Russian bogey turns into gold mine for Finns

Trading ties are now booming between two old foes, writes Tony Barber in Lappeenranta
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The Independent Online
Six years ago, when Communism was collapsing in the former Soviet Union and ordinary Russians began to visit Finland in significant numbers, the shop signs in a town like Lappeenranta sent out an unmistakable message. "Only one Russian at a time in this shop."

These days, the Finnish suspicion that theft is the chief purpose behind Russian tourism has long since passed. Businessmen and shopkeepers in Lappeenranta, which lies in south-east Finland, less than 15 miles from the Russian frontier, now welcome Russians with open arms.

Store owners have started to hire Russian-speaking sales assistants, and shop windows display the sign "Service in Russian here" for the benefit of the thousands of Russians who arrive every week. The phrase "the Russians are coming", which used to strike a particularly sensitive chord in a country that was attacked twice by Stalin's Soviet Union in the Second World War, now has almost entirely positive connotations.

Take Tom Hultin, a Finnish business consultant who went to work in Switzerland in 1991 but moved back to Lappeenranta in 1994. "When I came back, my plan was just to do business with Western companies, but I quickly saw that there were other opportunities," he said.

"The situation here is just excellent. The streets are crowded with Russians at the moment. It's cheaper for them to buy here than in St Petersburg. There are shop owners who would much rather sell to Russians than to me because the Russians don't ask for a discount."

Customs officers on the snowy, tree-lined, Finnish-Russian frontier confirm that there is more human contact than ever before between Finns and Russians. "In 1990, at this border crossing alone, we had a total of 200,000 people going in one direction or the other. Last year it was 1.16 million," said Esa Vuorinen, an inspector at the border checkpoint of Nuijamaa.

For all the boom in Russian business and tourism, Finns in Lappeenranta have memories of different times. The town, which was founded in 1649 by Queen Christina of Sweden, fell into Russian hands in the 18th century. The Tsars left their mark by building a military fortress and a couple of Orthodox churches, whose onion domes stand in sharp contrast to the simple Nordic architecture around them.

Then there was the Winter War, a dark and searing episode in the Finnish memory. Vyborg, a city which was then the third biggest in Finland, but which is now part of Russia and lies less than an hour's drive from Lappeenranta, was annexed to "Soviet Karelia" as a result of the wars in 1939-40 (the Winter War) and in 1944 that broke out as a result of Stalin's hostility to Finland.

About half a million people, or more than one in 10 of all Finns, were evacuated from the Vyborg area before the Soviet assaults. The loss of Vyborg was a national tragedy, but one that Finns carefully avoided complaining about in the days when a tyrannical Communist monster continued to loom on the eastern border.

It is not surprising, then, that Vyborg still matters to many Finns, even if they think about the lost city in a wistful rather than in a revanchist way.

One elderly couple, who had owned a property in Vyborg before 1939, visited it recently after a 50-year gap and were deeply saddened at the way its post-war Russian occupiers had treated their home. "Shit on the walls, a horrible, horrible smell everywhere, and no sign that anybody had done anything in decades to make the place look nice," was their verdict.

Nevertheless, business with Russia must go on. It is, in some ways, the only and the best option facing the Finns. A company such as Finreila OY, which is making boilers to heat buildings in Russian cities, has nothing but good things to say about Russia.

"It is an enormous market. But you must have a lot of patience, and you have to be the friend of the Russian customers before it will all work," said Hannu Janhunen, an executive with Finreila, which is rapidly expanding in Russia in partnership with a British company, Hamsworthy Combustion Engineering.

Like other Westerners, the Finns have plenty of terrifying experiences to recount when they talk about doing business in the new free-market Russia. One Finnish businessman was kidnapped in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, and his family had to pay a ransom of $130,000 (pounds 80,000) to get him back.

However, with their centuries-old knowledge of the Russian character, the Finns believe trade with Russia can only get better. Veli Sundback, executive vice-president with the Helsinki-based Nokia company, said: "I've been following events since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I think an improvement has taken place."