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The national flag was hoisted in pouring rain and gusting wind at Tähtitorninmäki in Ullanlinna district at nine in the morning, as the 98th Independence Day celebrations kicked off on Sunday December 6.
Independence as a noun has many connotations to Finns, such as freedom, identity . . . – the escape from the hold of the Russian bear. After declaring independence from Russia in 1917, the real test for maintaining the independence came 22 years later during the Winter War, when the Soviet leader, Stalin, made a clandestine deal with Germany, which was to split the Eastern Europe in half. Along with the Baltic countries, Finland was recognised as belonging with the Soviet sphere.
The Red Army invaded Finland on November 30 1939, but the small country with an army of about 300,000 men defended successfully against the superior force of the Soviets with 450,000 soldiers. In the course of the cold months of the battle (the coldest day -37.6 degrees Celsius), 131,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and 325,000 wounded. Finland suffered casualties of 24,000 men and 43,000 wounded soldiers. The Winter War ended after 105 days, on March 13 1940. The bravery, persistence and spirit of the nation wrote Finland in the history books with capital letters as people with Sisu: Guts.
On Sunday at 11:30, the doors at the Helsinki Cathedral popped open for the honorary guests of the Ecumenical jubilee worship.
The service was attended by the MPs, ministers, former presidents and their spouses, and of course by the reigning president, Sauli Niinistö, and his spouse, Jenni Haukio – the hosts of the evening’s celebration at the Presidential Palace, where the bold and the beautiful are invited.
After the worship, the prime minister, Juha Sipilä, sat on the backseat of the S-Class Mercedes Benz and the driver took him around the corner to the Helsinki City Hall, where the Multicultural Independence Day celebration was ready to begin at 13:00.
By the time of the opening song, the Finland’s national anthem, sung by Emilia Neuvonen and accompanied by Antti Vuorenmaa with the grand piano, I realised that the programme would be filled with skilful, classy performances. Apparently the 350 spectators, who had reserved their place in the span of only two days, were aware of the fact as well because the celebration packed a full hall.
After the opening remarks of the mayor of Helsinki, Jussi Pajunen, a ballad called Mainas, with Nathan Thomson, Amos Darkwa Asare and Laonikos Psimikakis-Chalkokokondylis playing the Finnish zither and Petra Poutanen singing with the voice of an angel, moved the crowd into ringing applauds. I saw the former president, Tarja Halonen, drying her eyes in the front row . . .
Prime minister Sipilä said in his speech that Finland is living through changing times. “Finland is among others becoming increasingly multicultural, which I value greatly.”
He spoke about the refugee crisis and the huge, unaccepted, influx of refugees, in which Finland was not prepared.
“We will responsibly take care of our international obligations. Every refugee will receive a treatment, which respects human values.”
Sipilä said that the adjustment to the Finnish society may be cumbersome to some. The things in our society, which we take as granted could be “weird and strange to a newcomer.”
Sipilä advised people to explain the Finnish culture to refugees, guide them into hobbies and different communities and to support them in everyday tasks.
“I urge the employees to employ immigrants fearlessly. I, for example, employed people with an Iraqi background in my previous profession. I was left with only good experiences.”
Sipilä said that he has been worried about the “hardness” of how some Finns have reacted to the asylum seekers. “We should remember that we all are different in some measures. I wish that the civilisation of the heart and caring of one another would form the hard core of the Finnish culture and that we would defend it as unified front.”
“The crimes committed by the refugee seekers are of course reprehensible,” Sipilä said. Every crime is judged. “But instead of a field court, in Finland we have an organised judiciary in which we lean on and we will familiarise the newcomers to the functions of it as well.”
Sipilä’s speech was received with echoing applauds and followed by more performances of music and dance and speeches by the youth. Sipilä posed for numerous selfies with the guests and then he left to prepare for the evening’s presidential ball.
Outside, the pouring rain had turned into drizzle. A few hundred demonstrators objecting the EU’s immigration policy and demanding closing of the borders stood at Kansalaistori (The Citizens’ Square). They were watching anti-immigrant videos featuring Donald Trump and others from a big screen, and the Finnish flags flapped in the wind, which seemed to become fiercer by the second.
A priest, Kai Sadinmaa, holding a sign saying “Love an immigrant,” was being verbally assaulted by an angry protester, who was iterating a single message:
“Would you ask to love an immigrant if your daughter was raped by him?”
“Would you . . .!”
Sadinmaa kept smiling, and after the protester saw that the words didn’t affect the man of God, he left. Later, the police removed the priest from the scene because he “was aggravating the protesters.”
The time was approaching 18:00 and I made it just in time to listen to hundreds of University students singing the national anthem at the steps of the Helsinki Cathedral in the rain, which was now pouring and in the wind, which was trying to blow off the white matriculation caps and the torches held high by the students.
It was the culmination of the Torchlight Procession, an annual parade by the student organisations, which strolls from the Hietaniemi Cemetery to the Senate Square following the mirror image of Marshal Mannerheim’s funeral march.
A few kilometres from the cathedral at Töölöntori (Töölö Market Square), another protest was summoning hundreds of frustrated, wet patriots, carrying torches of their own.
The parade about to start was called 612 (like the date 6.12.) and their very motive was to gather like-minded people in a politically independent parade, destined to march from the square to the Mannerheim Cross of Liberty at the Hietaniemi Cemetery.
