Arto Mustajoki, a globally-renowned scholar of Russian studies, a member of the Finnish Research and Innovation Council, chair of the board of the Academy of Finland and author of a book about Russian language, was nominated for the prestigious Tieto-Finlandia literature award last year. He took some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts on the changing perceptions locally of Russia.

Arto Mustajoki believes the mother tongue of our eastern neighbour will begin to gather popularity in Finland.

Arto Mustajoki, a globally-renowned scholar of Russian studies, a member of the Finnish Research and Innovation Council, chair of the board of the Academy of Finland and author of a book about Russian language, was nominated for the prestigious Tieto-Finlandia literature award last year. He took some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts on the changing perceptions locally of Russia.

Is it true that initially you were interested in Russian language as a form of personal rebellion against your parents?

Yes, that’s true. During that time, studying Russian was considered to be communist. Frankly speaking, I didn’t have any political convictions, but for me it was a form of protest. My father was a Lutheran priest and I was a good child. Then after school I wanted to shock my family, but they never condemned me for it.

Earlier, only left-wing parties and fringe politicians might have supported the idea of studying Russian language in Finland. How is the situation changing at the moment?

In this respect the situation has changed dramatically. In the Soviet time, it is true, only left-wing politicians endorsed partnerships with Russia and studying its language. However, now, the right-wing party Kokoomus and Elinkeinoelämän Keskusliitto (The Confederation of Finnish Industries) are favouring Russian language. This is because they realise that it helps Finnish business.

In my point of view, the most notable example of this trend is President Sauli Niinistö’s efforts to study Russian.

Of course, but he is not the only one − Mauno Koivisto, as I know, was able to read and even studied Russian history in Russian and is still doing it. I also worked with a woman who was Tarja Halonen’s Russian teacher when she was between the ages of 25-30. And Niinistö is interested as well.

Not only interested, but actively practising.

He does his best.

So is it true then that the Finnish government has realised the importance of knowing Russian for Finland?

Yes, some 15 years ago our minister of education Olli-Pekka Heinonen – a wise and far-seeing person – took part in a meeting with his counterparts from the eurozone. When it came to Russia, everybody asked him, ‘You are truly familiar with Russia. Please, inform us about what is happening there’.

At that moment Heinonen realised that if we have such a reputation, we should capitalise on it. When he returned home he started establishing the Alexanteri Institute, a state-financed independent Centre of Russian studies. I held the office of the Vice-Rector at that time, and I know this story very well. From that time the institute has been actively functioning.

We have a lot of specialists on Russia. This is the field in which we are a ‘superpower’, if I may coin a phrase. In other research fields our contribution is, on the global scale, about one per cent, but in Russian studies it is about five per cent. There still are some gaps in our knowledge on Russia; for example, we have too little research and specialists on Russian law and market analysis.

You have also developed a new centre of excellence on Russian modernisation. What can you tell about that?

Indeed, the centre was established after a very hard competition on a special six years grant in the Academy of Finland. The Centre is a joint effort of several actors. The activities are co-ordinated by the Aleksanteri Institute. Getting the status and resources of a centre of excellence is an indication of the high level of Russian studies in Finland. There are five group leaders in the centre: top-level researchers in sociology and political studies. I am in charge of the cluster on philosophical and cultural interpretations of Russian modernisation.

But as you once mentioned, regardless of an impressive amount of theoretical and academic knowledge, ordinary Finns do not know very much about their eastern neighbour.

Not only regular people – knowledge produced by researchers does not often reach even policy-makers and businessmen. It is a global problem that the academic world tends to live ‘separately’ from the outside society. Personally, I see the knowledge transfer as an important part of my job. I often hold speeches for varied audiences covering, for instance, topics about the differences between Finns and Russians.

In an attempt to convey this theoretical knowledge, you offered to inaugurate an annual Russian fair to exchange ideas.

