June 10, 2016

Relations between Estonians and Finns in Changing Times


How can we improve communication between Estonians living in Finland?

The people on the northern and southern shores of the Gulf of Finland have been communicating for centuries. The sea that unites us has supported our relationship. As the sea routes were favourable, the people on the northern coast of the Gulf had even closer ties to the residents of the southern coast than they did with the people living in the forested areas in the northern regions of Finland. Communication between the residents of Finland came to life only in the 20th century, when a railway network was constructed in the country.
During the period of romantic nationalism in the 19th century, people gained a deeper knowledge of their national belonging. In addition, there was an increased interest in kindred nations’ culture. This created a new basis for communication between Finns and Estonians. The Finnish Bridge depicted in Lydia Koidula’s poetry became the symbol of ties between Estonians and Finns, nations who speak languages belonging to the same family. As the last stanza of “Unenägu” (“Dream”), part one of Lydia Koidula’s 1881 poetry cycle “Soome sild” (“Finnish Bridge”), says:
“United stand the ends of the bridge „Silla otsad ühendatud
Bearing a single fatherland Kandes ühte isamaad,
The truth’s temple hallowed … Tõe templiks pühendatud…
Dream—when shalt thou become true?!” Nägu–millal tõeks saad?!“
This stanza was also on the 100-kroon banknote that featured Lydia Koidula.
The Finnish Bridge, the symbol of the fellowship between Finland and Estonia created by Lydia Koidula, is indelible in Estonian cultural history. Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald also depicts an oaken arch bridge over the Gulf of Finland in his epic poem “Kalevipoeg” (“Son of Kalev”). According to some folk-poetry scholars, the Finnish bridge featured in some folk songs is said originally to have signified sea ice.
Knowledge about one’s nationality and kinship was an important impetus in the independence struggles of Estonia and Finland. The Finns’ substantial help in the Estonian War of Independence is proof of this. After that war, August Annist, a scholar who studied “Kalevipoeg”, created the idea of a “common Finland” that underlined the importance of culture in cooperation between Finland and Estonia. Gustav Suits promoted the creation of a Finnish-Estonian twin state. Even State Elder Konstantin Päts recommended establishing such a state towards the end of his term of office.
In the period between the world wars, student societies eagerly strengthened the kinship ties between Finland and Estonia. Cooperation between the countries was also developed by the Vaps movements, i.e. the union of Estonian freedom fighters, and Finnish radical nationalists, especially the Blue-blacks (Sinimustat, a radical nationalist youth organisation that supported the Lapua movement and later the far-right party Isänmaallinen Kansanliike, i.e. Patriotic People’s Movment (IKL)).
When the Vaps party got an actual chance to gain power, Päts—with the consent of August Rei, the then social democrat candidate for State Elder—declared a state of emergency in Estonia. This was substantiated by the need to prevent a coup d’état supposedly being planned by the Vaps movement. Under the state of emergency, the Vaps party was banned and its leaders imprisoned. However, their head, Artur Sirk, managed to flee to Finland. While in Finland, he planned to organise a coup in Estonia on 8 December 1935 with his radical nationalist companions (who would also provide weapons). It failed, as the Estonian security police were aware of the plan and prevented it. The conditions of the state of emergency became stricter and the “era of silence” began—all parties, except the Isamaaliit (Patriotic League), which supported Päts, were banned.
Quite a few Finnish right-wingers supported the Vaps movement and they were upset about the failure of the planned coup, Sirk’s subsequent suicide and the wave of arrests during which the rebel freedom fighters were imprisoned in Estonia. Both the Vaps movement and Finnish radical nationalists immediately claimed that the Estonian government had murdered Sirk. As a result, relations between Finland and Estonia cooled in the late 1930s.
Sirk’s funeral was held on 9 October 1937 in Helsinki. IKL advertised the event widely. Several thousand people were said to have attended, first and foremost the key actors of the radical nationalist movement. Among the attendees were 300 members of the Academic Karelia Society. The funeral service was held by pastors Elias Simojoki and E.V. Pakkala and took place in the Old Church of Helsinki located in the park of the same name. A memorial for Finns who fell in the Estonian War of Independence can be also found there. The grave of Sirk and his wife Hilda is in a respectable district of the Hietaniemi graveyard and is well tended even today.
