By Tianjian Si
This paper compares Finland and Ukraine’s approaches to memory conflict in relation to Russia. The paper first explores sources of memory conflict, how political actors reshape the historical narrative regarding the historical conflicts, and the strategies the political actors adopt for such memory manipulation, respectively, from the perspective of Finland and Ukraine. Then, the paper analyses the factors underlying these two countries’ distinct approaches to memory conflict. Ultimately, it is concluded that the pursuit of different national identities and difference in the domestic political systems underlie Finland and Ukraine’s contrasting approaches to memory conflict, with Finland adopting a reconciliatory stance and Ukraine engaging in a war over memory.
The subjective nature of perspective allows individuals to have different understandings of the same historical event, and how people collectively remember the past always has political ramifications. Alternatively referred to as ‘historical memory’ or ‘social memory,’ collective memory describes the ways in which groups, collectivities, and nations construct and identify with particular narratives about historical periods or events (Roediger, 2016). Collective memory is intrinsically linked to contemporary world politics since people’s present identities and views of the other are heavily influenced by the past (Forsberg, 2004). Consequently, many states and political leaders engage in politics of memory, curating collective memory to the political advantage of the regime. A live example would be the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, for whom reformulating the historical narrative is a means to justify the state’s foreign policy (Besliu, 2022). The researcher takes politics of memory to refer to the organization of collective memory by political agents, using propaganda and other means to promote a specific version of history with the goal of eliminating competing perspectives of the past.
Taking this definition, this paper primarily investigates what happens on the frontiers of the politics of memory, namely, the memory conflict. The researcher takes memory conflict to mean the conflicting collective memories of past conflicts. Memory conflict is an integral component of collective memory and political actors should approach the issue carefully because the way that people remember past conflicts with another state may significantly undermine mutual cooperation in cases where common interests would otherwise exist (Forsberg, 2004). Since memory conflict plays a pivotal role in contemporary struggles concerning international relations, the way states approach memory conflict has abundant research value.
According to Forsberg (2004), sources of memory conflict include wars of aggression, massacres and other war crimes, grave human rights violations, deportation, and stolen territory or property. There are three ways in which the memory of the historical conflict between two states influences the current bilateral relations. Firstly, psychological traumas prevent normal behavior in the traumatized subject. Secondly, historical memory burdens bilateral relations as one state demands restitution for the perceived historical wrongs. Thirdly, memory conflict undermines cooperation since the way the state deals with its past wrongdoings is regarded as a sign of its trustworthiness (Forsberg, 2004).
Applying this theoretical perspective to contemporary world politics, Finland and Ukraine are two relevant research subjects. Both states had historical conflicts with their dominant and aggressive neighbor, Russia. These two states, however, deal with their memory conflict in contrasting ways. This paper will compare Finland and Ukraine’s approaches to memory conflict in relation to Russia. Specifically, it is divided into two main sections. In the first section, the researcher will explore sources of memory conflict, how political actors reshape the historical narrative regarding the historical conflicts, and the strategies the political actors adopt for such memory manipulation, respectively, from the perspective of Finland and Ukraine. In the second section, the researcher will analyze the factors underlying these two countries’ distinct approaches to memory conflict. Ultimately, it will be concluded that the pursuit of different national identities and difference in the domestic political systems underlie Finland and Ukraine’s contrasting approaches to memory conflict, with Finland adopting a reconciliatory stance and Ukraine engaging in a war over memory.
Finland’s Approach to Memory Conflict
The ostensibly amicable and stable relationship between Finland and Russia is to some extent misleading in the sense that many onlookers assume these two countries have been friendly neighbours throughout history. However, the opposite is in fact the case. Finland and Russia have had several major conflicts since 1930s, leaving a heavy memory burden on citizens of both states. The current amicable relationship can partly be attributed to Finland’s reconciliatory approach to addressing its memory conflict with Russia.
