Child custody controversy bears a strong resemblance to Cold War times

Svetlana Pasti

Svetlana Pasti hopes that the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) will start a Russian language service.

Russia would like to stop brain drain of young people

The controversy around the custody of Russian children in Finland can be seen as a part of a propaganda campaign by the Russian authorities to caution young people against leaving the country.

Media researcher Svetlana Pasti from the University of Tampere thinks that the custody stories are in the tradition of Soviet propaganda, in which widely read state-owned media promote the interests of the state. This time a negative picture is painted of countries which Russian young people see as desirable emigration destinations.

In 2007 Pasti defended her PhD dissertation at the University of Tampere on the changing profession of the journalist in Russia. She knows her subject well because she graduated with a degree in journalism from Leningrad State University in 1982 and worked for 14 years in the Murmansk Broadcasting Service before moving to Finland in 1996.

War of words taken to personal level

The war of words on the custody of Russian children advanced to the Foreign Ministry level this autumn. Sergei Lavrov from Russia was defiant; Finland’s Erkki Tuomioja was conciliatory.

The war of words flared up between Laura Saarikoski and Nadezhda ‘Nadja’ Jermolajeva who both used to study at the University of Tampere.

Saarikoski published a column in the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat with the title “Nadja, my former friend” in which she condemned the stories Nadezhda Jermolajeva had published in the Russian newspaper Rossijskaja Gazeta, calling them untruthful.

Jermolajeva responded with a column of her own with the title ”Nadezhda, I trust you”. Part of the column was translated into Finnish, and it spread across the internet, but Helsingin Sanomat did not publish it.

Pasti thinks that Saarikoski’s column reflects the Western way of thinking: “She expects of Nadja the same perception of the profession and professionalism as in the Western theory of journalism. However, Nadja lives and works in Russia, where most media are dependent on government support. She is a political journalist in a leading newspaper of the Russian government, and her main task is to support the government line.”

Rossijskaja Gazeta is a highly-esteemed government newspaper that the leading television and radio stations in Russia use as their main source. It has a wide readership and many subscribers.

Nadja does not respond to her former friend’s critique on a personal level. She responds to Saarikoski as the representative of the governmental newspaper and quotes her reader, who writes about trusting her.

Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest newspaper in Finland is not criticising Nadja, but the official voice of the Russian government, whose weekend paper is given to all pensioners free of charge. There are 40 million pensioners in Russia, a country of 140 million inhabitants.

Skilful propaganda

“This is propaganda material, but skilful propaganda,” Pasti says and shows a printout of the article Jermolajeva wrote.

Jermolajeva studied in Tampere for a year, but completed the main part of her studies in Russia.

According to Lenin’s doctrine, the education of journalists in the Soviet Union had to include propaganda, organisation and agitation. Rossijskaja Gazeta continues this Soviet tradition in journalism, representing Johan Bäckman as a Finnish human rights activist protecting the rights of Russian mothers in Finland.

Pasti compares Saarikoski’s column with Jermolajeva’s propaganda stories and thinks that the weakness in Saarikoski’s text is her expectation  that the Russian journalist takes the Western view on the profession. Jermolajeva then responds to Saarikoski as a representative of a leading government newspaper who has the support of her readers. Jermolajeva presents the evidence with which her readers appeal to her.

“Western journalists are almost all similar to each other compared with the journalists and media in Russia, which are very different from one another: there are the government media and journalists who are up against the media and journalists who are members of the protesting opposition movements.

Young people’s desire to leave worries authorities

Many young people in Russia would like to leave the country. A quarter of the supporters of the presidential candidate Mihail Prohorov said in a survey that they wanted to leave the country. In another survey conducted by the Levada-Center, half of the young people polled wanted to leave Russia.

“This is a big social problem in Russia, and Nadja helps solve it by painting a negative picture of Finland. Laura cannot demand anything else of Nadja because Nadja has made her choice: she works for the government’s, not the opposition’s media,” says Pasti.

Pasti reminisces about how well-educated middle-aged people left Boris Yeltsin’s Russia in the mid-1990s in order to give their children better opportunities. The situation has changed: today even 15–16-year-old high school students would like to move away.

According to sociologists, the reasons for wanting to move away have to do with opportunities for self-realisation, economic reasons and security. i.e. the fear of terrorism and war, and for personal safety in Russia.


Russian speakers need their own media

There are 50,000 Russians living in Finland, and they lack a media and discussion forum in their native language. Currently they are forced to rely on the Russian media.

“The conflict over the custody of Russian children reveals a big problem in Finland. There is no media for public debate in Russian,” says Svetlana Pasti.

There are several Russian language newspapers and radio and television channels in Germany but there is hardly anything in Finland, which is next door to Russia.

There is the Russian language weekly newspaper Spektr Nedeli which Pasti, who lives in Tampere, thinks is commercial and Helsinki-centred.

“If Finland wants to put things right there should be a programme on television or radio where Russian and Finnish journalists work equally in two languages.”

Pasti thinks it would be the job of YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, to offer this public service to the Russian-speaking audience, who pay the same television fee as everyone else.

The number of Russian native speakers is growing in Finland. What is new, according to Pasti, is that you can now hear Russian spoken in the streets of Tampere. Before, people were shy about speaking Russian in public.


This story was originally published in Finnish in Aikalainen 15/2012

Original text Heikki Laurinolli
Photograph Teemu Launis
Translation Laura Tohka