Living in Finland next to the Russian border

in the streets of Imatra smells like summer. In the small square of Koskenparta they have set up a stage where musical bands parade. All around, dozens of people, sitting on the terraces of the surrounding cafes and restaurants, applaud the musicians from time to time, despite the occasional dissonant note being heard. It’s noon in the small town in eastern finlandas long as it means something to talk about midday at a time of year when the sun rises at dawn and sets around 11. On these long days, the inhabitants of Imatra enjoy the atmosphere and their annual Big Band contest, a appointment that marks the beginning of the holidays.

Annual musical band competition in Imatra GUILLAUME BONTOUX

“Winter is very hard here. It is very long, it is very cold, people stay at home, there are hardly any social relationships. In summer, there is a great desire to meet again, to see friends and family,” explains Franca . Argentina has been living in Imatra for five years, a small town in 25,000 inhabitants sandwiched between Lake Saima, the largest in the country, to the north and the border with Russia to the south. This year, the usual summer celebrations have been clouded by the international situation. “It is very difficult, in a conflict situation, for social relationships, life in the community not to be altered,” says Franca. “We are in a border area. Here there are marriages, families, friendly relations between Russians and Finns,” she explains.

Franca, Argentine resident in Imatra GUILLAUME BONTOUX

The border separating Imatra from Russia has been closed since 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Finnish authorities plan to reopen it in July, but it is unknown what their Russian counterparts will decide. Nor if transit will resume, given the international context. There is not much hope. “A decade ago, two million people a year passed through this border crossing, now no one crosses”, recalls Matias Hilden, the mayor of Imatra. The absence of Russian tourists is a serious blow to the local economy. Businesses, hotels and spas suffer, recognizes the first mayor. “At least ten stores have closed. We had international brands, like H&M, that decided to leave. And in the current context, nobody wants to invest.”

The decline has not only to do with the war in Ukraine. In 2014, the European sanctions against Moscow for the annexation of Crimea dealt the first blow to the economic fabric of Imatra. Then it was the pandemic, now the Ukrainian conflict. “It’s one more hit,” Hilden laments. “We have other resources, with a paper industry that employs many people, but Imatra’s economy needs the Russians“.

Matias Hilden, mayor of Imatra GUILLAUME BONTOUX

Franca imagines that they will think the same on the other side of the border. “The inhabitants of Imatra also went to Russia, to refuel, for example.” The Argentine, who works as a professor of Spanish, tourism and law at the University of Lappeenranta, about 30 kilometers from Imatra, believes that it is the majority feeling in the city. “People want the Russians back”, he says, although he notes an “ambivalent” feeling. “On the one hand, they want them to come to spend, but on the other hand, the issue of security is present, because the war is not over.” Franca remembers the first days following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the end of February. “As soon as the war started, there was talk of shelters to hide in case of attack, where the tunnels are in case of invasion, sirens were tested. It was unpleasant, as if the war will knock at your door“.

The largest army of reservists

Some in Imatra are already preparing for the worst. “The situation in Ukraine and the role of Russia means that we have to be prepared in case one day they reach our border,” Sami tells us. A lifeguard in his civilian life, he is also a reservist in the Finnish Army. He takes us to Mookku, about 20 kilometers from Imatra. In the middle of the forest, is the Pistoolirata, the shooting range. Sami comes “whenever he can” since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Today he gets together with five other comrades and they practice combat situations in the city for an hour and a half. With pistols and rifles similar to those used by the Finnish army. And with real bullets.

Shooting range in Imatra GUILLAUME BONTOUX

In Finland, military service is compulsory. It lasts between six months and almost a year, for all men between the ages of 18 and 60. It is voluntary for women. after service, young people enter the reserve. The Nordic country has only 13,000 professional soldiers, but can count on 900,000 reservists, more than 16% of its total population. This reserve army would allow him to mobilize up to 280,000 soldiers in wartime. The war in Ukraine has fueled interest in military training, another Sami, also a reservist and instructor at the firing range, assures us. “People are more aware of the possibilities offered by reservist training. It has always been a popular thing, but the Ukrainian conflict has triggered requests for practices. We can’t keep up.”

Sami, reservist and instructor at the shooting range GUILLAUME BONTOUX

The formations of the reservists are not only military, there are also medical practices, driving or orientation in the forest. “It tries to cover all the services that can help in the event of a conflict,” explains Sami, the instructor, who works in human resources at a company in Lappeenranta. Risto, a manager at an insurance company, does not want to imagine that he has to hold a gun. “I’m too old for it, it wouldn’t do,” he smiles. Still, at 56, he regularly goes to the shooting range. “For me it’s like a vote in an election. Each person has his vote, mine is this. I don’t like war, I hope we never have to do it, but the best way to avoid it is this. We are ready if you need us“.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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