In the past century, Finland has fought two major wars with Russia, namely, the Winter War (1939 to 1940) and the Continuation War (1941 to 1944). The Winter War started when the Soviet Union invaded Finland at the end of November 1939 (Andrews, 2016). Although the invasion proved to be prohibitively costly to the USSR with more than 120,000 deaths, Finland suffered heavy losses as well, as 26,000 Finns died, and approximately 400,000 were injured in the brutal war (Jowett & Snodgrass, 2006). At the conclusion of the war, Finland ceded 9 percent of its territory to the Soviet Union (Massari, 2015). 15 months after the end of the Winter War, however, the Continuation War began with Finland, attempting to regain the territories, joining Germany’s invasion of the USSR. 63,000 Finns died and 158,000 were wounded in the war (Kinnunen, 2012). The Continuation War ended with the signing of the ‘Moscow Armistice’ on September 19, 1944 (Hannikainen, 2020).
The two Soviet-Finnish wars are a source of memory conflict between Finland and Russia. As a result of the wars, Finland lost the Karelian Isthmus and other eastern areas inhabited almost entirely by ethnic Finns, including Finland’s second-biggest city, Vyborg (Forsberg, 2004). More than 400,000 people lost their homes and were resettled in the remaining Finnish territory (Forsberg, 2004). Even now, Karelian Isthmus remains in the hands of Russia – despite many Finnish citizens’ desire to reclaim it. Russians and Finns have disparate views of the event. Russians believe the Winter War was launched by the Finnish armed forces that opened fire across the border. Finns, however, perceived the war as one-sided aggression by the Soviet Union and a violation of the bilateral non-violation treaty. Over time, the Soviet-Finnish War has been deeply ingrained in Finland’s national memory where it is remembered as Soviet aggression, targeted towards an innocent victim. Therefore, the war and its outcome are deemed as deeply unjust by Finns (Forsberg, 2004).
Despite historical conflicts with Russia, Finland has adopted a policy of reconciliation in order to overcome the memory conflict. Although Finland’s government cannot change the past, it is able to change the way in which Finns remember it publicly and give significance to past events. Finland conducted a policy of friendship with the Soviets throughout the Cold War, as President Paasikivi announced in 1955, “friendly discussions and judicious settlements are the course which has to be taken in the arrangement or our affairs with the Soviet Union” (Allison, 1985). One strategy the then-Finnish government adopted to reshape the historical narrative was to punish political actors responsible for sparking hostilities with the Soviets. In the Finnish war-responsibility trials from 1945 to 1946, 13 Finnish politicians, amongst them war-time President Risto Ryti, were convicted as war criminals (Tallgren, 2013). In doing so, Finland sought to cleanse its own history and politics of anti-Soviet sentiment.
It is, however, worth noting that the memory of the Soviet-Finnish War did not vanish despite this policy. As the prominent Finnish diplomat and pundit, Max Jakobson (1992), acknowledged in 1987, the Winter War was still a neurotic issue that burdened the relationship. Despite these sentiments, the friendship policy was supported by the masses, owing to which the old enemy image was kept at bay and the whole nation took genuine steps towards reconciliation.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Finland’s public narrative towards Soviet/Russia spontaneously changed. In a trend many scholars describe as ‘westernizing,’ there was a neo-patriotic turn in collective representations of the past (Browning, 2002). Discussions started in the media about the loss of Karelia in March 1940. The Finnish leaders that had been convicted as war criminals were rehabilitated and regarded as patriotic heroes. The war crimes of Soviet partisans against the Finnish civilians in Lapland were taken up as a forgotten issue in light of new research (Forsberg, 2004). Despite the turn in the public narrative, the Finnish official policies maintained their reconciliatory stance. Finland’s official policy included facilitating border crossings and creating possibilities to visit old home sites or battle sites in the former Finnish territory, as well as renovating cemeteries and other cultural monuments together with the Russians. The government also quietly encouraged joint Finnish-Russian research projects on the Second World War (Blomberg, 2011).
