Before I came to Finland to study I knew I wanted to see the world, but I thought I would start somewhere close – and close to my Russian Karelian culture. I have in some ways a special identity being Karelian.
I’m from the border region, from Karjala, so I can understand Finnish. I have some friends whose home language is Karelia and it’s similar to Finnish. These days we don’t have Karelia as the state language, but our identity is quite Finnish. My first birth documents are in Russian and Finnish and I remember when I was small I was brought to Finland for the first time and I knew how to say thank you, “kiitos”. This one word could earn me sweets, I realised, so as a child I would smile and say “kiitos” to please the adults in Finland.
People are deeply interested to see how we live in Karelia. They are kind of positively shocked when they visit. I have mixed cultures so I’m not 100% Karelian, but we never really discussed our identity at home, like “this is our identity and that’s not”. If I talk about citizenship I would say I’m Russian.
Recently I did a survey and there was this question, “where are you from?” Some people answered, “I’m from the University of Helsinki”, and others said, “I’m from the city”. It’s such a difficult question, because the answers can be anything. I have closer connections to Karelia than Russia, so I usually say I’m from Karelia to show that it’s my home and culture, in part because Russia is so big that it has so many cultures.
“People are deeply interested to see how we live in Karelia. They are kind of positively shocked when they visit.”
I came to Finland as an exchange student when I was 18. I moved to Joensuu in North Karelia, Eastern Finland. It’s a really small city. For a young lawyer I think it’s very important to translate your values into what you are doing and studying, and because I was really kind of an activist – I was in a recycling movement, I was planting trees on my own – I wanted to study something related to environmental law and climate change law. Going to Joensuu was pure excitement, because in Russia people don’t usually go to exchange. It was exciting to get the challenge.
In Russia they never actually had this kind of concept, like climate change law. So here I was in Joensuu, somewhere five times smaller than my home city and I came back to my university in Russia with new concepts. Many had never heard about this; they are a bit focused on this and that, but they never look at climate change as some kind of global problem affecting everyone. It’s interesting that you can study in a place like Joensuu – almost considered a village on a Russian scale – and still bring back new knowledge to the university. And because it was a new perspective, something different from environmental law and outside their daily scope, they really liked it, people were open.
Right now I’m at the University of Helsinki studying corporate law and I’m doing a traineeship for a Finnish company. I’m already between two cultures, because I have worked in Finland and in Russia, so I think it’s a good mission for me. Each lawyer can do pro bono work and I have helped really promising startups to develop their business, like really high tech startups. You just meet them and they describe their case and you think, “how did they come to this?” They are so young, some are younger than I am. But they are not afraid to do their own business, to go on pitching stage or ask for help to make sure their employee rights are protected. I think it’s a good way, a positive way for Finnish culture to evolve. I think it is the young generations that will drive the Finnish and international students to help different categories of people.
“I have helped really promising startups to develop their business, like really high tech startups. You just meet them and they describe their case and you think, “how did they come to this?” They are so young, some are younger than I am.”
I speak Finnish and I learned through good friends, chatting on messenger and Facebook, and now I’m surrounded by Finnish and Swedish language at work. When I was still in Russia I had some Finnish courses at university. In Finland there are summer universities. I went to one, a 3-week intensive course, and it was really interesting because it felt so typical Finnish. The first day they took us to the summer theatre and it was fully in Finnish and the next day we went to the cemetery and we had a 3-hour long discussion about the meaning of life and death and tragedy. In Finnish! I still remember, I was just a teenager and it was a complicated discussion, it was sunny, but I was in this cemetery and it was kind of so philosophic, but cultural.
I don’t like to think about myself as a high achiever. I got my first job in my professional field by sending a letter to the company and then already the same day I got a reply from their Russian office. I think everyone should be aware of a hidden jobs market, no one posts the jobs. You don’t get notifications. I actually first found out about the company through an advert in a newspaper. It was my first week in Finland and I got a student magazine. It was a glamorous magazine. They had done a cover photo and it made me feel like the company wanted to invest and look for future talents.
I miss family and friends, but I have freedom. We stay in contact all the time on social media. I can go home tomorrow and be with my friends. But I’m young and I may never have the chance again to travel or to study abroad. I just want to live abroad at this moment and do something that I could not have done in Russia. I’m the only child, we have a really small nuclear family. It’s difficult to be the only child. My parents always listened to me, they didn’t dictate what to do. They gave me choices. I don’t feel that I need to be with them right now, they are in there 50s. But you never know what happens. I don’t need to justify living in Finland to my friends, it’s just a choice. I explain what I like and don’t like in Finland, although they think I might have better options in Russia.
I think it is too early for me to settle anywhere. The world is changing and you never know where you end up. I think in Finland I can build the confidence for what happens tomorrow, so I feel prepared. There is such a high level of life quality here and Helsinki is so comfortable; that surprised me.
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This interview was recorded in 2017 in Helsinki by Peter Seenan. If you’d like to be involved in this official Finland 100 project please visit our contact page and submit the form.