Russia has been considered a badly led and barbaric nation. The main reason for these suspicions, however, is the country’s recent development, which strengthens old preconceptions.
A note: I wrote this article about Russia’s relations with the western world, especially Finland, ten years ago, i.e. the year when Dmitry Medvedev was elected President of Russia. The article was published in the Finnish Aamulehti newspaper on 30 June 2008.
It is said that history weighs down on relations between Finland and of Russia. However, Sweden, which Finland was part of for centuries, fought more wars against Denmark than Russia. Sweden even started 15 out of the 26 wars which it was part of from 1554 to 1808.
Best remembered by the Finns are the two wars which Russia and its successor state, the Soviet Union, last started: the Finnish War (1808-1809) and the Winter War.
Finland became part of Russia in 1809. It is ironic that Russia was not attempting to conquer Finland. The war began when Russia upheld a promise to France’s dictator Napoleon that they would try to force Sweden to join the embargo against England. When diplomatic arm-twisting did not help, Russia attacked.
During the Winter- and Continuation War Finns were afraid for their independence. Finnish independence continued, but under fear of a new attack Finland let the Soviet Union influence its affairs in a way that later became a source of shame.
It is rarely remembered that Russia affected Swedish politics in the same way in the 1700s, when Russia occupied Finland twice. Russia even chose its preferred candidate Adolf Frederik (1751—1771) as the king of Sweden.
Memories of the occupations were strengthened by periods of Russification starting in the late 1800s. They were followed by the civil war between the Reds and the Whites in 1918. The Whites interpreted the civil war as a battle for independence, even though Russian involvement in sparking the war was small. A majority of Reds were certainly in favor of an independent Finland.
The Winter War strengthened the Whites’ interpretation of the Civil War. Finland was on its toes for a long time afterwards. In the 1940s, rumors spread about a coup which would be done with Soviet support. There is no undisputed evidence of such an attempt. It does not mean that the Soviet Union would not have wanted a revolution in Finland.
The Soviet Union did not, however, seem to begin organizing such a coup, though it supported the minority of Finnish communist who had leanings towards Moscow. When the country invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, Finns knew what to think.
Preconceptions towards Russia are old in many countries. Still they are no stronger/stranger than suspicions against any other foreign cultures. Foreignness causes fear, and therefore strangers are often thought of as dirty and thieving.
When the English scientist Edward Clarke travelled from Finland to Russia near the end of the 1700s, he believed he had crossed the border of the thieves’ paradise. But what he saw in St. Petersburg surpassed in grandeur anything he had seen elsewhere. “Nothing mediocre or menial bothered the eye; everything was grand and magnificent”, he wrote in his diary.
Preconceptions rarely have a basis in fact. Serfdom was ended in Russia (1861) before slavery in the United States (1863).
Russia has many things – such as Russian literature and hospitality – that Finns will always appreciate. It is also important that Finno-Ugric people live in parts of Russia.
Russia has been considered a badly led and barbaric nation. Considering that, it is strange that it has grown stronger almost continuously for over 500 years up until the fall of the Soviet Union. The turmoil of the early 1600s and 1900s represented just a temporary break in invasions. Therefore, some amount of patience in pitying our eastern neighbor is in place.
Surprisingly new problems in relations between Russia and western countries appeared soon after the Soviet Union’s fall in the 1990s. Though it was known that poverty and backwardness were extensive problems, expectations were high in regard to political and democratic development. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin brought hope of change, much like Nikita Khrushchev in his time after Joseph Stalin.
Disappointment in western countries is enormous. Small steps towards democracy were soon reeled back. Reporters are not safe, critics are not safe and the independence of media is not recognized. The justice system is as arbitrary as before, and a majority of people appear to be condemned to eternal poverty.
Images of Russia are not imposed by history. The largest reason for malicious suspicions at this moment is the country’s recent development. It has strengthened exactly those preconceptions that history has left the country.
Russia’s path is most of all a question about values. The lack of democracy does not yet hinder economic growth. The country chooses its partners by comparing bids from Europe and the United States as well as Japan and China.
The Russian middle class also prefers economic and political freedom more often than others, meaning that increases in prosperity can support democracy. The cities’ middle class is still too small to decide the direction of politics in elections. Most of the country’s inhabitants do not see value in letting the media criticize their beloved leaders.
Russia is in danger of being isolated from Europe because of its social model. The Baltic countries and Poland are both suspicious. Even Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans are looking towards the west. If arbitrary political rule and both state and anti-state terrorism is the way of the country, neighbors will think to question their own security.
Russia is responsible for these preconceptions. Post-Soviet Russia has lost its window of opportunity to appeal to western countries and especially their younger generations. Through President Dmitry Medvedev the country gets a new opportunity.
Medvedev is not only young for a head of state in Russia but also more European than any Soviet or Russian leader before him. Probably even Medvedev will come to show off his country’s power and nationalism. This is not always wrong or a hindrance, since nations have a right to engage in such displays.
More important is that in addition to bluster Medvedev can also finally change preconceptions that could have been buried with the fall of the Soviet Union.
But all this was written in the time when there was a new window of opportunity. This my article was published in the Finnish newspaper AAMULEHTI 30 June 2008 – indeed, it was ten years ago.