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Uncertainty overload: Young Russian expats struggle to cope with war

Courthouse News spoke to three Russians in the Finnish border town of Lappeenranta who all struggle with the war's financial and emotional impacts amid shock over their home country's invasion of Ukraine.

LAPPEENRANTA, Finland (CN) — It has been eight months since Russia invaded Ukraine. As the war rages on, the death toll rises on both sides of the front.

The situation leaves a clear mark in neighboring areas, where many Russian expats try to go about their daily lives while their home country faces rage and sanctions from the rest of the world.   

The Finnish border town of Lappeenranta is a good example. Located in southeast Finland about 20 miles from the Russian border, it has been a tourist hub for many years. Before Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, as many as 4,000 Russians used to cross the border to visit daily.

Naturally, the influx stopped when Finland banned fast-track tourist visas and shut its borders for Russians in response to the war. In Lappeenranta, however, 3,000 residents out of a total population of 72,000 belong to the Russian-speaking community.

The local technology university has 160 Russian students enrolled. One of them is Evgeniia Efimenko from St. Petersburg. She studies mechanical engineering and has lived in Finland for the last year.   

Efimenko believes that it is important to talk about how the war affects the Russian people. To her, it has turned things completely upside down.

“The war affects me on both a practical and an emotional level. It creates financial boundaries between my family and me. I can no longer transfer money through our national banks or pay with Russian credit cards here in Finland. My parents say that the sanctions do not stress them and that everything is OK. But I am aware that it is not," she said when Courthouse News met her at the university.

The invasion of Ukraine in February came as a complete shock and has left her with a deep feeling of sorrow. However, Efimenko quickly emphasized that her practical problems are insignificant, considering that people are dying on the battlefield.

The instability has forced her to speed up the transition from youth to adult, she said.

“Before, I relaxed and considered taking a part-time job or traveling abroad for further education. The possibilities seemed open. My main responsibility now is to secure a solid financial base to support my family. And I am indeed considering staying long term in Finland," Efimenko said, adding: “Who knows if other countries will accept me in job positions or educational programs when I am from Russia.”

Evgeniia Efimenko is from St. Petersburg, Russia, but studies at Lappeenranta Technical University in Finland. She is extremely sad about Russia´s invasion of Ukraine and wishes that President Putin and his government would spend resources on internal development instead of aggressive geographical expansion. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

Anna Nikitina, a recent graduate and former president of the local chapter of the Erasmus Student Network, is originally from Yoshkar-Ola, Russia, but she has lived in Lappeenranta for eight years. While her everyday life in Finland hasn´t changed much, she faces challenges when returning home for vacation.

“Putin´s government spread[s] so much propaganda through the news. It is hard to avoid it. So I only watch movies or sports on the TV at home,” she said.

She also explained that politicians in Moscow have made a list of “friendly” and “unfriendly” countries. That led her grandmother to ask whether Finland is against Russia like the rest of the European Union – a question that Nikitina tried to avoid answering during her last family visit. 

Likewise, her father, who is against the war, has worried substantially about Finland joining NATO and called it a wrong step.

“In that way, the war affects my family relationships. I struggle when older family members claim that Russia didn´t attack Ukraine. The best approach is to try and avoid the topic,” Nikitina said.

Before Finland shut its borders, thousands of Russians waited in long car queues daily to cross into the EU. And after Putin announced a military mobilization last month, as many as 17,000 reached Finland in just one weekend.

Lappeenranta is located close to the Russian border in southeastern Finland. The city has 3,000 Russian-speaking residents and used to be a tourist hub before the war. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

One of them is Eduard, who requested not to use his last name. He biked over the border carrying nothing but a small backpack. It took him only three days to get clothes, a bicycle and train tickets, and collect and exchange Russian rubles into euros.

Courthouse News met him in a friend´s apartment, where he is staying for a couple of weeks before moving to Belgrade. His company has an office in the Serbian capital. He hopes to reunite with his girlfriend in Russia eventually. 

“Once the war started, I was in shock and not at all prepared mentally. The first days were sort of foggy. However, I quickly realized that my life would change dramatically, so an exit plan started to take form. When Putin announced the need for 300,000 new army recruits, including people under 27, I had to move fast,” he said.

Recent reports from Russia detail how police authorities have raided apartments and university housing to pick up young men who have failed to respond to their draft notice. Avoiding conscription is considered a felony and is punishable by prison.

A few days after Eduard reached Finland, his former neighbor contacted him to inform him that a conscription letter was waiting at his doorstep. For now, he says he has no choice but to remain outside Russia and wait for things to change.

The last weeks have been tough, he said. In the evenings, he goes for solitary walks in Lappeenranta´s parks to try and collect his thoughts. He misses his grandmother and girlfriend but also emphasized that he tries to stay positive.

“Most people back home are starkly against the war. It is such a shame because Russia is a wonderful country. I love it. But the government is not the people, and it might be many years before there is any bright future for people living there,” he said.

Finland is home to nearly 90,000 Russian-speaking inhabitants, according to 2021 numbers from Statistics Finland. Despite that, national politicians recently agreed to build a border fence to minimize the influx of Russians for years to come.

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