Suspended trains, empty roads, vacant malls: Silence blankets Finland’s border with Russia

VAINIKKALA, Finland — At the train station in this small village, where the rail link between Finland’s capital Helsinki and Russia’s northern metropolis St. Petersburg crosses the border, all was quiet. 

The high-speed train service, known as Allegro, which for years passed here four times a day carrying hundreds of passengers in both directions, had been suspended. In the railside restaurant, border guards rather than international travelers made up what was left of rush hour. 

“It’s a nightmare,” said Ville Laihia, the son of the owner, from behind the counter. “We spent 20 years building this business and now we’re fighting to survive.” 

Laihia’s travails are a sign of something locals here have been feeling for weeks, if not months: Finland’s relations with Russia are entering a deep freeze. 

In a historic sign of how bad things have gotten following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland’s leaders said on Thursday that their country should join NATO, definitively breaking with a long-held form of military neutrality designed to strike a balance between east and west.

Russia responded on the same day with a promise of “military-technical” retaliation against Finland. On a Kremlin-backed television network, a high-profile host spoke of a “new iron curtain” falling. 

Near Vainikkala, which lies on a southern stretch of Finland’s 1,340-kilometer border with Russia, signs of the spreading frost were apparent earlier this week. 

At the new-looking Zsar Outlet Village, built to serve travelers from Russia, Europop played to empty streets. There wasn’t a single patron in the nearby Cafe Finlandia.

The well-paved highway between the border and the Finnish capital Helsinki was also quiet. Gaps between cars often lasted several minutes at the road’s eastern reaches.

At Helsinki’s central station, the other end of the rail link from Vainikkala, the Allegro trains’ regular departure point, platform nine, was empty.

The four high-speed machines — which are painted in the colors of the Finnish and Russian flags — now sit in a depot in Helsinki where Finnish engineers maintain them. 

Topi Simola, who leads Finland’s rail company VR — the Finnish partner in the joint Finnish-Russian venture that operated Allegro — said that public pressure to shut the service began growing quickly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. 

Once the service had helped Finnish expats leave Russia following the invasion, it was shut down. The last Allegro rolled into the Finnish capital on March 28. 

“Of course, we condemn the Russian aggression and war in Ukraine, so we don’t want to do business with Russia, so we shut down the service,” Simola said. 

High-profile backers

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

When the Allegro trains were inaugurated in December 2010 by Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the then-Finnish President Tarja Halonen, there was much pomp and ceremony and hope for the future.

“The high-speed train traffic which begins today will improve the opportunities for different types of people to meet,” Halonen said, adding that she hoped her countrymen would now be able to “discover their neighbor in a new way.” 

For years, the service was regarded as a great success, with more than 4 million passengers using Allegro between December 2010 and March 2022, a period that includes an almost two-year suspension because of the pandemic.

Two services ran in each direction between Helsinki and St. Petersburg each day with each train able to carry up to around 360 people. Double trains carrying over 700 people ran to coincide with holidays like New Year’s Day. 

VR chief Simola said the service was particularly popular with business travelers and tourists who valued the short travel time and the chance to avoid the more climate-unfriendly option of flying. 

“It is a great service if you think about it. To be able to go from Helsinki to St. Petersburg in 3.5 hours from city center to city center,” he said. 

When it all changed

In late February, as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the mood shifted. Simola said it was clear that public sentiment was turning against cooperation with Russia generally and shutting down the service was the right thing to do.

At the same time, Finland’s leaders were planning a dramatic shift in defense policy with their decision to back an application to NATO. 

On Wednesday, during a visit by U.K. leader Boris Johnson, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said it was Russian aggression that had forced Finland’s hand. “You caused this,” he said. “Look in the mirror.”

Outside the Helsinki train station, 19-year-old Felix Halabi was collecting money for a charity supporting Finnish army veterans. 

Dressed in an army uniform, Halabi, who said he was 139 days into a 357-day period of military service, said it was probably right for Finland to join NATO. 

“I’m not totally sure, but I think it’s probably a good idea because Putin is so unpredictable,” he said. “We might need some help.”

Finland fought two brutal wars against the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1944 and lost a big chunk of its eastern territories in the process. 

Just outside Vainikkala, the marks of that conflict are well-preserved. Trenches and machine-gun positions are dug into the woods along what is known as the Salpa Line of fortifications, which runs north from the Baltic Sea.  

It was this militarized history that Finnish and Russian leaders were seeking to leave behind when they moved to strengthen trade links in this border zone following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. 

Now it is war, not business, that is in focus again. 

Last week, Finland and a number of NATO allies, including the U.S. and U.K., began the military training exercise Arrow 22, which saw lines of tanks moving in formation across an open landscape in Finland’s west. 

After watching some of the action, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace vowed that his country would defend Finland and Sweden, which is also expected to submit a NATO application, “if they were ever attacked.” 

Behind his counter at the train station restaurant in Vainikkala, Laihia said he still hopes the political tension with Russia will ease and passengers instead of border guards can once again gather at his tables. 

“But that all depends on Mr. Putin over there,” he said, nodding toward the border. 

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