The Fear of the Neighbor

After Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, Finland now wants to quickly join NATO. How could the political climate change so quickly?


Hans Hasler – By the way, this also applies in the external world – the seasons also change very quickly. Today (May 14), the birch trees in front of our summer cottage got their first leaves, and only a week ago, the ice on our lake melted. But in world events, alongside Russia’s attack on February 24, the Finnish population’s reservations about NATO have melted like ice. NATO approval ratings rose from approximately 25% to 76% within a few years. There are various reasons why the population’s opinion changed so quickly and decisively. One is the memory of the trauma of the Winter War of 1939/40. In the autumn of 1939, the Soviet Union demanded Finnish territories in the Karelian Isthmus. Finland refused, and the Red Army attacked the neighboring country on November 30, 1939. The parallels between this Finnish-Russian war and the Ukraine conflict are clear. Finland was no less surprised then than Ukraine is now. Like Ukraine, the small group of three million managed to withstand the all-powerful Soviet army. As in Ukraine, this meant many losses to the Russian army from defending Finnish troops. Poorly equipped, poorly managed, and surprised by Finland’s defensive will, Soviet soldiers died by the tens of thousands – just as a large contingent of troops in Ukraine perished during an advance at 30 degrees below zero because, among other things, the diesel of all tanks and troop vehicles was frozen. Yes, many Finns remember this war because in every family are relatives who died or who had to flee from the ceded areas of Karelia.

«Never again alone» – this sentence is often heard.

In the Winter War, Finland faced the Soviet Union largely alone. At that time, there were only smaller contingents of volunteers from Sweden and Estonia. I can remember my father, a doctor and senior militia officer in the Swiss Army, speaking with the utmost admiration about the Winter War and the incredible performance of the Finnish Army. He was painfully aware that Switzerland could not help Finland either.

As a Swiss person, you are familiar with ‹neutrality.› How do you assess Finland’s departure from this status?

I understand that the Finns are taking this step out of neutrality and looking for protection. Russia’s actions are against any form of good faith. After Ukraine, Finland has the longest border with Russia – 1,300 kilometers. This borderline is largely running over almost completely uninhabited territory. Finland’s northernmost municipality, which borders Russia, is more than a third the size of the whole of Switzerland, but has a population of only 7,000 people. The South is, of course, more densely populated.

How would you describe the relationship between Russia and Finland besides the trauma of the ‹Winter War›?

There is still the second phase, which was overcome in the 90s. It lasted from the end of the war in 1945 until the end of the 80s. During this time, Finnish politics constantly considered the wishes and demands of its big neighbor. Many Finns remember this as humiliating. Finland gave up some of its freedom in these decades. The so-called Finlandization was abandoned. In recent years, the relationship has been good. Until the start of armed conflicts, it was very easy to travel from Finland to Russia. My wife and I sometimes travelled two and a half hours by train from Lahti to Saint Petersburg just to go to the opera. Trade relations were also very close, similar to those between Ukraine and Russia. Even during Covid, the exchange of goods remained at a high level. But there is a Finnish proverb that expresses a deeper skepticism towards Russia: «A Russian remains a Russian, even if you fry him in butter.»

You are in Russia on a regular basis. How do you experience the mood in the country?

It seems to me – as far as I can say with my few observations of the last few weeks – that everything in Russia is continuing its usual course. However, the international conference ‹The Soul of Europe› in July cannot take place. For Anthroposophists, however, meetings within Russia can be organized well. As long as you don’t comment on politics, everything is fine.

Russia has reacted quite moderately to Finland’s announcement that it intends to join NATO. Finland and Sweden are already in the EU and thus lost.

Yes, I share the opinion of many commentators: what Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, says is little more than a meaningless verbal threat. In fact, Russia is currently, and in the near future, not in a position to make possible threats come true. Nobody in Finland is intimidated by such threatening gestures.

What does the medium-term future look like? What place will Russia have in the world community?

No one has any idea how the war will develop. Like many experts, I think it is possible that the war could go on for quite a long time. From my deep personal relationship with Russia and Russian culture and language, it feels important to me that we do not lose touch with the Russian spirit. I consider the negation of the whole Russian culture to be catastrophic. It is precisely Russian culture that is promoting those forces that we hope will bring about change. I agree with Mikhail Shishkin, who has now written about this several times in the NZZ. He lives not far away from the Goetheanum. He emphasizes that Putin’s use of language violates the Russian language and is completely contrary to the Russian essence. Despite the current catastrophe, Russia’s inner nature and culture are all part of Europe, of the culture and history of Europe.


Greeting Last Sunday, Hans Hasler celebrated his 80th birthday. Congratulations from the editors!

Graphic Sofia Lismont – Translation: Monika Werner

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