Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A rather charitable view of Finland

The writer is after all married to a Finn.

"Finlandization" was a word used to describe the way a country could be absorbed by the Soviet bloc while still remaining nominally independent. The Soviet Union is long gone but Finns are obviously still much influenced in their thinking by their past submission to Soviet values.

The writer below seems to have absorbed some such values himself: Monopolies that keep prices high and empty piety don't bother him as long as you have "unity".

He fails to mention that the Finnish authorities are ferocious censors of politically "incorrect" speech. As in Soviet times, dissent does not fare well in Finland -- JR

Finland has had a rough time in the British press of late. A Telegraph report on New Year's Eve was blunt: "The country is... known for heavy drinking and domestic violence and high rates of suicide".

This was in the wake of Finland's third gun massacre in three years - but the darkness of that line is far from the whole story...

But many of the things that horrified me when I first moved here probably explain why Finland was selected last year, by the Legatum think tank, as being the best place on earth to live.

First, monopolies are ubiquitous. Seventy per cent of all supermarkets are owned by two companies. They also own a lot of restaurants and nobody tips. This may, in turn, influence the astronomical food prices. Independent Iraqi stores are far cheaper than the chains.

Newspapers are a near-monopoly, too. There are three national-reach titles – two of them owned by one company: Sanoma. One of these, Helsingin Sanomat, has a Pravda-like status in Helsinki, where it controls 75 per cent of the market. This is problematic on many levels. But on the plus side, everybody doing the same thing – reading the same newspapers, eating the same food – is one of the factors that holds a society together. And this was a big part of Finland's ranking. More so than elsewhere, people trust each other and have a sense of national community.

The Lutheran Church is a big part of this. It seemed bizarre to me that priests would happily confirm children (90 per cent are confirmed) who were openly atheists and conduct weddings for people who asserted: "We don't want you to say anything about God." But as a result, 80 per cent of Finns are church-members, though Helsinki is less "churched" than the north – and being religious usually has little to do with it.

According to the Lutheran Church researcher Kimmo Ketola: "In recent decades, there has developed a tradition of lighting a candle on a relative's grave on Christmas Eve. The church maintains the graveyards, so they maintain a space for this popular religiosity. The church used to be a big part of Finnish patriotism but now it is ancestor rituals which take place in the context of the Lutheran Church." As a result, the church helps to sustain society.

I found the Finnish failure to question authority pretty shocking, as well. When a Finnish doctor informed me that I did not need a malaria vaccination to go to India in the rainy season ("There aren't many mosquitoes then"), my Finnish wife was "embarrassed" that I dared to dispute this. Things are changing now, but, in general, people are less inclined to complain than the British.

I once had a dispute with some builders whose contract work I had cancelled. Finnish law obliged me to pay their expenses but they would not give me a dated receipt proving that they had bought the materials before I cancelled. They said that the "trade secrets law" meant they did not have to. I looked into it, discovered it was a lie, put this to them and never heard back.

They were attempting fraud and I, surely, would assume they were "honest Finns". But, again, this trust – even if sometimes misplaced – bolsters the sense of nationhood.

Finnish national insecurity also got to me. Why is there this need to boast about how educated they are? Why do some – particularly in the academic elite – try to rewrite history by asserting that Finland is, without question, Western (whatever that means)?

Why this need, on the part of younger Finns, to trawl the internet for articles about Finland in British newspapers and bravely leave anonymous comments involving that wonderful "culture shock" word, "stereotype"? And why are Finnish journalists so fascinated by what British papers have to say about Finland?

There are historical reasons for this, I think. Shared trauma perhaps has something to do with it. And Finland is more nationalistic, more tribal, than the UK. Last year, I published an academic book on Finland which looked at its culture's Arctic dimensions.

A senior journalist at Helsingin Sanomat predicted that: "Some will agree with it, some will agree with parts of it, but you will get hate mail, unfortunately." He was right: the reaction, by bloggers and "commentators" who had obviously not read it, was polarised, to say the least.

The more tribal side of any society will react in such a way to the views of an outsider. Other foreigners who have written about Finland have also received hate mail. It shows that the society has strong boundaries, a deep sense of who is "us" and who is "them". At times in Finnish history, it may have been so extreme as to stifle innovation.

But this is not the case at the moment. Finland appears to have got the balance right between civilisation and progress and holding the tribe together … the occasional massacre notwithstanding.


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