Russia has 200,000 lakes

Finland, Lapland, Russia and me

I am a Finnish writer and visual artist who was born in Lapland in 1958. I graduated from Helsinki with a degree in anthropology, and I've been to the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union and Russia to study and travel. In the course of my life I have sorted fish in fish factories in Northern Norway, cleaned in Stockholm hospitals and hotels, worked outdoors Christiania in Copenhagen in a grocery store and in a public sauna. I lived in Texas and rode around the United States on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. I now live in central Helsinki with my family.

Floating sauna on Tornio river, Finland. Photo: Timo. Source: Flickr


Finland is very far north when viewed from any corner of the world. The Finnish northern border runs eighty kilometers south of the polar sea. In the west lies the great power Sweden, in the east the great power Russia, in the north Norway, which suddenly became rich through its oil, in the south tiny Estonia. Finland is somehow an island, even if it is only surrounded by the sea in the west and south. In terms of area, Finland is twice as much as Germany, but has only five million inhabitants. The Finnish part of Lapland is larger than Belgium, Holland and Switzerland, but is only inhabited by 180,000 people and 200,000 reindeer.
Finland was part of Sweden for eight hundred years. Then a war broke out between Sweden and Russia. It ended in 1809 with a defeat for Sweden, which was now forced to cede Finland to Russia. That's when the term came about Suomen Lappi, Finnish Lapland. Until then, the area that stretched north of the Arctic Circle from the Atlantic to the Kola Peninsula was Lapinmaa called, Lappmark. Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire for a good hundred years, until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 gave Finland independence. The Finnish Declaration of Independence was signed by Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. In addition to state independence, the Bolshevik Revolution gave the country a transport link to Petsamo on the Polar Sea. As a result, the Finns owned their own Arctic Ocean from 1922 to 1944, which was then lost to the Soviet Union during the war.

Finland is therefore a very young independent state with its own Finnish-Ugric language and culture and a population whose ancestors came from the west, east and south.


The Finnish part of Lapland was settled as early as the Stone Age. Stone axes from the time of 6000 BC have been found along rivers. Found. Archaeological excavations have also been carried out in my home village, during which stone-age finds have been found. In 1962 my father found Iron Age women's jewelry from around 600 BC on our field. Ural nomadic tribes of hunters and fishermen settled the land, the later Sami, who divided into four nomadic pastoral peoples, each with their own Sami language. When the Nordic countries emerged and state borders were drawn towards the end of the 18th century, the Sami did not accept these borders, but continued to roam the old land use with their reindeer. The central authorities in Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland tried to shackle these people, but they did not succeed until after World War II. The permanent settlement of the Sami was a slow but steady process.

In prehistoric times, the people of Lapland and their herds of reindeer moved freely in an east-west direction, following the seasons. In the north the Arctic Ocean formed the border, in the south the route was blocked because Finnish new settlers were pushing up there and gradually conquering Sami land for agriculture. The Finns pushed the Sami back further and further, which is why today - as in Norway, Sweden and Russia - they only live in the far north. This development was possible because the conquerors were superior to the natives and because they had better weapons.

Mother tongue: Meänkieli

My ancestors on my father's side were Finnish new settlers, my mother's origins cannot be traced back beyond the province of Lapland. My parents built a house in my mother's home village on the western border, in close proximity to Sweden, and started a family with six children. The western border area of ​​the province of Lapland is culturally and linguistically a region of its own. Our mother tongue is called Meänkieli (Tornedal Finnish), it is spoken on both sides of the border and has a conciliatory spirit. In the language itself, contradictions are avoided, and harmony is always sought. It emerged from the old Finnish settlements and acted as a mediator between the Finns and the Sami.

Border regions are very special milieus all over the world. The people there see and experience more, they have experience of being different and that makes it easier for them to accept differences. My home region has always been an area for international encounters, not least because the Finnish-Swedish border river Tornionjoki flows into the Gulf of Bothnia, i.e. into the Baltic Sea. Travelers from all over the world have always come on this important traffic route to get to know the mystical north.

In addition to the aspect of internationality, the culture of Meänkieli-Region of my homeland added a completely different, no less powerful factor, namely Laestadianism. The Laestadians are a religious revival movement that flourished in the 19th century, with their own way of life and their own internal rules. In some respects they can be compared with the Amish in the USA. The influence of this movement is profound and its spiritual legacy is still alive.

