By Enrique Tessieri
For some anti-immigration groups, my background as a Finn must be a nightmare. The bad dream these groups dread to see is nothing more than the present and future staring back at them. It is the new Finland of the twenty-first century looking, together with others from our ever-culturally diverse society, confidently at the future.
Some anti-immigration groups and even some white Finns dread us because we are the long-overdue Finland that has been swept under the rug for so long with the help of nationalism and concocted myths.
The bad news for those who cling to these views about ourselves is that war, which is glorified by such groups as an important quality about our Finnishness, will play a lesser role in our identity. The history of those days, which only served to underline who are enemies are, will be undermined by our more open and diverse view of ourselves and the world.
This new way of looking at ourselves will seek effective solutions not constantly remind us and keep us from never leaving that ditch of the wrongs of history. We survived those times and now we must build a new reality because our survival in this century depends on it.
My great great grandfather David Nykänen and his grandchildren Alexander and Ira Cherkassky. Alexander, who was born in Boston, and his sister visited their grandparents of Mikkeli every summer. The picture was taken in the mid-1920s in Mikkeli (Vuorikatu 13). In the background the Naisvuori Observation Tower. (Tessieri family collection)
You may ask, dear reader, what made me so different from you in the previous century? Let’s answer that question from my mother’s side.
My great great great grandfather was Jacob Weikain (1758-1848), the first Jew to be granted permanent residence in Finland in 1832. His grandchild, Karl Jakob Hantwargh, a goldsmith, raised with his wife Anna Johanna a big family of eight children in Sääminki, located next door to Savonlinna in Eastern Finland.
Even if my relatives of Savonlinna lived in a very rural part of the country at the time, they were very international. Some of them worked in St Petersburg before the October 1917 Revolution and naturally spoke fluent Russian, French among other languages.
My great aunt Irma married a U.S. diplomat, who worked in countries like the former Soviet Union, China, Afghanistan and Kenya.
My aunt Irma (standing right) with her husband Angus Ward chatting with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Nairobi, Kenya. Irma had come a long way from those rural landscapes of Savonlinna where she grew up. (Tessieri family collection)
Another great aunt called Lally wed Eero Tammisalo, a Helsinki University professor, was the personal dentist of the first presidents of Finland up to Marshal Carl Mannerheim.
My grandmother Aino was born and brought up in Mikkeli, a town located about 100km west of Savonlinna. She was very international as well and fluent in Finnish, Swedish, Russian, English and even spoke some French. Her first marriage was with Paul Cherkassky. He was already a celebrated violin virtuoso in his teens.
Like many at the time, Paul had fled the Russian Revolution and moved to Finland, where he served as concertmaster of the Helsinki City Orchestra during 1919-23. As a violin soloist, he gave the premiere performances of the Six Impromptus of Jean Sibelius at the composer’s request. In 1923 he was invited to become a member of the first violin section of the Boston Symphony.
Even if my family was never afraid to explore the world outside Finland like hundreds of thousands of Finns who emigrated between 1860 and 1999, I am especially concerned about those Finns who still speak of our ethnicity in the same terms as some political leaders in the 1930s.
I can say with confidence that if we don’t allow these antiquated views about our national identity to get the best of us, the future will be ours as a unified nation bonded by our diversity. A key value that will strengthen our society will be mutual acceptance and respect.
There never was, is nor be such a thing as a “typical” Finn. The so-called typical Finn is only a social construct.
If my ancestors from five generations who made their lives in Finland could speak to us today, I am pretty certain that they would wholeheartedly agree with what I am saying.