Sofi Oksanen: What It’s Like to Write about Russia


In 2003 I published my first novel in Finland, Stalin’s Cows, which dealt with the recent history of Estonia. I was confronted by journalists who called my book “anti-soviet”, at one time a very negative epithet, a word that belonged to the traditional vocabulary of Finlandized Finland. I was also confronted by leftist journalists whose knowledge of the Soviet Union was so flimsy that they asked in amazement why nothing had been written in the Soviet press about the deportations of Estonians, which discussed in my novel. I was confronted by old warriors of the radical left of the 60s and 70s who were convinced that the peasants had been compensated for their homes, farms, and other property before it was incorporated into the kolkhozes. In real life, joining the kolkhoz was not voluntary, and there was no compensation for property.

The fact that many lies held as truth were circulated about the occupation of Estonia and the realities of Soviet life, was nothing new. I’d grown up in a world where the occupiers had been allowed to write Estonia’s history as they pleased and the mark of Soviet propaganda reached well outside the borders of the Soviet Union. Finland was still in a period that could be called post-Finlandized. Propaganda leaves a lasting mark, as lies always do, and if the lies are not corrected, they remain alive.

The Finnish cover of Sofi Oksanen’s “Stalin’s Cows”

I had begun writing Stalin’s Cows a couple of years earlier, and although I was of course aware that I was writing a novel, but the recent history of Estonia became its theme by accident, and the idea that such themes were important was confirmed to me only when writing it. In the newly independent Estonia, recent history was still a burning question. But in Finland, people my age considered the subject of The Soviet Union as passé as last winter’s snow, and bought hammer and sickle t-shirts with great humour. The humorous value of those shirts was a mystery to anyone in Estonia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The climate in the West had an optimistic certainty that Russia would soon become just like the West. Five minutes to democracy. Russia wasn’t seen as an empire and no one could imagine that it still intended to practice imperialist politics, although it continually meddled in the Baltic countries’ attempts to write their own history and proved very difficult and unwilling to negotiate with when it came to such things as the ratification of borders.

In the Soviet era Finland was the Soviet Union’s window dressing, a country that could be used to prove that the Soviet Union was capable of living in peaceful coexistence with its independent neighbor.

After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Russia was never called to account for its past crimes as Germany was after the war; the work of coming to terms with the past was left entirely on the shoulders of the Baltic and Eastern European nations. In many countries the work was complicated by Russia and by the fact that there were individuals in power whose own Soviet backgrounds wouldn’t withstand scrutiny as well as corruption in those countries and those rulers who came to power through Russian assistance. Former Ukrainian president Yanukovych, for example, took an aggressive stance on research into recent history, so that only his removal made it possible for historical researchers to once again work in peace. Voldymyr Viatrovych, the newly appointed director of the Ukrainian National Memory Institute, believes that a national politics of memory is the best way to prevent crimes of the past from being repeated; every citizen must have free access to the past so that they can form their own opinion on the basis of those facts. According to him, one reason that the Ukraine situation became a crisis was that for the past twenty-five years Ukraine hasn’t analyzed its history or developed tools for coming to terms with the consequences of totalitarianism. Now an electronic archive compiled and maintained by volunteers, offers everyone access to the KGB archives. But reaching this state of affairs took decades, and there is a lot of work ahead. Poland’s lustration politics, for one, mean that individuals who worked or informed for the security services can’t hold positions in government or the universities, as journalists or attorneys. The Polish National Memory Institute’s work includes investigating whether people are lying when they apply for such positions and sign statements admitting or denying any cooperation with the security services. The institute’s motto is “Our history creates our identity.” It was founded in 1998 and began operations in 2000. Now it trains and assists other countries, some as far away as Latin America, in the work of coming to terms with their pasts as well.

The publication of deportation lists in book form began in Estonia as early as the 1990s and the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory was founded in 2008 to investigate the human rights situation in the period of occupation. Well before that commission was formed, numerous researchers investigated the destructive and repressive politics of the occupation. Among the most notable were the White Book, a 2005 compilation published in multiple languages and the 2005 book, Estonia 1940-1945, which was the result of the work of an independent commission investigating crimes against humanity. The book also answers the question of why the so-called historical research conducted in Soviet times and its results cannot be blindly trusted and emphasizes the significance of source criticism. In the Soviet Union, history was a tool for justifying the occupation, and Soviet methods of historical research were mere imitations of actual scientific methods.

