My Scandinavia (III)

Lithuanian novelist and playwright Marius Ivaskevicius is highly rated in the Baltic States, Poland, and Hungary for his humorous observations of contemporary life. Now Eurozine publishes, in English translation, his seven-part Scandinavian travelogue. Here, he turns his attention to Finland, which, like Lithuania, has a history of embattled independence. The Swedes, meanwhile, are scathing about their neighbour’s unpolished charms; these are demonstrated to the author in convincing fashion by an actress from the Helsinki Theatre. At last, he writes, a nation that can hold their own with the Lithuanians over a round of drinks.

Reading Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography, Laterna Magica, one episode saddened me. In 1944, the twenty-six-year-old Bergman is offered to direct his first film. Everything seemed perfect, apart from the date – 1944. For me, there are some places and some dates that don’t connect with words or actions. And with other actions, it’s the opposite – you can’t separate them from their dates. (In 1944, the Soviet Army occupied Lithuania for a second time and mass deportations to Siberia were resumed.)

Once, I was reading about a Lithuanian lord from the Sapiega dynasty who died in Chernobyl. It seemed to me that even then, in the eighteenth century, the cause of his death might have been radiation poisoning.

The link between the eighteenth-century Chernobyl and the Sweden of 1944 is that in both these instances there is a demon that is etched deeply into our consciousnesses. With Sapiega, it’s the place; with Bergman, it’s the date. This is why, in 1944, it seemed like heresy to find yourself in the midst of creative torment, sitting with a script, assigning dialogue. The war in Europe, with all its bloody battles, concentration camps, was still raging – and there was Bergman, creating a film. At a time when all of Europe was killing itself, Sweden managed to remain neutral; it was the only country on the Baltic Sea that didn’t participate and wasn’t occupied.

But to stand in the centre of a blazing fire and hold your head up isn’t easy. You either have to help put out the fire or hand matches to those setting it alight. Most likely, Swedish neutrality won’t be recorded in history as a proud example. Sweden bowed to Hitler’s Germany. Later Sweden bowed to the conquerors – the Soviet Union – returning its war refugees from the Baltic countries. And so, looking at Sweden from the sidelines, one could say, Sweden committed a crime. But if you were a Swede and you were looking at the situation from the inside, you’d have to thank God and fate that you were living in Sweden and nowhere else.

A gathered skirt and a severed arm

In Sweden today, people rarely mention the Second World War. You can hear much more about it in Norway. But it’s the Finns who have the most to say about the wars of the twentieth century. In general, Finland is the only Scandinavian nation whose dependence on this region is historical and political.

We Lithuanians like to talk about Finland as a country that had the same historical chances as us, but unlike us, used them to their advantage. Indeed, there are many historical parallels. At the time when Polonization was underway in Lithuania, and the nation stood at the threshold of becoming completely Polish, the Finns were culturally dependent on the Swedes. Just as in Lithuania, the Finnish language was becoming extinct, and Finns were hurrying to change their surnames to Swedish ones. In the nineteenth century, when Lithuania underwent a national revival, Finland went through the same process. It’s true that Finland was a privileged province of Russia, and that Finland’s national rebirth was not suppressed as in Lithuania. The reason for this was that the Tsar wanted to use Finnish national rebirth to suppress the Swedish influence in the region, and to insure that Finland never annexed itself to Sweden.

Neither the uprising of 1831 nor the Polish and Lithuanian uprising of 1863 reached Finland. By contrast, the Finns even received privileges from the Tsar for enthusiastically helping to squelch these uprisings. And today, it seems, Finland doesn’t fret over the role it played in the nineteenth-century Russian empire. Proof of that is the monument to Tsar Alexander II in the most prestigious spot in Helsinki, the senate square in front of the cathedral.

Finland’s relationship with the Soviet Union in the twentieth century was quite different. The Finns declared their independence in 1917, a few months before the Lithuanians. However, there is a later page in Finnish history that we Lithuanians successfully avoided: civil war. A war between the whites and the reds, in which many Finns died, and which divided the nation for decades. The whites won, but even now when two Finns meet, there’s a good chance that one will ask the other, “And what side was your grandfather on?”

