Weekend FT (January 1991): The last wall in Europe

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By Enrique Tessieri

Of all the features I wrote for the Financial Times as Helsinki correspondent (1989-91), I am particularly proud of one that I co-authored with Christian Tyler.  The last wall in Europe, which was published on January 26-27, 1991, was a long feature that attempted to shed light on Europe’s last wall, the Finnish-Soviet border, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It seems odd, even strange, that a country like Finland that has had a sweet-and-sour relationship with its formidable neighbor Russia has yet to study with no strings attached what happened during the cold war era (1945-1991).

Elina Sana published in 2003 a book on the refugees, ethnic Finns, and Jews that were either sent to the Soviet Union or handed to the Gestapo of Nazi Germany.

In March 2000, Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen offered an official apology on Finland’s behalf to eight Jews that were deported to Nazi Germany in 1942. Some rightfully claimed that Lipponen should have included in his apology 56,500 mostly ethnic Finns (Ingrians) and Estonians that were returned to the USSR after the Continuation War (1941-44).

It is a positive matter that Finns are beginning to debate this murky period.  Last month, YLE showed an interesting documentary called Loikkari on the plight of an Estonian captain called Herman Trial, who died in Finland in 1951. The video clip below is a trailer of a movie filmed in Finland in 1963 about the Estonian captain’s short-lived escape.

The cold war era could provide an answer to why some Finns see immigrants and refugees as a threat. How can we have empathy for asylum-seekers if we returned such people to the Soviet Union and had no regard for their human rights?

Finland can learn a lot about itself if it opens the closed doors of its cold war past.

Distinguished former diplomat Max Jakobson sums Finland’s policy towards refugees in the cold war. “The period of stagnation (cold war era) was not bad for Finland,” he was quoted as saying in the Weekend FT issue. “There is nothing wrong with stagnation if you can do it on a high-income level as we did. Our obligation is to look after our own interests.”

Migrant Tales has written on Soviet asylum-seekers in Finland in the past and how they were returned to the USSR to suffer a gruesome fate in psychiatric wards and prisons. One of these is Aleksandr Shatravka, who visited my home last month with his wife Irina.  Thanks to Aleksandr, whom I met on Migrant Tales, I published in February 2010 one of Finland’s first-ever extensive human- interest stories on a former asylum-seeker who was forcibly returned to the Soviet Union in 1976.

The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought big challenges to Finland. At the time, there were anti-immigration populists like Keijo Korhonen who were capitalizing politically on the situation by claiming that we’d be soon overrun by Russians.

“There are 9m (million) frightened Soviet citizens living around Finland’s borders. The collapse of the Soviet system, the winter food shortages, and the shooting matches in the dissident Baltic republics have made the naturally xenophobic Finns more nervous of the Russians than ever,” we wrote in the Weekend FT.

We end the feature by stating “unless the Soviet Union is dragged back into its communist past, the last wall in Europe seems certain to crumble.”

Has Europe’s then last wall crumbled and has anything significant changed in the past twenty years?