All of the countries of Eastern Europe have advanced at a slightly different pace in their politics of national memory, but in all of them, memory is considered important: that facts be remembered, that what happened is known, that documentary material about these events is archived, and that eye-witness accounts are recorded. These countries have had to fight for this right. They have had to establish it and defend it, and must defend it still. This right also includes defending researchers’ and journalists’ right to do their work. The slow pace of founding research centers and of the work of the commissions themselves, tells us how far-reaching and time-consuming that work is.

Soviet head of state Kliment Voroshilov, Soviet Communist Party chairman Nikita Khrushchev, and Finnish President Urho Kekkonen in Moscow in 1960.

Finland’s situation is different than Estonia’s, because Finland wasn’t occupied and Finland didn’t belong to the Eastern Bloc. But years of Finlandization created an unusual atmosphere that had an influence on speech, public discussion, the media, and the way in which Russia was talked about in Finland. In the Soviet era Finland was the Soviet Union’s window dressing, a country that could be used to prove that the Soviet Union was capable of living in peaceful coexistence with its independent neighbor. In actuality, Moscow’s approval was required for Finnish schoolbooks and Moscow also had a say which books were available generally. It influenced what kinds of book were in our libraries. It influenced what kind of information was available to us and what kind of information we dared to seek out. Of course there were all sorts of grassroots rebellions against this; one librarian, for instance, removed books from the shelves as demanded but didn’t destroy them, Instead, she hid them at home and the books were only recently exhibited.

Because the atmosphere of Finlandization wasn’t quite an occupation but more like a political high-wire act in uncertain terrain where roles were unclear, Finland didn’t make a conscious effort to eliminate Finlandization nor did it make a clean break after the collapse of the Soviet Union. School books changed of their own accord when they no longer needed to be vetted in Moscow and publishers didn’t need to consider roundabout ways to publish books considered problematic by Moscow. But conscious, open, public changes weren’t made. While Estonia with its regained independence started to consciously use the language of an independent power, change of that sort did not occur in Finland. And thus in 2003 one still encountered people in Finland who pondered whether my book was “anti-Soviet” or overly “provocative”. Comparable sentiments from ordinary people weren’t encountered in Estonia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe – countries where people could recognize the language of occupation and propaganda and define it as such.

From Between the Lines into Words

When I was young, you couldn’t talk about the deportations as deportations, or the occupation as occupation. So the Estonians learned to talk about the past in euphemisms. The Forest Brothers were referred to as being “in the woods” or “going to the woods” or “coming from the woods”. The deportations were referred to with phrases like “taken to Siberia”, or just “taken”. It was natural that among one’s family members and acquaintances were people who had disappeared to unknown places, gone to the woods, died there, been taken to Siberia, or complied with the Soviet system in order not to end up “in a cold country”. And it was just as natural that these matters were talked about in euphemisms, talked about only with trusted companions, and preferably out of doors. When writing letters, actual meanings were woven between the lines and a secret language was sometimes used. The eyes and ears of the KGB were everywhere, including Finland, because expatriate Estonians who had left the great fatherland behind were still closely watched even outside the boundaries of the Soviet Union. Those expressing inappropriate opinions risked their right to enter the Soviet Union. Our relatives were still living there and the process of acquiring the permits required for travel was a year-round job. Over it there hovered a continuous threat that we might never see our family members again, that our letters wouldn’t reach their destinations, that our phone calls wouldn’t go through. Those expressing inappropriate opinions were also risking the lives and opportunities of their family and friends.

And when you grew up with all this, you assimilated to it to such an extent that you didn’t even think about it. The Soviet system endeavored for and relied upon the fact that people learned not to speak about matters not approved by the system and internalized this way of behaving without question. And to a great extent it succeeded. Russian-American author and journalist Masha Gessen has described the Soviet Union as a system that strips the individual of their ability to choose.

Writer Masha Gessen (US) and Sofi Oksanen at the Helsinki Literary Festival Photo: YLE/Raili Tuikka

When an individual’s ability to choose is taken away it affects even such small things as their choice of words, and the choice of words is what defines who we are, what we think, what we want, what we believe to be right and wrong. There was no freedom of speech and expression, and that was normal. The books I read and the films I saw didn’t discuss recent Estonian history or the Soviet Union in a way that I would have recognized as the Soviet Union of my own experience, and at that time the recognizable recent history of Estonia was passed from generation to generation through oral tradition, not in writing. It was passed down between the lines. It wasn’t until well after independence was regained that I encountered publications from the time of the first Republic of Estonia, which began to appear in antiquarian bookstores; someone had hidden those forbidden journals during Soviet times and saved them for decades. If I had had something to compare to Soviet reality when I was young, points of comparison to read, or photos, or films, perhaps I would have been able to imagine what a different reality could be; above all I would have seen that such things were written about. I would have had a concrete point of comparison in just the same way that I was able to consider women’s place in art history as unjust.  But even that, I wouldn’t have known how to concretize in words, at most, in feelings of injustice, if I hadn’t had books available to me where the subject was discussed, or if women artists and writers hadn’t spoken publicly about it. I didn’t write about anything having to do with the Soviet Union or Estonia before my first novel, nor did I even think about the subject, although I had diligently kept a diary from the age of six onward. It was self-evident: you didn’t write about these things, in the same way that you didn’t cross the street when the light was red and you didn’t put your hand on the burner when the stove was turned on.

Paradoxically, in high school I took as my literary model Virginia Woolf’s story A Mark on the Wall. The first-person narrator in the story suddenly notices a mark on the wall that she hasn’t seen before and starts to wonder what it could be: a fingernail scratch, a rose petal, or a crack in the wood. I read the text as an exhortation to look at everyday things with fresh eyes and write about the smallest details of life. In spite of this interpretation, I didn’t see Estonian history as a literary subject. In order to write a story, a subject has to feel significant, and the culture we grew up in defined our concept of what was important and what wasn’t. In the Soviet climate, analyzing the occupation publicly was impossible, but at the same time, that meant that it wasn’t publicly important. It wasn’t a publicly significant subject of art, and literature was always public, and a writer is what I wanted to be.

In the end, Virginia Woolf’s mark on the wall is revealed to be a snail. Its a good metaphor for my own relationship with writing about recent Estonian history: only in the rain does the snail hidden in its shell become visible, and that is just what happened to my expression. A freer atmosphere made it possible for me to find a language for Estonian history. First the subject slipped into the manuscript of my novel in the form of metaphor and symbol – in other words between those lines, that I was accustomed to using to discuss the subject – and gradually, through them, I found a language I could use to write about it directly.

The beginning of the 2000s was a fitting time for it. Albanian poet, Albana Shala, has said that “For someone who has lived under dictatorship it takes time to learn to seek information”. By then there was also enough archived information available and source material that I could draw from. Western culture and research is founded on the principle that facts must always be verified from source materials and oral evidence is never as reliable as written evidence.

At the turn of the millennium, however, authors who wrote about Russia could still write about Russia and the politics of Russian history in complete peace. Although I did encounter a post-Finlandization tone of speech, writers and journalists who wrote about Russia didn’t yet encounter the phenomenon that they did just a few years later. Pro-Putin demonstrators weren’t yet seen, nor were effigies of the Estonian ambassador to Moscow and present foreign minister, Marina Kaljurand, seen in Moscow, as they were in 2007. Although the use of the words “deportation” and “occupation” weren’t yet as natural as they are today, – they were sometimes fumbled with – no one in Finland was yet denying the deportations, as happened just a short time later.

oksanen-sofi-purgeFrom Words to Weapons

In 2007 Purge, my play about recent Estonian history, had its premiere at the Finnish National Theater, and a couple of months later the Bronze Night heated and cooled emotions in Estonia. The Bronze Soldier was a statue of a Soviet soldier erected in 1947 in the center of Tallinn whose relocation to a cemetery was opposed by Russia. For Russian-Estonians, the statue represented the Soviet soldiers who, according to Soviet rhetoric “liberated the country from fascism”, while for Estonians, the statue represented the period of occupation. The relocation of the statue from the central city to a cemetery led to riots in Tallinn, and in the area the surrounding the Estonian embassy in Moscow. A boycott of Estonian food imports to Russia was imposed by the Kremlin and independent opinion polling showed that Russians believed Estonia had become Russia’s greatest enemy. The statue became a concrete symbol of differing views of history. At the same time it made visible the fact that part of the population of the country was still living in a Soviet world. It was the first international strife following the collapse of the Soviet Union in which Russia practiced power politics outside of its own borders and attempted to influence events within an independent nation. It was also the first international crisis in which Russia could be seen to use methods of information warfare they would later use in Ukraine and the Republic of Crimea. When I speak of information warfare, I mean information warfare in the sense that it is defined in the Russian theory of warfare, where it means influencing the consciousness of the masses as part of the competition that different kinds of civilizations use among themselves to win control of the domain of world information. According to Russia, such a war is continuously on going, including in times of peace. It is a kind of warfare that uses tools whose purpose is to control the sources and pathways of information. Information is defined as a weapon, and a much more dangerous type of weapon because it is cheap, universal, and easy to acquire. It has an infinite range, and can penetrate the borders of any nation without restrictions. That is how dangerous and powerful words and information are considered in Russia’s theory of warfare. According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, words will break cement, and it’s clear that they believe the same thing in Moscow these days.

This kind of militarization of speech, and thus also freedom of speech, will sound odd to Western ears, of course. We humanists and artists don’t use military rhetoric when we talk about the meaning of art, and I would prefer to talk about how art and culture can change the world for the better and increase tolerance. But because our neighbor to the East is deliberately attempting to limit, control, and influence our own expression and its uses, and they are spending immense sums and countless hours of labor on the task, it’s necessary to understand what it actually is. Russian poet Lev Rubinstein has said that one tool in the information war – propaganda – is the collapse of meaning. Propaganda contaminates a word until it loses its meaning. Take for example the word “equality”. According to Soviet propaganda, everyone was equal and the Soviet Union was the cradle of equal friendship among peoples. This wasn’t true, and thus the discussion of such things as equality between the sexes, in the sense that it is understood in the Nordic countries, is problematic in Eastern European countries if you use the word “equality”, because the word has unpleasant echoes.

Just as in the Soviet era, comprehensive information operations are being created in Russia today, and they are a part of every area of Russian activity. Operations are being carried out by diplomats, politicians, businessmen, political activists, experts and artists in various fields, journalists, publishers, interpreters, marketing professionals, and those with I.T. skills – anyone who works in the informational, linguistic, mental, imaginative, and creative fields. Anywhere language is used, tools of the information war are also used and it governs the nature of the operations. With Putin’s rise to power, numerous research centers on the subject have been established and it has been institutionalized as a field of academic study that a student can take up in numerous universities and institutions specializing in specific subjects.

The 2000s were a time when historical research in the Eastern European and Baltic countries was once again historical research, and not just a tool of propaganda. The tools of research were solidified and were created to rest upon the study of recent history. At the same time in Russia they have been focused on exactly the opposite activity. The institutionalization of information warfare in Russia is a field whose foremost avenue is the fabrication of the past and serves to support modern Russian power politics. Organizations such as Memorial, established  in the days of Yeltsin and perestroika to document the history of the Gulags, find themselves in a situation where their activities are constantly hampered and they are labelled as “foreign agents”. This too indicates a change in the moral paradigm: in Russia a lie is the national normal.

In Finland, the activation of Russia’s information operations can be seen in the fact that at the time of the publication of Purge, Russia started to deploy cells in the Western countries in a visible way. In Finland a pro-Putin group was activated and began publishing books, founding associations, and organizing discussion events in which old Soviet themes were repeated. They were particularly interested in Estonian history; the occupation and the deportations were denied by them. The Finnish media was flummoxed. The situation was a new one, and this group received a surprisingly large amount of media coverage in Finland. The group was also a constant guest in Russian media interviews and in the Baltic countries they called for a quick end to those countries’ independence.

When the author Imbi Paju and I published Fear behind us all, a collection of articles dealing with recent Estonian history, in 2010, United Russia, Putin’s party, wrote a press release declaring the book to be “Russophobic”. In tried and true Soviet style a press release was sent out even before the book was released, and thus, even before United Russia could have had an opportunity to learn anything about the book’s contents. Members of Nashi, the Putin-jugend youth group, were imported from St. Petersburg to protest. The international visibility, the openness, and the possibilities offered by the internet was new and unique: the pro-Russia activists were diligent bloggers and YouTube users.

Imbi Paju and Sofi Oksanen presenting their book “Fear Was Behind It All”

The fact that recent Estonian history was awkward for Russia was not in itself new. Russia admitted to its occupation of Estonia at the beginning of the 1990s. But since Boris Yeltsin, Russia has consistently tried to put forward its own interpretation of Estonia’s Soviet years by denying the occupation, attempting to rehabilitate the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and causing disruptions in places like the court proceedings of former deportees in Estonia. Russia has consistently claimed that the period of independence in the Baltic countries was “anomalous” in comparison to what Russia felt was the normal condition of the Baltic countries, and in Russia’s opinion the normal condition of the Baltic countries was the condition of being under the control of Russia or the Soviet Union.