Most probably, the Finns won the most respect for their resistance to the Soviet Union in the Winter War that began in late autumn of 1939 and ended in the spring of 1940. It always comes up as an example to Lithuanians, and as a put down. They did it and we didn’t even try. In other words, the Finns didn’t agree with Moscow’s conditions, they didn’t give up without a fight, and just maybe that’s what saved them from fifty years of Sovietization.

In all the earlier wars, those of Russia’s enemies that hadn’t been defeated by the army were eventually defeated by the severe Russian winter. In the Winter War, the opposite happened. The Russians collided with a small enemy, but with one that was even better prepared for a hard winter than they. You could say that it was the first war in which snow, ice, and cold was not on the side of the Russians. Karl Gustav Manerheim and the other leaders’ gumption helped the Finns hold the south, and the northern winter, with waist-deep snow, protected the thousand-kilometre long forested eastern border with Russia.

During this war, Finland lost Vyborg, at the time its third largest city, and a large area of territory in the north with a passage to the Bering Sea. On the map of pre-war Europe, Finland looked like a girl with a long puffy skirt, holding both her arms up in the air. The war with Moscow cut off the left corner of her skirt, together with the shoreline of lake Ladogo and her left arm, reaching all the way to the Bering Sea. During the Second World War, Finland joined forces with Nazi Germany more out of common ideology with Berlin than out of the need to protect its territory from Moscow. Finland used the situation to try to take back its severed arm and the hem of her skirt. When the tide of war changed, Finland had no choice but to turn around and join the anti-Hitler coalition. When an elderly Englishman, Frenchman, or American says that he participated in the Second World War, there’s no doubt who he fought against. But if you ask a Finn, then you need to ask for clarification.

Swedish-Finnish relations

When I’d ask the Finns if they felt as though they were living at the edge of Europe, they’d jokingly answer, “No problem. We’ve got Nokia.” But, after spending more time with them, I’d notice that the Finns themselves didn’t always find a place for Finland in their idea of Europe.

I was in Helsinki after the opening of the play “Q”, and the young sound engineer was celebrating her first professional opening in a bar. We were sharing stories about travelling. She’d always begin, “When I travel to Europe…”, or “When I’m in Europe…”. I asked her where she drew Europe’s borders. She thought about it. “Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania are not in Europe – no way. Those are the Baltic States. Poland? Maybe. Germany, now that’s Europe, one hundred percent. Even Denmark is Europe. But Sweden? No. Sweden’s Sweden.”

The Finnish opinion of the Swedes is peculiar. I can never explain it. It would be too strong to say they were enemies. Brotherly? I’m not so sure. All nations have old scores to settle with their neighbours, and that’s become the basis of so many stereotypes and jokes. Let’s say that the relationship between Swedes and Norwegians is one of teasing. But the Finnish view of Swedish is twofold. The fact alone that Finland has two state languages – Swedish and Finnish, even though only six percent of the population is Swedish, demands respect. Not many nations can boast of that kind of tolerance towards minority groups from nations right next door. True, for six hundred years Finland was part of Sweden, but at the same time, Finland’s Swedes, who mostly live along the Gulfs of Bothnia and Finland, as well as the Aland Islands, lived here for many centuries. And so, on the one hand, that type of bilingualism seems natural. But, if you were to take that example and apply it to Lithuania, and require that underneath the sign for “Vilnius”, “Wilno” appears, and under “Kaunas”, “Kowno”, it would be uncomfortable.

However, besides the extraordinary tolerance of the state, unofficial opinion and emotions run rampant. “Swedes are arrogant”, “Swedes are conceited” – I’ve heard people say these things in Finland. I’ve also heard this one: “Swedes drink as much as Finns, only a Finn will vomit right at the table, but a Swede will gather all his remaining strength, stand up, and leave elegantly, singing a song. The content is the same, but the aesthetic is different.” There’s an element of irony in that statement, but also a lot of provincialism. Then I’ve heard: “If a Swede wants to curse, he’ll say ‘jevlia‘ and there’s no effect, but a Finn will slam his fist on the table and say, ‘perkele‘ in a threatening voice.” Once, an actress from the Helsinki theatre demonstrated that “perkele, perkele” to me and the table almost splintered. It was impressive, I had to admit.

