Divides among Russian Speakers in Finland

The disastrous war in Ukraine posed multiple challenges to Finland as a country sharing 1 343,6 km of borderline with the aggressor state. One of these is the increased inflow of Russian nationals seeking safe haven from political oppression and the military draft to fight in Ukraine. The number of residence permits given to Russian citizens reached 12,897 in 2022, compared to 10,132 in 2021. At the same time, these numbers are still lower than in Germany, Spain and Poland. The lion’s share of outgoing migration landed in Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, or Thailand, countries with more lenient migration legislation.

Finland continues to uphold its welcoming stance towards political refugees. The number of asylum applications amounts to 1,172 in 2022. However, while the legal procedures for accommodating political activists, journalists, and individuals from the LGBTQI+ community, appear clear-cut, those evading military conscription find themselves ensnared in legal uncertainty. Finnish authorities are presently in anticipation of an EU ruling and corresponding recommendations, which they intend to adopt as guiding principles. The domestic public sentiment regarding the acceptance of draft evaders remains ambivalent, lacking a definitive consensus or robust backing. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Finland is not currently the primary choice for individuals seeking refuge from Russia as well as for economic migration.

The international border between Russia and Finland spans over 1340 km out of which 1290 km on land.
Photo: Finnish Border Guard

Finland accommodates a substantial Russian-speaking populace, including repatriates – Ingric Finns and representatives of other Finno-Ugric groups. Among them, a portion arrived decades ago, having since achieved successful integration, while others continue to reside on the fringes of society. This dynamic underscores the diverse nature of this demographic, where a shared identity with their former compatriots is not a given, and some even go to lengths to disassociate themselves from Russia, viewing it as a potential hindrance to their professional pursuits. The variance in socioeconomic backgrounds and experiences within their country of origin is significant enough that it serves as an insufficient foundation for fostering solidarity among Russian speakers within their host communities. Notably, some Russian speakers trace their origins back to Estonia or other former USSR republics. For those originating from Russia itself, their recollections of different ’Russias’ are contingent on the time of their migration and specific regional contexts.

Evidence gleaned from migration studies notably illustrates that Russians and former residents of the USSR generally exhibit a proclivity for assimilation rather than forming tightly-knit diasporic communities abroad. Furthermore, second-generation migrants frequently achieve robust integration and do not substantially differ from their Finnish counterparts. For instance, as indicated by a survey by Cultura foundation, young Russian-speaking individuals holding Finnish citizenship display analogous lack of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, aligning with the sentiments of the broader Finnish populace. Despite this, external observers often artificially categorize this group as a diaspora, even though the distinguishing hallmarks typically associated with diasporas are not readily observable.

Bringing these factors together paints a complex picture of Russian speakers, marked by internal divides. A recent Taloustutkimus survey highlights this intricacy: merely a third acknowledge Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. On the other hand, most recent Russian migrants fault their government for attacking a neighboring state and jeopardizing both Russia’s and their own future. This starkly divides older migration waves from newcomers and also creates a generational gap in attitudes toward the war among Russian Finns. Those more nostalgic for the Soviet past, and possibly supportive of Russian aggression, tend to be long-standing Finnish citizens. While the Russian language facilitates connections, it’s unlikely to foster political unity. Instead, community formation is more influenced by profession, class, and generation than by affinity with Russia. The pre-war community displays considerable diversity, while newcomers tend to be more politically engaged, often espousing a robust anti-war standpoint and possessing a background in political resistance. An online survey of Russian migrants indicates that 47% of respondents regularly contribute to Ukrainian refugee causes, 46% donate to Russian civic organizations, 22% volunteer.

The number of Russian citizens applying for an asylum in Finland has increased from 207 applications in 2021 to 1172 in 2022.
Photo: Finnish Border Guard

Former Russian citizens residing abroad, particularly dual citizens (they can vote), are recognized for being utilized by the Russian state as agent provocateurs or representatives of pro-Russian factions. Such groups often leverage platforms like Rossotrudnichestvo and may gain popularity by exploiting local grievances while invoking sentiments of deprivation and Soviet nostalgia. Traditionally, Victory Day celebrations have been a common avenue for their visibility, including in Finland. Nevertheless, a last year endeavor to organize an automobile rally featuring Russian flags and Georgian ribbons failed to garner support or visibility, instead eliciting substantial resistance and disdain from both Finnish society and Russians in Finland. Russia’s ability to maintain ties with ’professional compatriots’ in Finland and other locales has significantly eroded.

The last remaining link that binds both old and new Russian-speaking residents to Russia is their familial connections. The ascent of transnational repression and efforts to prosecute Russian migrants overseas render these groups vulnerable. Recent incidents, such as the poisoning of Russian journalists in Germany, introduce fresh security challenges for Finland, warranting heightened attention.


Margarita Zavadskaya is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA). She has a Ph.D. in Social and Political Sciences (EUI, Florence).

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