Russian bogey turns into gold mine for Finns

Trading ties are now booming between two old foes, writes Tony Barber in Lappeenranta

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."

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

SharePoint Engineer - Bishop's Stortford

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organ...

Planning Manager (Training, Learning and Development) - London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glob...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a Teaching Assistant...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering