Friday, March 28, 2014


On a dark, and probably wet, night back in autumn I was munching on a hamburger in a McDonald’s on Mannerheimintie with a British friend, when the subject of secession came up. It was one a.m., at the end of a short pub-crawl, and the body was craving the salt and fat that we found so abundantly between two buns of uninspiring white bread.

My friend and I, as we often do on such evenings out on the town, had been pontificating on the affairs of the world and, I’m afraid, sometimes straying a bit beyond our depth. In these rambling contemplations (or friendly debates) about The Way Things Are, my friend often has a habit of posing surprising questions I’d never thought of or making some sly point that challenges my cherished opinions, playing devil’s advocate, if you will.

Ethnic map of European Russia, 1898. 
By the time we reached McDonald’s the topic of the moment was “independence”, maybe triggered by the recently announced plans for Scotland to hold a referendum on secession this coming September. (Why the Scots take an entire year to arrange such a vote, instead of whipping one up in a mere two weeks like the Crimeans did, is hard to imagine. Presumably, they want to give everyone time to think about it.)

My British friend, let’s call him Charles, often likes to rib me about how the American Revolution was the worst mistake we “colonials” ever made. Put on the spot there in McDonald’s, I was probably trying to defend the Revolution of as an act of self-determination by people who yearned for independence, liberty, fast food, yadi, yadi, yada. (In truth, over the years I’ve come to see the American Revolution as not being all it’s been cracked up to be, but that’s another story.)

Charles countered my argument with something like “Then what about the Civil War? Why wasn’t it okay for the South to become independent?” Provocatively, he asked why wasn’t Abraham Lincoln wrong to prevent the southern states from seceding.

For most Americans, even Southerners like me, such an idea is anathema, almost blasphemy. At least, that’s what I’d like to think. I do realize there is currently a weird kind of pushback among some conservatives against the conventional wisdom that slavery was actually bad and that Lincoln was right to oppose it.

That is a troubling trend I want to write more about soon, but it is something else entirely – namely, recent events around Europe – that has now brought to mind Charles’ loaded question about “southern independence” from a few months back.

We have seen not only the “secession” of Crimea from Ukraine in the last week or so, but also news of a similar, but wholly symbolic, referendum over whether Venice should break away from Italy (you would half-way expect it floating away, out to sea) and the oddly more realistic suggestion that the Shetland Islands could separate from Scotland, if Scotland separates from the United Kingdom.

This is, of course, against the backdrop of Scotland’s upcoming vote in September and a long-simmering movement for Catalonian independence from Spain, plus various other pockets of self-determination aspirations around the continent. Little parts of Europe seem to be trying to fling themselves every which way.

I have often wondered if the urge for self-determination is sometimes overrated. I understand that for people who identify as this or that ethnic or linguistic group within the patchwork of Europe the impulse must be strong to go it alone as your own little nation. I’m just not convinced it always makes sense. You can imagine countries splitting along regional lines into ever smaller and smaller nations that can’t really sustain themselves.

There can be big advantages to being part of a big nation, even though you might feel slighted or neglected by your compatriots. I think most Americans prefer living in a big country made up of 50 states rather than in a single independent, but smaller, “nation state”. I’m sure life in an independent Rhode Island, for example, would feel just a bit constrained. As a Georgian, I always liked the idea that I could freely move all the way across the continent, if I wanted, to California or Oregon.

That said, I took the opposite course and chose to live in a relatively small nation that decided already nearly a hundred years ago not to be part of a continental juggernaut. Finland isn’t Rhode Island, of course, and Russia isn’t the United States, so I’m sure Suomi’s decision to secede made sense. Finland was big enough and self-sufficient enough to go it alone. And with a language identity quite separate from Russia’s, it never really felt part of that giant nation anyway. I doubt any Finn feels the secession of 1917 was a mistake.
Reconstructed Orthodox chapel at Форт Росс, California.
Photo: Introvert

And I’m pretty sure everyone hopes it not reversible, though Finns did gladly take a step away from full independence in 1994 when they voted to join the European Union. Apparently, a European union is more to the Finns’ liking than a Soviet one.