Pro-Putin activists attempted to disrupt the national discussion in Finland in other ways as well. One pro-Putin activist excelled at meeting the challenge: he hauled anyone who criticized his blog to court. In just a few years he disrupted public discussion concerning Russia by filing dozens of complaints, grievances, and charges of slander. He petitioned to have the foreign minister at the time, Alexander Stubb, brought to court on criminal charges and he petitioned the state prosecutor to bring charges against Parliament Member Heidi Hautala for a statement she gave to a Russian news agency concerning a book that contained a denial of the Estonian occupation. Report requests were also sent to Jarmo Viinanen, who was the former head of the Russian division of Finland’s foreign ministry, and former prime minister Paavo Lipponen. Timo Vihavainen, a professor of Russian studies, was supposedly guilty of slander for expressing derogatory opinions of publications I’ve already mentioned. Over the period of several years these complaints, grievances, and charges of slander numbered in the dozens, and were directed at politicians, businesspeople, journalists, university faculty, and private individuals. What the targets had in common was that they had something to do with Russia and they had made critical comments about the politics of Russia. The accusations were never brought to court, the prosecutor never filed any charges.

Finnish blogger, Johan Bäckman (left), who has been banned from Estonia for promoting the denial of the occupation of Estonia in Finland and elsewhere in Europe, visiting with one of the most notorious members of the Estonian NKVD, Arnold Meri (right), who was charged with participating in  genocide before his death in 2009.

This peculiar form of harassment began to be discussed in the Finnish media only years after it had begun. At first it also affected the public discussion, and the experience of being put through this ringer was an awkward one for many due to their position. Thus many people thought it best to stay out of the discussion. Many were silenced.

Harassment like this is a kind of trolling, one mode of operation in the field of psychological influence. Persecution of this sort also worked according to the basic principles of active measures from the old Soviet times: planting a seed of suspicion is enough to tar a reputation. Not to mention that the threat of a lawsuit, whatever the reason, puts its target on the defensive and cripples their ability to act, which is the very purpose of harassment of this kind.

Lies and Imitations

In addition to open harassment, the dissemination of disinformation is also used, and one tool is the seemingly harmless book critic. I’m not able to follow the reception of my books in all countries, but some things have occurred that have caught my eye. In Great Britain, for instance, a “review” of Purge appeared in the Morning Star in 2012 and was also published in the online version of the paper. In what was a basically positive text, the deportations of Estonians were actually replaced by Russian and communist victims. No one reading the novel or stage version of Purge could misunderstand matters so completely. It was obvious disinformation, repeating Moscow’s same basic message: the Russians end up in concentration camps through the actions of the Estonians and the Russians are the ones who are persecuted. The Estonian embassy pointed out the errors in this imitation review to the paper, and now the text is no longer to be found online. The paper, it seems, didn’t feel it necessary to make a corrected version available.

redstarThe Morning Star is a paper well known to Estonians, because it was the only English-language newspaper that they could get their hands on in Soviet times if they wanted to practice their English. The paper was a propaganda tool supported by the KGB, but since it looked like an ordinary newspaper, anyone unfamiliar with its background might read it as they would any other paper.

Similar imitation reviews of my books have appeared also in ordinary newspapers. That is the problem with imitation reviews – when such a text appears in a paper with a reliable reputation, it replicates itself by being shared and quoted. Journalists from other countries might quote such a text, and if they don’t happen to check the supposed quotes from the book used in the review, they are re-sharing false and falsified information. If, for example, an imitation review claims that one of my characters hates Russians, one ought to check whether this is really in the original text, because in an imitation review the perpetrator and victim are switched to fit Moscow’s narrative, and don’t correspond to the perpetrators and victims in the book in question. It’s a rare journalist, however, who takes the trouble to check the authenticity of quotes, because after all, checking for one quote in a novel of several hundred pages is rather taxing work.

In actual practice this means that in an interview I might spend half the allotted time correcting incorrect information that the journalist hasn’t recognized as falsified “information”. So both author and journalist are forced to waste their time. When it comes to conventional Russia trolls on the internet, the main purpose of their activity is to detour people into time-wasting debates that don’t address the natural and logical topic of discussion, all the while pounding home Moscow’s incessant core message. The consequences of imitation reviews are a more sophisticated version of the same thing.

When Purge was published in Russian, I got hold of the proofs just before the novel went to press. A foreword had appeared in the book -a sort of reading guide- the authorship of which was a mystery. In it I was described in quite colorful turns of phrase, but the principle thesis of the text was that Oksanen had claimed that all Russians were drunken pigs and murderers, and naturally fascist rhetoric was mentioned as well. This foreword was in quite a purely propagandist style, and once again in contradiction to the actual contents of the novel, which contains few Russians, and no “drunken Russian pigs”. The drunks in the book are Estonian.

