Even outside of Finland. A small country attacked by its Russian neighbor and proves to be a determined adversary that wins international sympathy. That’s how it was in 1939 and 1940 during the Winter War, and that is how it began in 2022 in Ukraine. Other parallels are difficult to draw. But for Finland, the Winter War is a memory that the country continues to draw on. When the men were preparing the salad dressing in the basement in Lappeenranta, one of them even mentioned it: “We have known since 1939 that one Finnish soldier is as strong as 10 Russians.”

Ikävalko of the Veterans Museum doesn’t want to give the impression that he is longing for the old days. He liked living on the border, he says. “We always have fireworks twice on New Year’s Eve, first on the Russian side and an hour later on ours.” For Ikävalko, Russia had always been “a friend.” The idea that this can no longer be the case scares him. He says he considers Finland’s NATO accession to be “reasonable,” but quite unpleasant. Soon, his small museum will recall an era when Finland hoped to navigate independently through peacetime.

Earlier this month, Finnish Prime Minster Sanna Marin again stated that those days are over. “I’ll be brutally honest with you, Europe isn’t strong enough,” she said in a speech given in Sydney, Australia, on December 2. She said the war has shown that Europe needs the United States and that the European defense industry needs to be strengthened. The Finnish population seems to agree with Marin: In a poll taken in November, 78 percent said they were in favor of joining NATO. Back in 2017, only 21 percent were.

An art nouveau villa stands 10 steps away from Ikävalko’s museum. It’s an aging luxury hotel with taxidermy adorning the room with the fireplace. It’s here that the mayor of Imatra, Matias Hilden, has agreed to meet for an interview. Under Hilden’s predecessor, Imatra still had close ties with the nearby Russian city of Svetogorsk. There were joint sports tournaments, business contacts and the municipal administrations occasionally worked together. Hilden, 35, has only been in office for seven months and is no longer familiar with that time. Svetogorsk is only 20 minutes away by car, but today it is the beginning of a completely different world.

Tourists have left their traces on the rocks along the Imatra rapids. Russians wrote this "graffiti" in the 19th century.

Tourists have left their traces on the rocks along the Imatra rapids. Russians wrote this “graffiti” in the 19th century. Foto: Juuso Westerlund / DER SPIEGEL

“We wanted the Russians to know that the Ukrainians have our full support.”

Up until July and August, Russian tourists were still coming to Imatra, as has always been normal for the city. “But this time it bothered people here,” Hilden says. So, they thought about how to show the Russian guests what they think.

During the vacation season, they open the floodgates of their dam at 6 p.m. each evening. The riverbed becomes a waterfall for 16 minutes. To ensure the spectacle really touches everyone, the city plays a piece by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius over the loudspeakers. The rushing water meets swelling violins. This summer in Imatra, they played the Ukrainian national anthem instead of Sibelius. “We wanted the Russians to know that the Ukrainians have our full support,” says Mayor Hilden. He says he couldn’t tell whether the Russians had listened or turned a deaf ear.

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No one is coming to visit right now, anyway. The loudspeakers take a winter break. Here, where up to 14 trains a day arrived with guests from St. Petersburg in the 19th century, Finland will erect its first border fence. It will be three meters high and will be topped by barbed wire and night vision cameras.

Finland intends to secure a total of 200 kilometers of the 1,430-kilometer border in this way, at an estimated cost of 380 million euros. With the Iron Curtain, Imatra’s mayor says, there were only wooden markings in the forest. The era of fences is only just now beginning.

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