As a study on Finland’s national identity-making shows, three-quarters of Finns disagreed with the claim that Finns are people without any major collective traumas (Aaltola, 2011). However, crucially, the traumas were felt more by the older generation rather than being a trans-generational phenomenon (Aaltola, 2011). Therefore, it can be argued that the reconciliatory approach to memory conflict adopted by the Finland government indeed helps to heal the historical trauma and ease the memory burden through the passage of time. Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen’s remark when participating in the unveiling of the first Winter War memorial in the Karelian Isthmus in 2000 effectively summarized the effect of Finland’s reconciliatory approach – ‘peace and reconciliation had won in the Finnish-Russian relations’ (Ahtiainen, 2000).
Ukraine’s Approach to Memory Conflict
In contrast to Finland, which adopted a reconciliatory approach to the memory conflict in relation to Russia, Ukraine has assumed a more uncompromising attitude in dealing with the memory conflict with its powerful neighbor. In fact, despite the current fighting over territories, Ukraine and Russia have long since been engaged in a fierce war over memory.
Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and USSR before it claimed independence in 1991. Nevertheless, a history of sharing statehood does not mean there have been no historical conflict between Ukrainians and Russians. One major source for the memory conflict between Ukrainians and Russians dates back to the 1930s, during which all Soviet grain-producing areas experienced severe famine (Johnson, 1986). Ukraine, in particular, suffered the most from the Great Famine. Even though the precise number of deaths remains unknown, scholars believe 3.5 to 7 million Ukrainians died (University of Minnesota College of Liberal Art, 2018). Ukraine and Russia have offered contradictory explanations for the cause of the Great Famine. Together with most western countries and scholars, Ukraine claims that the Great Famine was a man-made genocide engineered by the Soviet government of Joseph Stalin which feared Ukraine’s strengthening cultural autonomy and its national counterrevolution (Besliu, 2022). Since 2006, Ukraine has officially classified the Great Famine as a targeted genocide against Ukrainians (Besliu, 2022). Russia, conversely, has sought to silence and refute the accusation by stressing that ethnic Russians also died of hunger during the same period in other parts of the USSR (Besliu, 2022). Despite the competing narratives on the event, the Great Famine remains an intergenerational traumatizing experience etched in Ukrainians’ collective memory. According to a thematic analysis of the 45 semi-structured, in-depth interviews, a constellation of emotions, inner states, and trauma-based coping strategies emerged in the survivors during the genocide period and was subsequently transmitted to the second and third generations (Bezo, 2015).
Regarding its memory conflict with Russia and the resulting collective psychological trauma, Ukraine adopts a considerably more confrontational stance than Finland. The collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as a victory for self-determinism and freedom, following which new-born independent Ukraine started reformulating the historical narrative in an effort to de-. To this end, Ukraine reinforced the state control of the public narrative. In 2016, Ukraine established the Institute of National Memory with the aim to restore and preserve the national memory of the Ukrainian people, combatting historical myths, and presenting its struggle for statehood during the 20th century (Korostelina, 2022). The institute encourages the ‘development of youth, patriotic, historic, and legal organizations in Ukraine that will promote patriotism among the Ukrainian population’ (Korostelina, 2022).
In line with its emphasis on youth, Ukraine’s leading politicians are well aware that history textbooks are an essential means of shaping collective memory about the past. The process of revisiting Soviet history textbooks thus became highly politicised. Historical textbooks in Ukraine are subject to the examination of the Institute of History which is tasked with examining textbooks and assessing their content based on compliance with the task of the formation of national patriotism (Besliu, 2022). The strict examination ultimately creates a singular vision of history to be presented in schools (Besliu, 2022).
