Hyvä liittokokous, bästa förbundsmöte, Dear General Assembly,
I am Finnish-Russian.
It has taken me 25 years to summon up the courage to mention the two aspects of my nationality in the same breath, but now I’ve said it. This is quite something for me in front of an audience of about 100, and on a public stream.
As a child, for me being Russian meant speaking Russian at home, eating borscht and pelmeni dumplings, and watching Russian children’s programmes.
I learned the Cyrillic alphabet before the Latin alphabet, and long before I heard of Moomins I was a fan of Gena the crocodile – people in Lappeenranta might know that character. We followed the Russian holiday calendar.
It was not until I started school that I realised that my family’s language and customs were different from those of my classmates. My surname is difficult, unless you want to make fun of it. Other kids’ references to the most popular children’s programmes meant nothing to me. I wasn’t aware of the latest gossip from Moomin Valley.
I didn’t like at all that I was different. I wanted very much to belong, so I went to great lengths to hide my Russianness. At home, I always spoke Finnish if friends came over, and I made my parents speak it too. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was the odd one out. I always had a strong feeling that everyone would turn their back on me if they found out that I was not a native Finn.
I still get regular reminders that ‘I’m not from round here’. Which is strange, since I was born here, and have lived in Finland my entire life. Many have wondered over the years why I’d never seen a single episode of the Kummeli comedy show. Why I’m not familiar with Finnish pop classics or how I managed to avoid the Itse Valtiaat political satire on TV when I was younger. We never watched anything like that at home.
The first positive comments I ever heard about my exotic surname were when I moved from my home town of Joensuu to study at an upper secondary school in Helsinki. In a bigger town, the atmosphere was more international from the start. I even heard people saying things like ‘I wish I came from a bilingual family’ or ‘It would be so cool to have such a different surname’.
The first time I was proud of my roots was exactly one year ago, when I was elected President of the National Union of University Students in Finland. Thank you for your trust! On Facebook, I saw a post from a former member of SYL that said:
‘Today I’m thrilled to see that the National Union of University Students in Finland that is so dear to me has elected a president with a Russian name. It would be strange if such a large minority did not gradually become visible, and there are many children and young people who need role models to enable them to feel part of this society.’
That meant a lot to me.
As I grew up, I also become more aware of the weight that historical baggage places on people. Finns in Finland have long had to carry the political burden of having an authoritarian eastern neighbour. Russia is now waging a brutal, unjustified war of aggression in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, blameless people have also suffered from this. There has been more hate speech and prejudice against Finns with a Russian background.
This also hit home in a personal way when someone close to me was assaulted on a train in Finland when they were talking on the phone in Russian. The world can be a cruel place sometimes.
The position of the Advisory Board for Ethnic Relations (Etno) of the Ministry of Justice sums up the difficult situation well, in my opinion.
On its website after the invasion, Etno pointed out that Ukraine was invaded by the Russian army, on the orders of the Russian leadership – it was not been invaded by the Russian people. People of Russian origin living in Finland cannot be blamed for the situation in Ukraine. What is important now, the Etno statement continued, is to support Ukraine and Ukrainians – both in their own country and those who have fled the war. Hate speech and harassment in Finland does not serve this goal.
I share this view; lashing out at people of Russian origin in Finland is not the solution. At worst, it plays into the Kremlin’s hands, as Russophobia in western countries can be reported in Russia. So let’s focus on supporting Ukraine, for example with donations to help tackle the humanitarian crisis there.
By sharing these personal experiences, I wanted to give you a sense of what it’s like to be Finnish-Russian, and to be a second-generation immigrant.
Also what it’s like to be a ‘third culture kid,’ as we’re called – that is, someone who has spent part of their childhood in a different culture or country from where their parents come from. A third culture kid adopts the ways of multiple cultures, but they don’t feel like they belong to any of them. They adopt the customs of the culture of their country of birth (the first culture) and the culture of their second country (the second culture) to form a new, third culture.
I wanted to use my own example to show that racism is unfortunately still a reality in our society.
Finland has a huge variety of nationalities – Russians, Estonians, Iraqis, Chinese, Indians, Swedes, and many more. So Finland is also home to Finnish-Germans, Finnish-Iraqis, Finnish-Chinese, Finnish-Indians, Finnish-Swedish, and many others.
Each nationality has brought its own, unique culture and customs. Each of them also has their own stories about their Finnishness and living in Finland. Let’s make sure that they are all part of to a shared Finland that they can be proud of.
As the amount of immigration for work and education increases, we will have an increasingly diverse Finland in the future.
We are also dependent on immigration because of our country’s age dependency ratio, and we have clear targets and indicators to achieve this.
According to the Government plan for labour and education migration 2035, Finland must triple the number of international students and get 75 per cent of them to stay here after graduation. Currently the figure is about 50 per cent. Not forgetting humanitarian migration, of course.
This means that in addition to these people, there will be more and more second-generation immigrants like me. And then third-generation, fourth-generation, and so on.
The present Government has had success in easing the immigration process and residence permit procedures, reforms which SYL was involved in lobbying for and supporting. There is still plenty to do, of course.
But ambitious quantitative targets for international talent and smooth entry routes alone are not enough to keep people here.
In closing, I want to leave you with three reflections.
They relate to the individual, to society, and to the student movement itself.
First, the individual. As individuals, it is up to each of us to try every day to eradicate racism, discrimination and harassment. Those efforts must not be left only to minorities, those who are on the receiving end of racism, harassment and discrimination.
Dialogue between people and population groups is essential. We can all help to increase understanding between people, for instance through discussion, volunteering and tackling racist behaviour.
Second, society. The general conception of Finnishness is extremely narrow. We must ask ourselves: what is a Finnish person really like? What is their name, what do they look like? And who decides on this person’s Finnishness?
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of newcomers to Finland would change the society significantly, and very visibly.
Journalist Jussi Pullinen of the Helsingin Sanomat summed it up well: among these are people who want to find a life partner, have children, practice their religion, use the services they want, and get on with their lives – get rich, fall in love, or just enjoy the freedom of Finland and of being able to be something that is forbidden in their country of origin.
I think it is time to update the concept of Finnishness to correspond to the reality of an internationalising Finland.
Third, and finally, the student movement. The student movement has a great responsibility and power as builders of our society. What students do today, the rest of society will soon follow.
On this issue too, we must be able to look ourselves in the mirror. When will the diversity of Finns also become visible in the student movement? We need to start thinking about why there are very similar people with very similar backgrounds on the student union boards and in the SYL office almost every year.
I will end with a quote from the policy paper of the National Union of University Students in Finland.
‘SYL is committed to promoting broad-based internationalism. Genuine internationalism requires a diverse society and a non-discriminatory approach to cultures.’
So let’s demand a real change step-up in internationalisation from ourselves, universities, and from society as a whole.
I will leave you with that thought, and I wish you all a meaningful, friendly and inspiring General Assembly.