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Living on Russia's border: Finns wonder what joining NATO means for life on the frontier
CGTN
Europe;Finland
A sign reads 'Stop, border area', in a field in the countryside of Imatra on Finland's eastern border. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

A sign reads 'Stop, border area', in a field in the countryside of Imatra on Finland's eastern border. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

With the Ukraine conflict on his mind, 73-year old Finnish pensioner Martti Kailio keeps his hunting rifle close to hand at his home in Hiivaniemi, which straddles the Russo-Finnish border.

"It makes me so angry that I would be amongst the first volunteers to go out there with a loaded gun, even though I'm not young enough to be a soldier anymore," he says.

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For many Finns living along the border with Russia, the prospect of their country joining NATO has been greeted with enthusiasm.

"We should have joined earlier. No point in dragging it out anymore", Kailio says.

Martti Kailio, 73, in Vainikkala, south-eastern Finland, a few hundred meters from the Russian border. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

Martti Kailio, 73, in Vainikkala, south-eastern Finland, a few hundred meters from the Russian border. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

Sharing a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, Finland has kept guarded but friendly relations with its eastern neighbor after fighting against it in World War II. 

However, after Moscow launched its military assault against Ukraine in February, political and public opinion has grown dramatically in favor of dropping non-alignment as its security policy to join the Western military alliance. 

Earlier this week, the Finnish president and prime minister called for the country to join NATO "without delay".

The house of Veli-Matti Rantala, 72, a few hundred meters from the Russian border in Suokumaa, south-eastern Finland. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

The house of Veli-Matti Rantala, 72, a few hundred meters from the Russian border in Suokumaa, south-eastern Finland. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

For some Finns, Russia's actions in Ukraine have stirred up painful memories of the 1939 Winter War, when Red Army troops invaded the Nordic country. 

A small Finnish army put up a fierce resistance and inflicted heavy losses on the Soviets – but despite fighting back a much stronger opponent, Finland had to cede large areas of land to the Soviet Union.

Veli-Matti Rantala, 72, whose farmhouse is just a short walk from the Russian border in Suokumaa, still remembers stories of battles between Finnish and Red Army soldiers in the nearby forests.

"I'm not too worried about the situation anymore – now that we're joining the Western community, help is coming," he says. For him, Finland's accession to the alliance is a "necessity". 

Jaana Rikkinen, 59, looks at Russia on the other side of the lake in Vainikkala, south-eastern Finland. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

Jaana Rikkinen, 59, looks at Russia on the other side of the lake in Vainikkala, south-eastern Finland. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

Teacher Jaana Rikkinen, 59, who lives just a few hundred meters from the Russian border in Vainikkala, says she grew up hearing Russian border guards on the opposite side of the lake. 

Rikkinen also feels "relieved" that Finland is now joining NATO, despite having had doubts about the alliance.

She says that her hometown has long been the site of illegal border crossings.

"It always happened at night. First, you heard the hounds, and then the gunfire," Rikkinen says, adding that she hoped she only ever heard warning shots.

A border sign in a forest in Imatra, south-eastern Finland. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

A border sign in a forest in Imatra, south-eastern Finland. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

In 2001, a Russian army deserter crossed the border and broke into a house next door before killing himself after a gunfight with police.

Rikkinen worries that if the situation in Russia deteriorates, there might be more border crossings.

But despite the area's fraught history, the residents have always interacted with Russians on the other side of the frontier. 

"While Russia has always been feared throughout the ages in these parts, we have had everyday interaction with Russians," Rantala says. 

The Finnish-Russian Imatra border crossing in Imatra, south-eastern Finland. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

The Finnish-Russian Imatra border crossing in Imatra, south-eastern Finland. /Alessandro Rampazzo/AFP

He says Finns living on the border often have many friends there. 

Before the conflict, Rikkinen used to do her weekly shopping across the border, with weekend trips to Saint Petersburg. She had nothing "negative to say" about Russians. 

But that "trust towards our neighbors is now gone," she says. "The border is shut, and if we went there, we don't know what could happen."

With most livelihoods in the area linked to Russia, the train station and border guard employing most of the villagers, Rikkinen is concerned that the border communities will suffer because of the conflict.

"I just hope the war will end," she says.

Source(s): AFP

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