A border that once divided now unites

Russia and Finland cooperate to maintain their 1,340-kilometre border, which about seven million people cross each year.

Finland and Russia are separated by a 1,340 kilometre-long border. This border has been pushed back and forth several times, mainly as a consequence of armed conflicts.

The existence of the border has aroused fears, and for many people it has meant something to be avoided. At the same time, however, it has also helped people to learn the basics of peaceful co-existence and how to benefit from the closeness of your neighbour.

Today, Finland’s eastern border is associated with growing prosperity and opportunities for cooperation on both sides.

The southernmost point of the land border between Finland and Russia is located on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, while the common boundary mark of Finland, Norway and Russia on Muotkavaara in Lapland is the northernmost tip. Some sections of the border are straight, while other sections meander through the shores of lakes and rivers, at the edge of bogs and fields, or in the middle of a forest. Towards the north, the terrain becomes hilly, and in Lapland becomes an uninhabited wilderness. The border zone on the Finnish side has a maximum width of three kilometres on land and four kilometres on sea. The outermost limit of the border zone is marked with yellow signs, rings painted on trees and plastic tape attached to trees. The actual boundary line is a strip of land between poles and stones acting as boundary marks. On the Finnish side the poles are blue and white, and on the Russian side, red and green. Buoys are used in water.

A permit is required for entering the border zone. A permit application can be submitted to the Headquarters of the Border Guard District, a Border Guard Command Post or a local Border Guard Station. For an application, you must prove your identity, give the necessary contact information and state the reasons for your application (such as owning property in the border zone, working in the border zone or visiting somebody living in the border zone).

Life on the border

During the Cold War, Finland’s eastern border was on the northern fringes of the Iron Curtain across Europe, and the closeness of the border aroused both fear and awe. Entering and crossing the border was only possible in special cases and only after lengthy bureaucratic processes. The border was heavily fortified and guarded and there were no contacts between people living on the two sides even though the distance between them was only a few kilometres. In those days Finland’s eastern border also signified the widest prosperity gap in the world and the decisions on trade between the two neighbours were made at government level.

A border zone mark.

A border zone mark.© The Finnish Border Guard

Boundary marks on a border of Finland and Russia.

Boundary marks on a border of Finland and Russia.© The Finnish Border Guard

Today, there are daily contacts across the border at all levels. Even though a permit is still required in order to enter and stay in the border zone, the strip is not deserted. There are farms and other settlements at the very edge of the boundary line and though the border area is sparsely populated, there are towns and villages on both sides. On the Finnish side, these include the small industrial town of Imatra. The existence of the border has opened up new opportunities and it is no longer considered a threat.

A large proportion of the trade between northwestern Russia and the rest of the world goes through Finnish ports. In 2007, one million lorries crossed the border at Vaalimaa-Torfjanovka border crossing. Russian tourists make shopping trips to Finland and spend time at Finnish ski resorts. In fact, many of them have purchased holiday homes on the shores of the clean lakes of eastern Finland. At the same time, Finns make shopping trips to Vyborg and St. Petersburg and take in the culture these two cities have to offer. Heavy traffic has provided residents in near-deserted border areas with new business opportunities. In the old days, closeness to the border was a factor pushing plot and property prices down, whereas today, a location close to the frontier adds to the value of real estate.

The border is closely guarded but everything takes place in good spirit

A map of Finland highlighting the eastern border and the most active frontier crossing points.

Finland’s easter border (in red) and the most active frontier crossing points.

On the Finnish side, the border is guarded by the Border Guard, and in fact most of its 3,100 members of staff are deployed on Finland’s eastern border. The most important task of the border guards is to ensure that cross-border passenger traffic goes through the official border crossings and that all formalities are adhered to. There are 13 official border crossings between Finland and Russia and, if necessary, ten additional border crossings can also be opened on a temporary basis. Cross-border traffic is heavy: Some 7.2 million people crossed the border between Finland and Russia in 2007, and the figure was 5% more than in the year before. The border between Finland and Russia is also the external border of the Schengen area, within which border controls have been abolished. This means that the Finnish Border Guard also makes a contribution to pan-European security. Controlling freight traffic is the responsibility of the Customs.

The land border is traditionally supervised by dog patrols on foot or on skis, by keeping lookout, and by carrying out surveillance using aeroplanes, cross-country vehicles and helicopters. The sea border is primarily supervised using a range of radar and camera systems and patrol boats. Even though the border is long and there is not enough staff to keep an eye on every kilometre all the time, illegal crossings are rare. In 2007, there were 27 unauthorised border crossings into Finland, and three into Russia. Nearly all those crossing the border illegally are caught.

Cooperation between the Finnish and Russian border guards is close and smooth.

Finland’s eastern border photographed from the air for the first time

The Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs commissioned an aerial photography project which was carried out by the National Land Survey of Finland (NLS). The flights took place in summer 2005 but the issues concerning the use of the images must still be resolved by the Finnish and Russian border commissions.

The aerial images produced are at a scale of 1:31,000. Seven flights covering more than 1,400 kilometres were required and the aeroplane had to make turns on both sides of the border. Faultless communications between the flight and ground control authorities of the two countries were required to complete these 20-kilometre-long loops.

As the work involved flights on and across the border, the Finnish flight crew was accompanied by a Russian navigator observer, as required by the Russian authorities. The navigator observer was in touch with Russian control centres, while the Finnish crew maintained contacts with its own flight and ground control authorities.

The border demarcation was carried out between 11 and 13 September. Orthophotomaps at a scale of 1:20,000 adjusted to map coordinates will be produced in Russia.

The border between Sweden and Finland was also demarcated the same year. As the border mostly follows the deep-water channel of the border rivers, the most important aim of the demarcation process was to determine the channel and to present it on maps. The National Land Survey of Sweden was responsible for making the boundary marks more visible, while the aerial photography was the responsibility of the NLS. The demarcation of Finland’s western border is carried out every 25 years.


By Salla Korpela, June 2008