Recently, with the terrible events in Ukraine, I have begun to wonder if I’m obsessed with Russia.
A Child of the Cold War
When I was growing up in Finland during the Cold War, I was taught to be afraid of the Big Russian Bear next door. We had to be careful not to offend the Soviet Union.
All the TV programmes, newspapers, and even comedians were using carefully constructed language when referring to the Soviet Union. No one wanted to rock the boat. You never knew who was listening.
At school, or in the playground, we weren’t even allowed to call our Eastern neighbour Russia. It was considered a derogatory term. Russians were Soviet citizens and Russia was the Soviet Union.
Teachers saw to it that we towed the official line. But in private at home, most parents made jokes at the expense of our powerful neighbour.
My dad would often say that if something smelled bad, it smelled like a Russian. He’d laugh at the images from the Russian cities that we saw on our brand new TV in the 1970s. To us the queues for food made the Russians look poor and deprived.
He’d say, mockingly, ‘Look how the victors live!’
Those of you who know Finnish history, are aware that Russia tried to invade Finland in 1939. Incredibly, we won the first leg of the war but lost the second. In the end, we had to give up a part of our territory to the Soviet Union.
My father was a small child during the Winter War, but the details of it were ingrained in his brain. If you didn’t hate the Russians privately, you were unpatriotic.
After the war, Finland worked hard to improve its democracy and economy. Although my parents weren’t rich, we didn’t go without.
Finland’s president during the Cold War was Urho Kekkonen. There are still various opinions on whether he was a dictator or our saviour during his 26-year reign. All I remember is seeing him kiss Russian leaders on TV. No one knows what he promised them so that they wouldn’t try to invade Finland again.
UKK as he was known, was the major player in Finlandization. This term refers to the decision of a country not to challenge a more powerful neighbour in foreign politics, while maintaining national sovereignty.
Russian Regime and the Russian People Are Not the Same
I now realise, that as well as trusting Kekkonen, I was taught to hate Russia – and Russians. A war will do that to a country.
The recent illegal attack on Ukraine has brought into clear focus my own views and – yes – my negative attitude to Russians.
As a Finn, I’ve always had difficulty separating the Russian people from the Russian regime. Which I know is wholly unfair. I’ve never been to Russia (or to the Soviet Union).
I’ve only met a handful of Russians in Finland. One couple made an impression on me when I was working weekends at the Stockmann’s department store in Helsinki in the early 1980s. The woman and man led me to the furthest corner of the sales floor and took out a bottle of vodka from their bag. The woman dressed in a drab brown coat indicated she’d give it to me as payment for a few metres of dress fabric. When I refused, she was utterly bemused. Perhaps the vodka was far more valuable than the length of silk.
Later, I felt sorry for them, although I think it would have been worse if I’d been working in the food hall.
I also don’t speak Russian, nor have I studied Russian history in any particular detail. Although much of Finnish history is also Russian history.
A Little Bit of History
Finland became an autonomous Grand Dutchy of the Russian Empire in 1809. We gained our independence from Lenin himself in 1917. Many think this was a bit of an oversight on his part. Or that he didn’t really have time to consider the matter carefully. Us Finns have always had a knack for seeing an opportunity and grabbing it. The Communist Revolution in Russia proved a well-timed moment to re-negotiate our relationship.
By 1939, Russia had changed its mind about Finnish independence. Because of our fierce defence of the nation, Finland remained free even if it meant losing territory and spending the next 50 or so years carefully walking a very thin line between Communism and Capitalism.
But the fact remains that most of the Russian people had no choice in any of these matters.
While visiting California recently, I saw a report on the news about attacks against Russian restaurants and other public establishments in New York. Slogans against the war and Russians had been spraypainted on windows. Many of these places were struggling to gain customers too, even though as one restaurant owner said, ‘I am Ukrainian and many of my staff are from that country too.’
That particular restaurant decided to change its name to reflect the new reality. The same fate befell the School of Russian Ballet in Florida which had to change its name to International School of Ballet earlier this month. Shops and service sector businesses have had to do the same here in the UK too.
I understand that the sanctions can cause confusion with consumers, but surely attacking establishments for a name is just discrimination, pure and simple?
The Nordic Heart Series
Alas, I have to look at my own backyard.
At least half of my books contain a Russian villain, or several Russian ‘baddies’.
The Nordic Heart Series of books deal partly with the Cold War, and how Kaisa’s Finnish nationality comes between her and the British naval officer Peter.
Before Kaisa and Peter meet under the sparkling chandeliers of the British Embassy in Helsinki, Peter’s captain warns him about Russian ‘honey traps’. Later, when the two are planning to marry, Peter is told Kaisa could become a security risk for a submarine officer.
Both of these complications are based on true events, although the books are works of fiction.
The Red King of Helsinki
My Cold War spy novel, The Red King of Helsinki, goes full nuclear on the Russian influence in Finland.
Set in 1979, during the height of the Cold War, The Red King of Helsinki is a spy story. And yes, the villain is a Russian KGB agent, called Vladislav Kovtun.
Perhaps I overplay the threat of the Soviet Union and overstate the number of spies active on the streets of Helsinki, but who knows?
While researching this particular story at the Helsinki University Library, I came across several interesting stories and snippets of information about Russian activities in Finland in the 1970s that would make my chilly tale of espionage more than believable.
Again, I repeat, what I write is fiction.
But does this excuse withstand a closer inspection?
Love on the Island
My latest book series, titled, Love on the Island, also feature a Russian villain.
Dudnikov is a human trafficker and loan shark. He is villainous indeed. I have to admit that I haven’t based him on anyone in particular and that I have no proof that any of that kind of activity takes place on the peaceful Åland Islands.
The Åland Islands, situated as they are between Finland and Sweden in the middle of the Baltic Sea, have been and remain strategically important. In 1854, during the Crimean War, the Russian embattlements of Bomarsund on the islands, were attacked by Anglo-French forces because of their position.
The islands are now demilitarised. Since 1940 there’s been a Russian consulate in Mariehamn, to oversee the agreement of demilitarisation.
In 2014, it was revealed that the Russian presidency owns a piece of land, dubbed ‘Putin’s plot’, on the islands. In 2015 a Swedish comedy duo erected a gay bar on the plot as a protest against Russian anti-homosexuality laws. (See more here) The pair were prosecuted by the Russian authorities, but the Åland Island court eventually rejected the charges.
It doesn’t, therefore, seem a huge leap of faith to imagine that there would be some Russian criminality on the islands today. Well, not for a novelist at least. A novelist who grew up under the threat of a Russian invasion. My parents, though not old enough to remember, surely passed on to me the fear and obsession with the Eastern Neighbour in their DNA?
I’ll Try to Do Better
However much I can hide behind the ‘it’s only fiction’ -argument, I am aware that everything an artist does is under scrutiny and can influence the way people think. We have to be responsible and therefore, I will try to become less obsessed and biased about Russian people in my books.
I am a great lover of Russian art and literature. As a child, one of the positives of being under the country’s influence and sharing so much of history is that we were all subjected to a huge amount of Russian culture.
From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn (oh, yes, we were allowed to read dissident Soviet literature), I loved all the Russian books I read. Chekov’s Seagull is one of my very favourite plays.
I believe there’s hope as long as we all keep reminding ourselves that the Russian people and the Russian regime are not one and the same.
I’ll also try to do better.
A Free Book?
Would you like to receive a free novella? The Young Heart is a prequel story to The Nordic Heart Series. Set in 1976, it tells the story of the 15-year-old Kaisa. As a new girl in town, she meets a much older boy, Matti.
Kaisa is just the kind of young, impressionable girl that Matti has been looking for.
But is Kaisa too young for love?
There is a Russian influence in this novella too, in that Matti’s mother is Russian. Her family were part of the aristocracy and had to flee after the Revolution.
Go here or tap the image below to get your free copy of The Young Heart now!