The Second World War is a key battleground in the memory war between Ukraine and Russia. In 2014, President Putin signed a law criminalizing the distortion of the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War, which enables the creation of a monolithic, triumphalist narrative of history for the state (Edele, 2017). In response, Ukraine officially changed the day on which it marks the anniversary of the end of the Second World War from May 9, 1945– as celebrated in Russia – to May 8, 1945 in line with other European countries (Wieder & Gautheret, 2022). Instead of Victory Day, it is now known in Ukraine as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation. Ukraine also replaced the Soviet term the ‘Great Patriotic War’ with the term used in Europe, namely, the Second World War. Meanwhile, Ukraine sought to amplify Soviet crimes and glorified Ukrainian nationalist fighters while dismissing the central role they played in the ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews from 1941 to 1945 following the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union (Cohen, 2016). In this way, whilst Russia presents itself as the liberator of Europe, sacrificing its troops for the greater good of the continent, Ukraine has gradually portrayed Russia as an oppressive enemy and a destabilizing force that threatened the security of the continent, and emphasized its own nationalist legacy during the Second World War.
As well as reinterpreting the Second World War, Ukraine’s historical revisionism program focused on removing the communist elements in the nation. On May 15, 2015, the then President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, signed a series of decommunization laws that initiated a six-month period targeting the removal of communist monuments and renaming of public places named after communist-related themes (Shevchenko, 2015). Consequently, hundreds of statues were removed, millions of street signs were replaced, and tonnes of paperwork was processed (Shevchenko, 2015). Whilst the decommunization law outraged Russia, as the Russian foreign ministry labelled the move “sacrilege” and claimed officials in Kiev had “a perverse idea of good and evil,” many Ukrainians believed that these actions were necessary to eradicate the state’s totalitarian legacy. The decommunization law of 2015 was a clear example of memory law – a legal provision governing the interpretation of historical events – and showcases the legislator’s preference for a certain narrative of the past. Collectively, the Ukraine government’s confrontational and hardliner approach to the memory conflict in relation to Russia reinforces Ukrainians’ sentiment of nationalism whilst deepening Ukrainians’ perception of Russia as a source of instability and a military threat.
Why do Finland and Ukraine adopt contrasting approaches towards memory conflict?
Historical memory plays a pivotal role in the formulation of collective identity. As Wang (2017) asserts, identity is constructed in the process of understanding the nation’s history, its current standing, and potential and desired prospects. Therefore, collective memory manipulation for political purposes is also national identity manipulation. It is thus reasonable to argue that one fundamental reason why Finland and Ukraine adopt opposing approaches to the memory conflict in relation to Russia is that the political leaders of these two countries desire to construct and present drastically different national identities. In this section, the researcher will examine what national identity Finland and Ukraine are trying to establish, and how their respective approaches to memory conflict help them achieve their goal.
Exploring states’ national identity is not a straightforward undertaking. Nevertheless, as Portas (2020) observes, the national identity of a nation contributes to the setting of objectives and shapes the course or plan of action proposed for its foreign policy. The national identity is projected from the foreign policy of the state onto the international arena. As such, it is a reasonable approach to determine a country’s national identity through its foreign policy agenda.
Neutrality is a key tagline for Finland’s foreign policy during the Cold War. The cornerstone of post-Second World War Finnish foreign policy discourse was the recognition of the state’s geographical status, creating an image of Finland as a neutral capitalist state lying between the east and the west (Passi, 1997). Many scholars describe Finland’s foreign policy during the Cold War in terms of ‘Finlandization’. Even though Finland’s political system and collective identity share greater affinity with the West than with the Soviets, Finland was caught between the east and the West and combined a strong defence with a balancing act that entailed favoring the West, but without upsetting the Soviets or giving them any cause to intervene (Anssi, 1997). This manifested itself in the Finnish policy of non-alignment and ‘restraint’ in issues pertaining to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership. Meanwhile, the official neutral status of Finland allowed the state to have a close economic connection with both camps, thereby playing an important role in east-west trade. In fact, Finland was an important trading partner of the Soviets as the former exported high-technology goods, such as electronics and telecommunications equipment, to the Soviet Union.
