In Japan, Iceland or California, it might be the threat of natural disaster that changes your architecture. Here in Finland, they know exactly what the threat is, and it’s not an earthquake or a volcano. It’s the prospect of Russian soldiers, pouring over the border or firing missiles at them.
The Finns have a cultural memory of this. Russia attacked them in the Winter War of 1939-40 and then again later in the Second World War, and the memories of that conflict have been passed down as a warning that their neighbour cannot be trusted. Talk to people in Finland about Russia, and the Winter War will come up in conversation within moments.
So they have spent decades preparing. Helsinki, a city of around 650,000 people, can accommodate some 900,000 people in its shelters. Apartment blocks, offices and hotels have to include such shelters.
And for long decades, they’ve been something of a novelty. But now, for the first time in so long, they seem horribly relevant.
But Finland is nervous, and it is steeling itself. Finns, already wary of Russia, have looked at Ukraine and seen uncomfortable parallels. Little wonder that, after decades of refusing to sign up with any military alliance, Finland is almost certain to start the process of joining NATO.
Pekka Haavisto is the country’s foreign minister. He understands why his nation seems anxious.
“Finns are very security-oriented people and when they see possible security threats they are thinking about the worst-case scenario,” he says. “The government thinks about the worst-case scenarios; the Parliament debate is about the worst-case scenario.
“We hope that these will never come. People don’t like war and people want war between Ukraine and Russia to come to an end, but at the same time you are ready to defend your own country. I think this is what the current mood in Finland is.”
As for that NATO application, he won’t actually say that it is imminent, but he comes as near to a confirmation as possible: “In Finland, we have been keeping in our white papers in Parliament always what we call the NATO option – that if the security situation in Europe changes then we would be ready to look for the NATO membership. And this is probably now the change that we are ready to make.”
Surges in weapons purchase
We travel to a military supply shop, called Varusteleka, where sales went up dramatically after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some buying sleeping bags and first aid kits; others ordering bulletproof ballistic vests and combat supplies.
Once Finland applies to join NATO, they are expecting another surge of sales, thanks to the fear of Russian reprisals.
“Things that people thought would never happen – have happened,” says Elina Hame, the company’s purchasing director. “Russia, our neighbour, is at war. It’s a difficult thing to comprehend.
“I myself don’t comprehend it too well. Maybe the customers don’t. But they want to act. They want to do something so they can feel that they can prevent bad things from happening.”
And, like Ukraine, Finland is not short of military experience. Conscription is still a fact of life for 18-year-olds here while there are the best part of a million people in the reserves.
At a shooting range on the edge of the city, club members are running through drills. One at time, they fire shots from semi-automatic rifles, darting behind cover and aiming at targets, then run forward to rescue a weighted model person and get back to base, before unleashing a few more rounds to finish.
Max Kaar, a reservist himself, is one of the organisers. He says they’ve signed up more members over the past six weeks than they would be expected to recruit in two years.
“I think the lesson is to prepare, be ready for whatever eventualities may come up and take whatever action you can do to get prepared, get trained and get organised,” he says.
“You should have a supply in your home, in case the power and water goes out for a number of days or weeks, just to be able to take care of yourself and your family.”
This is the rhetoric of fear, but also of determination, and it reminds me of exactly the sort of things people said to me in Kyiv, just before Ukraine was invaded. The same anxiety blended with national pride.
The reality is different. Finland is a member of the European Union and will shortly apply to join NATO. It is protected in a way Ukraine wasn’t. The chances of Russia actually attacking Finland are tiny.
But here, they do worry, just as they have done for so many years. They hope for the best but, determinedly, they also prepare for the worst.
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