The foreword was removed through the efforts of my literary agent, and didn’t end up in the final printing. This was a case in which I was able to see concretely the reasons why books such as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago have very strict provisions in their contracts to stipulate that no forewords or afterwords of any kind can be added to the book. Nor can any illustrations or maps be added, nor can the book be revised. Solzhenitsyn knew what he was talking about.

Fake Media

In just a few short years, the atmosphere for those working with subjects connected with Russia has changed completely. With the war in Ukraine, however, Russia’s activities have become visible internationally and a public discussion has become easier because a vocabulary on the subject has now emereged in places other than the Baltic and Eastern European countries. The modern Estonian vocabulary for information warfare arrived well before, but only with the war in Ukraine did it occur in Finland, and in 2014 our political leadership publicly confirmed that Finland had become a part of Russia’s information war. Its effects could be seen in our everyday lives in such places as comment sections in newspapers and social media, where commentary on Russian news could easily be answered by members of the troll army trumpeting opinions favorable to Moscow. They even appeared in online baby forums for mothers, which are among Finland’s most popular discussion forums. Anyone following news of Russia might receive paid Facebook advertising leading them to websites promoting the Kremlin’s agenda. The Finnish news agency has started to train journalists to keep an eye out for propaganda campaigns. Although propaganda literacy in Finland deteriorated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, its necessity is once again awakened.

Our freedom of speech is thus also our weakness: it makes it possible for a foreign nation’s propaganda to reach the citizens of other nations inside their own country

The old Iron Curtain only collapsed momentarily. Russia is rebuilding it now, in a new form. Its bricks and mortar are the Russian language and media. In the 2000s, Russia quickly took charge of the media space in Europe and practiced compatriot politics whereby it strove to exercise control over Russian-speaking populations outside its own borders. In countries with large Russian-speaking populations particularly, this is significant. It’s natural for a person whose native language is Russian to watch Russia’s government-run TV channels and the Russian-language media even when they live outside of Russia. The problem is that the Russian media tells a completely different version of the truth, and often lies. Thus the Russian-speaking population can live in an information space completely separate from the other inhabitants of the country, and that is exactly the purpose of compatriot politics – cutting Russian speakers off from the environments they live in.

When I published the novel When the Doves Disappeared in 2012, I encountered readers in Finland who recognized the Kodumaa newspaper mentioned in the novel, because they had read it in Soviet times and used it to practice their Estonian. Edgar, a character in the book based on an actual historical figure, works for the KGB, and also for Kodumaa, which is Estonian for Homeland. Kodumaa was a successful KGB project – a tool of influence disguised as a newspaper and directed at the Estonian-speaking population abroad. It was in fact the only Estonian-language publication that could be sent abroad. Exporting Estonian-language print materials outside the Soviet Union was strictly regulated, so the paper was important because Estonian speakers craved Estonian-language publications.

But every Estonian knew that the paper was a multi-purpose tool of the KGB, much like the Morning Star. One expatriate Estonian described Kodumaa as a tool of fear – when it fell thorough the mail slot of a person who hadn’t ordered it, that was the KGB’s quiet way of saying, “we know where you live”.

Finns who had learned Estonian from the paper were blissfully ignorant of its non-journalistic purposes and wept over photos in the paper purporting to be pictures of loved ones who had disappeared abroad during the war and were being sought by relatives living in Soviet Estonia, who requested that readers send any information they had about them. An Estonian would of course understand that this was a way for the KGB to find people. Finnish readers took these messages, which tugged at their hearts and aroused their sympathies, at face value.

But the Soviet Union, in the days of Kodumaa, wasn’t able to reach the vast audience that Russia can today, and there is a considerable difference when you compare the psychological influence of Russia to that of the Soviet Union. In addition to Russian-language media, Russia attempts to influence other language areas. RT, the English-language channel, previously known as Russia Today, was established in 2005 could be called the crown jewel of Russia’s information operations. Its true purposes came to light in the Western countries only at the time that the Ukrainian situation came to a head, when Liz Wahl and Sara Firth, television presenters who had been recruited to the channel, resigned and reported about their experiences. In spite of this, RT is one of the most popular international satellite channels, with a budget larger than that of BBC World News. It was also the first television channel to receive more than a million views on YouTube.

