Families living on Russia border fear Putin will target them next after Ukraine – World News

Ever since she was a child, the framed picture has hung on the wall of her remote wood house, nestled in a clearing among snow-covered fields and dense forest.

Since it was taken Helli Koskimies, now 86, has grown up, got married and had children and grandchildren.

But the photo – showing the flattened ruins of a brick building with just the chimney standing – remains in the same spot, overlooking her kitchen.

The house was her idyllic childhood home, until the Russians bombed it.

Although Helli, who has the onset of Alzheimer’s, struggles to remember what happened yesterday, she says her memories of the day, aged four when she found her home in ruins, are as vivid as ever.

Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves Red Square after the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021


AFP via Getty Images)

Stalin’s surprise three-month war with Finland in 1939-40 led to the country conceding 11% of its territory, which meant the border was moved to 100 yards from Helli’s home.

Her family, who were farmers, lost 50 acres of land, which they were never allowed to set foot on again. Since then Helli has lived in the house her father de ella rebuilt from wood.

When I ask her what it has been like to grow up within touching distance of Russian territory, Helli contorts her face dismissively.

“I don’t have anything against the Russians any more but I don’t want to forget either,” she says. “The younger generation need to know what the Russians did to us. So they never let it happen again.

“That’s why I keep the photo there, to remind them.”

Finland’s relationship with its neighbor is at its most fractious since that time, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the Nordic nation to apply for NATO membership.

Suvi and her grandmother Helli Kosk hold a picture of Helli’s childhood home which was bombed by Russia 80 years ago


Rowan Griffiths/Daily Mirror)

This week British soldiers from the Queen’s Royal Hussars were taking part in exercises in Finland. The decision to join NATO has enraged Russian President Vladimir Putin, who many speculate is set to declare all-out war in Ukraine on Monday – Russia’s Victory Day.

Putin has vowed “consequences” and said he would move nuclear weapons to the nearby Baltic Sea if Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, opts to join NATO.

And a Russian lawmaker last month warned Finns would be “asking for the destruction of their country”. On Thursday a Russian army helicopter violated Finland’s airspace.

The incursion happened 80 miles from Kurkela, a hamlet at the end of a dirt track where three generations of Helli’s family live.

The other side of the road is the start of the “border zone” and lined with signs that warn not to enter without a special permit. Despite her frailty, Helli, whose bed-ridden husband has cancer, has been following news in Ukraine. “It’s terrible,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t reach Finland but I won’t be going anywhere. I’d rather die in my house and see them destroy it again.”

Finnish soldiers bringing Russian prisoners of war to their camp in 1940


Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Russia’s Winter War with Finland bears striking similarities with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin claimed Russia needed a territorial buffer north of Leningrad, now St Petersburg, similar to Putin’s stated aim of keeping Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and NATO.

The war began on November 26, 1939, after Stalin claimed Finland had shelled a border guard post – historians agree it was most likely a false flag operation carried out by the Russians.

Finland, with 33,000 soldiers compared with the Red Army’s one million, and 114 aircraft compared to 2,300, seemed doomed.

But after losing more than 200,000 troops, Russia bombarded Finnish defenses in retaliation. Four-year-old Helli found herself on the front line.

She remembers: “My dad cultivated tobacco and herbs, which we sold at the market. We drink milk from our own cows. Everyone was much poorer but it was the happiest time of my life. The border was a long way away. We never even thought about Russia.

The Finnish border checkpoint at Vaalimaa, the border between Finland and Russia


Rowan Griffiths/Daily Mirror)

“I remember things started to get bad. There was no flour to bake bread. We used to spend the nights in the cellar. The sound of explosions got louder and everyone was terrified.”

Helli and her mother were evacuated to Kuopio, 200 miles north, while her father stayed to continue farming.

“We took our 10 cows with us, all of us on the train,” she recalls. “It was wretched. Some of my friends died during the evacuation. There were babies born on the train.” When she returned home, following the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty, Helli found nothing left of her home from her. The Russian border was meters away.

She says: “Father was out farming when they bombed it. They did the same to another 100 other houses. Out of 200 people living in the area, there were only 30 left.

“It was terrible seeing my house like that. I grew up for days. Dad promised he would rebuild it, so he started chopping down trees so we could make a new house as quickly as possible. We just wanted to get back to a normal life.”

Helli went on to marry a local boy and they had three children, one of whom died aged three. Her granddaughter Suvi, 18, whose dad owns the farm, is typical of many young people who have grown up in the shadow of Russia but prefer to look to the West.

Hanna can see Russia from her bedroom window but any visitors to her house require official documentation to enter the zone


Rowan Griffiths/Daily Mirror)

“I know if it weren’t for the Russians we would have all that land over there,” she says, pointing past the border zone. “But it all happened so long ago. I don’t see Russia as a bad country. I just have no interest in it. I’d rather go to Europe.” After finishing school last month, she plans to travel around Europe with her best friend, Hanna Koskela.

Hanna’s home is inside the border zone, a meter from a narrow stream that separates Finland from Russia.

Security issues mean she is not allowed to take pictures inside the zone, even to post photos of family life on her social media.

She says: “My 14-year-old brother’s bedroom window looks into Russia. You sometimes see guards patrolling.

“My grandfather and my grandmother used to always tell stories about the war when I was young. They didn’t want us to forget either.”

The 18-year-old says she has been to Russia once with her mother, to fill up their car with cheaper petrol. “It just doesn’t seem that interesting,” she says.

Neither believes Russia will dare invade again. “I feel so sorry for all the Ukrainians but, personally, I don’t feel scared,” says Hanna.

At the nearest border post, eight miles north at Vaalimaa, Finnish guard Jari Huttunen scans the horizon as he shivers in the chill.

Since the Ukraine war, there has been an 80% drop in Russians crossing to Finland, while cargo trucks are not allowed into Europe.

A sign shows it is 125 miles to Putin’s home city of St Petersburg and the same distance to the Finnish capital Helsinki. The Zsar Outlet Village, where Russians would come to spend their money, is deserted.

“They would come here for their holidays,” he says. “But very few are coming over now, although every day we have people seeking asylum.

“But nobody expects any trouble with Russia. I think most Finns are still sleeping quite peacefully.”

It is during summer when traffic is busiest, mainly people aged in their 80s and 90s, he says.

“When the Russians invaded thousands of Finns were forced to leave their homes, taking nothing with them.

“Every year the old people visit the places where they used to live, where they lost everything. They miss their childhood homes. I find it really sad.”

Victory Day to be more propaganda

Victory Day on Monday marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War, a conflict in which more than eight million of their soldiers died.

It is always a big holiday, when President Vladimir Putin presides over a parade in Moscow. But this year, as the war in Ukraine grinds on, the day will take on new meaning.

Western officials have long believed he would leverage it to announce a win in Ukraine, a major escalation of hostilities, or both.

The Second World War has shaped his approach to the conflict. He claimed he had set out to “denazify” the country in justifying the invasion.

He is known for his symbolism, having launched the invasion on Defender of the Fatherland Day.

Russian Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile systems move through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021.


AFP via Getty Images)

James Nixey, of think-tank Chatham House, believes Putin will want to make a show of strength.

“May 9 is designed to show off to the home crowd, to intimidate the opposition and please the dictator of the time,” he said.

If Putin doesn’t declare war, he could announce annexing the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in the east, or declaring full control over port city Mariupol.

There are indications he could also be planning to annex a “people’s republic” in the city of Kherson.

Political scientist Oleg Ignatov believes Putin will “try to use this date to solidify his support”.

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