Friday, September 26, 2014

The F-word

A while back, writing about the crisis in Ukraine, I made a reference to the notion of “Finlandization”, and mentioned that it’s a Cold War era term that Finns might well “bristle at”, if indeed you could detect the sometimes stony-faced Finns bristling at anything. 

Well, some “bristling”, some serious bristling, was indeed on display recently, and at the highest levels of government. 

It was all part of the fallout from a political row involving Russia, nuclear energy, and, I guess, personality politics. 

The government of Prime Mister Alexander Stubb recently made the somewhat surprising announcement that Finland will proceed with construction of its third nuclear power plant in partnership with Rosatom, the state-owned Russian nuclear-energy corporation. 

Currently, there are two nuclear plants, both in southern Finland at Loviisa and Olkiluoto, consisting of four reactors, all dating from the 70s and 80s. The construction of a fifth reactor, Olkiluoto 3, by the TVO consortium is currently six years behind schedule. 

Undeterred by that delay, TVO and another consortium, Fennovoima, have applied separately to build a proposed sixth and seventh reactor. 

Last year, Fennovoima selected Rosatom, which owns 34% of the consortium, to build its proposed reactor at a new site on Finland’s northwestern coast, pending final approval from the Finnish government. 

In its recently announced decision, the government rejected the TVO application, apparently thanks to TVO’s struggle to actually get its third reactor built. 

At the same time, the government gave Fennovoima, and its partner Rosatom, the green light -- and this despite the current uncertain atmosphere of sanctions surrounding any dealings with Russia after its annexation of Crimea and apparent interference in Ukraine's Donbas region. 

The surprise decision caused a big fracture in Stubb’s cabinet, triggering the Environment Minister, Ville Niinistö (coincidentally, nephew of President Sauli Niinistö) to lead his party, the Green League, out of the government coalition. The Greens had previously threatened to do just this if any new nuclear plants were approved. 

But Ville Niinistö was harshly critical not only of the plans build more nuclear plants, but also of the greater energy dependence on Russia that the government’s decision will bring. In an interview with the Financial Times, he likened it to Finland bowing to the wishes of the Soviet Union, back in the bad ol’ days of the Cold War. 

“There is a sense of Finlandization here,” Niinistö was quoted by the FT as saying. “We are giving the Russians the very leverage they are looking for with the west and the EU. This puts us into a very vulnerable position . . . Bluntly speaking, it is totally bewildering that the rest of the government thinks this is OK.”

The use of the word Finlandization was a bit too much for some, causing a couple of prominent politicians to question Niinistö’s patriotism. 

Whether or not there is any validity to the idea that 40 or 50 years ago Finland might have felt it necessary, quite understandably, to thread a very fine needle when co-existing with a prickly and unpredictable (and, not to mention, heavily nuclear-armed) neighbor, the criticism implied by the F-word is not taken lightly here, even now, even from other Finns.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Pelotons and Center Courts

I can’t claim to be much of a sports fan, at least not an “everyday” sport fan. I tend to pay attention only to the big marquee events, like the Olympics, or soccer’s (sorry, football’s) World Cup that dominated the sports viewing in our house for a month earlier this summer. 

Even here in the land of serious hockey mania, I don’t follow regular-season Finnish league games and get really interested in the sport only during the World Championships, when the Finnish national team strives to win a gold medal. Worse, I still don’t understand all of the rules of hockey (my wife has to explain some finer points to me) and surely can’t appreciate the different styles of play. 

Of course, I could be excused for being a hockey dimwit since I was raised in the less-than-frigid, and American football-addicted, landscape of Georgia. Still, I did have a college roommate who was a big fan of the Atlanta Flames, back before that NHL team deserted Dixie for the friendlier climes of Alberta, so it’s not as if I had never heard of the sport before deserting Georgia myself. 

I do have a soft spot for baseball, “America’s pastime”. And though I’ve never been an ardent fan, not like the archetypical American, it is still the only pro sport I’ve ever watched in person. 

Once was as a kid in the 60s when we traveled the 80 miles to Fulton County Stadium to watch the Braves lose (as I seem to recall) to the Mets. A highlight of that game was seeing in action the catcher Joe Torre, then my favorite player for the Braves. Later, as a grownup, I managed to take my own young sons to a couple of major league games in Baltimore and Montreal during summer holidays. 