Following the actions by the Soviet Union’s successor in Crimea lately, there have been some nervous musings about what might be in store for other former Russian “provinces”. Someone joked that Alaska, might be in danger, since it was once a Russian colony, back when the Czar’s influence reached almost to San Francisco. (My only experience of traveling in Northern California included a drive down a beautiful stream called the Russian River, not far from a city called Sebastopol and the site of Fort Ross, the southernmost outpost of the Russian Empire in North America. Russia probably wishes it had never given up that fantastic piece of real estate.)

It’s probably true that many Russian-speakers in Crimea genuinely desired to return the peninsula to Mother Russia, so you could make the case it was voluntary, though the legality of the move and the legitimacy of an election under armed occupation, well, that’s another matter.

Still, the effectiveness and single-mindedness of Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, over the objections of Ukraine and practically the rest of the world, was surely not lost on other territories that also once belonged to the USSR.

After seceding from Imperial Russia, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were all independent republics for 22 years until they were subsumed in 1940 back into a new Russian empire, rebranded the Soviet Union. Their second attempt at independence has now lasted slightly longer, some 24 years, so that’s some kind of progress.

There has been a lot of speculation that Putin’s raging success in Crimea has stoked ambitions of reconstituting the Russian Empire, starting with Ukraine itself and maybe even moving on to other errant subjects, like the Baltics. I hope that’s a farfetched idea and not something that the former KGB officer would undertake lightly, no matter how popular it might be with the Russian public. For one thing, all three are Baltic states now members of NATO.

Apparently, in all the excitement over Putin’s decisive land grab in Ukraine, even Finland has been mentioned (hopefully not seriously) as a lost territory ripe for re-plucking. Some Russian Internet commentator has suggested that in the future Finland could enjoy the same kind of status that Hong Kong has now within China.

That suggestion is as about as realistic as another I saw on the other side of the rhetorical Iron Curtain, namely that if Crimea could justifiably secede and return to Russia because it had “always” been Russian, then maybe it was time for Russia to hand Königsberg back to Germany. After all, that chunk of Baltic landscape was Prussian territory for 700 years, but has been Russian-owned Kaliningrad for only 60 something.

I suspect Vladimir Putin would resist redrawing that border. I hope that likewise, after Crimea, he has no plans to redraw any others. Right now, I’m not entirely optimistic about that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Going Along to Get Along

In one of the dozens of articles I’ve been reading in the last couple of weeks about the crisis in Ukraine, I ran across a word I have not seen in quite some time – “Finlandization”. As tensions have ratcheted up over the incursion of Russian troops in Crimea (I almost wrote Chechnya there), it is a word that may be due for a comeback.

When I first arrived in Finland, some seven years before the Iron Curtain came down, you would often encounter “Finlandization” in the international press. In those days, it was a word that many Finns would bristle at. That is if “bristling” is something you could actually detect a typically low-key Finn doing. 

Suffice it to say, back then, in the depths of the Cold War, Finlandization was a concept many people here took exception to.

As it has been used in the West, “Finlandization” is shorthand for the way a smaller nation bordering a powerful, imperialistic, and potentially hostile country is able to maintain its independence by carefully taking into account the interests of its often-touchy, gigantic neighbor and then applying some reasonable accommodation, as needed, so as to not upset the big guy and keep relations, you know, on an even keen. Go along to get along, as they sometimes say in the US.

The Baltic Star protest, 1985.
I’m not a political scientist (no news flash there), so this explanation of Finlandization may not be spot on. (Another way to look at it is as a form of kowtowing to an unfriendly neighbor out of fear, and this is why for Finns it was often seen as a pejorative term. Hence their bristling.)

And I’m not sure how accurately it describes reality. To what degree did Finland really chart its post-war course with one eye firmly on the USSR? That might be open to debate, but I can certainly see how sensible it might be not to go out of your way to antagonize a nation with a history of invading close neighbors who displease it.

During the Cold War, Finland, like Sweden and Austria, took a staunchly neutral position. It wasn’t a member of either the Warsaw Pact (why would it be?) or NATO (a better fit). Later, Finland did join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, as has Russia, though I’m not sure what kind of concrete cooperation this means for Finland in practice.

Possible membership in NATO has surfaced as a topic here now and then, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of appetite for the alliance. It will be interesting to see if Russian’s Crimean incursion moves the needle on this debate one way or the other.

