A Lion In A Cage

Sofi Oksanen examines the contrasting literary histories of Finland and Estonia and how they have shaped their distinct historical paths and the impact of those legacies on their approaches to current geopolitical challenges in a speech delivered in Riga, Latvia.

I have grown up between two very different and yet very similar countries – Finland and Estonia. In both countries the birth of fiction was connected with a national awakening. That’s when literature written in Finnish and Estonian became important in establishing a national identity. At that time, both Finnish and Estonian intellectuals were those who had been educated in a language other than their native one; in Finland, it was Swedish and in Estonia, it was German, because Estonia’s upper class at that time was formed by Baltic Germans. Finnish and Estonian were the languages of common people and farmers; these languages were judged to be unsuitable for literature. And both countries were under Russian Empire rule.

Our national epics have common features; they were published at the same time and are based on oral tradition. In Finland, Kalevala, written by Elias Lönnrot, was published in 1835 . It was mainly based on Lönnrot’s collected data from Karelian folksingers. In Estonia, Friedrich Kreutzwald created the Kalevipoeg epic based on the material collected by Friedrich Robert Faehlmann.

According to the [Finnish] school books “The Red Army liberated the Baltic States from German occupation and they joined the Soviet Union as its new republics”. None of this was true, but we were taught it was.

Publication of folklore laid the foundation for the national identity. At the time, Finns and Estonians didn’t have their own states, but they had their own culture and history. We had our own language, and our literature also reflected our major national events. Nations whose history and identity stories are written down are always stronger than those whose history and great stories stay unwritten, only based on oral tradition, and at that time this became perfectly clear. It wasn’t long after that the both countries declared their independency.

Finnish and Estonian are among those rare Finno-Ugric languages that now have their own national states. Without independence, the future of our literature and language could have been as dark as it has been for many other Finno-Ugric peoples. There are 24 languages in this language group with a total of 23 million speakers. Only the Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian languages and literature are thriving in their own countries. The remaining 21 Finno-Ugrics live mainly in Russia, which does not support minority rights. Many of these languages are extinct or endangered. Just like other indigenous people, Finno-Ugric people and their languages have always been under the threat of colonialism. All nations have histories uniting the nation – To us, those histories are always related to the threat of losing our existence.

Speaking of the things separating Finnish and Estonian literature, the differences are connected to the fact that Estonia experienced three occupations since gaining its independence but Finland managed to preserve its independence. These differences are clearly seen in how our national memory is reflected in our literature and how it describes national tragedies and the turning points of the recent history. However, one common feature in both of our literatures is that they provide a platform for discussion in times when political situations make it impossible to do so in public. Such a medium is vital for any nation.

Russia in the history of Finnish literature

Zacharias Topelius
Zacharias Topelius

I am often asked why I have written so much about things related to the Russian Empire and Soviet Union and usually people expect it to be connected with the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Personally I also feel an affinity with the Finnish literary traditions. Finns love historical novels. Most of them deal with the history of Finland, and Russia is involved almost in all of them. Even our National folk tale The birch and the star, written by Zacharias Topelius, relates to Russia. The tale, published in 1893, tells the story of children abducted from Finland to Russia. These children remember a birch tree that grew in their home yard, and how in the morning, birds were singing in its branches and every evening a star twinkled between the branches. The children decide to find their way back home and, after a year-long voyage guided by two little birds, they find their way back home.

The tale is based on Topelius’s own family history. The so-called, Great Wrath stands for the Russian occupation of Finland between 1713–1721 and that’s when Zacharias Topelius’s great grandfather Kristoffer Topelius had to hide together with his mother. However, Cossacks found them, stole the boy and took him to Russia to become a slave.

Years passed, but the boy managed to run away and escape. He finally reached Southern Finland – because he always travelled towards the sunset. From there he went to Stockholm, where coincidently met his mother.