That’s the sum total of my experience attending live ball games, though the slow unwinding of nine innings of play, half-muted in the background on my parents’ TV, are a comfortable fixture in memories of evenings spent on summer visits home from Finland. 

A couple of years ago I started to recapture that nostalgic languid mood after discovering that I could watch major league games at home in Helsinki on ESPN America. That was until we replaced our satellite TV subscription with Elisa’s Viihde last year and lost all four ESPN channels in the process. Now we get only one cable sports channel, Eurosport. Obviously, we’re not big enough fans to pay for the half a dozen specialized sports packages that are available at extra cost. 

Anyway, there are two sports that I really do like watching and that in my mind somehow epitomize the mood of summer. Maybe that’s because they span the entire season of warm weather, following a convenient “tag-team” schedule. These sports are cycling and tennis.  

This year, it all kicked off in early May with the Giro d’Italia, a three-week cycling tour around Italy, similar to the better-known Tour de France. As with the Tour, one of the most alluring aspects of the Giro is the landscape that the race weaves its way through over 20-odd stages, a route that varies every year. 

That landscape is surely as much of the appeal for TV spectators as the competition itself. At least, for me. To be honest, I don’t follow the riders or teams so much. I just enjoy the scenery. Maybe that’s just as well, since the commentary describing the action on Eurosport is only in Swedish, giving me a chance to brush up on my Swedish comprehension (please note, I in fact have NO Swedish comprehension). 

Scenes of the peloton (the often tightly packed herd of dozens of cyclists), up close or filmed from the air, as it snakes through quintessential Italian villages and countryside seem made to order for national tourism campaigns. 

Of course, I like best the stages that pass through the mountain districts of the Alps or the Dolomites, whose narrow, twisty roads I can say from first-hand experiences can be crowded in summer with amateur cyclists who seem to harbor Giro fantasies of their own. 

The Giro overlaps a bit with the next big event on the calendar, the two-week French Open, the first Grand Slam event of the summer. Eurosport often uses English commentary, which is nice, though tennis is a sport I actually do understand anyway. I’m even a very casual (that means poor) and infrequent player. I first played back during my high-school days, when my hometown in Georgia built some tennis courts in a brand-new recreation park alongside the river that ran through our town. It was a novelty at the time. 

As I recall, my buddies and I always had the courts to ourselves, so unknown was the sport to most locals back then. Nowadays, the few times a year that I manage to play in Helsinki (as I said it’s “casual”), it’s usually possible to find space at one of the free public courts near my home (Oulunkylä, Siltamäki, for example). In summer, that is. Winter is another matter. 

I’ve often thought that tennis is a good example of how random the “national” nature of sports can be. In other words, how some countries excel in a sport, while similar countries don’t. Some nations, even relatively small ones, seem to be tennis powerhouses. Think how many world-class players hail from Serbia, Russia, or Spain. (After visiting Dubrovnik this summer, I can see why Croatians do well at tennis – people are freakishly tall there.) Meanwhile, other nations have practically no presence in the sport at all, for example, Austria and, well let’s be honest, Finland. 

Neighboring Sweden has in the past produced at least two household names in tennis, Mats Wilander and Björn Borg, yet tennis apparently has never reached a critical mass for sports-minded Finns. The only Finnish player of note is Jarkko Nieminen. 

We happened to catch Nieminen practicing a few years ago in the Finnish seaside resort of Hanko, which was hosting the Davis Cup one weekend when we were there. Nieminen is currently ranked 52nd, eight years after reaching a very respectable career high of 13th seed. He has made it to the quarter finals in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, but not in the French Open.  

This year the French Open ended on the same day that another French event began, the Criterium du Dauphine. To be honest, I had not even been aware of this short (8-stage) cycling race until I stumbled upon it while channel surfing in June. Taking place in the Dauphine region, which includes the western part of the Alps, the Criterium is a nice warm-up to the Tour de France with even slightly more mountain stages. And you can’t complain about the scenery. 

Next in the interweaving schedule comes Wimbledon, the mother of all tennis Grand Slams. Unfortunately, Eurosport didn’t broadcast the tournament at all this year, but luckily the BBC broadcast of the finals was relayed by YLE’s Mondo radio channel. 