(There are Finnish troops in Afghanistan as part of something called the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, a completely different cooperation forum between both NATO and non-NATO nations, including Russia.)

I’ve been trying to jog my memory recently, hoping to recall what might be considered actual examples of Finlandization from my early days here. For a casual observer such as myself who didn’t speak the language, all but the most obvious instances of the Finnish government bowing to the wishes of Moscow would probably have gone unnoticed. But, as I think about it, maybe it is true that there was a self-consciously Soviet-friendly atmosphere back then.

I recall a French friend who often complained of what he saw as an anti-western bias in the Finnish press. He felt the media here were always sure to balance any negative story about the USSR with an equally negative story about the West or America. Perhaps he was exaggerating. This is something I definitely noticed myself only when listening to Radio Moscow’s English-language service, which you would expect from the Soviets anyway.

But, I can’t say whether the same journalistic practice was adopted on this side of the border, or how widely. Still, I did notice that the news on the Finnish radio about the American bombing of Tripoli in 1986 was punctuated with somber Middle Eastern music, which was untypical and I took as a sign of sympathy (or solidarity) for the Libyans. That would be hard to imagine nowadays. Maybe I was imagining it then.

One clear-cut case of Soviet influence that does come to mind is the movie Born American. In 1986, the young Finnish movie director Renny Harlin tried to release his film about three Americans who, while visiting Finland, recklessly decide, on a lark, to sneak across the border into the Soviet Union, with thrilling and salvage consequences. The film (Jäätävä polte, in Finnish) was initially banned here due to violence and its anti-Soviet storyline. Luckily for Harlin, he was able to find work in Hollywood – no mean feat in itself.

Otherwise, not all anti-Soviet expressions were restricted, by any means. I remember the 1985 port call made by the M/S Baltic Star, a ship charted by some 400 protesters and refugees from the three Baltic states annexed by the Soviets at the beginning of WWII. Prior to the ship’s visit, which took place during a summit attended by the new Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the TASS news agency had vigorously denounced the visit and insisted that Finland not allow the ship to dock. The Finns did not comply, and the protesters, including dissident Vladimir Bukovsky were allowed to march down Bulevardi carrying banners and pre-1940 Baltic flags, while chanting “Nyet, nyet, Soviet”.

Another event I attended out of curiosity that I’m sure the Soviets would have preferred not take place was a lecture given by tall, bearded man from Afghanistan. It’s important to remember that at the time it was the Soviet empire that was bogged down in that medieval backwater, not the American one. I don’t recall now who had organized this public-relations event, let alone who the speaker was. In any case, he was supposedly a mujahedeen, and he certainly looked the part -- a commanding figure wearing an Afghan cap, baggy, light-gray "Aladdin" pants and a blue suit jacket.

Among the audience of Finns of different ages, one person stood out, a painfully clean-cut, dark-haired young man in a gray leather jacket. Despite the room being packed, no one took the seats on either side of him. The Afghan’s Finnish host kicked off the proceedings by first showily acknowledging the man in the leather jacket as “our honored KGB representative”.

Through an interpreter, the Afghan began to rail against the Soviet occupation of his homeland, detailing the horrific acts he said the Red Army was inflicting daily on his people, women being bayoneted, children being thrown from helicopters. As he concluded, he warned, “Gorbachev is not a good boy. He smiles with iron teeth”.

During the Q&A afterward, an older woman protested that Finns have good relations with the Soviets and should not be criticizing them. At that, the host of the event launched into a long rebuke of her, to which everyone clapped – except the man in the leather jacket. Someone then directed a question at him, asking for a comment about the Soviet role in the war. He turn red, smiled weakly, but said nothing.

Generally speaking, I do think Finns have good relations with Russia, nowadays on a somewhat more equal footing than before and not (I would hope) under any real threat of coercion. The most publicized points of conflict that have arisen recently have not been exactly huge, in geopolitical terms.

In 2012, the four children of a Russian mother living in Finland were temporarily removed from their home by child protective services because of suspected abuse. This kind of thing surely happens regularly in Finland and is generally regarded as proper for the welfare of the children. However, this particular case sparked an outrage, at least on the other side of the border, as it became a cause célèbre in the Russian media, even requiring the Finnish president to respond with a statement on the matter.

