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27 Jun 2022 2:00
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  •   Home > News > International

    In Finland, memories of a bitter war with Moscow never faded. Some fear history will repeat itself

    Finland plans to join NATO, but beneath the surface of the famously neutral nation is a country scarred by painful memories of war, and a fear of history repeating itself.

    Finland might be a famously neutral nation, but beneath the surface is a country scarred by painful memories of war, and a fear of history repeating itself.

    "This area has been under rule from Russia and Sweden … so we know conflict," says Anne Sorsa-Vainikka, a war-history tour guide based near Lappeenranta, close to the Russian border.

    "When we got our independence, then we knew we needed our own army."

    Anne is one of the few Finns who is able to reveal the outposts of country's famous "Salpalinjan", a series of forts, bunkers and other defences built during World War II.

    She points to the engraving on the top of cement shelter, carved into the earth in a lakeside birch forest.

    "This emblem is on top of almost every fortification you will see on the Salpalinjan," she says.

    "There is a hand with a straight sword and a hand with a curved sword, and it represents the eternal fight between the East and the West," she says.

    Yet again, residents in her border community are looking to the East with fear about what their neighbour is capable of.

    A large portion of the Karelia region in eastern Finland, where Anne grew up, was ceded to the Soviet Union as a part of a wartime peace treaty in 1940.

    "People have got really scared they saw Russia's brutal attack on Ukraine, and what it caused, and I think this kind of reactivated many people's collective memory," Dr Iro Sarkka, from the University of Helsinki, tells the ABC.

    "During the Second World War, Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union, and Finland had to fight on its own without any allies, or any support.

    "We lost … and we had to pay really heavy reparations to the USSR, nearly €6 billion ($A8.9b) in modern terms.

    "We lost 10 per cent of our national territory … so it was a huge national trauma. We also lost over tens of thousands of soldiers."

    Finland has long been a country caught between East and West, and, in recent times, was even happy to play the role of mediator, Dr Sarkka says.

    However, this month, the country made a monumental move to abandon military non-alignment and join the likes of the US, the UK and France in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] defence alliance.

    "Now we are taking the final steps to join like-minded nations … now there's no turning back," Dr Sarkka says.

    'Never alone again' as Finns abandon neutrality

    Helsinki's skyline reflects the many emperors who have claimed control of the country.

    Iconic Nordic designs sit alongside grand domes built for Eastern emperors.

    For centuries, the region was controlled by Sweden and, after a brutal war, the nation became part of the Russian empire, before the Finns gained independence in 1917.

    "There have been some very harsh periods in Finnish history," Dr Sarkka says, while seated close to Helsinki's Senate Square.

    At the centre of the public square is a constant reminder of life under Russian rule: a statue of the Tsar Alexander II, then also known as the Grand Duke of Finland.

    Harry Blassar was a child when the Soviets dropped bombs on this area of Helsinki.

    "It was such a sad thing we had to go through, so much hunger and sadness," the 89-year-old says, while looking up at Alexander II's statue.

    "My family fled to Sweden for a long time, and it was hard to get food, and it was just very bad.

    "We should never be alone again."

    He says he is thankful to watch his country try to join NATO "in my lifetime".

    Ukraine war boosts support for NATO bid

    "That memory of having had to fight, and having lost its national territory, and also so many souls, basically, we the never want to have to face that situation again," Dr Sarkka says.

    "That is why NATO support has just increased tremendously after what we have seen in Ukraine."

    A poll conducted by the country's public broadcaster found that, in May, 76 per cent of Finns wanted to join the alliance, a dramatic rise from around 20-25 per cent before the Ukraine invasion.

    Their application, done in step with Sweden, has sparked a hostile response from Moscow. It warns it will closely watch their shared 1,300-kilometre land border.

    Finland has a large and powerful artillery capacity and, despite being a small country of about 5.5 million, it has more than 900,000 military reservists — analysts say it brings great might to the Western alliance.

    The Kremlin has threatened that there will be consequences if it sees military expansion in either of the two countries.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed the expansion of NATO in recent decades is one of the reasons for his assault on Ukraine.

    The only possible roadblock to the countries' applications is from one of the member states, Turkey. It threatens to veto their membership over accusations that the nations are harbouring Kurdish militants.

    Finland 'feels Ukraine's pain'

    "It is never easy to leave your home," 68-year-old Tapio Koskinen tells the ABC.

    He is visiting the old bunkers his father guarded on the Salpalinjan defence line, in the Karelia region near Lappeenranta.

    "My father and his family, they had to leave their community after their land was given to the Soviets … they became poorer and moved around," he says.

    "We watch the people of Ukraine, and we think we Finns know what it's like to fight alone.

    "To have to run from your home while in fear of your life."

    When the Karelia region was divided, the land handed over to Moscow included what was Finland's second-largest city at the time, Vyborg.

    Through the decades, Finns and Russians "learned to live alongside each other", Tapio says.

    "We didn't love them, but we didn't hate them, and Russian tourists came to visit this city and these sites.

    "Obviously no more though, that's ended again."

    The idea Finland is only now "giving up neutrality" is too simplistic, Dr Sarkka says.

    "We have been part of the European Union since 1995. That was a big step … we have been alongside NATO for some time," she says.

    "In our Continuation War [during World War II], we worked with Germany actually … we had some support from Sweden before that to fight the USSR."

    There is one thing she thinks Finns want to make clear to the world: "We are a peaceful country. All we want is to see peace in this region and in Europe."

    © 2022 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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