The way of life of my family was strongly Finnish, slightly Laestadian and hardly influenced by Sami, although almost all family members had their own reindeer ownership and in winter the farm was full of reindeer. We lived on small-scale livestock farming, forest work, fishing and reindeer herding. Like all other families in my home village, we were largely self-sufficient. In my childhood in Lapland it was common for many more people to live in every house than just members of the nuclear family. My father's parents lived with us first, then my mother's parents, various uncles on the father's and mother's side, unmarried aunts and often vagabonds. During the summer, forest work was carried out on a massive scale in Lapland, and this attracted untied young men from the south. They needed shelter, and many of them stayed with us. Lapland has always been a promised land for all kinds of vagabonds, adventurers and criminals, in whose forests it was easy to hide. In the thirties, the Finnish central government still considered Lapland to be a region without discipline and order, although attempts had been made since 1809 to ensure civilizational development there. The long distances, the harsh climate, the bad roads and the sparse population made it extremely difficult to ensure that the legal order was observed.

Sunset over the Gulf of Bothnia. Photo: Johan from Turku. Source: Wikipedia

The mythical north country: wild, barren, threatening

The first written records of Lapland can be found in Tacitus ’ Germania from the year 98. The city of Kemi, located in the far north of the Gulf of Bothnia, was an important trading center as early as the 14th century. Furs, reindeer products and fish were exported, and salt and spices were imported. Stories about the mythical Nordland found their way into Central Europe through sailors and merchants, and little by little explorers, geographers, historians, adventurers and tourists came to Lapland from there. The Swedish cosmopolitan and clergyman Olaus Magnus wrote a book in 1555 about his trips to Lapland in which he describes the people living there as strong, capable and very superstitious. After this work, members of scientific societies and academies from all over Europe came to Lapland, especially from England, France, Italy and Germany, especially in the 18th century. These people have written dozens of great books about their travels to that nearly uninhabited, wild area, where the sun doesn't set at all in summer and doesn't rise at all in winter. Across a country where the cold is tough in winter, while the northern lights are blazing in the sky, and where in summer a cloud of mosquitos covers the beautiful landscape.

In the years 1736–1737, the expedition of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, a member of the French Academy of Sciences, came to Lapland. Their intention was to use the stars to measure the curvature of the earth at the polar circle and thus determine the shape of the earth, i.e. to determine whether the earth was flat or elliptical at the poles. De Maupertuis stated that Descartes’s elliptical version was wrong and Newton’s flattened version was correct. The French stayed in my homeland for a year, and the stories about them and their strange ways of life were passed on from one generation to the next. Incidentally, children were also conceived during that year, replenishing our genetic heritage.

At the beginning of the 19th century the Italian Giuseppe Acerpi stayed in my homeland. His description of Lapland is full of horror. In the book he wrote about his trip, he mentions a building made of thick beams and without a chimney, in which he and his companions spent the night. This hut served as a cold store in my childhood and was only demolished in the 1980s when it was already completely rotten. Whenever I walked past the building as a young person, I was always amused to think of the Italian academic, who had seen the people of Lapland as wild, terrifying, brave daredevils and nature as barren, horrible and threatening.

The fear of the south

I spent the first fifteen years of my life in the place where I was born in the Finnish part of Lapland. We were surrounded by forest and I spent my early childhood among trees and reindeer.Our village was a typical Lappish village with a few houses by the lake, a small school, a small shop and a single car that we collectively used to go shopping in Sweden once a month. Today the village has emptied and there is no longer a school. Near our village is the first tourist attraction in Lapland, Mount Aavasaksa. It is an ancient sacred Sami mountain that tourists have climbed to admire the midnight sun since the 17th century. De Maupertuis took his measurements on this very mountain.

The common language with the people on the Swedish side of the border has always been a strong connecting element, but there was also no fear of people who spoke differently. Often the language is just something that people hide behind. If there is no common language, communication may be more direct and sometimes even deeper. Sweden, in other words the West, was a natural part of my childhood landscape. You could just walk across the bridge to the neighboring country and buy bananas, for example, which were not yet available on the Finnish side. Sweden was a great power, Finland its strange cousin. We border residents had the privilege of witnessing on an everyday level how the great power, in which there had been no war for centuries, expanded its prosperity. We took Sweden as an example, but also wanted to proudly preserve the peculiarities of our own culture.