A few months before that cross-border controversy, a researcher from the Finnish Environmental Institute was arrested while investigating increased phosphorous levels in the Luga River, which empties into the Baltic Sea near St. Petersburg.

Though the water sampling he was conducting was part of a jointly planned Finnish-Russian study, the Finnish researcher was detained by the security guards of a fertilizer plant located along the river. After being questioned for a day by local police, the researcher was promptly sent back to Finland without being allowed to complete the rest of his sampling. This time, the media buzz was mostly on this side of the border, maybe even entirely on this side of the border.

Even more recently, a Finnish woman Sini Saarela was arrested by Russian authorities when she took part in a Greenpeace campaign last September protesting the first commercial offshore oil-drilling rig in the Arctic Ocean, Gazprom’s Prirazlomnoye platform.

Saarela, who with a fellow protester tried to scale the side of the giant platform, was initially charged with piracy (carrying a possible sentence of 15 years). That was later reduced to hooliganism (possible seven-year sentence) before she and the entire crew of the Arctic Sunrise were released at Christmastime, after three months in a Russian jail.

I’m sure there was certain amount of popular support in Finland for Saarela’s plight, though I have a feeling that political stunts, even in the name of environmental protection, don’t always play well here.

Still, Saarela gained enough international fame that she, and her oilrig-climbing partner, won a distant second place in the Guardian newspaper’s 2013 Person of the Year poll. Interestingly enough, first place went to Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who has currently found sanctuary in the same country that had detained Saarela.

These little frictions between neighbors are, of course, nothing compared to the underlying tensions that existed back when Finland’s eastern border was a sharp fault line between capitalism and Communism, between democracy and totalitarianism, between open and closed societies.

If Finlandization, or something like it, helped Finland keep its way of life intact for forty-odd years on this side of that fault line, then it would seem worthwhile and -- as Henry Kissinger seemed to suggest recently -- maybe not a bad option for the future of Ukraine. Then maybe it will be called "Ukrainization". Finns might like the sound of that a bit better. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cry Me A War

Back in the mid 1980s, my wife and I took a bicycling tour around a very scenic and isolated group of islands that sits between the Finnish mainland and Sweden, an amazing spot at the crossroads of the Baltic Sea.

On the map, the Åland Islands (Ahvenanmaa, in Finnish) appear like a galaxy of thousands and thousands of islands, skerries (rocky islets), and reefs that are collectively bulging outward from Finland, straining toward Sweden.

Åland is, in fact, closer to Finland’s western neighbor than to mainland Finland itself, with only 17 miles of completely open water separating the archipelago from Sweden, though geologically speaking it is still much more firmly connected to Finland.

I even daydreamed some years ago about attempting to kayak to Sweden, island hopping through the Åland archipelago before making the longer, final crossing westward until I hit the Scandinavian peninsula. Maybe it’s just as well that this particular adventure never got off the drawing broad. 

The remains of Bomarsund.
Photo by Tomisti.
The bike trip we took in 1986 was a much less ambitious and no doubt more pleasant affair. (And I was lucky enough to sell a travel piece about it to The San Francisco Examiner.)

With our camping gear, we arrived at Mariehamn, Åland’s capital, on one of the giant ferries that makes a port call there on its way from Turku to Stockholm. We rented two bikes the next day and headed out on the mostly deserted two-lane roads. After some twenty miles of pedaling, somehow always against the wind, we stopped for the night near the site of a ruined Russian fort on the eastern edge of the Åland “mainland”.

Here, overlooking a narrow strait, Finnish history and the recent troubling events on the Black Sea intersect. At least, that’s one way to look at it.

Not much is left now of the fortress of Bomarsund; the stone walls that still stand there overlooking grassy fields are massive, which speaks to the amount of firepower that must have been needed to demolish this lonely outpost of the Russian Empire.

Positioned as it is, the Åland archipelago almost blocks the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, guarding access to that major arm of the Baltic Sea (the other arm being the Gulf of Finland that ends at St. Petersburg). In the early 1800s, it was an obviously strategic spot for Imperial Russia to defend its newly acquired province of Finland.

Though started 22 years earlier, the Bomarsund fortress, was far from completed in September of 1854, when Russia’s competition with France over which country should be the protector of Christians in the Turkish Ottoman Empire led to French and British allies invading Russia’s Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea.

Just before that campaign, which gave its name to the Crimean War (in English-speaking countries at least), Bomarsund had been already been attacked and defeated by another British-French expeditionary force, leaving the ruins that you can still see today. (The following summer, the western allies bombarded Sveaborg – now called Suomenlinna – in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Russian stronghold guarding the entrance to Helsinki’s harbor.) One of the allies' demands after Russia lost the war was that Åland would remain demilitarized, which it has except for a brief incursion by Sweden a hundred years ago.

Playing a role in the previous Crimean conflict isn’t the only feature Åland shares with the Russian-speaking enclave on the Ukrainian coast.

The bombardment of Bomarsund during the Crimea War.
Like Crimea today, Åland is an autonomous province. The archipelago has its own tiny parliament, flies its own flag, and issues its own postage stamps. I use to joke with my wife about whether we needed passports to visit there.

It is also inhabited by speakers of a minority language. Ninety-five percent of Ålanders are Swedish speakers, compared to only some 5% for the Finnish population as a whole, and Swedish is the only official language in the archipelago. (By comparison, it seems that Russian speakers make up nearly 80% of Crimeans, compared to 25% for all of Ukraine).  

Also, like the present-day Crimea, Åland has sometimes been a bit of a gray-area in international affairs. The archipelago, along with the rest of Finland, was ceded by Sweden to Imperial Russia in 1809. With Åland’s close linguistic and cultural ties to Sweden, this was surely an even less happy arrangement for the islanders than for the Finns.

When Finland saw its chance to achieve independence during the Russian Revolution, Åland likewise saw the opportunity to ask to be annexed by Sweden, partly out of a fear of discrimination by Finnish-speakers.

It seems that Sweden never seriously considered absorbing its fellow svenska talare from across the water, but did send a naval force to Åland for possible evacuation of the Swedish-speaking inhabitants, despite the archipelago’s status as a demilitarized zone. This sounds a bit similar to Russia's incursion into Crimea that now dominates news around the world.

One of the concrete legacies that remain from the mostly forgotten League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, was a decision in 1921 that Åland should remain part of Finland and that its status as a DMZ should continue. Today, there is no military presence in the islands, and Ålanders are even exempted from compulsory service in the Finnish Army.

That makes Åland quite different, of course, from the heavily militarized Crimea, and makes the archipelago an even more peaceful corner of Finland for bike touring. After Bomarsund, my wife and I continued cycling through the farmland and scattered villages of the islands for three more sunny days, though always against the wind no matter which direction we were headed. 

I guess that’s to be expected when you’re on a remote stretch of sea at the crossroads of empires. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lost and Found

Last Saturday, I went for a walk with my wife to get a little exercise. On the way out the door, I grabbed a pair of wool socks in case the ones I was wearing weren’t thick enough for my slightly oversized rubber boots.

I crammed the socks into my jacket pockets along with a pair of heavy gloves, which of course it turned out to be completely unnecessary, as Saturday was another one of unseasonably warm (above-freezing) days that felt more like April than February.

All during the walk, the wool socks kept protruding from my overstuffed pockets, and I kept pushing them back in, so it was no surprise that when we returned from our hour out in the fresh air, one of the socks was missing.

Since I hate to lose stuff, and since I knew exactly where we had walked, I set out the next morning by bicycle to search for the missing hosiery.

Left behind.
I retraced the route with a clear search image of the sock in my mind. I knew that it wasn’t enough to scan just the surface of the sidewalks, dirt paths, and roadsides where the sock would have fallen after worming its way out of my pocket. I also had to keep an eye on fences, signposts, tree branches, mailboxes, in fact, any structure rising above the ground on which some passerby might have deposited my sad, lost sock.

This is such a typical occurrence in Finland that I doubt anyone would hardly ever think about it. As I rode past the horse farm near our home, then across the bridge over the Vantaa river into the subdivisions on the other side, I spotted – in quick succession – a red beret on a fence post, a mitten hanging in a birch tree, and a glove inserted into a wire fence at a construction site, all conspicuously visible in case, like me, their owners came looking for them.

