in Columns

Taking Note Spring 2016: Borderland riches and explorers’ instincts

by Elina Kahla

"Cultural exchange is a win-win proposition, and there are plenty of paths to explore for newcomers and old hands alike."

Europe is in a state of flux, and Finland, though far on its northern periphery, is not unaffected. Global crises and threats govern our thoughts, and cuts to public spending are eroding our cultural capital with unforeseeable consequences. And in this state of flux, what is the state of cultural cooperation between Finland and Russia, a traditional and perennially important tool for managing neighbourly relations? I write about the issue from the perspective of the Finnish Institute in St Petersburg.

In times of transition, cultural institutes all over the world are like tall trees rustling in the wind. The function of those of us operating these cultural institutes is to bring together scientists and artists, to foster dialogue and to create new things together.

For Finns, St Petersburg is an environment unlike anywhere else in the world. Russians, on the other hand, see Finland as a place that is close at hand, reliable, smoothly run, safe, exotic and easily accessible. Finnishness is regarded as a positive thing by Russians, who don’t see this former Grand Duchy on their western border as any kind of threat or challenge.

Not that Russia has any shortage of threats. Our Russian partners regularly comment: “Russia is muddling through difficult times.” Collaboration with foreign partners like us should not include any provocation. On the other hand, our partners in St Petersburg are seasoned veterans who can remember when things were much, much worse.

The City of St Petersburg makes huge investments in high culture, and the range of events is stunning. Given the number of violin-case toters, long-legged ballerinas, trend-conscious hipsters and subculture minions of all kinds thronging the streets of the historical city centre, one could be forgiven for imagining that half of the population must be involved in the creative sector. Finnish cultural operators in St Petersburg may be broadly divided into young, unprejudiced explorers and experienced old hands.

For young Finnish artistic types, a genuine interest in local affairs usually serves as a key to professional development and opportunities for collaboration. Actor Ville Haapasalo, who studied in St Petersburg, is a case in point. He made his breakthrough in the Russian film Peculiarities of the National Hunt (1995), and to this day Russians recognise him from that role.

Old hands are adept at leveraging their contacts under changing conditions. In the film industry, for instance, collaboration is alive and well. The creative sector can manage to get away with what might be impossible to achieve in the business world because of the sanctions currently in place.


In Russia, success is often summarised by the maxim “bigger, together”. Our recent high-profile exhibition of modern Finnish architecture and design was commissioned and largely paid for by the Hermitage Museum, and it has drawn huge crowds. A similar “wow” effect resulting from a major effort was the featuring of Russia as the theme country at the Helsinki Book Fair in autumn 2015, with personal appearances by more than 30 of Russia’s most exciting contemporary authors. Russia is politically distancing itself from the West but generates highly interesting literature; exceptionally many titles have been translated into Finnish in recent years.

Another natural framework for the “bigger, together” approach is the Nordic context. The Finnish Institute joined forces with the Danish Institute and the Klassika Orchestra for a joint celebration of the 150th anniversary of Danish composer Carl Nielsen and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.


From the perspective of St Petersburg, the question of European identity is never far away. Local residents are very much aware of the special status of their city; after all, the city was founded specifically for the purpose of creating a gateway to Europe. The city still embraces this mission: it manages contacts with the cultural heritage of Europe and safeguards the potential for future well-being.

In the European context, it is only natural that the Finnish Institute in St Petersburg, the Finnish Institute in Madrid and the Russian Art Museum in Málaga should collaborate to produce an exhibition entitled Border Identities, telling the people of Andalucía about Karelia, the borderland between Finland and Russia. The involvement of a third party, Andalucía, brings a new dimension and new questions to the project. How can a peaceful border be established in a borderland that is historically a theatre of conflict between civilisations? How can Europe, overwhelmed by a new wave of migration, introduce the newcomers to the values and character of their new homeland? These questions are too important to be left to decision-makers outside the realm of culture.


The Finnish Institutes around the world are currently preparing for the centenary year of Finland’s independence, 2017, under the theme “A Century Together”. In Russia, the theme is geared towards the cultural and economic history shared by Finland and Russia in the century during which Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire (1809-1917).

At the time of writing this, funding for events in the centenary year has not been confirmed. But uncertainty in practicalities does not prevent us from setting our sights high. At the core of all cultural exchange lies an interest in encountering something different. Cultural exchange is a win-win proposition, and there are plenty of paths to explore for newcomers and old hands alike.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi