What do the Russians think of Finland

Stressed relationshipsRussian vacation home owners not welcome in Finland

On the way to southern Finland's archipelago. Water taxi captain Matti Nieminen races through the island labyrinth at high speed, he knows this part of the Baltic Sea like the back of his hand. This time, Russian-born Olga Hannonen is his passenger. You want to go to a mysterious island that has upset Finland.

Arrival at the island of Säckilot, Nieminen slowly steers his boat to the starboard side on one of the jetties. Until recently, the island was owned by a wealthy Russian, but now it is for sale along with its neighboring islands. Nieminen looks around in astonishment: "There is room for at least 100 people. But in a completely remote place, without any connection to the outside world. That is really strange."

Raid on a private island with a helicopter landing pad

Even stranger: surveillance cameras planted on poles greet visitors. But they are switched off. In September 2018, special forces of the Finnish police stormed the island. Officially, the raid was about suspicion of tax evasion. In fact, there was more to it than that. The luxurious property with several small side islands, dozens of buildings, a conspicuously large number of jetties and a helicopter landing pad had raised the alarm bells for some security experts. Should a secret Russian spy base be set up here? The strategically important Baltic Sea route runs from the Gulf of Finland to the west in the immediate vicinity.

This article is part of a five-part series of reports on Europe's Real Estate Markets - Buy, Build, Exclude.

Shaking her head, Olga Hannonen walks past sauna huts that are covered with flecktarn and tries to peek into the apartment buildings through the dark windows. Again and again she pulls out her cell phone and takes photos. The young sociologist from the University of Eastern Finland came here to do research on Russian holiday home owners in Finland. Using this topic, she wanted to investigate what Finns and Russians think of each other. And only one in five Finnish holiday home owners stated that they had contact with Russian neighbors.

The mistrust runs deep

Even if the owner of this island, a native Russian with a Maltese passport, has denied any connection to the government in Moscow: The distrust between Finns and Russian holiday home owners is deeper than ever, says Hannonen:

"Lately, the issue has increasingly been linked to security issues. Especially after what happened in Crimea. One must not forget that the Finnish-Russian relationship has been strained by history. After the Second World War, Russia had one Part of Finland annexed. "

The eastern part of Karelia suffered particularly from the so-called "Winter War" against the Soviet Union in 1939. Finland had to cede parts of Karelia. Today the Finnish-Russian border crossing in the city of Imatra looks peaceful and relaxed. On the weekends, border traffic rolls here in both directions. Cars with Finnish license plates are the exception, those with Russian license plates are more the rule: Most Russians who cross the border here just want to shop in the supermarket with their Finnish neighbors. Others want to look around for a holiday home at one of the countless lakes.

(picture alliance / Photo: Fritz Schumann) Winter War - Sad marginal note of the Second World War
It was to be only a short campaign by the Soviet Red Army against Finland. But Stalin's giant army suffered heavy losses in the winter war against their defeated opponents.

"We Finns cannot buy real estate in Russia either"

Suna Kymäläinen has also observed this with suspicion for years. The 43-year-old social democrat, who has been a member of the Finnish parliament since 2015, grew up in the Finnish-Russian border region. Again and again she had campaigned for Russians to restrict property purchases. This could be a security risk, especially in the border area. After the excitement about the island of Säckilot, the government decided on restrictions last year. Kymäläinen smiles happily:

"The government has now stipulated that buyers from non-EU countries need a special permit if they want to buy a house or property near security-relevant locations such as military installations or radio masts. However, this will generally be prohibited in the future. Incidentally, we should point out the principle of reciprocity to the Russian side. After all, we Finns cannot buy real estate or land on Lake Ladoga or anywhere else in Russia. "

Still trying to be good neighbors

Officially, however, Finland is careful not to irritate its powerful neighbor too much. When Russian President Putin visited Helsinki in August last year, for example, the dispute over Russian property ownership was officially excluded. It was not known whether it was discussed behind the scenes.

Scientist Olga Hannonen followed the reactions of her Russian compatriots in Finland. Even if the rejection among Finnish neighbors is increasing, the Russians still feel a great appreciation for their host country. In a Facebook group in which Russian holiday home owners in Finland exchange ideas, Hannonen observed the reactions to the discussions:

"Those who already own a home in Finland are not afraid that the authorities will take their property away from them. They have a very positive image of Finland and they believe that the rule of law will resolve this issue."

Russian owner with a passion for islands

But Finns fear that too many foreign homeowners will infiltrate Russia. The suspected Russian owner of the island of Säckilot rejected the suspicions against him in an interview and stated that he only had a passion for collecting islands. And he also had an answer to the question of why he had nine oversized jetties built for his island: he just likes to swim from one jetty to the other.