How the many attacks by Russia have shaped Finland’s military identity: ‘Our history is so different from any other European country’

For a Finnish reservist Varusteleka like a kitchen shop for the hobby chef: you don’t have to have it all, but it is usually fun. For example, a Puukko knife, described as ‘not designed for decoration’ but ‘made for hard work’. Or the combat parka in camouflage colors for 89.99 euros, many times more comfortable than the jacket you get from the army. “And they are certainly not as cool as this one,” says Valtteri Lindholm.

Lindholm strides through his shop in a business park on the outskirts of Helsinki. Twenty years ago, the 40-year-old Finn, with a blond beard, a black blouse buttoned up completely and high brown boots, started a modest web shop, mainly in equipment for the shooting sport ‘airsoft’. Varusteleka is now the largest army store in Europe with approximately one thousand square meters plus another three thousand in warehouse.

That was already the case, but since the war in Ukraine, sales figures have skyrocketed – abroad, but certainly also at home. “We are the only military shop in Europe that takes war seriously,” Lindholm explains. And that it is in Finland is no coincidence. He points to history, in which Russia has invaded the country countless times. It has, says Lindholm, shaped Finnish identity and society. And it now explains the success of his shop.

With a straight face: “People in France like to look good and smell good. People in Finland like to survive.”

Finland thus has something that other EU countries look at with great envy: a deep connection of the entire society with the armed forces. With a big bag of money you can achieve a lot and strengthen your armed forces, something that countries all over Europe have started doing at a rapid pace after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But not everything is for sale, as evidenced by the great effort that Defense in the Netherlands has to make to recruit personnel.

People in France like to look good and smell good. People in Finland like to survive

Valttery Lindholm Dealer of army supplies

In Finland, things are different: polls traditionally put the country at the top of the European rankings when it comes to community involvement in the armed forces – according to a recent survey by the Finnish Ministry of Defense, 85 percent are willing to join the military. In a population of just under 5.5 million, 900,000 reservists are ready to assist the armed forces in times of need. They come on top of the 280,000 soldiers who can also be mobilized in a war situation.

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Finland will officially join NATO this week. And it is clear: joining the alliance not only strengthens Finland, it is certainly just as good the other way around. In Finland, like nowhere else in Europe, the army is rooted in society – without being militaristic or belligerent.

Mandatory in service

In an empty classroom in the eastern Finnish town of Lappeenranta, Colonel Janne Mäkitalo occasionally smiles faintly when asked about the excellent state of the Finnish armed forces. “I don’t want to brag,” he says, “but there are indeed many countries that want to learn from us.”

Mäkitalo had a long career in defense and started at the beginning of this year as head of the Army Academy. It is a crucial part of the Finnish army. Unlike all other EU countries, Finland never abolished conscription. Men aged 18 are still called upon to do compulsory service for six to twelve months – for women this is voluntary. It means that annually about 20,000 conscripts flow in and out and have to be trained by Mäkitalo’s organization.

The connecting force of that conscription, he says, can hardly be overestimated. “Carpenters, professors, presidents: they all served together, slept together in a tent, and had a rough time in the cold and the woods. It is something that binds the armed forces and the nation together.”

The conscription also connects generations: boys know the stories of fathers, of older brothers – how nice, or how terrible their time was. Army shop Varusteleka earns well from gifts sons receive when they start their military service. Mäkitalo talks about the six-monthly moment when new recruits swear to defend their country. Most recently, in the biting icy wind, he stood among more than a thousand fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers who applauded loudly as three hundred recruits took the oath.

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He thinks for a moment and emphasizes: the visibility of the army, the allegiances, the parades, they all do not mean that Finland is a fighting people. “It is incomparable to what they do in Red Square,” says Mäkitalo. “We are military, but we are not militaristic. All the wars that Finland has fought have been defensive wars. Even the Continuation War [waarin Finland samen met Nazi-Duitsland in 1941 de Sovjet-Unie bevocht] was aimed at retaking the ground stolen from us by the Soviets. And I hope our neighbor also knows well that whenever someone has attacked Finland, we have defended ourselves.”

Border fence

In the Veterans Museum in the border village of Imatra, Russian tourists can no longer come and see their own uniforms. In the 1990s, times of rapprochement, former Soviet officers gave them to the father of Jarmo Ikävalko (70). And now they are here, in his home museum near the Russian border, which has been closed since September last year. Finland recently started building a border fence just down the road. Imatra was once a busy border village, now the streets look deserted.

“It may be stupid to say, but I miss the Russian tourists,” says Ikävalko. And not just because he now sells fewer tickets. “I hope we don’t start hating ordinary Russians. They can’t do much about it either.”

