Date and place of birth: 1968, Uusikaarlepyy
Nils Erik Forsgård believes it’s time for the Finland-Swede community to stop acting like a hedgehog and open their culture to change.
SITUATED near the corner of Helsinki’s Annankatu and Boulevardi, the interior of the Swedish-language think tank Magma offers some remarkable contrasts. A large window frames the office of Magma’s director Nils Erik Forsgård, overlooking the graves scattered around Ruttopuisto (aka Plague Park). A glance into an adjacent room reveals a wall adorned with a disturbing photo of a woman, completely submerged by water.
Spending a few moments studying the complexities of the image as I wait for Forsgård to join me, I wonder if this is a bold statement reflecting the state of the Swedish language here in Finland: perceived by some as drowning in a Finnish-language bath that is filling at a rapid rate, coupled with an influx of immigrants arriving here choosing to integrate in Finland.
Given the presence of other, less confronting images hung on walls throughout the office space, it remains to be discovered exactly what is meant by this provocative image. Is this a deeply symbolic representation of the current status of the author and historian’s culture in Finland, as it drowns and gasps for air? Or is it, to put it simply, art for art’s sake?
Having just returned from Berlin earlier this afternoon, a city where he lived between 2001 and 2008, Forsgård is catching up on emails and paperwork in the few minutes before our agreed interview time. Apologising for keeping me waiting, he takes a seat across the table. The elephant in the room – the photo that looms behind me – is the first thing on the tip of my tongue.
I couldn’t help but wonder about this photo.
So do I, still. Every time I look up from my computer I see a drowning woman. I’m not sure what to do about it. There is an art institution called Pro Artibus, which, among other things buys art and sculptures from young artists. They also have a system where you can borrow these paintings from them for a year or so, to cover your white walls. These motives and photos were brought here without my knowledge. More or less. I’m the boss, so it tells a lot about me being in charge. [laughs]
You have been working here at Magma since returning from Berlin in 2008. What were you doing in Germany?
I was a guest professor in cultural sciences at the Department of Northern European Studies at Humboldt University. Berlin was a great time and place for me, and still is. I taught societies, politics, culture, movies and literature. I soon realised that many of the students had a pretty romanticised vision of the north. They could also tell me stuff, like, ‘I met a guy from Stockholm, and he was very much like an Ingman Bergman character.’ What I also noticed was that many people had a notion of the north based on Astrid Lingren’s stories for children, Pippi Longstocking, and so on. It’s actually a very interesting fact is that Lindgren’s stories were used to ‘denazify’ the German people after the Second World War. The whole concept of an idyllic small village with red small houses, with good-hearted people living there was something they tried to establish among the German young people after WWII.
How did you own culture as a Finland-Swede inform your lectures?
When I would introduce myself at parties it was a very common understanding of the Finland-Swedes that I belong to a posh culture. ‘You come from a culture that is slightly better than the Finnish speaking Finns.’ I don’t know where they got this idea. But I know that many Finnish-speaking Finns also have this idea of us Swedish-speaking Finns, that we feel superior to them. Sure, there might be some Swedish-speaking Finns who have this vision of the world, but you find strange and posh people anywhere. In general so many of us are very normal, regular people living our lives, trying to make end meet.
But it is still difficult to know what to say in response. You can’t start lecturing people to look at statistics and median income to see we are just like you are. We have a Swedish-speaking culture in Finland and that’s really all that makes us different. So many traits of the majority Finnish-speaking culture are in the Swedish-speaking culture, and the other way around. People don’t see these traits and elements in their daily life. And they don’t understand – in some cases don’t want to understand – these elements. But if you go to a small village close to where I come from, 100 kms inland from the coast, you will find villages where people speak a kind of dialect that is a high mixture of Finnish and Swedish. They use very many Swedish words, which they don’t even think about. They have been implemented in the language andused over many generations.
We, as Swedish-speaking Finns, also consider ourselves to be Finnish. We don’t want to make a big fuss that ‘we speak Swedish’. We just want a society where some fundamental rights are taken into consideration: healthcare, schooling. Otherwise we are just the same as the others.
How does Magma work for Finland-Swedes in Finland?
We are not so concerned with Swedish-speaking Finns, actually. This is not the object of our work. The element we work with is the Swedish language. We consider Swedish to belong to all of Finland. It is not only here in Helsinki or in places where you can speak Swedish that it exists. It exists everywhere in Finland. It is part of Finland and our history.
Magma is definitely not some kind of propaganda institute for Swedish language in Finland. We consider ourselves to be more of a research institute. We don’t belong to any political party, we consider ourselves to be neutral. We don’t have any agenda. What we are interested in and want to see is how the Swedish language can survive in Finland.
