Exploring Karelia: Insights into Finnish-Russian Relations at the Border

Ivan embarks on a journey spanning a thousand kilometers through Karelia, where he delves into the perceptions of Finland among the local residents, especially in light of recent claims by the administration labeling Finland as an “unfriendly country.”

In a previous letter from Ivan, Karelia’s Governor Artur Parfenshikov suggested the renaming of Sortavala to Serdabol as part of his patriotic initiatives.

The impact of wartime and propaganda casts a shadow over the ordinary lives of Karelian inhabitants, but Ivan finds that the effect is not as overwhelming as one might assume from official messages and media reports.

Ivan’s assessment is grounded in recent conversations he’s had during his extensive journey. He has been asking residents of the Republic of Karelia about their current thoughts regarding Finland and the Finns, who are only a few kilometers away behind the closed border. Finnish history has left a lasting mark on Karelia, but how is this historical connection viewed today?

It’s essential to note that discussing anything related to foreign countries in Russia can be quite challenging, with people often approaching such conversations with caution or even fear. Many choose to remain silent, as it is deemed safer.

For every person willing to engage in discussions on the topic, Ivan encountered several who preferred silence.

One of Ivan’s encounters leads him to Belyje Mosty, known as Jukankoski in Finnish. It continues to thrive as before.

While visiting the Mosty waterfalls near Läskela, Ivan meets Constantine (name changed), who highlights that silence itself carries a message.

Constantine asserts, “If a person doesn’t proclaim support for war or Putin, that says a lot already. Being quiet alongside such individuals is telling.”

When asked whether Finns are more peaceful than Russians, Constantine responds, “I wouldn’t say so. We and they have both assertive individuals. I think it’s similar. Aggression isn’t tied to nationality.”

Constantine’s perspective on the neighboring country is pragmatic, as he works in the travel industry. He reminisces about a time when Finnish tourists visited Karelia, indicating that foreigners comprised around 20 percent of their customers. For the locals, this signified quality service. Regrettably, the absence of Finnish tourists is keenly felt in Karelia today.

On the other side of Lake Tyrjänjärvi lies Finland.

Ivan encounters Sergei (name changed) in Raivio. Sergei travels from St. Petersburg to Karelia every week for work as a construction laborer. Notably, numerous new cottages are being constructed on the Russian side of Tyrjänjärvi, and the area of Länsiranta has already been incorporated into the municipality of Parikkala in the province of South Karelia, Finland.

Sergei and his wife were once frequent travelers to Finland, and they purchased property in Raivio with the intention of potentially living in two countries.

However, Sergei expresses disappointment in the current situation, emphasizing that they can no longer access Finland as they used to. He believes that the Finns misunderstand the people on the Russian side of the border, resulting in restrictions on travel.

Sergei reflects, “My wife and I have always treated our neighbors with respect. We are European-oriented people. Those with a bellicose mindset didn’t travel abroad; they stayed at home watching television.”

He laments the lost opportunity to visit friends in Europe and Finland, a possibility that has dwindled significantly.

Jekaterina, a guide at the Karelia – the land of the ancients open-air museum, shares her perspective. The museum, part of the Salokylä accommodation center, focuses on reviving the history of the Sámi people in Karelia, Russia, and aims to showcase the interconnectedness of the region’s diverse populations.

Jekaterina expresses her hope that Finns will still visit the museum despite the current circumstances. She underscores the importance of preserving the traditions of ancient peoples, comparing Finland’s commitment to safeguarding Sámi traditions with Russia’s lack of attention to similar initiatives.

In another encounter, Ivan meets Igor in Kostamojärvi, a village neighboring Välimäki. Igor, a farmer, and tractor worker, harbors doubts about the Finns. He recalls an incident where the water supply to homes in their area was disrupted, and some locals blamed Finland for it.

He explains, “We were told that there is no water in our homes because the Finns closed the Soskuanjoki with the dam.”

However, it later became clear that the Soskuanjoki, a 40-kilometer river in Lahdenpohja, Karelia, doesn’t reach Finland.

Igor’s perspective shifts, and he remarks, “I don’t think Finns like us. But who needs that kind of love? Everyone is just fooling us.”

He further discusses issues like high heating bills and the unfulfilled promise of gas supply, which have left locals disillusioned with the authorities.

Despite varying opinions and challenges, Ivan summarizes his observations by noting that while many residents remained silent when asked about Finland, he did not encounter anyone openly hostile toward Finland. This is despite the recent geopolitical shifts and the administration’s attempts to portray Finland as an “unfriendly country” in Russian media.

Instead, ordinary Karelians still use the term “neighbor” to describe their relationship with Finland, emphasizing the enduring connection between the two nations.

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