The war in Ukraine has evoked immediate gut reactions from a distant, yet very mobilizable collective memory reserve in Finland: Russia, again. And: Are we next? We have certainly seen this one before, even though nobody wanted to see it coming this time.
Finnish history is connected to Imperial Russia, to the Soviet Union, and to post-Soviet Russia in so many ways that there is really no way to understand modern Finland without its relationship to its giant neighbor. Landmarks of this entangled and often-violent history include the country’s independence in the shadow of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the civil war between the “Whites” and the “Reds” in 1918, the victorious Winter War and the bitter Continuation War against the Soviet Union in the Second World War 1939–1944, the “Finlandization” era during the Cold War, and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which was followed by an unforeseen economic depression, but also by an accelerated Westernization of Finland. All this has shaped modern Finland. It has also made Finland cautious because of the (currently) 1343 km of common border with Russia. Located between the East and the West, Finland has served as a (self-proclaimed) neutral mediator on many occasions since the Second World War. This role gave Finland the option of being a double agent of sorts, gradually pulling away towards the West while keeping a friendly face to the East.
While Finnish-Russian relations have been manifold and persistent, the modernization path of Finnish society is characterized by late, but rapid transformations. This characterization fits all major modernizing transformations, most notably industrialization and urbanization, both of which can be dated to the 1950s. They marked the beginning of a swift wave of deep and lasting transformations of society. Something resembling this rapid transformation is, perhaps, taking place now, in the midst of the belligerent turbulence that has made all European countries update their understanding of national security at a fast-forward pace.
Westernization of Finnish society has, for a large part, been a done deal since its EU membership in 1995. Yet ties to Russia have remained relevant in many ways to this very today. Cases in point are the construction of the Nordstream pipeline, which involved a significant number of actors directly linked to the core of Finnish political leadership as lobbyists and consultants, and Rosatom’s substantial role in the Finnish nuclear energy strategy. Innumerous Finnish companies, in turn, have production sites in Russia. Russian migrants are the biggest non-native population group in Finland. As a consequence, there are vast issues at stake in Finland’s positioning to the current war and to the anticipation of what will be the future development of not only the security environment, but also of a new cultural, economic, and social iron curtain to be drawn, again, along the Finnish borderline.
In Finland, the widespread notion in the West that “We are all Ukrainians” has a strong “we-know-what-they-are-up-against” bonus. The knowledge is mainly not first-hand, but it has powerful roots in our (great) grand parents’ often somewhat reticent accounts, and in the long and extremely prolific chain of iconic cultural products building a national narrative of the war. An important example is the 1954 novel The Unknown Soldier, of which there have been three filmed versions, the most recent one in 2017. Generations of Finns have thus been socialized to a mobilizable cultural repertoire of expecting the war to repeat itself. Now this cultural repertoire has been mobilized anew, with consequences already visible in the public debate, which carries elements of new fast-forwarded transformations.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of rapid and radical change is the question of Finland’s membership of NATO. The Finnish NATO debate has been cemented into well-known political positions for decades. The political Right, namely the National Coalition and, to an extent, the Swedish People’s Party, have been in favor of joining NATO, while the entire Left has been opposed, as has most of the Center Party representatives, while this traditional agricultural party has had some contradicting views internally along the years. Within weeks since the beginning of the war, opinion polls have shown a record 76% of Finns in favor of applying for a NATO membership, an all-time skyrocketing record of over 45 percentage points increase from last fall. Politicians’ views have followed along. After years of stagnation, the Finnish NATO debate seems to have skipped directly to a final stage in which the membership application appears extremely probable. Unlike the rest of society and under the radar of the public debate, the Finnish defense forces have been preparing for this moment for decades, within a context of cooperation rather than membership. While NATO membership now seems almost like an obvious, unspectacular choice to make, in fact it is a true earthquake in Finland’s foreign policy tradition.
There are other aspects of the current crisis common to many European countries but with a special flavor in the Finnish context. The Finnish approach to the current refugee situation, for instance, is markedly different from the 2015 European refugee crisis. There is an unforeseen and all-encompassing unanimity within nearly the entire political spectrum and even most of social media that Ukrainians are to be helped, invited, and hosted with generosity. In 2015 and after, both refugees and Finnish pro-refugee activists’ mobilization caused immense public controversy, and these actors suffered from racist attacks. The political debate was extremely torn. The right-wing government of the time pushed through laws that created a previously non-existent population of non-legalized, paperless migrants. In 2015, there was a political panic, deliberately fueled by the far right, about the numbers of refugees. An estimated 5,000 refugees that were expected to arrive allegedly posed a threat of “Islamization” of Finland, of terrorist attacks, and countless other grim prospects.
Today, volunteers helping Ukrainian refugees get assistance from the Finnish Migration Office. There is no talk about any potentially problematic prospects considering the number of arrivals, although the estimates are more than ten times higher than in 2015, ranging from 50,000 to 80,000. Like elsewhere in Europe, there is an important gender aspect to this: Most Ukrainian refugees are women and children, whereas in 2015 and after the gender ratio was more balanced. Yet back then, all the attention was on the young men and the “bearded children” (as the Finnish racist slur of the time labeled them), i.e., solitary teenagers fleeing the war zones of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, who looked too old for the taste of far-right advocates. More recently, there has been a wave of moral panic concerning approximately two dozen Finnish women—former wives of ISIS fighters—and their children stuck in the ISIS camp Al-hol in Syria. This handful, like the ”bearded children,” allegedly posed a serious threat to national security, and their (unavoidable, as Finnish nationals) return to Finland was subject to heated political debate.
In contrast, the arrivals from Ukraine are in their majority white and unveiled women and children. Whatever the mobilized repertoires to sympathize with victims of Russian aggression that Finns can relate to, the current pro-refugee unanimity also boils down to the intersection of whiteness, archaic gender order, and islamophobia. This is not to say that the urgency to help Ukrainians is in any way fabricated. It is just to show aspects and tones of the Finnish political climate that the current situation allows to be critically observed.
Perhaps the take-away of the current Finnish perspective on the on-going, constantly evolving crisis is that while Russia is in its own league in terms of falling masks, certain previously concealed aspects are now revealed elsewhere as well. In Finland, it has become clear that the allegedly neutral stance in foreign policy is not neutral after all, but indicates a soil well prepared for NATO membership. The hostile attitudes towards refugees and immigration, on the other hand, which have caused landslide electoral victories for right-wing extremists and populists in recent years, are less about refugees or immigration as such, and more about skin color and Islam-related racism.
Eeva Luhtakallio is Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki. She is specialized in political and visual sociology, as well as social theory and comparative research. Her work focuses on democracy and citizenship as mundane practices, including studies on activism, young people’s political engagements and political marginalization. Luhtakallio leads the Centre for Sociology of Democracy (csd.fi).