Hearing the call of Arctic borders

In global politics, the Arctic is experiencing something of a boom, and many countries have prepared their Arctic strategies. As global warming progresses, the world's focus is shifting increasingly towards the north, and migration to the area is expected to grow.

It is necessary to study how people adapt to the changing situation and how the relationship between humans and nature changes, says Maria Lähteenmäki, Professor of History, who focuses especially on Arctic studies and Finnish history.

She has been active in establishing the East Meets North network of Arctic researchers, bringing together scholars of the eastern and northern regions from different disciplines to discuss issues causing conflicts in the Arctic, as well as Arctic policy and research.

Currently, the lion's share of the research addressing northern areas is related to technical sciences and natural sciences.

"We humanists are trying to enter that terrain."

Lähteenmäki's own research has focused on northern areas ever since the 1990s. Up until then, research addressing the northern areas was very much national.

"Finns used to study Finnish Lapland, while Norwegians would focus on Finnmark, Swedes on Norrbotten and Russians on the Kola Peninsula. I wanted to take a cross-border approach to the phenomena, rendering national borders irrelevant."

Borders and border crossings are strongly present in Lähteenmäki's research. She is more interested in average people living in various border areas than in great historical characters and monarchs.

"I'm happy to leave them for others to study. My research has shed light on various border crossings through communities and individual people living on borders."

Throughout history, borders have been a sensitive topic – as exemplified by the current crisis in Ukraine. Lähteenmäki points out that countries, including Finland, have often been formed on the basis of borders. This can be seen in Finnish Lapland.

"When Finnish Lapland was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809, the first thing that was done was to go through the archives to find the oldest borders written on a map. Moreover, old people with oral traditions about the border between Finland and Russia were interviewed."
Lähteenmäki says that history is like a bookstore, and that you can find a book for every purpose.

"In Ukraine, for example, it is possible to dig up a historical border and claim that Ukraine has always been part of Russia. However, it is a job for history research to point out that a border is just one among many."

As places where different cultures meet, border regions often feel like sore spots of society. In this regard, too, history has a lot to offer.

"We must understand the dynamics and political landscape of border regions: what's happening there and how people are reacting to changes in society. This allows us to anticipate and analyse whether politically and otherwise sensitive border regions can be governed in a manner that prevents tensions from escalating into violence."

When studying the Terijoki border region, formerly part of the Finnish Karelian Isthmus but nowadays part of Russia, Lähteenmäki noticed that borders are definitely not created by governmental decision-makers alone. Within the communities living by the border, there are different political groups fighting over where the border is.

"These cultural and political borders are flexible, depending on regional and local conflicts. This is why borders and their nature are topics of constant dispute."

Lähteenmäki says that in an ideal world, all border areas would be integrated or interdependent. In Central Europe, interdependent border areas are places where people naturally cross them in pursuit of jobs and services.

"This is natural border crossing from one sovereign state to another. People are apart, yet together."

The border between Norway and Finland is an example of an integrated border. Over the years, this border has become very familiar to Lähteenmäki. Her projects addressing the Arctic force her to cross that border a lot – both figuratively and physically.

Text: Sari Eskelinen Photo: Raija Törrönen