Is knowledge of Russian an advantage or disadvantage in the Finnish labour market?

The answer is not as obvious as you may think. It all depends on your ethnicity. If you were born and raised in Finland, and you have a Finnish name and Finnish qualifications then knowledge of Russian will be an advantage if you are looking for a job. However, if you have a Russian-sounding name and foreign qualifications then knowledge of Russian will often be a disadvantage, even if you are looking for the same types of jobs.

This is what Inga Jasinskaja-Lahti, researcher of social psychology at the university of Helsinki, told us.

Leif Jakobsson/Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland gave the opening speech at the Fram med språken (Languages out in the open) seminar on 27 April. Jakobsson explained that Finland has always been a multilingual country. In today’s multicultural Finland, when it comes to both the old and the new minorities, it is especially important to broaden our horizons, discover the problems and prepare a strategy with respect to the future.

It was a very interesting forum. Even though I am sufficiently familiar with the problems faced by minorities as I am both Russian and a Swedish-speaking Finn, there was a lot of new and useful information.

The Estonian participants at the seminar had some interesting observations. Järvi Lipasti from the Tuglas society pointed out that the Estonians in Finland often “disappear into the crowds”. You don’t see this as much with Russian speakers, for example. Perhaps, Estonian culture is not considered anything “big” or exciting by the majority population? Estonia is a small country. I, myself, have always had the idea that people with Estonian as a mother tongue do not merge very easily into the rest of the population in Finland and that it is an advantage to have Estonian as a mother tongue, considering that it is related to the Finnish language. But it is not that easy.

The Russian speakers in Finland do not just come from Russia, they also come from Ukraine, Estonia and other countries. There are also Ingrians. In Russia they were known as tjuchna, but in Finland they suddenly became “Russians”. This is a phenomenon that Jewish emigrants also know from personal experience: those who moved to the USA from the former Soviet Union are still known as Russians even after twenty years.    

Petr Potchinchtchikov/Faro criticised the attitude to Russians as a resource. The media often says that it is important for Finns to study Russian. At the same time the available resources are used ineffectively: the competent Russian-speaking people who live in Finland are not trusted enough regarding their knowledge of Russian. Instead, companies often want to employ Finns who can speak Russian.

Several participants explained that immigrants should not be represented by native Finns purely as other immigrants in different contexts. The political factors should not be misunderstood: among the Russian-speaking people in Finland there are people with different views who may not necessarily approve of Russian politics.

The discussions also dealt with identity problems and prejudices. If you have difficult neighbours, it is not enough to change your name: they will then find something else to complain about. As an immigrant you can never be sufficiently anonymous. Therefore you must face the prejudices and create your own strategies in everyday life. The police, social services and other structures in society should also employ people with immigrant backgrounds who have personal knowledge of the situation of minorities.


Zinaida Lindén

Author, publicist, translator