Sea of Denial: Putin's Russia and the Baltic States

Article excerpt

CROSSING the Finnish border on the Lev Tolstoy train from Moscow felt momentarily like release from prison. I crossed over on the morning of Russia's Presidential election, 26 March 2000. After experiencing several months of harassment and travel obstruction by the FSB (the successors to the KGB), those last moments of subjection to Russian power - when the border guard cautiously reviewed my exit visa and then finally released me from FSB control - were a distillation of every moment of confinement I had ever experienced in the Russian Federation. When I reached my destination in Tampere, Finland and phoned an English friend to notify her of my safe arrival, I jibed that I was breathing a strange, pure substance here (unlike the polluted atmosphere of Russian cities), 'I think it's called "air"'. 'No', she retorted, 'it's called freedom'.

Finnish air is indeed the purest I have ever found (outside of Colorado) and the scope of freedom from arbitrary police control is immeasurably greater than in Russia, where freedom from the police consists principally of avoidance. It was a gentle shock, inducing giddiness, to hear that the Tampere Police were beefing up their patrols on weekends to enforce a 'Zero Tolerance' policy - zero tolerance of underage drinking. Comparison of this with Zero Tolerance in Chechnya would be obscene - or more accurately, such a comparison illustrates the obscenity of Russia's police state.

Yet the remoteness of Finland from Putinist Russia is neither geographic nor strategic. The Baltic has never been a Russian lake, but neither is it insulated from Russian pollutants, such as the uncontrolled flow of sewage from Saint Petersburg which continues to pose environmental hazards for the entire region. Yet the mental environment can be less, or more permeable than any sea, either resisting or assimilating disinformation. The peoples on the Baltic Sea have had much of both, of resistance and collaboration. The dissolution of the Iron Curtain would appear to have liberated the region from the discomforting challenge to resist imported lies. Yet the burden of geography has not changed, while the Russian state has changed profoundly since the ascension of Putin. A fire is burning in the Baltic basement; yet the regional response is silence. This spring, the Baltic is a sea of denial.

Denial is a common defence in individuals who have been chronically abused, which may explain its endemic presence in those Baltic nations who have become accustomed, in varying degrees, to bullying or outright control by the Kremlin. In Finland it appears to resemble a modest neurosis, largely offset by the self-confidence which is founded on the habit of substantial - if limited - independence. Of course, the Finns are reputed culturally to be self-confident and circumspect. Yet Finnish circumspection as a cultural trait cannot entirely account for the remark which I heard repeated by several academic and professional people during my stay in Finland: 'Now we are beginning to criticise Russia', as if this were the insignia of a long awaited liberation. There is pathos in that remark, which resembles an adolescent's inordinate pride after talking back to a father, and the pathos descends nearly to tragedy when one considers that the valiant Winter War against Russia at the time of the Second World War was f ought within living memory. 'Beginning to criticise Russia', after what? After shooting them? There is no evident weakness in today's Finns; on the contrary, young Finnish soldiers walking the streets appear far healthier, stronger and even better clothed than their Russian counterparts in my experience. Even today, a common slogan in the Finnish Army is, 'One Finn is as good as ten Russians It might be true. Yet the slogan subliminally addresses an enduring anxiety, for which it compensates.

The depth of this anxiety can be discerned when one probes the Finns for information or analyses of Russia's relations with the Baltic region, most especially the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. …