In addition to RT, Russia controls an abundance of smaller media channels. While RT extends its reach by also doing real news and documentaries in multiple languages, in addition to propaganda, there are among the smaller operations a large number who do nothing of the kind. There are such operations in Finland nowadays as well, and they call themselves “alternative media”, tempting people to believe that they expose truths that the “mainstream media” is silent about. This often includes fake news items that are personal smear campaigns targeting journalists who write about Russia or immigrants. Ordinary citizens share a large number of news items from these sites on social media – without investigating whether or not they are true – because these fake news stories are sensational, tendentious, and emotionally appealing. Thus ordinary citizens become “useful idiots”, a term familiar from the world of the cold war and a term familiar when speaking of the psychological influence exercised by our eastern neighbor.

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

One of these fake media outlets, MV magazine – Finnish for WTF – began as a humor site and has grown into one of Finland’s most popular websites, amassing a large readership over the years. The founder of MV, Ilja Janitskin, who is now living in Spain, believes that since other media is “controlled by the Jews”, it is his job to represent the truth. The upshot, which is rife with national socialism, antisemitism, anti-refugeeism, racism, and sexism, and also, in its fake media “news’ of Russia, closely hews to the Kremlin line, may strike one as baffling. but Russia has supported all sorts of extreme content outside its borders both financially and personally, so that in itself isn’t any wonder. The far-right Resistance Movement of the Nordic countries, for instance, has a warm attitude towards Putin’s Russia – to this Nazi organization Russia seems an ideal government that defends traditional values and acts as a counterbalance to a degenerate EU. Emil Hagberg, who is a member of the governing council of the Swedish Resistance Movement, said in a Movement radio broadcast that he would rather see Sweden controlled by the Russians than submit to the present Swedish leadership. According to the Movement, the real threat is coming from the West and the South. This is how a variety of channels of Nazi organizations work as reinforcement and sounding boards for Russia’s message.

Russia’s strategy is information geopolitics and the modern freedom of communication in democratic countries offers them an excellent base of operations. Our freedom of speech is thus also our weakness: it makes it possible for a foreign nation’s propaganda to reach the citizens of other nations inside their own country. Due to the financial difficulties and lack of staff in social media and traditional media companies, this puts ordinary citizens in a position in which media literacy is enormously important, and each one of us is responsible for whether we’re spreading the news, or spreading the fake news.

Fake news that operates in Finnish doesn’t follow the same rules as Finnish journalism, and it doesn’t obey the guidelines of the Council for Mass Media. The Finnish Council for Mass Media is exceptional internationally. It is an organization whose mission is to foster responsible freedom in public media and support good journalistic practices. The government and other entities cannot interfere in the work of journalists and thus communications laws in Finland can be very liberal. Our free press is a source of pride and a foundation for democracy, and the fact that Russia is attempting to systematically interfere in the operations of another country’s press is an attack against democracy itself. The fact that Russia has set its trolls to persecute another country’s journalists is also an attack on the fundamental values of the Western nations.

In March of this year, something extraordinary happened in Finland: editors made a joint declaration on behalf of the trustworthy media and expressed their concern about the situation created by fake media outlets. The Council for Mass Media also made a rare public statement concerning their worries about intimidation of journalists and the threat to free speech. Behind this declaration were years of constant persecution of journalists, particularly those who write about Russia and immigration. Jessikka Aro, for example, a journalist with YLE, Finland’s national public broadcasting company, who later received the Bonnier Award for investigative journalism for a piece on Russia’s trolls, found herself the subject of an international smear campaign in reaction to her very first piece dealing with troll factories. Disinformation about her was spread in Russian media and on Twitter, claiming that she worked for the American and Estonian secret service. They claimed that she was collecting an illegal registry of Putin supporters, and was labeled a Russophobe and a drug addict. On Facebook she was blamed for the bloodletting in Ukraine, her physical appearance and mental health were judged, her articles were misrepresented, and hope was expressed that she would die of uranium poisoning. Her email inbox was filled with “Putin is the best” messages. She received threatening phone calls from abroad, she was sexually harassed online, her private life and familial relationships were rooted through, and she received a text message from an unknown number from someone who pretended to be her father, who had died twenty years earlier. Aro’s “father” said in the message that he hadn’t died, and he was “keeping an eye” her.

According to Aro, Russia’s propaganda and the trolls who disrupt public discourse have had an effect on the atmosphere of discussion in Finland. Some have abandoned Russia as a subject of discussion on social media. Others have themselves fallen into the trolls’ sphere of influence and passed on erroneous information. The harassment from trolls and fake media is thus affecting not just journalists but also the national discussion of a free country. Intimidation of journalists can lead to self-censorship, and part of the fake media is created abroad and made by hand, so that it’s difficult even for the police to intervene.

