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29 November 2023

Lapland: a prisoner of geography

Threatened by Russia as well as climate change, Finland’s northernmost region has become a front line of western Europe’s existential crisis.

By Megan Gibson

Lapland is not an easy place. In Finland’s sparsely populated northernmost region, which for six months of the year is buried in drifts of snow, winter temperatures can plunge to -22°C. At that temperature the wind stings any exposed skin and, as your eyes tear up, eyelashes stick together. If you are not properly dressed, frostbite can start setting in after 15 minutes.

Yet its bitter environment is also part of its attraction. The power of geography is everything in Lapland. Its location on the Arctic Circle – the city of Rovaniemi, the largest in the region and Finland’s so-called gateway to the Arctic, is bisected by that northern latitude – is a popular destination for tourists from Europe and Asia. The promise of seeing the elusive northern lights can prove seductive enough to override the discomfort of the severe cold, while the frozen landscape feels remote and untouched.

And then there’s Santa Claus. For decades Finland has found economic success in branding Lapland as the real home of Santa, attracting half a million tourists each year, despite the North Pole being hundreds of kilometres away. Christmas tourism, driven by the snow-covered trees and polar nights, is the leading industry in Finland’s north.

[See also: Why has Finland joined Nato?]

But Laplanders know that geography brings with it vulnerabilities. Finland’s shared border with Russia – which spans more than 1,300 km to the east – has been an increasing concern since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Three months later Finland applied to join Nato. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the move was an “escalation” that “forces us to take countermeasures to ensure our own tactical and strategic security”. Finland became a full member of the defence alliance in April 2023.

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Nato membership has not insulated Finland from Russian aggression. In recent weeks, Finnish border guards have reported a large increase in asylum seekers, many of them from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, attempting to cross the border from Russia. Finnish officials accuse their neighbour of aggressive tactics like those previously employed by Belarus, which since 2021 has been pushing thousands of asylum seekers over the border into Poland. In November alone, more than 900 asylum seekers crossed the Russian border into Finland; prior to November, ten or fewer such crossings took place each month.

On 22 November the Helsinki government, hoping to stem the flow of refugees, announced that it was closing seven of its crossings on the Russian border, leaving just one, Raja-Jooseppi in Lapland, open. (Update: on 28 November the government ordered the entire border closed.) Anxiety over Russian hostility is high. In a low-lit restaurant adorned with reindeer antlers in central Rovaniemi, Antti Kokkonen, the editor-in-chief of Lapin Kansa, Lapland’s largest daily newspaper, told me that “there is a lot of worry that hiding among these migrants are little green men”. This is a reference to the Russian soldiers in unmarked clothing who infiltrated and then helped to annex Crimea in 2014.

Kokkonen explained how the decision to join Nato – overwhelmingly popular with Finns – has significant implications for Lapland: “All of Finland is important to Nato, but Lapland is very important to Nato.” Again, location is everything. Just north of Rovaniemi is Rovajärvi, the largest artillery training area in western Europe, where Nato military exercises take place.

Apart from hordes of tourists, Rovaniemi airport also accommodates military jets. It is open 24 hours a day, and has long shared its runway with the Finnish military. This makes it a convenient host for Nato aircraft. It also represents a disconnect for those arriving in Rovaniemi in search of a winter wonderland: it’s hard to feel that Christmas spirit with the sound of F-35 training drills in the background.

Finland is a young country: it declared independence from Russia in 1917 (it had previously been a part of Sweden). It was then an impoverished nation, and Lapland particularly so. During the Second World War, Finland aligned with Nazi Germany for protection against the Soviet Union. The Nazis moved into Finland’s far north, building a sprawling base in Rovaniemi. By 1944, Finland had entered into off-and-on peace negotiations with the Allied powers; in September of that year, it broke ranks and expelled Nazi troops from the country. The departing Germans razed Rovaniemi to the ground; only 20 buildings were left standing, I was told.

