Thursday, March 29, 2007

Blizzard, part two

By the morning the snow had started to melt and I was able to find my car, although the night before it resembled a snow statue. After brushing it clean I drove to the Conservatory and continued from there to Naantali, a town known for its beauty in the summer time. The Finnish President has an official summer home there, and there is also the Moomin World, named after the troll-like characters of the favorite author of Finnish children (and grown-ups as well), Tove Jansson. The town also features a big international music festival during the summer. Last summer I was invited to play the Schnittke concerto for two violins and piano with my wife Marjorie and Ralf Gothóni as part of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra’s planned tour. It obviously irked some influential people in our town, to the point that they made sure the orchestra folded right before the two scheduled tours.

Naantali in the winter time is a quiet place, although it has a famous spa which was featured in the New York Times not long ago. The reason for my visit was to see my uncle, my late mother’s younger brother, and his wife of 60 years. Uncle Jaakko had been a very successful businessman, with factories all over the globe, including China. He had patented a self-closing fire-proof door for ships and his company was busy filling orders. In time he retired and left the firm to his son, my cousin. I don’t know if the illness runs in that side of the family, but my uncle suffers from early Alzheimer’s, the same dreadful disease that finally killed my mother. At this point he is still doing well and is a pleasure to talk to, but my aunt told me about his visual hallucinations which had really scared her. He was seeing people in the house and asking his wife who they were. Such hallucinations are not that rare, although more often people hear things rather than see them. Thankfully my uncle’s neurologist was able to prescribe a brand new drug, something we don’t yet have access to, which took care of the problem instantly. I spent a lovely afternoon with my family and was sad to leave, knowing that the next time we’d meet, life for them wouldn’t be the same.

Off to the freeway towards Helsinki and some enjoyable driving at 140 km/h (87 mph). That was slightly above the speed limit, but I figured I was safe as there were others driving as fast. The radio was on again and in addition to political discussion about the election where the Conservatives (National Coalition Party) unexpectedly won 10 seats, there was a lengthy program about the situation with media control in today’s Russia. It seems that under Vladimir Putin, Russia resembles the old Soviet Union more and more in the way the government limits freedom of speech. It also silences, with the help of thugs, those who want to speak their mind and write about it, often resorting to murder. It is said that Russia is even more dangerous a country for journalists than Iraq. What Putin and the Kremlin wants is a Russian version of our Fox News as the only source of information available. Of course it would be more difficult to control the internet, although some experts predict Russia might follow in China’s footsteps. Quite a few correspondents stationed in Moscow were interviewed, but every one of them was extremely careful with what they said, probably as a result of fear. The most meaningful information came from outside Russia, from experts in that country’s affairs.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union some shrewd people became incredibly rich almost overnight. None of the wealth was created by honest means and thus it is understandable that the wealthy class continues to use the services of bodyguards. Honesty has never been highly valued in the Russian society. It is often considered a sign of weakness, and people have had to accept a dishonest lifestyle simply to survive. Western-style democracy is as foreign to the people as it is to the Iraqis, and perhaps deep down, people welcome another strongman to lead the country.

After the fall of communism next door, Finland wanted to ‘rescue’ the remaining native population from Ingria, who are closely related to Karelian and Finnish people. Any person who could prove to be at least one quarter of that ethnicity was allowed to come ‘home’, to the land of their people. My countrymen had expected perhaps a few thousand immigrants but the number swelled many times higher. Finally the offer needed to be withdrawn. Documents were easy to forge or to buy in the black market. Now Finland is filled with Russian-speaking people, many of whom have as much Finnish blood in them as I have African. Traditionally we Finns don’t actively take part in religious life; only 2% attend services regularly. This is also more or less the case with other religions. Some 90% of the Finnish Jews have intermarried and don’t see anything wrong with it, as religion is not an important issue. Interestingly, the recent Russian arrivals have greatly increased the number of practicing Jews in Finland and the Chabad movement is having a jolly good time with these newcomers. Clearly, true Ingrian people would have been Christians, so something doesn’t add up. Of course some other Russians have been allowed to immigrate, so perhaps some of them have Jewish roots.

Darkness finally fell and the sleet and rain slowly ended. After driving over 500 miles in rather challenging weather I was soon safely back at my brother’s house, ready for a long return flight via Copenhagen the next morning.

As a footnote, the victorious Finnish ‘Conservatives’ are so far to the left that they make Ted Kennedy seem like Pat Buchanan. And I love the fact that a candidate for the Green Party, Jyrki Kasvi (“George Plant”), had written a web page, part of his re-election campaign, in Klingon for us Star Trek fans.

Moomintroll and Snufkin fishing