Reindeer country

The troubled history of the Finnish-Russian border has not hindered its tourist trade

"My sister was a Nazi," the tour guide blurts out. "The Germans were good to Finland." I've made a faux pas. At the museum of Eva Ryynänen, one of Finland's most successful wood sculptors, questioning the artist's Nazi sympathies exposes a gash in the nation's psyche.

It is a tricky subject for North Karelia, the eastern Finnish strip of land on the Russian border that is reinventing itself as an Arctic tourist destination. Here, it doesn't take much to rouse a patriotic fervour born of the thousand-year tug of war over this contested region. Pitched between Sweden and Russia, Karelia (or Karjala) has been a pawn to its imperial neighbours, fought over long after its independence from tsarist Russia in 1917. Befriending Nazi Germany won it support against periodic Russian incursions. After the battle in the freezing winter of 1939-40 when the Karelian Isthmus fell to Russia, thousands of Finnish soldiers perished as 500,000 refugees streamed over the new border back to Finland.

Consequently, Finnish people have developed a kind of wily stoicism, known as sisu, that helps them balance this emotional undertow with jolly reindeer tours. North Karelia wants a piece of what Lapland, to its north, has got. Finland's famed winter wonderland is soaring in popularity, mainly with newly wealthy Russians.

But North Karelia is fast catching up. Russian, Austrian and Italian tourists are arriving. Chinese visitors to Finland are abundant following approval of the country's status as a destination under a 2004 European Union/China accord, although, judging by the looks I get, Indians are still somewhat of a novelty. Now North Karelia is eager to attract more European tourists. For nature lovers, this should be easy: it is largely unspoilt, and the population of 169,000 is sprinkled across 21,585 square kilometres of gentle hill, farm and forest, and 3,803 square kilometres of lake.

From the plane, North Karelia looks like sub-Saharan Africa - parched, until you notice that the rust-coloured patches are spring birch against black spruce. They call Finland the country of the thousand lakes: 188,000, to be precise, formed by melting glaciers. Some 70 per cent of the country is thicketed with forest, making it the green belt of Europe and guardian of increasingly rare brown bears, wolverines and elks.

For fishing enthusiasts, the region's lakes are crammed full of perch, pike and vendace. Winter snow sports are booming, from husky safaris and reindeer sledging to snowmobiling, cross-country ski-ing and ice-fishing. Above the water, the endless white Arctic sky burrows deep into the temperament of an often silent people.

In the car on our way to the farmstead of Anita and Heikki Ovaskainen, we see birch trees flashing by. Many of Finland's ancient peatbogged forests are being felled to grow the more commercial pine and spruce. Since neighbouring Russian Karelia raised duties on pine exports, the Finns have been striving to grow more of their own timber, in line with a general economy drive.

Anita and Heikki are organic farmers who, beside their burgeoning bed-and-breakfast business, grow rye, barley, oats and vegetables. Heikki complains that EU rules tell him when to plant his rye seeds and stipulate that the qualified butcher must take his cows 150 miles away to be slaughtered, instead of slaughtering them on his farm. North Karelia's farmers are quickly wising up to the fact that tourism pulls in more euros than ploughing the earth.

While rye brings in 15 cents per kilo, bake it up into bread and it brings in ?4 per kilo, says Heikki. Anita, who has baked for 42 years, now shovels rye loaves into the oven for photo opportunities when tourists drop by for a taste of her Karelian cooking.

The food of Finland, which in 2005 the then French president, Jacques Chirac, decried as the worst in the world, has been promoted as a model of healthy eating by North Karelia. At Koli, high on a hill, we set out to pick berries and wild forest mushrooms. Once upon a time, the composer Sibelius would come here looking for inspiration among the rowans, black woodpeckers and misty peatbogs. Now trips through the forest advertise the region's abundant ceps, chanterelles and lingonberries. That evening, our mushrooms are creamed into a soup that we eat before our main course of fried elk and mash.

Good health has been a struggle for the Karelians. Historically, the foresters and their children lived on a diet of fatty reindeer stew, sausages and egg butter pasties. In the 1970s, Finnish men had the highest rate of heart disease mortality in the world, and rates in North Karelia were 40 per cent worse than for all Finnish men.

In 1972, the Finnish national and local government launched the regional project to combat cardiovascular disease. Food manufacturers, supermarkets and health professionals puffed energy into convincing a reluctant population that they were gobbling their way to the grave. They marketed cloudberries as a substitute for sugar, pine bark flour and rye in pasties, mushrooms instead of meat.

Today, the older people whom I meet suppress a grimace at any mention of the project. Yet it worked. By the early 2000s, the number of deaths from coronary heart disease in North Karelia had fallen by 72 per cent. Yet Vesa Korpelainen, director at the North Karelia centre for public health, says that cholesterol levels in the region are rising once again because of the growing popularity of fast-food burger chains. And there is, he says, a new peril - alcoholism. "People have been bringing drink back from Estonia and the Baltic states since those countries joined Europe," he says.

There's a reindeer farm on the route to the airport. Out trots the excitable herd at the sound of our approach. The reindeer are a friendly bunch, and we cram their mouths with lichen. At North Karelia's main airport in Joensuu, passengers drink pints, rather than the lattes you would expect to see in London. Their chatter evaporates into the expanse of forest. Karelia's complex psyche floats, high above its people, disappearing into the white Arctic sky.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.