It is not a fair as such, in Finnish it is gathering around venäjä osaaminen. It is difficult to translate; it is more related to a think-tank on Russia and knowledge. The idea is to summon politicians, officials, researchers, businessmen and head-hunters who are interested in Russia, and to share visions and knowledge.

Do you think that the impetus behind the interest in Russian is generated by purely economical reasons or the changing attitudes towards Russians in general?

I think that many factors are intertwined here. It is true that the attitude towards Russians is gradually normalising, and in normal relations common sense wins, not emotions. When common sense wins, we will realise that we have here a big neighbour and a big market. So, it is foolish to know nothing about it. Recently I held a meeting with the Spanish ambassador and it was about the language mission of Finland. She asked if there are many Finnish people who know Russian. I said around two per cent. She replied with amusement that this is just unreasonable, and stated that we really should learn Russian.

In my classification, there are four groups of Finns when it comes to the attitude towards Russia: enthusiasts, who admire Russian culture; pragmatics and realists, who see the value of Russia for Finland; those who are indifferent trying to forget the existence of Russia; and, finally, people who really hate Russia. From what I understand, the number of realists has been growing in recent times.

Can the number of realists explain the initiative of regions in Eastern Finland to inaugurate the Russian language in schools?

Sure, for them it is clear. They see Russians everyday.

Do you think this day-to-day personal contact is prevailing over the media? In the national branding theory, there are two primary sources of information about other cultures − mass media and personal contact. Media reports about Russia in Finland mostly have negative overtones. Maybe because scandals and negative news are more interesting to ordinary people, aren’t they?

Personal contacts and media matter of course. In the absence of personal contacts one tends to rely on the media. These persons are very easy ‘victims’ for media. If a person has already-formed stereotypes and media acts to enhance then, it is easy to adopt an attitude that you know everything and that there is no need to reflect on various issues. However, if one knows Russians and has close contacts, media reports become overshadowed. In my opinion, even negative reports are proving that Russia is an important country for us.

Concerning the Russian language, it is traditionally considered as extremely tangled and difficult for foreigners.

Our people still have strange a perception of Russian language: that it is difficult – every language is difficult in my opinion – or that it takes a special person to study Russian. We have also strange conceptions about the significance of knowing Russian. I got a letter from a reader who wrote that he knows Russian and can’t find a job, so his conclusion is that we don’t need Russian-speaking Finns. My answer was that we have more jobless people with good knowledge of English, so what? It is a deceptive perception that, if you know Russian, all doors are open to you. It is not true. Apart from the Russian language people should study other things. I try to explain that Russian language is just a skill that improves your chances in the competitive job market.

Did you try to convey this idea in your Tieto-Finalndia award-nominated book Kevyt kosketus venäjän kieleen (Slight touch upon Russian language)?

In my book, I offer the Russian language to the reader in a different form than what has been done previously. I tried to convey some ideas with humour and draw attention to similarities between the Finnish and other languages. And other things – which are different – are just fascinating and evoke positive feelings. The book happened to be astonishingly popular – the first edition was sold out in the first month even before being nominated for Tieto-Finlandia. And I have received a lot of feedback. In fact, I have never received so many reactions to my work.

But Russian language is not confined chiefly to Russia. You have had a number of lectures about Russian language abroad.

Bishkek, Alma-Ata, Budapest, Gothenburg, Warsaw, Basel – a number of cities – and everywhere about Russian language. But sometimes I wear another hat. In April I will go to Saudi Arabia to present a paper on the relationship between research and society.

I asked because of the resent ban of Russian as an official language in Kyrgyzstan.

Concerning the situation with Russian language in different countries – in the south or in the Baltic states – it is not normal. But it is politics. A language is often politics.

But here in Finland is the future of Russian language positive?

I am sure that interest will grow. I don’t know what steps and measures the officials will take, but interest in the Russian language is gaining momentum.

Text and photo Evgenie Bogdanov