Notes on a divided Europe from the Finnish frontier

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Greetings from Lappeenranta, in eastern Finland. Everyone is talking about the euro crisis, and the divisions between northern and southern Europe. But another European border is more evident here. The frontier between eastern and western Europe has been bitterly contested for centuries.

In the 20th century, argument over the location of that border cost upwards of a 100m lives. Timothy Snyder’s recent book, Bloodlands, recounts the tragedy of the contested areas in horrific detail. From 1948 to 1989, the border was as far west as it has ever reached following Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War.

Today the border has shuffled far to the east. America won the cold war and many Soviet satellite states were rapidly welcomed into the EU. But the line remains uneasy. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia seem fully attached to the western side, while Hungary is regressing towards totalitarianism. Several states further east are still uneasy partners in the new Europe.

The Finnish border is an anomaly. In 1918 the Finns won independence for a state that extended to the gates of St Petersburg. Russia captured territory in the 1939-40 Winter War. Finland then fought on the losing side in the second world war and remained neutral in the cold war. So the once thriving Finnish industrial city of Viipuri is today the depressed Russian outpost of Vyborg.

A cynical commentator on 20th-century history might observe that the political ineptitude of Kaiser Wilhelm and subsequently of Adolf Hitler brought America in on the opposite side of Germany’s quarrel with Russia in 1917 and 1941. Only when the democratic politicians of modern Germany made the rational alliance did Finland achieve the favourable political and economic outcomes it now enjoys. To pass the watchtowers and barbed-wire fences on the Finnish-Russian border is to be reminded of how fragile, and how recent, are the stability and security we take for granted today.

Three centuries ago, English and French forces engaged each other at Blenheim on the Danube’s banks to dispute Europe’s east-west border, for reasons that must have seemed compelling at the time. The poet Robert Southey described in “After Blenheim” how “with fire and sword the country road was wasted far and wide”. But three centuries ago such events had little enduring impact on the lives of ordinary people. Old Kaspar, who recalls the battle, is asked: “But what good came of it at last?” “Why that I cannot tell,” said he, “but ’twas a famous victory.”

In the 20th century political frontiers became a central influence on economic life. Old Kaspar’s work presumably consisted of providing food, fuel and shelter for his family. But with complex products, varied consumer tastes and low degrees of personal sufficiency, resource allocation became less of an individual enterprise, more one of the social and political environment.

That observation is evident on the Finnish-Russian border. The razor wire kept Russian citizens in when the living standards of planned societies and market economies diverged. But now the border is easy to cross and the gap in per capita income has narrowed, though not by much. The very different income distributions of egalitarian Finland and inegalitarian Russia can be seen in the car parks and designer shops of Lappeenranta.

In the Soviet era, Finland produced Marimekko; Russia made no clothes any fashion-conscious woman would want to buy. Post-Communist but still autocratic Russia made surveillance equipment; democratic Finland led the world in mobile phones. Today Russia’s geeks hack into your bank account, while those of Finland develop Angry Birds.

The pristine countryside of Finland contrasts with the degraded physical state of much of Russia: a demonstration of the unexpected finding that regulated democratic capitalism preserves the environment more successfully than any other system of government.

“But what they fought each other for, I could not well make out,” old Kaspar mused. In modern Europe, it is all too obvious what they fought each other for.

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