By examining Finland’s foreign policy during the Cold War, one is able to ascertain Finland’s national image as a bridge-builder or a communication channel between the east and the west, facilitating ways of reducing tensions and promoting stability. This ideology is revealed by the former president of Finland, Urho Kekkonen’s, speech to the United Nations (UN) in 1961 in which he characterized Finns as “physicians rather than judges” whose task it was not “to pass judgment nor to condemn,” but rather to “diagnose and to try to cure” (Kekkonen & Vilkuna, 1973). As Finland is dedicated to stressing Nordic cooperation within the framework of the Nordic Council, many scholars believe ‘Nordicity’ is an intrinsic element of the national identity of Finland (Browning, 2002). Ideologically, “Nordicity” was neither east nor west but rather a third way based on humanitarian principles, peace, cooperation, and disarmament, and a distinctive model of the welfare state (Browning, 2002).
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, which was perceived by Francis Fukuyama and many other scholars and politicians to be the moment of the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama, 2020). Many countries started completely leaning towards the west, both economically and ideologically. Finland followed the trend and further integrated itself into the west. The government filed an application for membership in the European Union (EU) three months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and became a member in 1995 (Jacobsen, 2014). Nonetheless, Finland still preserves some of its foreign policy and ideological legacy from the Cold War period. The “between East and West” theme remains a factor in Finland’s national identity even in the aftermath of the USSR’s disintegration, but with the sudden reduction of the security threat from the east, the officially neutral “bridge” now transforms into a “gateway to the east” (Kivikari, 1995). An official Gateway Plan of Action, which explicitly envisions for Finland a “gateway” role as a business, transport, and communications hub , as well as an Arctic centre, was enunciated in 1994 by a working committee of the Finnish Minister for Foreign Trade (FFTA, 1994). Due to its geographical location, its “experience” in dealing with the east, and other technical advantages, the “gateway” metaphor presented Finland as the best infrastructural platform for doing business with Russia, thus bringing significant economic benefits to the country (Antonsich, 2005).
The “between the East and the West” theme, therefore, remains an essential part of Finland’s national identity. This concept manifested itself in the “bridge” metaphor during the Cold War, as well as the “gateway to the East” metaphor. Moreover, this rhetoric reveals Finland’s national identity as a communication channel connecting the east and the west. The difference is that the “bridge” image is more driven by political factors – facing a severe security threat from the Soviets, Finland had to accommodate the will of a great power during the Cold War, whilst the “gateway” image is more economic-driven, and attracts western companies which wish to engage in business with Russia to set up their bases in Finland (Browning, 2002).
The “bridge” and the “gateway” metaphor should not have fitted in with Finland’s national identity so smoothly, given that Finland’s religious beliefs and political system are closer to those of the west than the east, as well as the country’s historical conflicts with the Soviet Union that produced trans-generational traumatizing experiences for Finns. To help Finns better accommodate themselves into the role of bridge- builders, reshaping the historical narrative about past conflicts was a key project, and this is what Finland’s leading politicians have been attempting to achieve during the past few decades, as explained in the previous section of this paper. The reconciliatory approach to the memory conflict with Russia effectively minimizes the role of Russia in past conflicts and depicts Russia less as an aggressive, intimidating figure. Even though hostility between Finns and Russians does exist, the level of malevolence is considerably less than it would otherwise be if the reconciliatory approach was not adopted. In fact, some polling results reveal that Finns generally hold Russians in high regard, even though this might not be the case after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 (EVA, 2022). Crucially, the reconciliatory approach facilitates the establishment of Finland’s national identity as “between the East and the West”.
In comparison to Finland, which has maintained a relatively congruent national identity throughout recent history, the newly independent Ukraine has struggled to define and construct its national identity after gaining independence in 1991. One major challenge is the drastic division in the ideology of eastern Ukrainians and western Ukrainians. Throughout the independent history of Ukraine, there has been a heated debate between an ascendant pro-western narrative and a strong residual Soviet nostalgia, kept alive in the former industrial heartlands of the country’s (Nikitin, 2022). As Prytsak (2022) suggested, it would be good to exchange the population, just as Soviet Ukraine and Poland did in the past: seven million Ukrainians live in Russia. Give them back, and take your Russians back home (Miller, 2022). Though Prytsak spoke in a humorous way, the east-west divide is indeed a key issue for the state. For Ukrainians, their identities are both linked to those of a past shared with Russia, but also with historic ties and affinities with the west. Ukraine is therefore marked by a diversity of historical memories and orientations.
