Russian at Finnish border: If things were different, I wouldn't have left

Vyacheslav Goncharov at a border checkpoint at the Finnish-Russian border.
Vyacheslav Goncharov at a border checkpoint at the Finnish-Russian border. Source: ERR

Last Thursday, Finland closed its border to Russian tourists. Residents along the border feel for those Russians fleeing President Vladimir Putin's military mobilization, but expect Russians to end the ongoing war in Ukraine themselves. Those fleeing Russia, however, have lost faith in their country as well as the people's ability to bring about positive changes.

The Finnish-Russian border is located a two hours' drive east of Helsinki. To the right of a road along the border is a restricted area, and visitors are not permitted on their property without official authorization. There are no border guards in sight, but the seeming lack thereof here is deceptive — should anyone go wandering along the wrong side of the road, local residents can summon a patrol, and the unauthorized visitor may be hit with a fine.

No one from this side of the border tends to head that way, and the other side handles those who would come from there. Things have been peaceful here since the Winter War, which ended in early 1940.

"Until this Ukraine thing began," local resident Riina Koskela told ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera" in Estonian. "One of my jobs was with Raja [the Finnish Border Guard], where I handled Russian tourists. There were tax-free shopping clients and tourists, and they are very friendly and very nice people. What happened with Ukraine — that's like a shock."

Riina and her spouse Timo have lived here on the Finnish-Russian border for 14 years. They believe that the border should be closed, albeit things are quiet here.

"If 40,000 have already crossed over, then there may be untrustworthy people among them," Timo Koskela said.

"I do believe that [the border] should be closed," Riina Koskela said. "Because the Russians themselves also have to... This thing has to change from the inside. We can't change anything from abroad."

Who should be changing this thing in Russia? Those who had arrived in Finland from Russia had lost faith that anything would change in their homeland.

"The situation has gotten to the point that, to be honest, there unfortunately aren't actually any signs of improvement to be seen," said Vyacheslav Goncharov, a Russian citizen who crossed into Finland. "If the situation were different, I wouldn't have left."

Based on what Goncharov told AK, Russians leaving the country right now aren't fleeing merely from Putin, but also from their own compatriots, in particular from the older generation. Those leaving have lost all faith in everything they are leaving behind them.

"They watch TV, and on TV is massive propaganda in just one direction," he said, describing other Russian residents. "I don't think people even want to know what reality is. Some seek other sources of information, but others have become locked — I don't even know how to describe this — into the prison of their own mind."

Igor, meanwhile, is not afraid of Russia's mobilization; he has previously served in the Israeli Army. He spends his summers vacationing and foraging for mushrooms in Russia. He thinks Russians in the homeland are confused.

"Opinions are divided," he said. "Some are in favor, some are against. Some keep their opinion to themselves. There's a wide range of different views there; the people don't have a common understanding."

'My family is still in Russia'

A hostel located a couple dozen kilometers away from the Vaalimaa border checkpoint is full of Russians, the families of many of whom stayed home. Now that the Finnish border has closed, they are working on figuring out what to do next.

"I've been here for three days already," Alexander said. "I don't have any definite plans right now. This situation is a mess. My family is still in Russia, in St. Petersburg."

Russians who used to cross the border into Finland are used to coming and enjoying the free world. For St. Petersburg residents, Estonia is part of that as well. Alexander doesn't consider Estonia a country to which NATO has expanded.

"We see a European country," he explained. "We're likewise trying to become a European-like country, but it isn't really working thus far."

Many arrivals are happy to spill their guts upon finding a Russian-speaker on the Finnish side of the border, but of these, many in turn refuse to speak on camera, as they may have to go back to Russia at some point.

Speaking with a few people willing to take the risk, AK asked who they believed should win Russia's war in Ukraine, and what are their hopes for next spring.

"The Ukrainians have to win," Goncharov said. "Sense must prevail in this war. All of this is meaningless and horrible."

"Actually I'd like to be in my hometown in Russia next spring," Alexander added. "And that there would be peace, like before."

200,000 flee from Russia

Since Russia's partial military mobilization was announced on September 21, plenty of images from the Russian border have reached the media depicting thousands of Russians, primarily military age men, attempting to flee their homeland to neighboring countries. Precise figures are difficult to find, however the scale for the first week was in the range of a combined nearly 200,000 people leaving Russia.

According to the Associated Press' data, Kazakhstan has been the most popular land route out of Russia, with Kazakhstan's Ministry of Internal Affairs reporting the arrival of 98,000 Russian citizens in their country.

Another popular route has been Georgia, into which 53,000 Russian citizens have crossed, and an additional some 3,000 Russian citizens have arrived in Mongolia.

In high demand are plane tickets to destinations still being served from Russia and where Russian citizens can enter without a visa, including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. 

Raja: Eastern border entries down

Since restrictions imposed in accordance with a government resolution entered into force last week, the number of entries of Russian citizens into Finland has decreased significantly, the Finnish Border Guard reported on Monday morning.

This past weekend, 1,285 Russian citizens entered Finland via its eastern border on Saturday, and another 1,272 entered on Sunday, down from 8,582 on Saturday, September 24 and 8,318 on Sunday, September 25, respectively.

Some 43,000 Russian citizens had entered Finland since the announcement of Russia's military mobilization. Finland required a visa issued by an EU member state for entry.

Click here for more information about Finland's entry restrictions.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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