While painting our newly built sauna-cabin the weekend of the finals, I was able to follow as the Czech Petra Kvitová decidedly beat 20-year-old rising star Eugenie Bouchard from Canada in an unseemly brief two sets. The next day – while still sloshing mold treatment onto almost inaccessible roof beams – I listened as the audience at the All England Club’s center court got their money’s worth with the five long sets it took for the current men’s top-seeded player, Serbian Novak Djokovic, to beat the Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer. 

That weekend coincided with the start of the Tour de France, an event I’m especially fond of, despite the rampant doping scandals that have marred its reputation. Again, the pleasant background of French countryside and sweeping alpine scenery makes watching the peloton navigate its way along narrow roadways a pleasant enough viewing experience. And the race is, after all, a French institution. 

I once spent a week in Chamonix valley while the Tour was taking place (sadly, that week in another part of France). In a tiny shopping center in the village of Argentière where I was staying, two rival sports stores adjacent to each other had set up a portable TV between their storefronts, so the staff and customers could watch the peloton progress through some idyllic village in Normandy, or Provence, or the Pyrénées. I forget where exactly, but certainly not Chamonix.  

This year, I was intrigued to hear that the first stages of the tour were to take place in Yorkshire (a previously overlooked part of France, it seems). In truth, the Tour often begins in other countries, and given the race’s popularity that’s not a bad idea from a marketing point of view. I got my hopes up that the course might even be routed through my ancestral home, a little village called Tankersley not that far from Sheffield. It’s apparently not a big (or famous) place. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as consisting of only six households, and my sense is it hasn’t grown much in the 928 years since. 
Credit: Andrei Loas

I don’t necessarily feel a close connection to the village, since my branch of the family left England some 300 years ago, and I’ve never visited Tankersley myself (though my wife has). Still, I was hoping I might get a glimpse of the place from the air as the Tour helicopter chased the pack of riders, hunched over their handlebars, whooshing through the cradle of my forebears. As it was, the Tour went no nearer than some place called Grenoside, a tantalizingly close 6.5 kilometers from Tankersley. 

The cycling/tennis season closed off with the mostly overlapping US Open and La Vuelta a España. I haven’t often gotten around to watching much of the 21-stage Vuelta, but in the past I’ve followed the tennis tournament in Flushing Meadows fairly closely, even with the seven-hour time difference between here and New York. 

Not this year. By August, there was too much going on. On Eurosport’s next-day replay I did see a bit of the faceoff between favorite Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark in the women's final. And I totally missed Marin Čilić, a six-foot-six Croatian (like I said), dousing the championship dreams of Japanese fans by beating Kei Nishikori in straight sets in a first-time Grand Slam final for them both. 

The summer was already winding down by then anyway, and the unusually early snowfall in central Finland this week is a reminder that the real season for sports in Finland is soon upon us. Before long, there will be plenty of ski jumping, downhill, and cross-country to watch, or half-watch, or, if nothing else have on the TV, in the background, while engaged in the everyday sport of surfing the net. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Vexing Vexillology

Leading up to today's referendum in Scotland on independence, CNN has been giving the issue extensive coverage and at some point even trotted out an expert in...vexillology.

I confess, I never knew such a word existed, or even that there was an academic field justifying such an cryptic name, though in truth I sometimes have found myself interested in the subject, on a superficial level. The subject in question is the study of flags, and the precise reason CNN brought a vexillologist into the studio was to discuss what Scottish independence might mean for the Union Jack, the iconic British flag that nowadays makes me think, first and foremost, of Austin Powers. Yeah, Baby!

All kidding aside, the Union Jack encapsulates a lot of actual history, being as it is a “union” of flags from three kingdoms, England, Scotland and Ireland. These neighboring countries with shared histories began, in 1603, to also share the same king, James I, apparently quite the multitasking monarch who also lent his name to the best-known version of the Christian Bible.

The Union Jack: iconic mashup of saintly symbols.

The union between the three kingdoms was formalized over the next two centuries, eventually giving rise to a need for a new national banner, the Union Jack, created by overlaying the crosses of three patron saints, George for England, Andrew for Scotland, and – the only one to spawn a holiday observed around the world by wearing something green and drinking beer (often also green) – Patrick from the Emerald Isle.

The fact that St. Patrick’s cross (basically a big red “X”) remains on the flag nearly a hundred years after most of Ireland left the union begs the question: why would the departure of Scotland require any modification to the Union Jack anyway? Why bother changing it?

