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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Finland, Nobody’s Enemy




Why is Finland different and no one’s enemy? Juha (John) and Päivi (Dawn, with sunshine) Järvelä gave the Berkeley Circle their answer in a two-handed talk on April 12.  It was about a metaphor that’s become too familiar despite being hard to visualise: Being in bed with an elephant. Finland clings to the bedclothes of elephantine Russia. Geography, not Finland, made its bed, but the little country of some five million has to lie in it.


Nonetheless, Juha reminded us that in worldwide polls, his countrymen and women, have come out on top as the least unsatisfied, the happiest. Päivi probed the question and thought that among the reasons might be the fairly class-free nature of Finnish society. It also ranks high in the equality scales.


Finland’s balancing act between East and West often made it the prize in a tug-of-war with major powers tugging hard. Juha explained that It had come out of the East time immemorial, but that Its lands then spent six-hundred years in union with Sweden, a regional power with Western European values. Change came at the end of the Russo-Swedish War in 1809 when Finland became, with considerable autonomy, part of the Russian Empire. By the end of the Russian period in 1917, its shape and character had been formed, and it was a wholly independent nation. However, despite Russification, the Swedish influence was never undone. Finland and Sweden have legal systems as well as social and economic aspirations that are similar. The Swedish language has an official status in Finland, while Finns make up the largest ethnic minority in Sweden, estimated to be about 675,000. Finland and Sweden joined the European Union together in 1995. Then, each abandoning neutrality, Finland joined NATO in 2023, Sweden in 2024.



The question remained for the Berkeleys why Finland in the eyes of Western  media was seen as a country so very different from its Scandinavian and Baltic neighbours. Päivi felt that an important reason was the uniqueness of its language. Finnish belongs to the Uralic family of languages and has affinity in Europe with only Hungarian. Experts judge it extremely difficult for English speakers to learn. Päivi pointed out that for Germans or Swedes to learn English, for example, was much easier for them than to learn Suomi, a word that means both the Finnish tongue and Finland. A degree of isolation was inevitable.


And with isolation a certain disappearance from mind. Ex-US president Donald Trump recently made a distinction between what he called “shithole” countries and “nice” countries. The former were poor, dark-skinned and exporters of criminals. The latter included Switzerland and what he called the three Scandis. He didn’t mention Finland among the “nice” countries from which he would welcome immigrants. Neither did he explain why anyone from these peaceable countries would care to reside in the USA in 2024.


Isolation also leads to not being given proper credit. For instance, a certain type of modern furniture, popular now for a half century, has been called “Scandinavian”.  In fact, masterpieces like the Tulip or Pedestal Table and the Womb Chair—“like a basket full of pillows”—were the handiwork of the distinguished Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen. He also created the Gateway Arch in St.Louis, Missouri.



Finland’s cinema, on the other hand, has pushed through the low ceiling that weighs on nations short of stature. This is largely due to Aki Kaurismäki who directed Leningrad Cowboys Go America in 1989, celebrating in a good-natured way youth and the demise of the Soviet Union. In 1990, he wrote and directed The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö), since voted the best ever Finnish film. Kaurismäki, at sixty-seven, is still very much at work and in 2023 presented Fallen Leaves (Kuolleet lehdet), which he wrote and directed.


Juha and Päivi had a country-full basket to tell us about and couldn’t be expected to touch on curiosities like tiny Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan. All the same, there is no more intriguing a place for wandering travellers to come upon. It began as Suomi College in 1896 to serve Finns who came to work in the copper and lumber industries. Small country, large world.


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