I am not a historian and am therefore not competent to assess the events that happened in Estonia and Finland in the second half of the 1930s, but I recommend that those who wish to research the subject read Oula Silvennoinen, Markko Tikka and Aapo Roselius’s book “Suomalaiset fasistid” (“Finnish Fascists”) (WSOY, 2016).
After the end of World War II, communication between Estonia and Finland nearly ceased because there were few contacts and even those were monitored by Moscow. As years passed, Estonians had the opportunity to watch Finnish television. This was used to learn Finnish and get information about life in the West.
President Urho Kaleva Kekkonen’s visit to Estonia and his Estonian-language speech in the main hall of the University of Tartu on 12 March 1964 were pivotal. The speech determined the direction of future Finnish foreign policy towards Estonia. After Kekkonen’s visit, maritime traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn resumed and this created a good foundation for personal contacts between Finns and Estonians. The guides who led Finnish groups on trips to Estonia were often Estophiles with a good philological education, who could quickly create contacts with Estonian writers, artists, actors and musicians. A good example was Eva Lille. She had an important part in establishing (exclude re-establishing) the Tuglas Society, an Estonian–Finnish friendship union, the purpose of which is to develop the cultural relationship between the two countries. It was established in Helsinki but has branches all over Finland. Today, the Tuglas Society publishes a Finnish-language journal, ELO, that promotes Estonian culture in many ways. It organises events to introduce Estonian culture and language courses. Each autumn the society organises a St Martin’s Day fair, which was originally the idea of Eva Lille. Many Estonian companies advertise and sell their products at this event. The fair’s programme is always versatile and promotes Estonian culture. Eighteen thousand people attended the event in 2015.
In the years when Estonian independence was being restored (1989–91), the government and people of Finland helped Estonia a great deal. The Finnish state covertly supported the process of restoring Estonian independence, as the historian Heikki Rausmaa has claimed in his 2013 dissertation “Kyllä kulttuurin nimissä voi harrastella aika paljon: Suomen ja Viron poliittiset suhteet keväästä 1988 diplomaattisuhteiden solmimiseen elokuussa 1991” (“There’s a lot you can do in the name of culture: Finnish–Estonian political relations from spring 1988 to the establishment of diplomatic relations in August 1991). For example, the Tuglas Society allowed Lennart Meri to turn the society’s rooms on Mariankatu into a sort of Estonian foreign ministry during the dramatic events of the 1991 August coup. Lennart Meri’s very large telephone bills were paid by the Finnish Ministry of Culture. While working in the Tuglas Society, Meri received help from Kulle Raig and many other Estophiles, such as Eva Lille.
In 1991 the Association of Estonian Societies in Finland (Suomen Viro-yhdistysten liitto, AESF) was created as an umbrella organisation for about 35 societies. The AESF helps to organise events about Estonia, has an online bookshop and publishes the magazine viro.nyt, which promotes a sense of unity between the two nations. Both the Tuglas Society and the AESF have approximately 3,000 members. The Tuglas Society, the AESF and several other organisations connected to Finland now have offices in suburban Helsinki at the Estonian House in Suvilahti. The Baltic Library of the Tuglas Society, claimed to be the largest collection of Estonian literature outside Estonia, is also located there.
It has been said that Finnish television was like a window to freedom for Estonians while imprisoned by the Russian occupation. When Estonia regained independence, Estonians were no longer interested in looking out of the former prison window. Today, Estonians are more attracted to Western Europe and the United States. At the same time, the European Union has provided a better framework for communication owing to the free movement of people, Finland and Estonia being part of the single market, and so on.
The Tuglas Society and the AESF have also noted that interest in their activities is waning. Their members, mostly Finnish Estophiles, are already elderly and the societies are not as attractive as they used to be for the young. A Finnish lady said at a meeting where Finnish–Estonian relations were discussed that working to maintain kinship was no longer important as Estonians and Finns were more united by a fear of Russian aggression than by anything else.
