Finns living near the border look carefully at Russia and remember the dark past

  • Once lively border crossing now almost deserted
  • War in Ukraine has reduced cross-border visits and trade
  • Finland is considering joining NATO and irritating Russia
  • Older residents remember the Soviet invasion of World War II

IMATRA, Finland, April 14 (Reuters) – The once bustling border crossing of Imatra, on Finland’s border with Russia, is now at a standstill as city dwellers cast a nervous eye at their giant eastern neighbor following its invasion of Ukraine.

Imatra, home to 26,000 people, is one of nine land crossing points along Finland’s 1,300 km (810 mile) border with Russia.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had welcomed thousands of Russian tourists each week who arrived in Finland for shopping or spa trips or to visit friends and family.

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However, since Moscow launched what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Imatra has been concerned about the risk of less benign arrivals – a concern that has prompted Finland to consider joining NATO in what would be a important focal point in its security arrangements. Read more

“I’m a little scared,” said 81-year-old Marja-Liisa Kantokivi, who was evacuated to Imatra from across the border when Finland lost about 10 percent of its territory following an attempted invasion of the Soviet Union. second war.

“I live two, three kilometers from here, in the first apartment buildings you face when you come from their (Russia’s) direction,” Kantokivi said.

Finland has long avoided disagreements with Russia for the sake of friendly relations, but Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Wednesday that it must be ready for any kind of response from Moscow now that Helsinki is considering joining NATO. She said a decision on NATO membership would be made in the coming weeks.

A top Russian security official and former president, Dmitry Medvedev, said on Thursday that Moscow could deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic Sea region to restore military balance if NATO occupied Finland and Sweden. Read more

COSTLY

In 2019, before COVID hit, foreign tourists made 1.9 million trips to the Imatra region. Almost all of them were Russians, generating more than 310 million euros in revenue for the region, data from the TAK Travel Research Company showed.

“We are now losing around one million euros every day because this interaction has been lost,” Kimmo Jarva, mayor of the region’s largest city Lappeenranta, told Reuters, adding that they had severed all ties with Russia following the attack on Ukraine.

Several shop windows are empty in Imatra, while public announcements from Svetogorsk bus station on the Russian side of the border drift across the deserted, still snow-covered border crossing.

Until 1944, Svetogorsk was known as Enso, the heart of Finland’s largest industrial region centered on a paper mill that was handed over to Moscow after World War II. In the 1970s, the Finns returned to renovate the mill for the Soviet Union.

The sharp deterioration of relations between Moscow and the West since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 led some Russians to establish a foothold in Finland.

Anna and Alexander are from Russia’s other city Skt. Petersburg, less than 200 km (124 miles) away, but now lives in Imatra. They also own an art gallery in Lappeenranta.

The “pure” nature of Finland “is what gives strength and helps … It’s like a temple,” Anna told Reuters as she explained their decision to move and described her deep grief over the war in Ukraine.

While southeastern Finland has thousands of Russian-speaking residents, few are now willing to give interviews. Anna and Alex asked not to give their last names as they feared possible difficulties when going to Russia.

“In Finland, we live like in paradise,” Alexander said.

“When I wake up in the morning and go out and smoke,” he added thoughtfully, “it feels like nothing has changed, but in reality, the whole world is different now.”

Another resident of Imatra, Katri, also sounded a cautious tone as she recalls her childhood in nearby Estonia when it was part of the Soviet Union before 1991 and had no freedom of speech. She can not help but feel anxious about living so close to the border.

“Maybe people should be prepared for the fact that we might have to leave soon,” she said.

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Reporting by Essi Lehto and Sergejs Mikusa Writing by David Goodman Editing by Sara Ledwith, Anne Kauranen and Gareth Jones

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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