The road ahead of us is empty. The foundations of a casino-to-be, Finland’s second I’ve been told, lay abandoned in the forests surrounding the Vaalimaa border crossing. What was planned to become a big tax free zone, including one of these monstrous shopping malls, a hotel, and the indispensable casino, is now a spooky construction sight, stripped of its purpose or need. Increasingly less Russians leisurely travel to Finland for a few days. The rouble doesn’t allow. And therefore less Finnish jobs, for (tourist) trade has nearly fallen still.
The charming province of Etelä-Karjala, once stretching all the way to now-Russian Veyborg, is probably one of the most beautiful areas of Finland. Here vast forests are interrupted by clear-water lakes, the biggest and perhaps most gorgeous one of which is Saimaa järvi, encompassing over 4000 km2. Here summer evenings come with pink skies mirrored in see-through waters, enhanced in their beauty by the complete quiet – apart from forest sounds – and the smell of forest berries and grills. The peace of the place is difficult to marry with its nearly constant history of disputes between Finland’s previous colonizers: Russia and Sweden, and ultimately between Russia and Finland itself.
Now South-Karelia is a popular tourist destination among Finns and Russian alike. The century-old history of trade in pulp and wood has made place for a service economy, where well-to-do Russian guests enjoy the tidiness of the Finnish hotels and spas, the infrastructure and the calm; Finns smirkingly condone the Russian presence, considering it a good source income. Many are still angry about Russia’s annexation of east-Karelia in the course of WWII, which caused lives and deprivation among ethnic-Finns in the area, most of whom were relocated to current-day Finnish territory, leaving farm-life and communities that had lived in now-Russian Karelia for generations behind.
The natural connection and trade among communities in the Saimaa region was broken by the creation of rigid borders following the wars in the 20th century, which constructed a political Eastern and Western bloc; Russia belonging to the first, and Finland to the latter. Needless to say, the current Russian occupation of Crimea and ongoing European and Russian sanctions have maneuvered Finland in a complex position, being on the one hand dependent on Russia’s trade and military benevolence and on the other appalled by its ongoing human rights abuse and sovereignty violations (including Finland’s own).
From an outsider-perspective, bottom-up Finnish-Russian relations are out rightly odd. Despite the geographical proximity, the shared tough climate and the similar natural resources, as well as a history of strong ties and socio-economical interaction, the two States could not be any more different. The Russian and Finnish languages share almost no similarities, and Finnish youth is neither obliged nor encouraged to learn any Russian, despite the obvious merits that knowledge of this language could imply for future employment and intercultural respect and peace. Whereas corruption and nepotism is omnipresent and intrinsic in the current-day Russian system, Finnish society is overly egalitarian, integer and kept in check; fueled by a structured division of wealth, gender equality, and perhaps the maintenance of obligatory military conscription. What Finns share with Russians is a deep-felt national awareness, more so than in other Western-European States, as well as a love for strong booze, fur and fishing.
Exiting the Schengen area at the Russian Vaalimaa border post, infrastructure deteriorates and so
does the quality of social interaction and wealth distribution. The shine, coherence, and organization of the welfare State has ended. On the other side of the border, Veyborg, impressive and glamourous as it must once have been, is crumbling. Inhabitants dump their empty MC Donalds Coca Cola cans out of the window of their shiney cars onto the street to rot and pollute. Savage capitalism has swallowed a once socialist city. Age old ladies sit on broken benches in front of the damaged market hall waiting for nothing. Roads are marked by holes, mud and trash. Once the proud capital of Karelia, Veyborg appears to have fallen in despair. While Russia remains rich in culture, intellect and art, city-scapes and social cohesion erode. Indifference and egoism reigns.
The Russian annexation of the Cremea strirs new, ambiguous concerns. Where on the one side most Finns I know dislike Russian politics and cultural peculiarities, others are, rightfully, concerned. What does this mean for trade? And what does this mean for security? The harbor-city of Kotka is plagued by unemployment and lay-off streams, with serious social implications as a consequence.
Yet as we drive along the border on the empty road separating east from west, among summer flowers, blue berry forests, and bird chant – the sun shining – our thoughts are not with the past or the future. For a moment we do not dwell in the loss of Karelia, the damage that will continue to be done to it in the future. We admire the present.