The Crimea annexation in 2014 dramatically reshaped identity-building processes in Ukraine. Following the reincorporation of Crimea into Russia and the creation of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, the Ukrainian political process lost nearly six million people who mostly adhered to Russian identity (Miller, 2022). The Russians ceased to be a “super-minority,” which used to account for 17 percent of the total population of the state, paving the way for vigorous efforts to oust the Russian language from the public sphere and for active propaganda relying on the western Ukrainian set of symbols and narratives (Miller, 2022). As Williams (2022) argues, Russian aggression since 2014 helped consolidate a sense of an independent Ukrainian national identity amongst people who might earlier have felt close to Russian. Consequently, although the momentum of “returning to Europe” and orienting to the west has long existed since the independence of Ukraine, the momentum has become even stronger since this watershed event.
To establish an independent national identity, one significant task for the government is to make the Ukrainian identity irrevocable. As its former President, Leonid Kuchma, commented in the summer of 2021, when Ukraine celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its independence, the main achievement was that most Ukrainians would not want to reunite with Russia again (Miller, 2022). In the process of constructing a national identity, leading political actors always find it advantageous to call for the punishment of the political and coercive authorities of fallen regimes. Whether and how they do so heavily depend on their interpretation and assessment of the collective past. This is where memory politics come into play. By adopting a confrontational approach to the memory conflict with Russia and actively engaging in a war over memory, Ukraine’s government depicts Russia as an ambitious destabilizer and a serious military threat, and its Soviet past as a painful experience. The distorted images of the past are actively embedded in the individual and public consciousness, causing spiritual shocks. Immersed in this narrative, Ukrainians do not look back at any golden age. As Williams (2022) mentions, Ukrainian politicians cannot win elections with a slogan such as “Make Ukraine great again”. “Again” is a negative word for Ukrainians: when they use it, it is often to say “never again” in reference to the crimes of the past. The hatred of the past propels Ukrainians to embrace western ideals, and in this way facilitates the formation of a new national identity.
In summary, with collective memory being an essential element in the construction of the national identity, one reason for Finland and Ukraine to adopt opposing approaches to the memory conflict in relations with Russia is that these two countries pursue different identities of the state. “Between the East and the West” is a defining theme in Finland’s national identity. The reconciliatory approach helps Finland to heal the trans-generational trauma of the war. In this way, the state can better act as a bridge connecting the east and the west or a gateway to the east. Ukraine, in contrast, is eager to eradicate the Soviet nostalgia and build a new independent national identity leaning completely towards the west. Hence, Ukraine has adopted a more confrontational stance, reinforcing the hurt Ukrainians suffered in the past. Current fighting over territory between Ukraine and Russia, therefore, in many ways represents the culmination of a fierce, long-standing war over memory.
Following analysis of the connection between memory politics and national identity at the macro level, it is worth delving into the issue from a micro perspective. It should be mentioned that political decisions are made by an individual, group of individuals, or multiple actors who have the ability to commit or withhold the resources of the government. It is dubious to think that the government always makes decisions that are (perceived to be) beneficial for the state. Rather, when considering a political stance or orientation, political actors sometimes prioritize its impact on their own political fortunes over its impact on the nation as a whole. Namely, in many circumstances, politicians, after comprehensive cost-benefit calculations, adopt certain policies purely for personal gain. Meanwhile, it is also worth noting that collective memory offers abundant resources to be exploited by politicians who sometimes deliberately engage in cultural manipulation in order to increase political efficacy, secure more support from the people, and improve their approval rate. Based on the aforementioned arguments, it is reasonable to identify a link between different approaches to memory conflict and government performance. Due to the immaturity of its democratic system, pervasive corruption, and oligarchical allocation of power and resources, the Ukrainian government does not always perform to its citizens’ expectations. Facing increasing dissent from the people, Ukrainian politicians are held to ransom by populism, and have to resort to a confrontational approach to the memory conflict in an attempt to appeal to the masses, thus improving the approval rate of the government. Finland, however, has a much healthier political system and environment. Finnish Politicians under the stable parliamentary democratic system do not need to adopt a hardline tone when dealing with memory conflict to win more political fortune.