The Great Wrath brought out also another essential feature to Finnish literature: the first historical novel, which also was about Russian occupation. Author Fredrika Runeberg wrote about the consequences of the occupation in the novel Lady Catharina Boije and Her Daughters. It takes place during the Great Wrath and was published in 1858. These writers were recording the living memory of those times.

Also, Fredrika Runeberg’s husband, our national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, excelled at writing our history. He wrote a collection of poems called The Tales of Ensign Stål, which was published in two volumes in 1848 and in 1860. It described Finland’s history at that time and the Finnish War – a war that Sweden lost against Russia. The first poem of the book, Our Country (Maamme), is the Finnish national anthem. Runeberg’s work is Finland’s most significant and widely read literary work.

Runeberg's Maamme which would eventually become Finland's national anthem.
Runeberg’s Maamme which would eventually become Finland’s national anthem.

During the war, Finnish officials and the gentry were willing to accept Finland joining the Russian Empire. Runeberg, however, thought that the Finnish people were more patriotic than their political leadership. The book was about to be banned, but acknowledging this fact, Runeberg published the book himself. After that there was no use crying over spilled milk. The book was published during the time of national awakening and it sold like butter. During the Winter War, we had three bestsellers: the bible, the leaflets about air raid precautions and the poems of Runeberg.


Karelia also plays an important role in our literature, even though the area now belongs to Russia. Before that, it was a part of Finland. It’s important already because Lönnrot gathered a large part of Kaleva’s lyrics from there. Karelian motifs were traditionally found in music, visual arts, as well as in literature, but following the Paris Peace Treaty, when Finland lost Karelia to the Soviet Union, a new type of literature appeared in Finland: Literature written by people with Karelian roots. Half a million Finnish citizens had been evacuated from Karelia to Finland, and they started to write and they also wrote during the post-war era of Finlandization. In particular, women writers with Karelian backgrounds built up a strong literary Karelian identity in Finland. During the years of Finlandization critics opposed this trend, but readers loved it. For example, Laila Hirvisaari’s historical novels, which were written about Karelian refugees, have sold more than four million copies to Finland’s five million inhabitants. “Lost” Karelia is and always will be a part of Finnish literature. Karelia became a literary place where the painful history of Finland could be dealt with, even when public debate on the issue was difficult.

The fact that Finnish literature is full of stories that, in one way or another, relate to Russia is something that is nowadays considered obvious, and the right to write about it is not questioned. We have had enough time to write about these things and about our history. It is already a canon to us. Historical novels maintain their popularity and this is somehow so obvious that it is not considered as a political act, but mentioning Russia in any other context, is immediately politicized.

How to talk about Russia in Finland

oksanen-sofi-purgeThree of my novels describe Estonia’s recent history and the time of occupations. Year after year one of the most common questions is: why do you write about Estonian’s recent history? As if it requires a specific reason. Every now and then, I come across opinions that suggest that writing about Estonia’s recent history is writing ‘against’ Russia. After my first novel was published in 2003, I came across journalists, also in Finland, who questioned whether the novel was an anti-Soviet book. This word, ‘anti-Soviet’, belongs to the lexicon of Finlandization and should remain in the vocabulary of the past, not the present. In Finland, Finlandization officially ended when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Finlandization gives stronger powers influence over the policies of weaker states. In Finland it represented the self-imposed censorship that affected publishing policies, news media and films. The Ministry of Education also prevented the spread of negative information about the Soviet Union, especially in history books. The Soviet Union was described in a flattering way by teaching schoolchildren, for example, that agricultural collectivization in the Soviet Union took place entirely on a voluntary basis; that the Prague Spring was caused by “a counter-revolutionary threat”; and that socialism in the Soviet Union worked well and that there were no social problems there. According to the school books “The Red Army liberated the Baltic States from German occupation and they joined the Soviet Union as its new republics”. None of this was true, but we were taught it was.

It’s no wonder that my peers only heard about Estonia for the first time as teenagers in native language classes while studying the languages of the same language family. This kind of situation seems strange when it comes to Finland’s nearest neighbour, but the Soviet Union constructed and imposed broad historical amnesia that even affected neighbouring countries.