The north was also a familiar, natural direction for us. In Northern Norway, people mainly went to the fish factories for seasonal work. Only a few went to southern Finland or even to Helsinki, which was considered far too remote. Above all, however, the south was avoided and feared for historical reasons. State power came from the south and passed all sorts of laws and regulations without asking the natives in the north. That is why the relationship between Lapland and southern Finland is still cool today. The taming of Lapland, which began in 1809 and was intensified by state power until the 1940s, did not appeal to the Laplanders. It was seen as a policy of regulation and repression by the gentlemen from the south, who did not care about the views and well-being of the people of Lapland.

In 1941, during World War II, the authorities allowed Nazi Germany to de facto occupy the region, and after the war they even proposed that Lapland be ceded to the Soviet Union so that it could distance itself from other territorial claims. That gave the people in the north the impression that they were just a burden for the state, or a plaything that was thrown in this and in that direction. The natural riches of Lapland are enormous. There is plenty of forest, as well as huge bodies of water, and valuable minerals lie dormant in the earth. After the Second World War, the region's economic exploitation experienced a new boom. Waters have been used to generate electricity for the industrial settlements in the south, and this destruction of Lappish rivers and lakes remains a source of bitterness. Another ongoing issue is the deforestation policy of forest companies, which amounts to desecrating the Lappish forests. The use of rivers for electricity generation and the extensive destruction of forests by the wood processing industry continues, even if tourism is the main source of income in Lapland today.

And the east?

The relationship of the people of Lapland to the west and north is a bit grumpy, but approving, while that to the south is rather difficult. And the relationship with the East? Throughout history, Finns have been divided with the East. Regardless of the prevailing Russian social system, some of the Finns are afraid of the Russians, while others are positive about them and the vast majority of them base their opinion on the respective propaganda. If the state power and the media launch the Russian-Finnish friendship, the people join this chorus. But if the official propaganda evokes resentment towards Russia, this too quickly hits our people. We have always had rulers who conjure up hatred of Russia and those who appease us. In the 1920s, Finnish tribal warriors made expeditions eastward to free the tribal peoples from the clutches of Bolshevism. However, they refused to be liberated, and our warriors returned home empty-handed. The thirties were a heyday of Finnish nationalism and hatred of Russia, the decades after the war an era of solidarity and Finnish-Soviet friendship, and since 1991, when the world became a unicolar and the United States became a world police force through NATO Rightly if we wage war all over the world without asking permission, we are gradually returning to the nationalism and hatred of Russia from the 1930s in Finland.
The relationship between the people of Lapland and the east was primarily determined by the border. The eastern border was open until Finland became independent. People from Lapland moved freely to the Kola Peninsula and back. After independence in 1917, the border between Finland and the Soviet Union gradually closed. In the 1920s it was still relatively easy to travel east in Lapland. When the town of Petsamo, where skolt seeds lived, was annexed to Finland in 1922, some friends of our family moved there and started fish factories. My grandparents went to Petsamo every year to visit these friends and also made a detour to Murmansk, which was built as the northernmost naval base of Tsarist Russia. Before the Second World War, it was a very busy polar sea metropolis - and the entire northern calotte was a paradise for spies.

Neither Russia nor the Soviet Union was particularly admired in the Arctic region, because we Finns are related to the Finno-Ugric peoples who colonize the entire Arctic zone of Russia up to the Pacific. The Finno-Ugric peoples share a special feeling of togetherness, although there is a common spirit in all Arctic peoples, including those who do not belong to the Finno-Ugrians. When I lived in Christiania, where there were many Inuit from Greenland, I made friends with them first. We didn't have a common language, but we understood each other immediately.

The estrangement from the East only began when the iron curtain fell between Finland and the states of the Soviet Union. What one does not know easily triggers fear. Lapland stayed in the west, beyond the border the wild east began. Soon, however, the Laplanders succeeded in drilling two holes in the iron curtain, and travel to the east was again possible via these two border crossing points. Bus tourism from Rovaniemi to Murmansk began as early as the 1960s and grew livelier from year to year. The people of Lapland went there for the weekend to enjoy the big city atmosphere, good Russian food and cheap vodka. It is well known that vodka is the favorite drink of the Finns, the Sami and the Russians. What you know doesn't trigger any fears.

