Imatra, Finland, March 13 – In her snow-covered wooden house 20 minutes from Russia, Maija Poyhia wears a traditional blue headscarf that her mother carried with her when she fled the Soviet invasion of Finland during World War II.
In Finland, Russia’s assault on Ukraine has drawn painful associations with the Winter War of 1939, when Red Army troops attacked the Nordic country across their common border, which stretches now over 1,340 kilometers (830 miles).
As in Ukraine, the small Finnish army then put up strong resistance and inflicted heavy losses on the Soviets.
But Finland ended up ceding much of its eastern province of Karelia, driving nearly half a million Finns – 12% of the total population – from their homes.
“My father’s childhood home is still on the Finnish side,” Poyhia told AFP, although his mother’s family farm is now in Russia. “But at the time, nobody really understood how the border was going.”
A second war against the USSR followed, from 1941 to 1944, this time with Finland in a de facto alliance with Nazi Germany.
Despite the region’s history, Poyhia and her husband, Seppo Laaksovirta, “are not afraid at all” of living so close to the Russian border, and the threat of another invasion seems remote.
“I don’t know anyone here who said we should be on our guard,” Laaksovirta said.
Russia’s shock invasion of Ukraine on February 24 led to an increase in Finnish support for NATO membership as a defense against possible aggression from the east, with polls showing record levels in favor of the country. membership.
Laaksovirta supports joining the military alliance, a move he says “would be more helpful than harmful”.
“Today we have weapons from America and the West here,” he adds, “rather than what we had in the 1960s, which came from Russia.”
– Strong cross-border links –
In the 80 years since the Soviet invasion, Finns along the border have reestablished strong cultural and economic ties with their neighbors to the east.
“The younger generations have learned to live and want to live in a western and international society,” says Anna Helminen, president of the municipal council of Imatra, a town located just five kilometers from the border.
A thousand of Imatra’s 26,000 residents are Russian citizens, and the city “was founded on Russian purchasing power,” Helminen told AFP.
Imatra companies were desperate to get Russian tourists to start visiting shops, hotels and spas again as the Covid pandemic waned.
“Now, of course, the same situation will continue,” says Helminen.
Plans for a rail link to St. Petersburg and many other cross-border projects “all disappeared overnight” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Daily contacts and future plans have been stopped,” says Helminen.
“Our leaders and officials have said there is no immediate threat to Finland and we want to believe that and see the future positively,” Helminen said.
“But, of course, this situation leaves traces, including on the interactions between people.”
– ‘Like a rat in a trap’ –
Some Russian community groups have recently reported an increase in anti-Russian sentiment in Finland, but mainly on social media.
Anastasia Petrishina, who has lived and worked near Imatra for 10 years, says she has not received any negative reaction from Finns since the start of the war.
Her Finnish friends “understand that Russia as a state is not the same thing as the Russian people,” the head of pharmaceutical quality control told AFP.
“But I can’t be 100% sure what it’s going to be like in the future, especially for people who don’t know me personally.”
The mother-of-two says the outbreak of war made her wonder, “What does it mean to be a Russian in Finland, in the EU and stay out of Russia?
She has shelved plans to travel to her hometown of St. Petersburg, even though her eldest daughter, in her 20s, is there.
“I don’t want to be like a rat trapped there, unable to return to Finland, Petrishina says.
Draconian new Russian laws threatening jail for anyone who criticizes the Kremlin mean Petrishina has had few conversations with loved ones back home about the war in Ukraine.
“I am not ready to discuss these matters, as I prefer to keep them safe.”
Petrishina says she is “an optimistic person in principle” and thinks things will get better.
“But the question is, how long does it take?”