The wider Finnish public is mostly interested in tourism, including cultural tourism, simply spending time in a different environment (especially in spas), developing business opportunities, buying a summerhouse and purchasing cheap alcohol in Estonia. The fact that people read Estonian literature and attend music events shows that people are interested in Estonian culture.
Both the Tuglas Society and the AESF are adapting to new times; for example, they organise many sightseeing and cultural trips to Estonia. The organisations have also been successful in recruiting young Estonian immigrants as new members.
The problems faced by the two groups could be compared to those of the Nordic Association (Föreningen Norden), the purpose of which is to facilitate communication between the Nordic nations. That organisation is also struggling to recruit new members. A board member of the Swedish Nordic Association thought that Norwegian and Danish youngsters tended to be more attracted to England and Brussels than Sweden and Finland.
However, this does not mean that Nordic cooperation is deemed altogether unnecessary.
For example, Nordic pulmonologists find it quite reasonable to organise Nordic pulmonology conferences. However, the delegates do not address other attendees in their national language, as used to be the case. Today, the language of communication is English, which has created much indignation, especially among Finnish Swedes. Speaking English makes it easier to communicate, as many speakers of Swedish find Danish, in particular, difficult to understand.
Finns are sorry to see that interest in Finland and the Finnish language is decreasing in Estonia. People probably do not watch Finnish television as much as they used to. About 15% of Estonians living in Estonia, mainly people working in the service sector, allegedly speak Finnish. The range of people who speak Finnish is actually more varied; among others, several members of the Estonian government are also fluent in Finnish. However, in Estonian–Finnish meetings, people often now speak English.
According to population register data available to the Consul at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki, 68,000 Estonians considered Finland their home in 2015. Fifty thousand of these live in Finland permanently and the remainder temporarily. Estonians have not developed a social and cultural life in Finland anything near as much as the dirt-poor Estonian refugees who arrived in Sweden, Canada, the US and elsewhere in the past.
According to research by Kristi Anniste (2014), 28% of the ethnic Estonians who have migrated to Finland wish to return to Estonia. This does not mean that all who plan to return will do so. Nevertheless, according to the most recent data, Estonians are more interested in returning to Estonia due to increasing unemployment in Finland. Some of the Estonian immigrants in Finland are multinational, i.e. they work in Finland but their family and social life are in Estonia. Their situation differs from that of Lithuanians and Poles who have migrated to England or Ireland and settled there. Multinational Estonians do not necessarily need to learn Finnish.
History has proved that Estonians’ versatile connections with Finns have been important in preserving the Estonian nation. Finns still like Estonians, their kin, although today the most prevalent forms of reciprocal contact are, as mentioned earlier, tourism, culture, migration, cooperation in research and the economy (and also, of course, competition, etc.). The Esto-Finn Cultural Fund established on the initiative of Ambassador Jaakko Blomberg and Gunnar Okk, vice chairman of the Tuglas Society, shows that the Finns also have a deep interest in developing joint cultural projects with Estonians. The purpose of the fund is to “facilitate the networking of people active in the culture and art[s] field in Estonia and Finland, improve language skills of both parties, develop joint projects and economic activity connected to culture, primarily cultural exports”. According to a board member of the fund, the first scholarships will be awarded in 2017 and 2018.
Merle Pajula, the Estonian ambassador to Sweden, has said that all migrants from Estonia are ambassadors of the country in some way, no matter whether they live in Sweden or another migration destination. Estonian immigrants must of course integrate into Finnish society but it is no less important that they retain contacts with their fellow countrymen so that they can contribute to representing Estonia in their new homeland in an up-to-date way.
While I praise and value the work of Estophiles from the Tuglas Society and the AESF in bringing Estonians and Finns closer together, I would still like to discuss ways in which we could support communication between them. There used to be restaurants and cafés in the centre of Helsinki that Estonians liked to visit. hings are very different today, but some kind of “Estonian home”—a café-restaurant where Estonian food is available in a suitable environment—is still needed. Estonians could dine there and meet their compatriots. If suitable facilities can be found, parties and other events could be organised for Estonians and Estophiles.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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