Every nation and state has its own great story – traumas – that have hurt the whole nation and these experiences unite their people. For Ukrainians – it’s the Holodomor, for Armenians – Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, the Finnish Winter War and the Baltic nations -mass deportations.

In Finland, writers started to write about Winter War soon after the war ended. The views of the authors didn’t always connect with what was considered politically appropriate – The Finnish classic, Väinö Linna’s Unknown Soldier, and Paavo Rintala’s books sparked literary conflicts. However, they wrote books which were published and read by the Finnish people, and most importantly their books were written in Finnish, in Finland – not in exile.

During the Khrushchev thaw, GULAG-literature written by Finns was published. Even the personal memoirs of GULAG survivors, which became bestsellers. But after that, the political situation in Finland tightened as did censorship, and self-censorship. Just like in the Soviet Union, censorship in Finland wasn’t predictable or consistent and fluctuated from year to year.

Estonian literature as a refugee

During the Soviet occupation the situation in Estonia was different. The Soviet regime meant that everything related to the Republic of Estonia became forbidden. When I learned the national anthem, by heart, in Finland and always sang it on Independence Day; in Estonia, the Estonian flag, the national anthem and the national flag’s colour combination of blue, black and white were banned, as were Estonian Independence Day activities. While I was reading in school about Finland’s most important national story, the Winter War, in Estonia the occupation and deportation were forbidden topics which could not be discussed in public.

But Estonian authors in exile wrote about these topics – abroad. Refugee communities maintained Estonian literature, which was hidden or banned in Soviet Estonia. Members of the cultural community who escaped from Estonia, founded publishing houses, newspapers, and schools and wrote books that were published, for example, in Sweden or Canada. These books did not reach Soviet Estonia. In Sweden, an Estonian Writers cooperative published works of refugee authors, as well as other major Estonian writers.

For example, Hilja Rüütli’s works were published under the name of Aili Helm in Sweden, though the author herself lived her whole life in Estonia. She wrote a documentary novel “The devil has no shadow” (“Kuradil ei ole varju”) about the Soviet prison life and the camps. A Finnish woman, Anu Marttila, smuggled the manuscript out by putting small slips of paper into her clothes. The manuscript went from Tallinn to Helsinki and further to Sweden.

Between 1944-1990 the refugees published 267 novels and 181 poetry collections in Estonian by 75 refugee authors and 151 memoirs in Estonian by 90 authors.

Estonian books written exile. Arved Viirlaid (left)
Estonian books written exile. Arved Viirlaid (left)

I personally remember the moment I read these books for the first time. The fact that the pages contained Estonian text, which sounded normal, and even told of the occupation and deportations, felt strange. Before that, I hadn’t really had a reference point. I wasn’t able to yearn for the Soviet Estonian bookstores to have books about deportation. In Soviet Estonia, the historical memory of the people relied on oral tradition, we relied on it.

From private to public

After Estonia regained its independency biographies became a huge trend, as did memoirs and non-fiction dealing with recent history. Experiences and memories that had before been only private, became public. Independence also meant that the written language and public speech became free of Soviet censorship and propaganda. It became possible to speak and write about events and to properly identify things without euphemisms. Decolonisation meant also the dissolution of colonisation through language. A new language was introduced, an independent country’s language, and those expressions that had been prohibited for decades, returned to use. The fact that these oral memories were transferred to written form, was just as important as the written form of Kalevipoeg, the national epos. (Biographies and memoirs gained popularity in Estonia but the historical novel didn’t.)

the title “When we fought against Russia,” would be very inappropriate since it contains the word couple ‘Russia’ and ‘against,’ and any Finlandized subconscious might suspect that Russia could somehow get nervous about it.

