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Sari Poyhonen: Murmansk and its own kind of beauty
I had to make my way through a group of queuing Russians who were impatiently waiting at the consulate’s door to get their visas ready. The queues are supposed to become history as soon as a new visa centre will open its doors in mid-October. We met in the small conference room of the Murmansk-based office of Finnish Consulate decorated with fascinating paintings of Arvi Ivanovitch Huttunen, postcard photos of Finland and its President Sauli Niinistö.
Please meet Sari Poyhonen, a media link between Finnish diplomats and curious Murmansk public.
- I was born in the small settlement of Rautalampi, though I lived most of my young life in Savitaipale, the Eastern Finland also known as southern Karelia, where I attended a high school. Though we lived close to the border, I had no particular interest for Russia. It was the 90s, a chaos decade for Russia and economic turmoil for Finland. Very few people studied Russian back in those days, not so many Russian tourists crossed our border.
The situation changed in the 2000s. Prompted by an inflow of Russian tourists, local shops put their signs in Russian and hired Russian-speaking staff.
- Nowadays, if Saariselkä is number two for Murmansk citizens on New Year, then the capital of the area where I lived – Lappeenranta – is number two all year round for citizens of St.Petersburg. Lappeenranta has a so-called “Kirkenes effect” where the Russians have brought more shops and restaurants to the town.
Her grandfather was born in the Karelian town of Suojärvi which is now the Russian territory. Like most other Finns, he moved from Karelia to Finland after the war. He taught Sari first Russian basic words: “Net ponimay po-russky” and “Ponimay po-russky” which are some distorted ways of saying whether you speak Russian or not. That was her first Russian language course and her first link to Russia.
- My interest for Russia grew stronger after I met my ex-boyfriend. He was studying at a business college with a focus on Eastern countries and Russia. I learnt some Russian words and alphabet from him, and then I found myself studying Russian in St.Petersburg.
- I was first scared to go to Russia. My expectations were negative. I had heard many of those stories about poverty and mafia. I remember my ex-boyfriend said: “Hey, come on, there are about 5 million people in St.Petersburg, why can’t we go there? If there are any problems they would not concern ordinary students”.
As one year passed in Russia, she decided to move back to Finland to continue with her studies of the language at the University of Jyväskylä and go deeper into journalism. “I was just 19. I was missing home, and I thought I would feel more secure with a familiar education system back in Finland”, she explains. Her further career brought her to Murmansk.
- I came to Murmansk in 2006 when I was working as a journalist in Kemi, the North of Finland. Those were three amazing days. I wrote 8 articles about the place and met many interesting people. I came again many times without hesitation. In late August 2010, I moved here and started my two-year contract as a ‘media and culture worker’ at the Finnish consulate in Murmansk where I make press releases and I organize cultural events. This autumn I prolonged my contract until autumn 2013.
- I see beauty of Murmansk. Murmansk is not the most beautiful town in the world, like St.Petersburg for example. Many houses need repairs, roads are bumpy. But it certainly has its own kind of beauty. I can see this beauty on the nature, people and Murmansk walls, they are like maps or figures, those shapes tell stories. I love taking pictures to reflect the own beauty and life of city.
- I feel that my home is here for now, and I feel safe in Murmansk. Sometimes I’m worried about nuclear safety remembering of the recent case when a submarine caught fire, but I understand that things like that might happen elsewhere.
- Murmansk is a big and interesting town for me. Last winter I joined a group of swimmers in an ice hole of the Semenovskoye Lake; those winter swimmers are usually nicknamed “walruses” here. I do snowboarding, I go in for sports at the local gym. It is never boring here. I attend many cultural events. When my friends come to visit me here, I always take them to the monument to Alyosha. It is noble, it has history, and it opens a splendid overview on the city.
- If I could not speak Russian it would be more difficult for me to live here. I see that many cafes and restaurants do not have menu in English. Local traffic is aggressive. Though Murmansk drivers are friendlier than those of St.Petersburg, I still need to be a very careful pedestrian. What annoys me also about Murmansk is garbage scattered all around. Another disappointment is hot water shut off every summer for some technical reasons.
- People are so friendly. They kept asking me: Are you from Norway? I say, no, I’m from Finland! After two years living here Murmansk people are eventually starting to understand that there are other foreign groups than Norwegians, like the Finns. They now recognize Finnish language and ask if I am from Finland. But, the presence of Norway in Murmansk is significantly stronger. Norway has more fishery, oil and gas industry, and different kind of policy towards Murmansk. We have Santa Claus and mining only.
- My mother always taught me: do what your heart tells you to do and what you feel is right. In some 20 years I picture myself continuing this kind of work related to media and journalism. I would also like to stay in the north.
Photos of Murmansk by Sari Poyhonen.