The fact that Jessikka Aro has spoken openly about her experience of harassment is unusual. The majority don’t.

The Mafia Elephant

Considering the history of Estonia and Finland, the two countries’ rapid rise to the top of indices of freedom of speech is remarkable, if not downright astonishing. Now this great achievement of ours has come to a time when new pressures are directed at it, and the only thing we can do is to be aware of them, and use our freedom of speech to continue the discussion openly and publicly, because although openness and tolerance are, from a Russian point of view, among our greatest weaknesses, they are among our greatest strengths. In an open society such pressures and harassment can be spoken of openly and concrete definitions can be given to these phenomena.  The situation is completely different from that in my youth, when Estonians had to talk about their experiences in euphemisms, and in private. Back then, the methods for curtailing freedom of speech were clear. For instance, they cut off the writing career of my great uncle, Gustas Põldmann. He worked as a teacher in Tartu in Soviet times, but he was also an author of nature essays. His essays were exceptionally popular because they were about Estonian nature, and buying and reading essays about Estonian nature was a form of passive resistance. His writing career ended when his publisher informed him that they couldn’t continue publishing his work unless he added at least some small thanks to Lenin. He refused. And he was never published again.

This is something the Soviet Union never succeeded in doing. It never succeeded in creating a massive fake media capable of reaching an audience of millions

Today in Russia you can, in principle, publish anything you like. But it’s not as simple as that. If a book is not to Moscow’s liking it is greeted with silence in the press, just as the state-controlled press doesn’t give media space to the political opposition. A bookstore whose selection is, in Moscow’s opinion, problematic, might end up in trouble with the tax authority or the fire code enforcers, or their windows might get stones thrown through them over and over. A book that can’t be found at a bookstore is a book no one will read. A poet representing a Finno-Ugric, that is to say a politically awkward ethnic group, can’t go abroad to promote their work because they can’t get a visa, and the official reason for the denial of a visa might be that they are in debt at the bank. A significant portion of Russian authors have moved out of the country. According to author Mikhail Shishkin, one important difference from Soviet times is that now they want dissidents out of the country.

Techniques for curtailing freedom of speech are thus considerably more complex, and thus more difficult to piece together, than they were in Soviet times. There are also differences in psychological influence. Russia’s propaganda differs from Soviet propaganda in that the latter’s claims were based on ideology. Nowadays Russia reaches out to the countries of the West directly, in English, French, and even Spanish-language TV channels and websites. This is something the Soviet Union never succeeded in doing. It never succeeded in creating a massive fake media capable of reaching an audience of millions. Although the old methods and tools are many, there are so many new methods of exerting pressure that it behooves us to ask whether we should think of a new name for the entire undertaking. The Russian intelligentsia favors the term “hybrid nation”, which is part dictatorship, part democracy. But how can a nation ever be part democracy? How partial or lacking can free speech be and still be called free speech? In the words of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian system of justice is corrupt, and thus isn’t a system of justice. It’s become something else. Because the methods of curtailing freedom of speech are anything but simple arrests or publishing bans, we need to learn to recognize the new methods of applying pressure, because only when we recognize them and name then can we oppose them, and we must oppose them.

The Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar was the first to define Russia as a mafia state, at a time when most analysis of post-socialist governments had concentrated on defining Russia’s present system through what it lacked. For example, Russia doesn’t have free elections or free media. According to Magyar, this kind of analysis is a bit like trying to describe an elephant by telling us what it doesn’t have. “An elephant doesn’t have wings. OK. It can’t swim in the water. OK. But neither one of these characteristics tells us what an elephant is!” I, too, when taking my turn to speak, have compared Russia’s present system to the way the Soviet Union was or wasn’t. Although this has some use in attempting to describe Russia’s methods of activity, it, too, is not enough to explain what kind of nation Russia is today. Russia has also often been called a system of robber-capitalism, a kleptocracy, and an oligarchy, but all these definitions are based on voluntary partnership. A mafia state, however, operates on the logic of the mafia family, and is led in a similar manner. Membership in it, belonging to it, is not voluntary, any more than it is in a mafia family; you are born into it, you can be adopted into it, but you cannot leave it.

This definition also explains Russia’s attitude to its former dependent countries – a mafia state doesn’t give up its holdings, regardless of how the holdings feel about it. When it comes to freedom of speech, this is unfortunate, because in a mafia state the omerta code of silence reigns.

Sofi Oksanen delivered this lecture at the 2016 Norwegian Festival of Literature in Lillehammer and has been reproduced here with the kind permission of the author. 

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