The 350-seat Allegro train from St. Petersburg was close to capacity as it pulled into Platform 9 of Helsinki’s main train station a few minutes late Wednesday morning. With Finnish airspace now closed to Russian planes, the train – which has ferried passengers 390 kilometres between the two cities for work or pleasure since 2010 – is one of the few remaining routes out of Russia for anyone who can’t drive or walk.
International sanctions against Moscow in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine have inflicted a heavy economic toll on the country. Energy markets have been plunged into a frenzy as Western countries pivot away from Russian oil and gas, and the Kremlin has accused the United States of declaring an economic war on Russia. Moscow has denied reports that it intends to impose martial law, but broad economic uncertainty and fear of conscription have left some Russians worried about the war and its implications.
Now, the Allegro train’s twice-daily trips to Finland are carrying hundreds of them west.
Natalya, a 22-year-old graphic artist from Moscow, got off the train Wednesday morning wrapped against the cold in a maroon and yellow-striped Gryffindor scarf. She didn’t want to give her last name for fear of government reprisals but told The Globe and Mail she planned to stay in Finland for a few days before moving on to other European countries.
Ultimately, she hopes to secure a visa to the United States.
She described the mood in Russia as steeped in concern.
“My friends are worrying, my family is worrying,” she said. “They don’t have the opportunity to escape Russia,” she added, but are happy that she can.
“I don’t like the situation right now in my country, to be honest. I don’t feel safety.”
Hundreds of other passengers from the train, alone or in small groups, filed past as she spoke. A few were met by friends or family on the platform. Some rolled luggage behind them – one carrier holding a yapping brown puppy.
Finland has a conflict-ridden history with Russia. Finns have taken part in dozens of wars against their eastern neighbour, for centuries as part of the Swedish Empire and later as an independent country, including two conflicts with the Soviet Union, from 1939-40 and 1941-44.
In the postwar period, Finland pursued pragmatic political and economic ties with Moscow, remaining militarily nonaligned – it is not a member of NATO – and positioning itself as a neutral buffer between East and West.
But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, support here for joining NATO has soared to record levels, surpassing 50 per cent, according to a poll commissioned by Finnish broadcaster YLE.
In 2020, fewer than 30,000 people living in this small Nordic country of 5.53-million held Russian citizenship, according to Statistics Finland. And only about 1.5 per cent of the total population spoke Russian, despite the fact the two countries share a 1,300-kilometre-long border.
But for the past week and a half, the Allegro train has seen such an uptick in demand that Finland’s national rail service, VR Group, is hoping to add a third daily run to the timetable. Viktoria Hurri, the director of Finnish-Russian passenger services for VR Group, told The Globe the expansion might happen as early as next week, though the final decision rests with authorities in both countries.
But VR Group stopped speaking with its Russian Railways counterparts on March 1 as a show of support for Ukraine. It also hoisted a blue and gold flag over Helsinki main station and is letting anyone with a Ukrainian passport travel for free on VR trains in Finland.
“We are communicating now only regarding this Allegro train and other reasons that are necessary to train operations,” Ms. Hurri said. “Everything else – every communication – has stopped.”
Ukraine is a key country of origin for work-based immigration to Finland, according to the Finnish Immigration Service. Thousands of Ukrainian seasonal labourers come here each year, particularly to work in the agricultural and forestry sectors.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, almost 700 Ukrainians have already submitted asylum applications this year (Finland accepted about 1,100 refugees in 2021, largely from Africa and the Middle East). And when the war began in late February, the government suspended all immigration decisions that might have resulted in Ukrainians being deported from Finland.
With a file from Associated Press
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