Maria Lähteenmäki: A leap of faith can change your whole life

Maria Lähteenmäki turned her life around by leaving Lapland to study history at the University of Helsinki. The results of that long journey are still evident in the professor’s life.

“I left Lapland, came from behind the Arctic Circle, left the lands of my family. The difference between Helsinki and Sodankylä was so big I felt I’d arrived in a different country”, laughs Lähteenmäki. The historian’s eyes twinkle as she speaks, and she has a contagious laugh.

The stone monuments of Finland’s capital didnät mean anything to the young student. The language and manners of city people were completely different from home. Maria had left all her friends and family, even her way of life behind in Sodankylä.

The leap of faith proved successful, thanks to a strong will to find and build something new. Navigating student life in Helsinki came naturally. Since then, Lähteenmäki has been fearless.

“I didn’t have any networks here, which means I don’t have the common sense to be afraid of authority or stuck-up institutions. I definitely don’t regard them as anything more than they actually are.”

Lähteenmäki still isn’t afraid to say what she thinks. It’s easy to be swept up in her bubbly chatter, but she weighs every word carefully.

Lähteenmäki believes that people who have taken giant leaps of faith in their lives have the ability to see a bigger picture; they’re more tolerant of different views. She feels strong sympathy toward migrants and refugees, thanks to the empty feeling she had in the beginning of student life in the big city.

“They have had to leave everything behind. My heart goes out to them.”

Lähteenmäki doesn’t think it’s possible to unequivocally whether something is bold or not.

Sometimes it might be bold or brave not to do something. The flipside of being bold is always there, too, in the form of fear and uncertainty. She wants the Kone Foundation to support bold initiatives, since hard times call for brave people.

“We need bold views especially in these times, when everyone is feeling somewhat threatened. Come on, this fascist and racist talk has got to stop! You can’t think of the person sitting beside you is your enemy just because their skin is a different colour.”

Dialogue is the best way to cross borders

Personal and cultural boundaries are touchy subjects that can easily lead to a heated discussion.

“I get truckloads of mail, including hate mail, about my books on Carelian borderlands in the 1920s and 30s. It’s mind-boggling to me, since it’s all in the past!”

But history helps understand the present and put your own angst into perspective. That’s why free scientific research is so important. Lähteenmäki has witnessed some rather long looks you might get if you study certain subjects. A true scientist won’t care, however, but will continue her work as she pleases.

Lähteenmäki says more rigid administration narrows the scope of acceptable research topics. Dwindling funding reflects on science. Financially hard times direct government funding for only very specific areas of Arctic research, for instance.

“We humanists, social scientists and arts scholars would get no money at all if it wasn’t for alternative sources of funding. The Kone Foundation has systematically supported approaches that don’t fit the bill in a way the status quo would like to.”

Lähteenmäki holds citizen activists and alternative movements in high esteem for questioning the powers that be directly, without personal gain. The professor herself has been closely acquainted with glass ceilings in the past, so she places great value on the history of brave acts connected to women’s rights and gender equality. She continues to advocate for resisting the mainstream despite possibly being the target of hate speech.

As an example of the bold decisions of politicians, Lähteenmäki brings up Finland’s former President Mauno Koivisto and his politics regarding the Ingrian Finns. Opening Finnish boarders to Ingrians returning from Russia in the 1990s was previously unheard of.

Researchers should be merciful when it comes to creativity

Lähteenmäki, nominated as professor of the year 2015, has done wide-ranging work in the course of her career, without worrying too much about boundaries or academic custom. She’s studied northerns border areas, the Arctic, border communities, political history and female history. A recurring theme seem to be borderlands and women in poverty: small people under crushing structures much larger than themselves.

Societal change and Lähteenmäki’s own life story have evolved along parallel routes. The late 1970s saw her move from the countryside into the city to study, and the economic boom of the 1980s plucked the fresh MA graduate straight into a research job funded by the Academy of Finland. In the 1990s recession Lähteenmäki was already safe inside the walls of academia, her career well underway. Being a social historian, she’s good at comparing her own life with how the world turns. This has actually become her guiding mindset.

“I come from such a humble background and so far away that I never imagined I’d become a researcher. I was going to be just a history and social studies teacher. But society around me just happened to change in a direction that threw little Maria into academia.”

Lähteenmäki thinks it’s important to ensure strong basic research alongside all kinds of new experiments. Funding shouldn’t only be directed to busy and fashionable subjects.

“Science should be about sitting down and working hard. I’m old-fashioned that way.”

Basic research isn’t sexy and requires adequate time and money, but it’s also essential, Lähteenmäki says.

“Think if we just stopped studying history altogether. You’d be reading articles published in the 1950s!”

Being bold means…Questioning mainstream truths and getting out of your comfort zone. Being bold isn’t always actions. It’s about resisting the mainstream and existing hierarchies when necessary. It also means talking about democracy, ethical values, the environment and equality.

Being bold isn’t…Oppressing and humiliating the weak, repeating the old, talking loudly and not caring about the common good but just taking care of yourself.


Maria Lähteenmäki, b. 1957, was a Board Member on the Kone Foundation Board of trustees 2011–2015. She is also Professor of Arctic research and history of Finland at the University of Eastern Finland as well as Docent of Nordic History at the University of Helsinki.

Her PhD dissertation was about Finnish women in the labour movement of the 1910s to 1930s. Is currently studying the Arctic, public monuments in Vyborg as political signifiers and the villages of Sivakka and Rasimäki in Northern Carelia.

Family: Married, mother of two.

Enjoys spending time at her summer cottages in Lapland and Häme, central Finland, ethnographic literature and ice swimming in the winters with female professor colleagues with the Joensuun jääkarhut (polar bears) swimming club.