Xenophobia a social heritage?

On the last day of class at the UC Berkeley, one of my American Professors came to me accompanied by a dark-haired woman about my age. “Tarja”, he said, “ I want to introduce you to Professor Svetlana from the University of St. Petersburg in Russia. You two must have a lot in common and could develop some European-Russian cooperation project.

I froze. I wanted to run away but could not move. Panic chemicals were flooding my brain. An enemy, a Russian enemy, stole our island – words were shooting back and forth in my brain, colliding with each other.

In a second or two my rational brain managed to control itself and I realized that my reaction had been senseless, some kind of a secondary flashback to my father’s war stories that must have been imprinted in my unconscious mind.

My father’s family had been evacuated from Porkka Island in 1944, when the Soviet Union took over a big part of Karelia. About 250 Finns had been living there, supporting their big families through farming and fishing. Despite the poor living conditions on the island, the adults in the neighborhood where I grew up longed for home-Karelia as if it had been some kind of earthly paradise.

Even the school that I attended for eight years had been moved from Karelia to Lahti, my home town. Some of my teachers in the 60-70s were Karelians, unmarried and childless. They exercised psychological terror. Often I imagined that they hated young people, because we had avoided the war. Maybe they, too, longed to be in Karelia. Everything would have been different if they had been able to stay there…

Now almost 30 years after moving away from Lahti, I was watching the representative of my childhood enemies eye to eye. There was a slight breeze in the sunny California afternoon, but I was sweating. Mechanically I reached out my right hand and said smiling: “Nice to meet you, Professor”.

After this experience I realized: there were no Russians in my circles of international friends and acquaintances. Somehow I had managed to avoid them. Nevertheless I could not understand my strong negative reaction to this lively friendly-looking woman. She hadn’t even been alive at the time when my Karelian family was evacuated from their island. Neither had I.

That experience started a new phase in my self-education. It consisted of reading Russian classics, retelling Tolstoy’s stories in Toastmaster clubs, studying via the Internet at the ‘Ekonomia’ University in Moscow. That same year, I became friends in the Netherlands with a Russian woman, twenty years younger than I. We meet as often as possible, and in between we talk over Skype and exchange emails.  She is a lovely human being, who just happens to have been born in Moscow.

My prejudice engendered a regretful situation wherein as long I did not personally know any Russians, my subconscious classified them all as strangers I should be afraid of. But once I realized how unfounded that fear was, a whole new culture and opportunities for new and wonderful friendships opened to me.

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