Alvar Aalto, the Finnish modernist architect, played an integral part in helping to rebuild the city, designing an urban street plan known as the “reindeer map”, which followed the pattern of a set of reindeer antlers. The rebuilding project did not help the struggling economy. Traditional industries in Lapland – reindeer herding and fishing – were shrinking. Local officials knew they needed to attract more investment. Lapland needed a story to tell.

In the 1980s the Finnish tourism board began to market Lapland as the official home of Father Christmas. An expansive centre known as Santa Claus Village was built near the Rovaniemi airport, on the site of the former German barracks. An entire tourist industry sprang up around it. In 1984, Concorde launched Christmas Day trips from London to Rovaniemi.

[See also: The meaning of Sanna Marin’s defeat]

Today, Santa Claus Village – a sprawling, twinkly Christmas market with plenty of gift shops – is open all year. A Santa works in the village every day and is required to speak at least ten languages. “It’s free for all,” Ulla-Kirsikka Vainio, the mayor of Rovaniemi, said over lunch at Korundi House of Culture, the contemporary art museum. “Well, unless you want photos.” Beside her, Heini-Tuuli Onnela, the city’s communications director, deadpanned: “Photos will cost you.”

After a precipitous drop in visitors during the pandemic, the number of tourists has since broken previous records; last winter nearly half a million passengers travelled through Rovaniemi’s airport (the local population is just shy of 65,000). The airport offers direct international flights from 35 locations – including Barcelona and Tel Aviv – 18 of which were only added this year. The mayor’s office estimates that tourism brings in half a billion euros each year.

There have been attempts to make the industry more sustainable and to even out the boom-and-bust pattern of seasonal travel. Ambitious tourism companies are trying to pitch Lapland as an ideal summer destination for those looking to escape the heatwaves and forest fires spreading across established European summer destinations.

But there is a divergence between the region’s ambitions to host a heaving Arctic Disneyland and the pristine winter landscapes and silence that is part of its appeal.  “Rovaniemi needs to make wise decisions now,” Onnela said. How many tourists does the city want in Lapland each year? Vainio, who became mayor in May 2020 and watched Rovaniemi struggle during the pandemic downturn, said: “Whatever we can survive.”

There is one more shift under way that could reshape Lapland, and is – like tourism and Nato membership – considered by some as part of the region’s salvation. Again, geography plays a role. Like other remote Arctic regions, Lapland is home to a bountiful reserve of rare minerals, and foreign mining companies have long vied to set up operations and extract them. A few have been successful: Kevitsa is one of the largest mines in Finland, and Kittilä mine is Europe’s biggest producer of gold. Certain politicians and business groups, both in Helsinki and locally, are determined to see the industry grow and bring more, and much-needed, investment to Lapland.

Yet mining poses an urgent, existential threat. The environmental destruction inherent to the mineral-mining process not only risks spoiling the landscape for tourists, and, therefore, potentially curtailing a thriving industry. It could also destroy large swathes of land where the indigenous Sami population live, and on which traditional local industries, particularly reindeer herding, depend.

A booming mining industry in Lapland would also further contribute to the climate emergency, of which Laplanders are acutely aware. Nearly every person I met in Finland mentions that the Arctic Circle is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet. “People come here for the silence. People come here for the snow,” Vainio told me. “If we don’t have snow in the future, we’re in trouble.”

Yet when the issue of mining is raised, Vainio said: “We need jobs and the companies bring tax [revenue]” for the region. Pressed on opposition to the industry’s growing presence in Lapland, Vainio conceded that it could “change the landscape”.

For decades Lapland has adapted its Arctic location to its advantage. Yet with an increasingly unpredictable and aggressive Russia nearby, there is a sense of growing unease. Nato membership may deter Vladimir Putin from any potential invasion but a shared border with Russia will always pose a threat in different ways, as the surge in asylum seekers crossing into Finland shows. Lapland is a prisoner of its own remote geography.

A portion of the travel costs for this trip was paid by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The New Statesman retained complete editorial independence throughout

[See also: Europe’s Iron Lady: Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now