Due to long-term political instability, widespread corruption in the government, and poor economic development, Ukrainian confidence in the government has been amongst the lowest in the world ever since its independence (Bikus, 2019). Meanwhile, the social unrest and conflict with Russia in the Donbas area exacerbated the trend of rising nationalism and populism in the country. As mentioned, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 resulted in a dramatic shift in the public narrative in Ukraine. ‘Pro-western’ has since become the single dominant narrative in the public discussion (Williams, 2022). Anti-EU sentiments in Ukraine have subsided dramatically, whilst hostility towards Russia has drastically increased (Williams, 2022). Quickly capturing the rising civic patriotism and ethnic nationalism amongst Ukrainians, the Ukrainian political elites further mobilized the society by adopting a much more hardline approach to the memory conflict with Russia. As a result, there has been a re-telling of historical events – the glorification of Ukrainian nationalist organizations that collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War as fighters for the independence of Ukraine (Cohen, 2016). Ukrainians also witnessed the passing of the Decommunization laws (2015) and the establishment of the Institute of National Memory during the period, which effectively intensified Ukraine and Russia’s war over memory. The series of government actions is indeed part of the national project of establishing an independent Ukrainian national identity, but here the researcher also argues that the increasing hardline gesture adopted by leading Ukrainian politicians during the period is an attempt to increase their own political fortunes. The government wished to appeal to its people by adopting cultural policies that were in line with the popular narrative. Though it may add to the political capital of some Ukrainian political elites, the more hardline approach might not be beneficial for the nation as a whole. The reshaping of the historical narrative has increased Ukrainians’ nationalism, fueling the proxy war in eastern Ukraine, which eventually escalated in 2022 into a total invasion by Russia. In this respect, political elites from Finland are much more cautious. As briefly mentioned in the previous section of this paper, there has been a simultaneous shift in the Finnish public narrative following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite the neo-patriotic turn in the Finnish public narrative, the Finnish government, after meticulous deliberation, maintained its reconciliatory approach to the memory conflict with Russia.
The confrontational approach to the memory conflict is a powerful political leverage that helps politicians to accumulate political capital through inciting, manipulating, and exploiting nationalism. The hardline approach, however, may not always benefit the whole nation in the long-term, as observed in the case of Ukraine. Finnish politicians, in contrast, are cautious when dealing with the memory conflict, and their political wisdom helps the nation to secure a long-term stable relationship with Russia.
This paper analyzes and compares Finland and Ukraine’s approaches to the memory conflict. Whilst both countries experienced historical conflicts with Russia which resulted in trans-generational traumas, these two countries selected drastically different approaches to deal with the issue. Finland implemented a reconciliatory stance, healing the collective trauma with the passing of time, whereas Ukraine adopted a more hardline tone and actively engaged in a war over memory with Russia. There are two main factors motivating Finland and Ukraine to adopt different approaches to memory conflict. Firstly, the two states wish to construct different national identities. Finland’s reconciliatory approach to memory conflict enables the state to form an identity as a “bridge” or “gateway” between the east and the west. Conversely, Ukraine’s confrontational approach helps the state to eradicate the Soviet legacy and embrace western ideals. Secondly, politicians in different political environments have varying levels of impetus to manipulate historical narratives for personal political gain. Ukrainian politicians in an unstable, corrupted, and untrustworthy democratic system are more inclined than Finnish politicians to manipulate memory conflict as political leverage, inciting nationalism to mobilize electoral support.
At present, politicians frequently mobilize memory as an instrument of politics by reshaping historical narratives in certain ways. By conducting a comparative analysis of Finland and Ukraine’s approaches to the memory conflict in relation to Russia, this paper draws links between foreign policy, domestic political system, and memory politics, and demonstrates the embedded complexities of the influence of memory politics on bilateral relations.
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