Ikävalko gives a tour of his Veterans Museum, where hundreds of paraphernalia from Finland’s military history are displayed alongside old uniforms. Such as a suomi-kone pistoli – an old Finnish machine gun – and the skis of Simo Häyhä, the Finnish soldier who killed so many Russians during the winter war (1939) that he is still known as the world’s best sniper. Ikävalko proudly shows his father’s war medals and the uniform of his mother who was with the paramilitary ‘Lottas’. When he says that his family history is strongly connected to the Finnish army, he shrugs. “Like any Finn.”

Ask a Finn about the strong army and he will immediately start talking about history. Lindholm of army store Varusteleka counts out loud the times Russia invaded the country, “If I’m not mistaken 32 times – officially that is.” He talks about the war traumas in his own family, how his grandfather was forced to move several times because of the Russian annexation of the Finnish region of Karelia. “That is the story of Finland. We prepare for the worst. And I think that is why we have no problem having a positive image of the army.”

Lindholm was already one of his country’s most successful entrepreneurs, making him a modest celebrity. Last year his fame continued to grow. “Dear Prime Minister,” he wrote on February 24, 2022 in a Facebook post on his shop page, in an open letter to Sanna Marin. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was less than 24 hours ago and Lindholm argued: “We have nothing left to lose when it comes to joining NATO.” The message went “completely viral”, says Lindholm now and that it has influenced the discussion seems obvious to him.

The start of the war also meant unprecedentedly successful times for Varrusteleka. Sales figures rose sharply – including those to the Netherlands, by almost 28 percent last year. In addition to Finland, the rest of Europe is now also starting to take war seriously, Lindholm explains. And a lot of his stuff also ends up in Ukraine.

For example, combat tourniquets, a military compression bandage. Lindholm lowered the prices of all that stuff. He tries to check whether they are actually shipped to Ukraine. At the same time, he closely monitors that they do not end up in the hands of Russia. His staff has been instructed not to sell wartime items to Russian speakers. Almost every day it results in uncomfortable situations at the counter when a sale is refused.

He understands that it sounds crazy for someone who became a millionaire by selling weapons of war. But, says Lindholm: “I mainly want to make the world a better place.” He rambles it like this: ‘si vis pacem, para bellum‘. And he underlines it again: to ensure peace, Finland has prepared for war.

The fact that he himself benefits from this is, he admits, uncomfortable. “But we also thought here: if someone has to deliver these things, then we can do better. Because we happen to be very good at this.”

Dutch tanks

Young conscripts are having coffee in the canteen of the Army Academy. A further corridor Colonel Mäkitalo shows a portrait of Tuomas Gerdt, one of Finland’s most famous soldiers. He passed away two years ago at the age of 98.

Gerdt was the last ‘Knight of the Mannerheim Cross’, the highest military decoration for his proven bravery. And, Mäkitalo emphasizes: he was not a professional soldier, but rose as a reservist through heroic action. “He is a very good example for our defense force. It’s not about having professional officers or sergeants, it’s about the whole nation. Ultimately, our reservists form the core of the Finnish armed forces.”

Behind the window, outside, a dozen old tanks are covered with a thick layer of snow. Behind it, he points out, old barracks buildings, which now include a hotel and a bicycle shop. He just means: in Finland, too, defense cuts were made in the years after the end of the Cold War.

Much less than elsewhere in Europe. Finland bought Leopard tanks from the Netherlands in 2014, which The Hague wanted to get rid of. “Thanks for that,” says Mäkitalo with a smile. But he immediately emphasizes that he understands very well the choices that the Netherlands made after the Cold War. It made sense, given the rapprochement with Russia and its location deep in Europe. “We could never afford that.”

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The day Finland joins NATO practically nothing will change. Or at least: instead of only training for self-defense, the army will also have to prepare for assisting others. “But the best defender of Finnish territory remains the Finnish defense force. We know the territory, where to fight, how to fight.”

At the end of his tour of the veterans’ museum, Ikävalko falls silent for a moment. “I really hope the war doesn’t spread,” he says. “We live in a very bad time. We also don’t know what’s going to happen in America, with Trump and all that. Because NATO, of course, is America.”

All his life he was vehemently against NATO membership for his country. “Our history is so different from any other European country. We have that long border with Russia. We had excellent relations with the Russians. Finlandization, they called it in Europe – and we didn’t care. We were free and we were fine.” Yet he is ahead now. “You just don’t know what Putin is up to.”

And yes, as a reservist Ikävalko (70) would of course also be ready in case of a Russian invasion. “My father used to say that anyone who says he was never afraid of war is lying,” he says. “War, of course, is a terrible thing. But if you have to defend your own country, you just do it.”