Finland may be a well-known neutral nation, but beneath the surface is a country scarred by painful memories of war and fear of repeating history.
“This area has been under Russian and Swedish rule … so we know the conflict,” says Anne Sorsa-Vainikka, a military historical travel guide living near Lappeenranta near the Russian border.
“When we got our independence, we knew we needed our own army.”
Anne is one of the few Finns who can reveal the outposts of the country’s famous “Salpalinja”, a series of fortresses, bunkers and other defenses built during the Second World War.
He shows a carving on top of a cement shelter carved into the ground in a lakeside birch forest.
“This emblem is on almost every Fortress of the Salt Line,” he says.
Once again, residents of his border community are looking east for fear of what their neighbor is capable of.
Much of the Karelian region of Eastern Finland, where Anne grew up, was ceded to the Soviet Union as part of a wartime peace treaty in 1940.
“People are really scared to see Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine and what it has caused, and I think this activates the collective memory of many people,” Dr. Iro Sarkka from the University of Helsinki tells ABC.
“We would lose… and have had to pay really heavy compensation to the Soviet Union, nearly € 6 billion ($ A8.9b) in modern terms.
Finland has long been a country between East and West and more recently even in the role of mediator, Sarkka says.
However, this month the country made a monumental movement to abandon military non-alignment and join a North Atlantic Treaty organization like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France [NATO] defense alliance.
“Now we are taking the final steps to join the ranks of like-minded peoples … there is no going back now,” says Dr. Sarkka.
“Never again alone” when Finns give up neutrality
The silhouette of Helsinki reflects the many emperors who have taken control of the country.
The iconic Nordic designs are located next to the magnificent domes built for the oriental emperors.
The area was under Swedish rule for centuries, and after the brutal war, the people became part of the Russian Empire before the Finns became independent in 1917.
“There have been very tough times in Finnish history,” says Dr. Sarkka as he sits near Helsinki’s Senate Square.
In the middle of the public square is a constant reminder of life under Russian rule: a statue of Tsar Alexander II, then known as the Grand Duke of Finland.
Harry Blassar was a child when the Soviets dropped bombs on this part of Helsinki.
“It was such a sad thing we had to go through, so much hunger and sadness,” the 89-year-old says as he looks at the statue of Alexander II.
“My family fled to Sweden for a long time and the food was hard to come by and it was just very bad.
He says he is grateful to see his country try to join NATO “during my life.”
Ukraine’s war increases support for NATO efforts
“The memory that we had to fight and lost their national territory, and also so many souls, basically we never want to face that situation again,” Dr. Sarkka says.
A poll conducted by the country’s broadcaster showed that in May, 76 percent of Finns wanted to join the alliance, a dramatic increase from about 20-25 percent before the invasion of Ukraine.
Their application, which was made at the same pace as Sweden, has provoked a hostile response from Moscow. It warns of closely monitoring their common 1,300 kilometers of land border.
Finland has a large and strong artillery capacity and, despite a small country of about 5.5 million inhabitants, it has more than 900,000 military reservists – analysts say it will bring great power to the West.
Kremlin has threatened consequences if it sees military expansion in both countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that NATO enlargement in recent decades is one of the reasons for his attack on Ukraine.
The only possible block for national applications is from one Member State, Turkey. It threatens to exercise its veto over accusations of their membership that peoples are protecting Kurdish militants.
Finland feels the pain of Ukraine
“It’s never easy to leave home,” Tapio Koskinen, 68, tells ABC.
He visits old bunkers guarded by his father on the Salpalinja line of defense, in the Karelian region near Lappeenranta.
“My father and his family, they had to leave their community after their land was handed over to the Soviet Union… they became impoverished and moved around,” he says.
“You have to run away from home when you’re afraid of your life.”
When the territory of Karelia was divided, the land handed over to Moscow included Vyborg, the second largest city in Finland at that time.
Over the decades, Finns and Russians “learn to live side by side,” says Tapio.
“We didn’t love them, but we didn’t hate them, and Russian tourists came to visit this city and these places.
“Not anymore, though, it’s over again.”
The idea that Finland is only now “giving up neutrality” is too simple, Sarkka says.
“In our Continuation War [during World War II]we actually worked with Germany – before that we had support from Sweden in the fight against the Soviet Union. “
One thing he thinks is that Finns want to make it clear to the world: “We are a peaceful country. We just want to see peace in this region and in Europe.”