Russia recognized the occupation of Estonia in 1993. Since then, the situation has deteriorated and Russia has waged an information was against Estonian history since the late 90s. The Baltic countries are still fighting for their right to write their own history, and this defensive battle has intensified with the rise of Putin’s power. Moscow has repeatedly denied the occupation of Estonia and says that its independence is an anomaly or an exception.

During the time of Finlandization, Finns were often reminded by Soviet authorities that Lenin himself had given us our independence as a gift. It was considered a sort of guarantee – the Soviet wouldn’t go against Lenin’s will. But Estonia doesn’t have such a story to defend itself. On the contrary, President Putin’s personal history and public image is cementing

Vladimir Putin holding a portrait of his father at a Victory Day march.

Moscow’s ‘Estonia complex’. We don’t really know the truth behind Putin’s personal history that’s been fed to the public, but it has been said that his father belonged to an NKVD sabotage battalion, and that he did not receive a warm welcome from Estonians while he participated in carrying out an operation in Estonia. According to the Putin-legend, the father had asked for food at a family farm, but the ‘disgusting’ Estonians handed him over to Germans. The story has inconsistencies and nobody knows if it’s true, but this Putin-legend makes Estonians the enemies of the Russian nation’s father. This is one obvious motivation for Moscow’s anger towards the Estonia. Putin’s own inner circle also includes people who have spent time in Soviet Estonia. They also have similar stories to Putin’s, which they have conveyed to the public. When people who are otherwise are very defensive about their privacy, suddenly talk openly about their personal experiences, there is reason to question their motives. Such stories are part of Russia’s ongoing information war against Estonia.
For Putin, the NKVD is an organ to honour and respect. For Estonia NKVD is an organ that carried out deportations.

Limited separation

I’ve talked about my books in a number of countries and in many of them there is little awareness of the deportations, and in some cases, people know nothing about them. However, people immediately understand what was going on when you tell them. Deportations and the Winter War are specific events, with specific years and geography.

Finlandization however is a political state and climate, which requires a more complicated explanation. It is poorly understood outside Finland or is known only as a political solution. But despite that, that model has been suggested as a solution for Ukraine. Those who are suggesting it, haven’t asked for a Finnish opinion. Researcher Mika Aaltola has compared Finland during the Finlandization to a lion kept in a zoo: On the surface, it looked prosperous, but its living space was very problematic.

The chairmans of two major parties, (Finnish Social Democratic Party’s and Finland’s largest party’s, Keskusta) said on television that Russia cannot be called a ‘threat’ – despite the fact that Russian planes are flying under radars without transponders and are a threat to security; and that Russia is conducting hybrid war operations against Finland.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland, unlike Estonia, did not recognize the need to create a new language and terminology for Russia-related public speech. Therefore, our political rhetoric is still exposed and affected by the rhetoric of Finlandization. In Finland people are not as aware as in Estonia about how language and expression created the Soviet reality and how language also created Finlandization and nurtured it.

In Finland, collecting individual experiences from the time of Finlandization isn’t considered a national task. In Estonia the collection of individual Soviet-era stories is viewed as such. Instead, Finland is dealing with wartime memories, and from those memories they create works, for example, tabloids titled “And the people fought”. The title does not explain against who they fought. For example, the title “When we fought against Russia,” would be very inappropriate since it contains the word couple ‘Russia’ and ‘against:’ any Finlandized sub-conscience would suspect that Russia might somehow get nervous about it.

In Finland we just had the parliamentary elections, and the old Finlandized rhetoric reemerged. The chairmans of two major parties, (Finnish Social Democratic Party’s and Finland’s largest party’s, Keskusta) said on television that Russia cannot be called a ‘threat’ – despite the fact that Russian planes are flying under radars without transponders and are a threat to security; and that Russia is conducting hybrid war operations against Finland.

In Estonia, it would be very difficult to imagine politicians using Soviet era rhetoric – and if someone were to use it, everyone would know whose payroll they’re on. In Finland, the language of Finlandization is widely used in political speeches and even expressions coming from Soviet propaganda are used without recognising the toxic purpose they had.