Winter wars

Many Finns are still afraid of the Russians. Behind this fear are primarily the experiences from the winter war of 1939/40. At that time, nationalism flourished in Finland as it did in all of Europe, and nationalism often leads to war. So it happened. After unsuccessful negotiations on the transfer of territory, the Soviet Union attacked Finland. The fiercest fighting of the Winter War took place in Lapland, and in relation to the population, more Lappish soldiers than other Finnish soldiers were killed. The Winter War lasted 105 days and ended with peace negotiations. Despite the war, there was far less hatred of Russia in Lapland than anywhere else in Finland, because the Laplanders were poor people and many of them sympathized with the Soviet Union. Besides, we people in the north belonged to the same people in a way. The Nordic united us, the cold, the severe climate, ways of life, ways of life, livelihood. Things that the people of the south did not understand. There were certainly people from Lapland who did not want to fight the Red Army because they identified with it more than with the Finnish army, which was in the hands of the gentlemen who exploited Lapland.

The Winter War was followed by the Continuation War, in which Finland attacked the Soviet Union on the side of Nazi Germany. The slow, poor, oppressed and, in principle, peaceful Lappish people were not enthusiastic about the common idea of ​​the German and Finnish armies to build a Greater Finland that stretched as far as the Urals. One went sadly and only with necessity into the Continuation War, which in Lapland was called the “War of the Lords”.

Lapland was a central arena in both wars. During the Continuation War, more than 220,000 German soldiers lived in Lapland, many of them from the SS. There were only 150,000 Finnish residents. In Rovaniemi, the headquarters of the German Army Command, 6,000 Germans were stationed, while there were 8,000 Finns, mainly women, children and the elderly. The Germans were responsible for the defense of Lapland throughout the Continuation War. The Laplanders themselves were sent south to fight, which caused great bitterness because the men had to leave their wives and daughters in the care of the Germans. All of Lapland was practically occupied by Germans, even if the word “inbunden” (integration) was used for the occupation. The civilian population made friends with the German soldiers, and many German-Finnish children grew out of these relationships.

At that time there were also prison camps in Lapland that had been set up by Germans and Finns for Russian prisoners of war. Tens of thousands of soldiers vegetated there. Most died of hunger, cold and disease. But prisoners were also used as slave labor. They built roads for the Germans and worked in the forest. Some prisoners from peoples related to the Finns were housed as labor in Lappish houses because their own men were at the front.In such circumstances, too, children arose and our genetic heritage became more diverse.

The memories of the war were very vivid in my parents' house, not a day went by without thinking back to the war. Relatives of mine had been in the war, some had died, some had been wounded, and some had suffered terrible traumatic experiences until they died. All of this was part of everyday life in my childhood, and so I learned very early to hate war.

My father was a nationalist, but German-minded and even in his youth he liked to travel, which was not in keeping with the zeitgeist at the time. He came to my home village from Kemi. His parents were civil servants, gentlemen, but my mother's parents, who lived in our village, belonged to the real Lumpenproletariat. Growing up in a large family, with parents from so different social classes, was a great asset for me. From the fatherly side came the lordly side, from the maternal side the proletarian side.

Murmansk metropolis

When I was growing up, I heard my father's stories about his travels to Morocco, Malta and the UK and decided to travel too when I grew up. But the fact that my first trip abroad did not take me to Germany but to the Soviet Union was only possible because my father died and my mother was allowed to decide everything. I really wanted to go to Murmansk because Murmansk was still the only big city north of the Arctic Circle in the 1970s. It was also the closest metropolis, and I was eager to experience the buzz of life, energy and pace of a big city after hearing and reading about it so much. I was fifteen when I got on the tourist bus to Murmansk, ready to meet the people and the way of life of a real city that I only had a clue about, as a child from a small village. After all, there are only small settlements in Lapland that can hardly be called cities.

This trip should determine my fate. I fell in love with Murmansk and decided to learn Russian. I fell in love with this huge city built between fells on the banks of a fjord, where 500,000 people lived. The average age of the residents was twenty-five years. I fell in love with Murmansk, with its ethnic restaurants, its strange shop signs, its letters, its uncomplicated and hospitable people. Even on this first trip I was enthusiastic about the Soviet aesthetic because it was so different from ours. The architecture, the packaging of the goods in the shops, the toys, the clothes, the tools, the way of working. Everywhere I looked I was amazed. Everything looked big, but at the same time somehow innocent. Everything looked strange, strange, mysterious and at the same time fascinating and familiar. I felt like I was traveling in two directions in time: to my parents' childhood and to the future. Murmansk was a mixture of the then very lively past and a violent striving for the future. There I had the feeling that I had been freed from the narrowness of my village, from the Laestadian oppression, the world seemed big and open to me. As if anything were possible in principle.