The Finns talk about the Swedes the same way that a peasant would talk about someone from the big city. After all, for many centuries the Swedes made up Finland’s elite, until finally the Finns were able to resurrect some of their few original characteristics from their almost completely assimilated villages. You can find those same attitudes towards Poles in Lithuania. The Lithuanian word “slekta” once referred to a person who belonged to the nation’s elite, but now is used to poke fun at Lithuanian Poles. Like the Finns, we experienced cultural assimilation that almost ended in our extinction. And both nations, which were only restored through traditions that remained alive in the villages, continue to size up their cultural occupiers, not through a nationalist lens, but more through one of a peasant-gentleman dichotomy.

The Finn’s outward appearance differs from other Scandinavians. One Lithuanian girl admitted to me once that all the Norwegians and Swedes look as though they had one father. I’ve heard what Lithuanian men have had to say about Scandinavian girls: “They’ve all got big faces.” Of course, those kinds of generalizations and stereotypes are nothing new. Even the myth that all Scandinavians are blonde is more myth than fact. There are probably more blondes in Lithuania or Poland. In the Swedish and Norwegian north it can even be hard to find a blonde. The Scandinavians themselves attribute that to their old seafaring traditions. Sailors from the Mediterranean countries would add to the local genetic code. Just like the Vikings produced blondes all along the coasts.

And after all, one can talk about outward similarities between Scandinavians, that unseen facial muscle or wrinkle, from which you can identify one as Scandinavian. But the Finns differ in their outward appearance. Their personalities differ too. The Finns were the easiest for me to get along with. I was able to overcome the distance that separates people from different cultures and traditions easily there.

Live suitcases from Finland

But the very first Finns I met didn’t leave a great impression on me. That was almost twenty years ago in Leningrad. Doctors from the town of Moletai and their families through some error were put into one of Leningrad’s best hotels, Pribaltskaya. When we pulled into the parking lot in our broken down Laza bus, a Western bus with Finnish license plates pulled in behind us. At the time, I was ten and very curious about every foreigner I saw. The bus opened its doors and completely drunk teenagers rolled out of it. I’m not exaggerating. They fell on top of each other like suitcases. Then they pretty much crawled on all fours towards the hotel door.

Alcoholism is a problem in Finland. It’s also a problem in Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It’s a problem all northern countries have with their long, depression-inducing winters, with short days and very little light. During those times, alcohol becomes the fastest way to get back into a temporary light. That’s why these countries’ governments try to curb alcohol consumption by raising the prices and in other ways. In the nineteenth century, when Motiejus Valancius was just beginning to propagate ideas of abstinence, in Scandinavia the governments had long been battling drunkenness on a state level. However, the end result of all these anti-alcohol policies is that, these days, Scandinavians are more likely to drink beer than stronger drinks.

I’m one of those people who rarely goes out to a bar, but if I do, the whole night doesn’t seem like long enough. Usually, by dawn I’m looking for companions. This didn’t work well for me in western Europe, where people traditionally take their time when drinking, slowly sipping and tasting their drinks. While westerners are finishing their first beer, I’m looking around for my third. And then I have to guiltily look them in the eye and admit that I’m not an alcoholic, just that where I come from people are used to drinking fast. But in Finland it’s different. At Finnish parties I was one of the first ones to get up and go home. Even Finnish women finish off a bottle of beer faster than me. That calmed me down more than the beer. It meant I was normal. A normal northerner trying to lighten himself up on the inside on a long, dark northern evening.

Published 17 October 2005
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Laima Sruoginis
First published by Siaures Atenai 08.05.2004 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Magyar Lettre Internationale © Marius Ivaskevicius/Siaures Atenai Eurozine


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