“Putin eats babies”

The Menace from the EastWhy are so few Finnish civic activists interested in Russia, asks Veli Itäläinen in Fifi. The answer may lie in the subconscious fear of Russia and Russians that Finns still live with. Russia is too close to be different and too different to be close.

There is little understanding in Finland for the nature of civic activism in Russia, Itäläinen writes. Spontaneous, bottom-up mobilisation seems totally foreign to the highly disciplined Finnish society.

If there is no difference between the views of civic activists and those of the government, Russia will not make any distinction between the actions of NGOs and those of the government, Itäläinen warns.

This is a slightly abridged translation of his column, originally published in Finnish in Fifi on 20 July 2009. Read on…

When I agreed to begin writing for Fifi, I did not intend to whine about what is wrong with Russia, but to provide a perspective that is mostly absent in Finnish media. I have, however, fallen from this path; let me therefore make a few basic remarks.

I have tried to be less than predictable by picking on Russia’s anti-government opposition, but this gives me little pleasure, given the dismal state that the opposition finds itself in.

When in Moscow, I mostly read Kommersant, the truly independent business paper which fucks with everybody. Its coverage of the funeral of late Patriarch Alexy II was outright mocking, and I was really surprised that the paper got away with it.

I do realise that cynicism only benefits the status quo, but I nevertheless like the way these bourgeois journos let the readers draw their own conclusions. Russian media today is so postmodern that it has no pretense to objectivity. I have difficulty reading Novaya Gazeta due to its pathos.

When in Finland, the sentimental dribble of Helsingin Sanomat makes me sick. Utterly apolitical people that I happen to run into by accident have asked me why are Helsingin Sanomat –and Finnish media in general– so negative Russia.

The role of a journalist writing about Russia in Finland is not an enviable one. On the one hand, the job of a journalist is to highlight injusticies; on the other, no injustice in Russia startles Finnish readers, and writing about them only fuels russophobia.

Bureaucracy, corruption, official arbitrariness, and ethnic conflicts are part of Russian reality. Yet, discounting bureaucracy, none of those phenomenons really manifest themselves in the everyday life of ordinary Russians.

Democracy and freedom of speech in Russia are above average compared with other former Soviet republics. Besides, during unexceptional times, freedom of speech never interests anybody but a small minority of dissidents.

After the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, I attended a depressing demonstration on Moscow’s Pushkin Square with roughly 700 people, which was four times less than the crowd outside the Russian Embassy in Helsinki.

The only people there were members of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia and the remnants of the democracy movement of the 1980s. Ordinary middle and working-class people could not care less, not least because anything even remotely resembling liberalism has been out of fashion after the tumultuous 1990s.

Neither can one envy the position of a civic activist involved with Russia in Finland. The activist can, however, enjoy the privilege of being free of official meddling, as the Finnish establishment is, generally speaking, not interested in pushing for regime change in Russia.

Be it as it may, nobody in Finland really believes in their ability to influence Russia one iota. People generally consider the situation in Russia to be worse than it really is. I could draft an appeal calling on Putin to stop eating babies, and every other passer-by would sign.

Part of this feeling of helplessness is justified. The Finnish government has allied itself with the West, –by recognising Kosovo and not recognising South Ossetia,– which sees its interests differ from those of Russia. In terms of realpolitik, this is inevitable.

The Finnish government has no longer any moral authority over Russia. If there is no difference between the views of civic activists and those of the government, Russia will –naturally enough– be unable to make a distinction between civic activism and government action.

In the end, only Russians themselves can solve their own problems. No form of isolation would do any good to Russia. The only thing Finland and other countries in the Schengen zone could do to promote human rights would be to exempt Russians from visas.

There is, on the other hand, little understanding in Finland for the nature of civic activism in Russia. Spontaneous, bottom-up mobilisation is foreign to the highly disciplined Finnish society.

I suspect very few Russian experts in Finland realised, for instance, that the demonstrations against the reform of Russia’s welfare benefit system in spring 2005 had, in the beginning, nothing to do with any party or opposition movement.

The most potent popular movement in Moscow today is the movement against aggressive real estate development. The movement consists of about 600 very small, loosely knit groups, most of which reject all cooperation with any political group.

The economic crisis has put a halt to property development and to the movement against it. Yet I did not see Finnish media pay attention to the movement even in its hayday in 2006-2008, despite the fact that hundreds of people took part in demonstrations, some of which escalated into riots.

For over a decade, I have been baffled by the meagre interest in Russia among Finnish civic activists. I probably know more activists in Finland who have been to Mexico than to Russia; more who speak Spanish than who speak Russian.

A bus trip to St Petersburg costs 20 euros, which is less than from Helsinki to Tampere. Even counting in the price of the visa, a ticket to Moscow only costs 5 euros more than a train ticket from Helsinki to Rovaniemi; you can get from St Petersburg to Moscow on 15 euros in third class.

It seems as if Russia is too close to be exotic and too different and brutal to be close.

The collective fear of Russia and Russians, which Finns have lived with for more than 100 years, is probably still rattling our subconscious. Many Finnish activists who have taken part in demonstrations in Russia have been deported. Yet ask yourself this: why fear deportation if you never visit Russia in the first place?

Veli Itäläinen, 20 July 2009

Veli Itäläinen (“Brother Eastlander”) is Fifi’s expert on Russian affairs, Moscow correspondent, and all-round Kremlin hack. He writes under a pseudonym for fear of ending up in the salt mines of the Siberian tundra.

[Translation: Kerkko Paananen]

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