An opposing group of people had gathered in a protest titled Vapaus pelissä (The Freedom at Stake) at the Hesperia park, a few blocks away from the square. Unlike during the protests of previous years, which aimed to disturb the celebration of the “elite” at the Presidential Palace, their motive was to stop the 612 parade, which they called a movement of racists and fascists. The police, however, prevented this group, parting the park to prevent them from disturbing the legally arranged parade of patriots.
However, early during the march of 612, a big white van playing loud rap music tried to intercept the parade strolling downhill at Runeberginkatu. The van was lurking on Eteläinen Hesperiankatu but was intercepted by the police in full riot gear.
Around the corner was priest Sadinmaa standing again, holding the sign screaming the love for immigrants . . .
When the parade reached the intersection of Mechelininkatu and Lemminkäisenkatu , about a kilometre away from the cemetery, another segment of The Freedom at Stake protesters had managed to slip through the cracks and they stood at Lemminkäisenkatu, waiting.
Meanwhile, at the southern part of the city at the border of the Market Square, the Independence Day reception had begun at the Presidential Palace.
The honorary guests: artists, politicians, business men and women . . . – a total of 1,800 invited guests –, were standing in a queue waiting to shake hands with the presidential couple under the eyes of cameras broadcasting for live TV.
The theme of the year was culture. In many ways, this year marks an anniversary of Finnish culture: the 180th anniversary of the Finnish national epic Kalevala, the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Jean Sibelius, painters Akseli Gallén-Kallela and Pekka Halonen, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of sculptor Tapio Wirkkala, composer Toivo Kärki and singers Olavi Virta and Tapio Rautavaara. The guest list and the reception programme reflected these anniversaries in various ways.
Guests representing the full spectrum of contemporary culture and minority cultures were also invited, including a number of people engaged within culture and in cultural activities at a grass-roots level.
The usual guests of honour included war veterans and members of the Lotta women’s auxiliary, who had been invited in great numbers again.
During a coffee break, a group of war veterans surprised the presidential couple with a song called ‘Veteraanin iltahuuto (The evening cry of the veterans)’. The lyrics moved President Niinistö into tears. “Take care of the brothers. Remember, precious is the land for them. Tell to your grandchildren. The memories shall never fade away,” said the last part of the song.
“We shall not forget,” Niinistö said after the performance.
At Mechelininkatu, the protesters threw glass bottles and rocks towards the police and the parade while shouting profanities. In a matter of seconds, more police cars were screeching with sirens ablaze. The stormy wind spanked rain in your face, which made it hard to see, and suddenly the anarchists threw a big red signal flare in the middle of the parade, which landed a few metres away from me pushing smoke in the colour of bloody red.
Police rushed in with shields, helmets and full armour, carrying semi-automatic riot guns. They shot a few shots of rubber bullets at the feet of the anarchists. Several protesters were arrested. Some managed to part the street.
The cat-and-mouse game between the police and the protesters turned anarchists was in full effect. Every intersecting street was now blocked along Mechelininkatu, all the way to Arkadiankatu, which was swarming with police.
On Arkadiankatu, I came across the same van I saw about 20 minutes ago. I could swear it was playing the same aggressive rap tune . . .
“Back up! Back up! Back up!” A tall policeman had pushed his hand inside the driver’s window, he was holding the wheel and the van with two masked protesters pushed the gear to the rear. Several police cars encircled the van and the parade was free to move.
Hietakannaksentie was another intersecting street and when the shouts started roaring from the darkness, the riot police with dogs blocked the street. The Malinois were tuned on, barking high in prey. The police with riot guns of bright orange stood as backup. Big black Mörkö vehicles, Mercedes Benz Sprinters with an armoured cover, speeded towards the cemetery.
When the parade finally reached the cemetery, a group of officers ran to the bushes and started guarding the nearby streets, and they disappeared in the darkness and rain.
The torches of the 612 parade were used to illuminate the candles at the soldiers’ graves near the tomb and cross of Mannerheim, the Marshal credited for establishing and later preserving Finland’s independence.
At Kamppi, in front of Temppelinaukion kirkko (The Rock Church), at least 50 protesters were encircled by the police. One by one, the police was escorting the anarchists in a bus provided by HSL.
“Daa, dirlan dirlan daa,” the protesters sang in the pissing rain, while borrowing the lyrics of a traditional Greek hymn Dirlanda, made popular in Finland by Kai Hyttinen in the ’70s.
In total, the police arrested 130 protesters during Sunday and according to the statistics of the police, they shot seven shots with the semi-automatic riot gun, FN303.
“Bubble butt, bubble, bubble, bubble butt . . .” The thumping beat by Major Lazer was making the crowd shake their asses while sipping Sibelius beer at the official after party of the Presidential reception in the glamourous Hotel Kämp, within a stone’s throw from the Presidential Palace.
It was 2:00 on Monday morning, and I had met a breakdancing couple, Jussi Sirviö and Anniina Tikka, the first urban dancers to receive an invitation to the palace, on their way to the door but in the party a military officer was doing an unintentional breakdance on the floor while crawling on the carpet.
Many of the guests, including the ski jumper, Matti Nykänen, the teen singer, Robin, and the Slayer guitarist, Kerry King, had already left the party but I spotted the legendary Finnish comedy icon, Pirkka-Pekka Petelius, from a corner.
“Shall we take a picture for Finland Today?” I asked.
“Is it a propaganda publication?” Petelius said and grinned.
“No, it’s a publication of pure journalism. The absolute cream,” I said.
He smiled and click, that was the last press of the shutter for me on the 98th Independence Day of Finland.