When I got home, I started learning Russian. My wish was to be able to read the street signs on my next trip to the Soviet Union.
After this first trip I dealt with the Soviet Union and later with Russia. When I was studying in Moscow in 1981, I fell in love with this city too. In their irrationality, in their wildness, in their orthodoxy (also in the Soviet Union), in their incredible size, in the bottomless crowd. As soon as I had enough money I decided to take the Trans-Siberian Railway on an adventure trip to Siberia and Mongolia, just as the European explorers who had come to my home village since the 17th century had done. I was also very interested in Siberia and Mongolia because Finnish anthropologists and linguists had already traveled east in the 19th century to research the peoples related to us in Siberia. I wanted to see and experience the same villages and towns, wanted to know how they had changed in a good hundred years, who lived there and how the Soviet power had shaped these regions.

The trip to Siberia became possible in 1986 as my first book Yhden yön pysäkki (Stop One Night) was named the best debut of the year. With the prize money I immediately bought train tickets to Siberia and booked overnight stays. Then I jumped on the train to Moscow. I spent a couple of weeks preparing for the trip there, and on the threshold of spring I put my camera on and boarded a train on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The novel is based on this journey Compartment No. 6I wrote 25 years later.
The Russian philosopher and writer Vikor Erofejew once said that Russia is a paradise for writers and a hell for readers. I agree, because as a writer, Russia is a tremendous source of inspiration and a treasure trove for me. That's because Russia always surprises you. Everything changes and then comes back in a different form as before. Like the rest of the world and the universe, Russia is in constant motion, nothing stays in place, but this change creates a chain of absurdities in Russia that does not stop. Even now things are fermenting again in Russia and I am following developments with interest.

In short, I love and hate the depth, the madness, the superficiality and the unpredictability of Russia. The following signs can still hang at the entrance of a restaurant or shop:
Closed due to inventory
and if you dare to touch the door, it may at first appear to be closed, but if you try again it is not locked and the bar or shop is open!

Border traffic today

The border between Finland and Sweden in Lapland has been completely open for years. In the Tornio Valley, dwellings have been built along the borderline and the small settlements on either side are on the Union path. Lapland can only be saved from desertification through cooperation. We are slowly returning to the same situation that existed in the early twilight of history as that Lappmark was still a large area and no state borders had yet been established. Norway follows its own line and is unwilling to share with others. Russia opened its border after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Last year the visa requirement between Norway and Russia was lifted and now workers from Murmansk can easily commute to work in Norway in the morning and back home in the evening. Trade with Russia and tourism are the main sources of income for the people of Lapland. In relation to the Russians, the premise is nevertheless: their money is right, but they are treated coolly. The Finns still consider the Russians to be the strange others with whom one does not necessarily want to make acquaintances. One of my brothers lives with his family in Ivalo, which is very far north. He has set up shops there and runs a tourism company. Through him I can see up close how the relationship between the Kola area and Finnish Lapland is developing. Russian tourists have been coming to Finland for twenty years to shop for their daily needs, just as we used to go to Sweden when I was a child. But now that the EU's economic sanctions on Russia have gone into effect and the ruble has fallen, it looks like border business is decreasing and the number of Russian tourists is falling. Trade and tourism in Lapland and Eastern Finland are in crisis.

Despite the growing mass and event tourism in recent years, Lapland is still a unique region. The best part about it is nature. It is still relatively clean, and its heart is formed by the rivers, lakes, streams, the ring of water, the fells and the vast swamps. There are still the snow-covered winter forests, the northern lights, the cold, the clarity of spring, the nightless night in summer and the unique color of the leaves in autumn, even if global warming threatens all of this.

Published 29 October 2014
Original in Finnish
Translated by Stefan Moster
First published by Wespennest 167 (2014) (German version); Eurozine (German version)

Contributed by Wespennest © Rosa Liksom / Wespennest / Eurozine