I wonder how common this practice might be in other countries. For example, I have no idea whether Americans routinely rescue strangers’ outer garments and place them where they can easily be found. 

From one personal experience, however, I do know it does happen at least with sunglasses. A few years ago on the Fourth of July my wife, daughter and I were hiking with my sister in the Adirondacks Mountains of New York. Returning down a mountain trail, we took a break at a lakeside spot where a rough jeep road gave access to a crude boat ramp. My sister noticed a pair of sunglasses sitting on a log off to the side of the trail, and decided to put them on a large rock where the owner might better spot them.

Just as we started to head on down the jeep road to where our car was parked some two miles away, a battered pickup truck pulled up with a fishing boat in the back. Some time later, about halfway down the deserted road we began to think we heard sounds coming from behind us, like people shouting to each other. They seem to be getting louder, but we didn’t imagine it had anything to do with us. Then suddenly we could hear the sound of someone running hard, rapidly approaching us, between shouts of “hey”. We turned to see a young man coming around a bend in the road, out of breath. In his hand, the sunglasses. He and his father had noticed them after we left and assumed they belong to us, and this poor guy had just run a mile to return them to us. We hated to break the news to him that the glasses weren’t ours.

Going the extra mile to return a nice pair of sunglasses is one thing; whether Americans habitually rescue misplaced gloves, is another. I can’t say. When I lived in the States it wasn’t in cities where people take walks (if such American cities exist), and anyway it was in the South where the need for gloves, scarves, even warm hats is so small that these must only rarely get misplaced. They aren’t an essential part of your wardrobe as they are in Finland.

In fact, as a schoolboy I don’t recall ever wearing gloves waiting for the bus on those mornings when we had frost on the ground. I simply put my hands in the pockets of my jeans. (Doing things outdoors like hunting was different – then we used gloves.)

At my father’s service station, we used to sell brown, cotton gloves, mostly to the same customer who stopped in every morning before daybreak on his way to work at the chicken plant or some other workplace where he needed to protect his hands from the elements. At twenty-five cents a pair, they were cheap, which was handy since the customer seemed to go through a pair almost every day.

People in Finland don't go through that many gloves maybe, but still quite a few, judging by the number of lost ones that ends up on some fence or else in a lost and found box.

A yearly ritual for us at my kids’ school was going through the detritus of lost and found items before school let out for the summer. After the year-end school program, the singing of “Suvivirsi” (Summer Hymn), and the handing out of classroom certificates, we would go to the gym to check out the three or four large cardboard boxes full of all the gloves, scarves, socks, shoes, sweatshirts, jackets, even hockey helmets that had been mislaid in the school during the past winter. It always amazed me how much unclaimed stuff one small student body could lose track of. You would think even the most absent-minded ten-year-old would notice that somehow he had arrived home without his best winter parka.

More valuable lost items often end up at the local police station's lost and found center, thanks largely to general Finnish conscientiousness and honesty. Recently Reader’s Digest did an experiment where 12 wallets, containing some cash, were purposely “lost” in 16 cities to see how many would be returned to their “owners”. In Helsinki, 11 of the 12 wallets were returned, making the Finnish capital the most honest of the cities tempted by the easy pickings.

Once in London, on my way to a meeting, I stepped into a taxi to find on the seat an iPod. I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. In Finland, I would have given it to the taxi driver, pretty certain that it would have found its way to the police station where it could possibly be returned to its owner. With London cabbies, I wasn’t so sure. (In the Reader’s Digest test, by the way, only five of the wallets “lost” in London were ever seen again.)

I called my British colleague to ask what the standard practice is in such matters, but she couldn’t really advise me. In the end, I gave it to the cabbie, figuring that even if he chose not to try reunite the iPod with its owner, it was anyway no less mine to keep as my own.

Unlike my sock, that is, which after about 40 minutes of cycling, I did finally find lying all balled up on the edge of the bridge over the Keravanjoki. Luckily, it hadn’t fallen to the frozen river below. It’s a nice sock, but certainly not worth venturing out on dodgy late-winter ice just to return it to its mate.