Vladimir Putin made joining NATO unavoidable for Finland, despite the Nordic country’s traditional preference for going its own way
Every year on June 4, Finland celebrates Flag Day of the Finnish Defence Forces. This is also the birthday of Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerhein, the beloved Finnish marshal and president who victoriously guided Finland’s troops and the country through the Winter War (1939) and the Continuation War (1941-44) against its eastern neighbor, the Soviet Union.
Every year the massing and parade of tanks, trucks, troops and weaponry happens in a different city, but it was fitting that this year was Helsinki’s turn, shining a particularly bright light on the capital city at a time when Russia is on everyone’s mind here. The Finns, a proud and independent people who have long resisted joining NATO by a large majority, shifted dramatically (76 percent approval) after Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of the sovereign, democratic Ukraine.
You might expect that decision was primarily driven by fear, but my conversations with everyday Finns reinforced my expectation that the Finnish support for NATO membership is more motivated by practicality, pride and a deeply held anger toward Russia and its brutal imperialism.
Note the words of a good friend of mine, a former film director and father of six adult children. “The spirit in Finland right now is incredible,” he said. “The young people—all the people—feel, ‘Let the Russians come. We’re going to beat the shit out of them.’”
Another friend, who used to be opposed to Finland joining NATO and now supports it, explained his shift like this: “When I understood that the Russians were shooting schools and hospitals, I understood there are no rules with them.”
I suspected such views were not unusual, which is why I was looking forward to a visit with my Finnish wife and several other family members to Lappeenranta, a prominent border town in the east, several hours north of Helsinki and just over 100 miles from St. Petersburg. Since Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, you might assume that the Finns have always worried about their neighbor’s intentions. But over some three decades of knowing Finns, I’ve never heard fear voiced—rather, more typically, clear-eyed skepticism and doubt.
The visuals in Iitiä, a small village near Lappeenranta, highlight Finland’s WWII preparations if the Soviets had decided to invade. My wife’s childhood friends—three sisters with land and homes near the border—walked us through the woods to see these old examples.
I asked one of the sisters who’s always lived here if she ever feared the Russians. She’s never really thought much about them, she said. But now, because of Putin, she is wondering what the future holds.
That said, the Russian presence in the life of Finland is far from new. Finland, part of Sweden for more than 500 years, was an autonomous duchy of the Russian empire from 1809 to 1917 (and the start of the Bolshevik Revolution). In Lappeenranta, like in many other parts of Finland, there are Russian Orthodox churches that provide vivid reminders of the proximity. The Lappeenranta church is one of the oldest, its original wooden version dating back to 1744 and reconstructed in the 1780s with stone materials based on the building codes of Katherine the Great.
But this postcard is not all about military realities and questions about the Russians and their intentions. Allow me to share with you some of what the nature-loving Finns are not just willing to defend, but understandably relish.
And, as for me, there are some fundamental pleasures that are always top of mind when coming here.
And I take particular delight in walking the streets of Helsinki:
Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the observations of one other person, a plumber by trade and father of three, when I asked him about Finland’s ranking five years in a row as “the happiest country in the world.” That always makes me laugh, because I know how irritable Finns can be come November when the days grow long, dark, cold and rainy. But he was quick to point out some of the societal factors that have made Finland a model country.
“It’s safe here,” he said first. “Everything works. When you ask for help from an expert or authority, you can trust their advice…If you want to study, everyone has the possibility” because it’s so low cost. He went on to talk about gender equality, the lack of corruption, how “everyone has human rights in this country” and “immigrants are treated as equals.”
Later, my wife’s sister, who works as an early childhood specialist, added her thoughts, emphasizing education, unemployment benefits, health care and other social services. “Even if you are a poor single mother, the country will take care of you. You will be safe.”
One final note on “the happiest country in the world.” Some bathrooms in gas stations look like this and pipe in happy recordings of singing birds. That always puts a smile on my face.
Next up before heading home: Berlin. Stay tuned.
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