How can we legitimise the language as a living language when considering the fact that the number of Swedish speakers continues to stay the same, or grows a little, but not fast enough? As a percentage of the population it is diminishing all the time.
The culture is not going anywhere, but the relative importance is diminishing, due to the fact that we have immigration and that the Finnish-speaking population grows much faster.
The dimensions of the Swedish speaking population here can be likened to the same demographic problems that we have in Europe: we don’t fuck enough; we are not having enough children. This is one of the problems. Swedish speakers should start making love.
So Magma is confiscating all of the condoms around the country?
That’s our basic strategy. [laughs]
How do you preserve the language?
We can’t really do anything. What we can do is to observe any challenges or perhaps dangers when it comes to the circumstances where Swedish is spoken. One basic thing for keeping the Swedish culture alive is that there are solely Swedish-speaking schools. Without the Swedish educational system here and possibilities to go to school and study in Swedish, there would be no Swedish in Finland. Everything would erode and disappear within 100 years. The basis for the whole Swedish culture is the school system.
On the other hand it is very important that Swedish speakers learn Finnish and that at least some Finnish speakers learn a decent amount of Swedish. We made a report last year about bilingual schools. There’s a Finnish-French school, a Finnish-German school, all kinds of bilingual schools existing in Helsinki. But there is no Finnish-Swedish school, a school where you could use both of the official languages of Finland. This is partly because there is a sensibility among the Swedish speakers that we need those monolinguals schools where you can solely speak the language. And that is undertstandable. However, there is room for bilingual schools for Swedish and Finnish at the same time without risking the Swedish-speaking school system, or, for that matter, the Finnish-speaking school system.
Of course the minority is much more vulnerable than the majority. We are approximately 290,000 Swedish speakers; more or less the same amount as the Icelanders. Formally we are not even a minority. Swedish is the second official language in Finland and Swedish speakers in general certainly consider themselves to be Finns. But we are still in a minority position. Our challenge is this: European minorities, in general, can be found clustered together. But when you look at Finland we have one people, 5.5 millions Finns, living all over the country speaking Finnish and partly Swedish, with a certain tendency on the west coast and in the south and Åland Islands. We also have these language islands of Tampere, Jyväskylä and Lahti and so on, where you have a few thousand Swedish speakers.
Another dimension that we focus on here in Magma is the growth of immigration and integration into the Swedish-speaking culture.
Are there currently enough opportunities for this?
There are so many problems linked to this question. First, why learn Swedish if you come to Finland? Everything works in Finnish. Of course, if you go to Vaasa or Osthrobothnia you’ll hear Swedish spoken, but Helsinki is eroding. It used to be a very Swedish-speaking city. Things have changed very rapidly over the last two decades in Finland.
The other challenge is that the more immigrants we have, the smaller the Swedish-speaking minority gets. And, as Finland also has a shared history with Russia, can the Russians eventually say that Russian should be an official language of Finland? ‘If you say you have a shared history with Sweden, and that’s why Sweden is an official language in Finland, we also had 100 years with Finland. Shouldn’t Russians have the same rights as the Swedish-speakers when we move here?’ Actually, in the 19th century, many Russians immigrated into the Swedish-speaking community. Many old Russian families here are Swedish-speaking.
Nowadays, the new Russians coming to Finland tend to build their own Russian-speaking communities, rather than integrating with the Finnish-speaking population, or the Swedish-speaking population. So we have a new situation compared with what it used to be 150 years ago. The Russian-speaking minority is growing, just like many other minorities, and many Swedish-speakers would like at least some of these newcomers to integrate in Swedish. That would, of course, also boost our demography. Is this possible? Why should they have to learn Swedish? Why would they need to learn Swedish? The big problem is that you still need to know Finnish in order to make a decent career in Finland.
But the Swedish networks are pretty tight-knit aren’t they?
Yes they are.
Certain doors might open a little quicker in the Swedish-speaking community…
They might. But I’m not too sure about that either. It depends. Even though you would know Swedish, there is no certainty in you getting a good job anyway. You will still have to learn Finnish. I think that’s a problem: a situation where people could easily apply for good jobs is missing. On the other hand we have all of the other Nordic countries nearby. Some people argue by saying that you learn Swedish in Finland and you can then always move to the other Nordic countries, as there you can be understood and can use the language. But then again, why did you move to Finland in the first place? At least not to move away immediately. Anyway, the immigration policy of Finland sucks badly.
Why do you say that?
When we look at Sweden, a lot of the power in the Swedish economy is due to the fact that they have a lot of immigrants that have created their own business, who are doing their own thing, contributing to the Swedish economy in a very positive way. We should have the same, but we don’t have it as yet. In Finland we have a lot of people from other countries who make pizzas and drive taxis. It shouldn’t be that way. A doctor from Lebanon should not have to drive a taxi in Helsinki. We have not adapted to the new world in the right way as yet. We need to see the possibilities. It’s the same within the Swedish-speaking community; it’s not only the Finnish speaking community. The possibility to advance, fulfil your life and dreams, whatever they may be – Finland is still not good at that.