Language is a decision and a choice

Language is an instrument and a range of old indications have become politically incorrect. For example, many racist remarks are no longer in general use. Nations and languages may decide what kind of language we use, and we should remember, that language forms our reality, it creates it. Therefore, the kind of language and expressions we use, forms our values, and informs us about what is acceptable and what is not.

The Soviet Union and Russia were and still are skilled in creating verbal realities. The printed word was used to create an alternative, fictional reality. Authors creating that reality regularly received updated government issued vocabulary lists. They contained the phrases that needed to be used, and the adjectives, which had to be combined with, for example, the Republic of Estonia or the United States. The Soviet Union had to be connected only with positive adjectives, the Republic of Estonia and the United States, of course, just with negative.

Recent headlines from Russian news agencies RT and Sputnik.
Recent headlines from Russian news agencies RT and Sputnik.

Over the last few years, Russia has used a similar language war against Baltic countries and Ukraine, thus creating imaginary enemies, needed by the current Russian administration to prop up its power. One goal for this war is to make the enemy weak. When we know that the Russian government wants it’s citizens to hate us, it does leave a mark. In the same way, the long-term effects of Finlandization altered our ability to stand against Russia – or to take a stand. For decades, Finnish editors, publishers, policy-makers and politicians and journalists had to be aware of which expressions would annoy the Soviet Union and we are still on that same path. The language of that time was like a toothless mouth without a tongue. The Soviet Union trained Finland, a country in which we all learn to dodge inappropriate expressions towards Russia: it forms part of our backbone and dominates our subconsciousness. There has been no public, comprehensive correctional moves to move towards another kind of language. And we have not studied enough the long-term consequences of this practice. Therefore Finlandization still generates our reality.

Our public speech is still depressed. Our literature isn’t like that, and never had been, and has therefor been so important to our identity. If the external reality and country’s official positions are not matched by the peoples own experiences, the result is disbelief in their own experiences and its legitimacy. It weakens the people. In Finland our literature was a tool against that.


Finlandized Finland was a Soviet success story: a showcase relationship that showed the world that the Soviet Union was able to live in friendship with a neighbour. At the same time, Finland remained on the Soviet Union’s leash. Since this was a successful project, it is no wonder that today’s Russia desires to Finlandize other countries. According to Putin’s nationalist advisor, Aleksandr Dugin, the whole Europe should be Finlandized.

Edited from remarks given by Sofi Oksanen in Riga, Latvia, April 2015.
Sofi Oksanen’s latest book “When The Doves Disappeared” and other books are available here. Her latest work, “Norma” will be released in Finland on September 23, 2015.

More from Sofi Oksanen
Sofi Oksanen: What It’s Like to Write about Russia
In 2003 I published my first novel in Finland, Stalin’s Cows, which...
Read More
Join the Conversation


  1. says: Josh

    “The Soviet Union trained Finland, a country in which we all learn to dodge inappropriate expressions towards Russia: it forms part of our backbone and dominates our subconsciousness…” What??? I have been living in Finland now for two years, and I have yet to meet a Finn who hasn’t told me that they “hate Russia/Russians”. This article was already full of so many questionable claims, but this one took the cake. I am by no means a Russian apologist, and I recognize that there are some very good reasons for Finns to be upset and/or angry in regards to Russia, but let’s not make the claim that Finns are still stuck in some “Finlandized” mentality. The average Finn is far from being “Finlandized”.

  2. says: Jarda

    The mentality of finlandization is still actual also in other former soviet satelites. No matter how frequent the “hate russia” answer is there. The suggestion to finlandize Ukraine came from czech prezident, a country occupied from 1968 on by soviet army. It is like an unwritten rule even now…you dont have to love us, it is enough if you fear us…those who do not fear become ostracised and marginal with time.

  3. says: Emil Gunnar

    My Finnish father always told me “The only thing you can ever trust a Russian for is to tell lies.” Accurate beyond belief.

Leave a comment
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.