Support of Ukraine in Helsinki Runs Deep and it is Personal
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
Since the attack on Ukraine in mid-February, we’ve been in Lisbon, London, Paris, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Tallin. We have seen visible signs of support for Ukraine in each place, typically shown by flying the Ukranian national flag although sometimes, as shown in this Helsinki shop window (above), in more creative ways. We have witnessed demonstrations supporting Ukrainians in London, Helsinki, and Tallin. Nowhere has support been more fervent than in the Baltic region.
In Helsinki, everywhere we turn we learn about the Finnish declaration of independence in 1917. We visit the Finnish Museum, and follow the story of Finland from medieval times to that moment.
What is now Finland originally consisted of various Nordic tribes, including Finns and indigenous Sami. It was part of the Swedish kingdom from the middle ages, at least the late 13th century until 1809. Today, about 5% of Finnish people are ethnic Swedish (down from about 15% when Sweden controlled Finland). Modern Finland is officially bilingual – Swedish and Finnish, and those who speak one language in the home learn the other language very early in their lives. While there appears to us to be a playful rivalry between the countries, they are close allies, culturally and politically. In the late 18th/early 19th century, the Russian Empire waged war with Sweden, and modern-day Finland became a Duchy of Russia. The Finns kept their language and culture during this time, with the Russian Czars ruling from a distance. The capitol was moved from Turku to newly created Helsinki in 1812. You can see the dual Finnish-Russian character of Helsinki in the commissioning by the Russian duke of two churches: the Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral, and the Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral.
The two churches demonstrate how different the two cultures were. The Lutheran Cathedral, with its imposing and majestic domes, is almost bare of ornament inside. Mostly white, with one large painting over the alter and a beautifully painted organ in the balcony, it represents the native Finns. Four marble sculptures, also in white, adorn the inside – one of Martin Luther.
The Orthodox church, by contrast is full of color including many gilded surfaces. We didn't get inside the orthodox church in Helsinki, but here are photos from an Eastern Orthodox church we visited in Tallin, which has a similar style.
The twin churches are the most visible landmarks when approaching the Helsinki harbor by sea, even today.
We go to Suomenlinna, a chain of islands 20 minutes by ferry from the Helsinki port. First a Swedish outpost, it was occupied by Russians to defend the occupation of Finland for 100 years. Since 1917, it has been held by Finns. The church on the island was originally Russian Orthodox, but is now Lutheran. The island is a living museum, showcasing Finnish independence through interpretive signs. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
From the late 1800s until 1917, many factors promoted a growing movement toward Finnish independence. I’m not enough of a scholar of this period to fully understand all the factors, but in 1917 the Bolsheviks offered “all the Russian peoples” the right of self-determination and Finland declared its independence, turning it into a republic. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all did so as well. Every Finn knows this story. Many streets in Helsinki are named after people who paved the way for this independent republic.
We are taken to visit Ainola, the home of Jean Sibelius, who wrote music that helped define the Finnish identity during this time frame. Nearby, we visit Halosenniemi, the beautiful home of Pekko Halosen on Lake Tuusula, home to many artists, poets, writers and musicians. We hear about how these artists helped form Finnish identity leading up to Finnish independence.
In late 1939, Soviet Russia invaded Finland. The Finns fought back, and Russia suffered heavy losses, and was expelled from the League of Nations. After 3 months, a peace treaty was negotiated. Finland lost land in the north and east. We hear stories of family who came from Karelia, which was divided by this peace treaty, part of it going to Russia. Our friends tell us the families who live there are Finnish. There is still a sense of loss felt by modern Finns. At Seurasaari, we see 400 years of Finnish culture expressed through their buildings. One building is Karellian -removed from an area now occupied by Russia. It is shown as part of the Finnish story.
Russia also invaded Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1940, and occupied those countries until 1990, after the Berlin Wall came down and President Gorbachev eventually recognized their declarations of independence. The Russians who moved into those states were administrators and enforcers and widely seen by the local populations as occupiers. When those states achieved independence, they quickly moved toward reclaiming their own cultures – languages and customs – even though large Russian-speaking populations had settled in during Soviet occupation. While Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia eventually joined NATO, Finland for decades believed its peace would come by avoiding poking the Russian bear, and it stayed out of the defensive alliance. But, in 995 Finland joined the EU. Sweden too stayed out of NATO to support Finland and maintain neutrality, but also joined the EU. Finns know these stories.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in mid-February, 2022, the Finland and the Baltic states empathized as ones who had suffered this same experience. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia wondered – “Are we next - again?” Finland looked at the more than 800-mile border with Russia with trepidation but determination to remain free. Many times, we hear,
“We understand what the Ukrainians are going through. They have to fight because being occupied by Russia must be avoided at all costs. We’ve lived through that and it is terrible. Fighting occupation is worth giving up your life to defend.”
Ukrainian flags fly everywhere in Helsinki, and we think this is very brave of the Finns, who share such a history and such a long border with Russia. Finnish popular opinion shifts from 37% in favor of joining NATO before the invasion of Ukraine to over 70% in early May. Finland shifts from more than 100 years of avoiding poking the Russian bear to embracing the NATO alliance along with its supportive sister, Sweden. We are in Stockholm when the Finnish President speaks to Swedish Parliament, and Finnish and Swedish flags fly side by side everywhere. Demonstrators in Helsinki chant, “Ukraine is Europe.” Finns are speaking up and speaking out.
We are in Estonia when Ukrainian supporters in front of the Russian embassy there are blasted with ear-splitting Russian music, an attempt to drive them away. You can read about it here. The wall in front of the Russian embassy is plastered with signs supporting Ukraine and teddy bears soaked in red paint. “Blood on your hands” and "Only you can stop this" read the signs. Ukrainian flags fly everywhere in a city that is almost 50% ethnic Russian and 50% ethnic Estonian.
Early in our Helsinki stay, we pass an old bank building with Finnish folklore carved into the stone. Two bears sit atop the pillars. Our friend tells us, “Bears were an important part of Finnish folklore, at one time. But we don’t talk about the Finnish bears any more. Bears represent Russia now.”
In the U.S., we’ve never been invaded by an occupying force. We are quick to criticize the French who worked with Nazis when they occupied France during WWII. But who is to say how any one of us would react when our lives were at risk? This is why we find the outspoken and visible support by the Baltic states and Finland to be so brave. They say after Finland announced its intention to apply to NATO, Russia sent tanks to the Finnish border; Finnish farmers drove tractors there to stare down the Russian tanks. They are unified, and they are determined. They will not be occupied again.