How can this be rectified?
I’m not sure. We should at least make life better for people who were not born here and come to this country where people are sneezing and freezing and it’s cold and dark half the year. Still they are brave enough to come here.
Here at Magma we have recently been looking closely at the integration of immigrants. How does it work? How can Finnish society boost careers for small businesses? What is the right way, what information is needed by newcomers in order to make a new life, to be more productive, more successful? How can we open up our own Swedish-speaking community for newcomers? How can we be welcoming? What is the way to do it without being pushy, or too eager? Just give people the opportunities.
I understand that the focus of your latest book, Finnish priest and a politician Anders Chydenius (1729-1803), had some innovative ideas on this issue.
He said something already in the middle of the 18th century that can be applied to the way that society could be today: take away the obstacles. People don’t ask for much, but they ask to be happy, earn a decent living. Make it happen. That was his basic message. He lived in a well-regulated society, to put it mildly, where the state was really intrusive and tried to check everything. His vision was to open up society. Open the gate. Let foreigners come here, Catholics and Jews. People today who consider themselves to be liberals find ideas in Chydenius’ writings that are applicable to their own way of looking at the world.
We at Magma consider ourselves to be a liberally minded think tank. So, open up this country, for God’s sake. Make it attractive for people coming from other parts of the world. We can afford it. It’s not a big deal. We should be more open-minded, and generous in general. What happened in the 200 years since Chydenius died up until now? This is the big question in Finnish history. What happened to his legacy, the spirit of entrepreneurship, taking away obstacles of living? It is a message that he shouts from the ages, coming from deep down the well of history.
You are also working on a book about Europe at the moment. As the foundations of Europe continue to wobble with issues such as immigration and the economy, how do you see the situation?
The problem with Europe right now is the European Union. What we see in so many countries is a tendency to oppose the doctrines of Brussels. So-called populism in Europe is a strong reaction to the centralisation of powers and the bureaucracy of Brussels. It’s also a mainstream thinking about Brussels today. It is not only Brussels that is thinking that Brussels is not a functioning system. Also normal politicians everywhere tend to think that Brussels is not working right now.
This is the red thread in Europe; from south to north we have a view that people look upon Brussels as a dysfunctional system. Something has to be done to fix Brussels. In the United States they talk about fixing Washington. In Europe we have Brussels. But do we believe in a restructured and reformed Brussels? Can we believe in it? What should be the method, the medicine? There is none. I haven’t seen anyone with a written paper saying that these things should be fixed in Brussels. A lot of people are criticising Brussels for the bureaucracy and for the money swallowing. What we don’t see is a clear agenda to fix these things.
What is interesting is that Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland used to be critical of Muslims; now they are critical of Brussels and Europe. This has changed in the last five years. This is a tendency I am writing about in my book: of seeing the monster in Europe, rather than the monster coming from abroad. Now we have the monster amongst us. What does this tell us? Why is it so? We are our worst threat ourselves according to these French and Dutch populists. The concept of populism is losing its edge, its meaning somehow. So many people that would never consider themselves to be populist, are thinking in the same way that the populists thought five years ago. So, where the populists go, we follow. Is that the kind of thing happening in Europe? That seems to be the tendency. If we want to know what Europe will be like in ten years, listen to the populists now, what the are saying. Then we will know what will happen in future in Europe.
While you are looking ahead, how do you see the future for Swedish language in Finland?
That’s a difficult question. I am optimistic and do not see any immediate and dramatic changes. But one thing that could affect us is things happening in Russia right now. What if we get a sudden influx of 50-100,000 political refugees from that big country?
You could see that as a threat to the whole nation perhaps. Nothing will happen with the Finnish language as there is a huge stable majority speaking Finnish as their first language. Finnish is a difficult, but very beautiful language. What will be needed for the Swedish speaking community is generousness, to be open-minded, inclusive. It is important to protect certain things such the Swedish-speaking school system. But we should also be generous to people coming here and seeking the Swedish-speaking culture.
I can see tendencies among Swedish speakers here; the need to protect their own culture makes us into hedgehogs. That is not the old way of the Swedish-speaking people in Finland. We cannot close our culture. It would be the stupidest thing to do in a world that is changing all the time. I sometimes feel we don’t have the ability to adapt fast enough to a changing world. It’s a slightly conservative culture.
Even though we have many excellent artists and writers, radicals in that sense. We call ourselves liberals, but many of us should also try to be liberals in real life.