After all, with the British “brand” being so closely linked to the Union Jack, maybe keeping the flag as it is, and just happily living with the fiction that the “union” it represents still exists, would be the easiest course. No one has to know.

What is more interesting to me, in general, is the role that the cross of St. Andrew representing Scotland on the Union Jack, and of course on the Scottish flag itself, has oddly come to play in the symbolism of rebellion. I’m sure this is mostly coincidence. Or is it?

The flag of Scotland, bearing the cross of St. Andrew.
At the moment, the cross that is now identified with Scotland’s drive for independence has also emerged, with different colors, as the battle flag for the so-called Federal State of Novorossiya, the proxy state that Russia is apparently trying to create in eastern Ukraine.

The Novorossiya flag, in turn, is strikingly similar to the Confederate States of America’s Battle Flag, which is even today a popular symbol of rebellion for some misguided folks in the US who strangely enough find “honor” in the fact that some Americans were willing to wage war on the United States in the defense of their “right” to own other human beings. A disturbing kind of nostalgia.

Three rebellious movements, all sporting the cross of St. Andrew. Though that might look like a pattern, it is all perfectly random.

Supposedly, St. Andrew’s cross had no special significance for the southern US or, for that matter, racism. Andrew is not the patron saint of lost causes (that, in fact, would be Jude, who brings to mind a catchy tune sang by four lads from the then-still-united United Kingdom).

According to traditional mythology, Apostle Andrew, not wanting to upstage the Messiah by having himself martyred in an entirely copycat fashion, opted to be crucified on a large wooden “X” instead. I’ve read that, likewise, when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was trying to choose between a flag with the regular upright “Latin” cross of Jesus or one with the diagonal cross of St. Andrew, they chose the “X”, influenced in part by a Jewish Southerner who suggested the more obviously Christian symbol of the Latin cross wasn’t appropriate on a national flag.

CSA Battle Flag: detestable symbol of treasonous rebellion.
If true, I find it deliciously ironic to think that, in this age when many religious Southerners get bent out of shape at any hint that the prominence of Christian symbolism is being threatened, a politically incorrect emblem of the “Lost Cause” cherished by some of the same folks might itself have been the product of a certain political correctness, circa 1861.

While the use of St. Andrew’s cross by CSA rebels was accidental, its use by Novorossiya rebels is completely natural and fits well with a certain kind of religious nationalism. St. Andrew is said to have personally traveled and preached to the peoples living on the north shore of the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine, Russia and Georgia, which is why he was adopted as a venerated patron saint of those nations.

It’s less obvious why he would also be the patron of part of faraway Great Britain. He, of course, never traveled anywhere near the glens, lochs and firths of Scotland, but part of him (literally, pieces of his body) reputedly did end up there, obviously good enough to win a place in the hearts of the Scots – and on their flag.

Likewise, St. Andrew’s cross earned itself a place in Russian naval vexillology. The cross was incorporated in a flag designed by no less than Peter the Great, though basically just a knockoff of the British Union Jack. In the 1990s, as all communist emblems were discarded following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Russian Navy restored the imperial flags, complete with the original logo commemorating the martyrdom of a roving apostle. Back to the future, you might say.

Battle flag of "Novorossiya", retro symbol
for a retro militia.
I suppose the Russian Navy Jack could have been the inspiration behind the Novorossiya militia adopting the same colors for its own flag (blue cross on a red field), though I can’t help thinking that in that choice there also wasn’t a sly salute to the folklore of rebellion.

Back in the 1970s in Finland there was a subculture of young men who styled themselves as rebels and dressed like James Dean. They wore denim jacket and slicked-back hair and were called “diinari” (Deanari, get it?). I recall seeing a photo in National Geographic once of one such young Finn with a Confederate Battle Flag sewn onto his jacket. So strong is the link between the CSA flag and rebellion that, even in a place as far removed from Dixie as Finland, the connection was completely clear. The symbolism was understood.

Maybe that’s true even today in the backwaters of Europe, where raising a flag that, consciously or not, resembles as closely as possible the universal symbol of an ill-fated rebellion seems perfectly appropriate for belligerent rebel misfits who play by their own “rules”.

And by that, I don’t mean the Scots.