The Personal is Political

Community, multiculturalism and transcending borders are strongly visible in researcher Olga Davydova- Minguet’s work and everyday life. She is one of Finland’s frontline immigration researchers.

Olga Davydova-Minguet moved to Finland from Petrozavodsk in 1991. Her mother was an Ingrian Finn, so she was easily granted returning migrant status. Olga Davydova-Minguet had studied the Finnish language and literature as well as the Russian language and literature at the University of Petrozavodsk. Her first jobs in Finland were interpreting and translation work at Finnish companies.

— My employer went bankrupt during the difficult recession years of the ‘90s, and around the same time, I noticed that the continuing education centre at the University of Joensuu was looking for a Russian teacher. I worked there for nine years, and I also co-ordinated preparatory courses in Petrozavodsk for people planning to move to Finland. I came into close contact with returning migrants and learned about their experiences and the conflicts they faced, and I thought this was something that needed to be studied.

— Then one day I went out to eat at the market square in Joensuu with some colleagues, and there was a researcher from the university at the same table. I brought up this research topic and we decided to apply for funding. That’s how my career as a researcher began.

Olga Davydova-Minguet has given a face to the returning migration of Ingrian Finns and to Russian immigrant women, and has become one of Finland’s frontline immigration researchers. In addition to geographical borders, she has also transcended scientific ones in her research.

Immigrants need “suction systems”

In 2009, Olga Davydova-Minguet defended her dissertation on how Russians of Finnish descent intending to return to Finland talked about Finnishness.

— I understood how their identities were formed. People can have many contradictory identities at the same time, and that’s just fine.

In her work with returning migrants, Davydova- Minguet became very aware of what Finnish society offers them.

— Members of minority groups should have access to different “suction systems”, which help them to become better integrated and acculturated into society. It’s important to become familiar with the systems.— Members of minority groups should have access to different “suction systems”, which help them to become better integrated and acculturated into society. It’s important to become familiar with the systems.

— For example, the university and research spheres are a system that increases people’s knowledge and awareness – and not just for people who grew up in the society in question.

In the 1990s, the city of Joensuu had a serious racism problem. According to Olga Davydova-Minguet, the situation would not have improved without the influence of researchers and people from the university.

— We will probably never eradicate racism completely, but research can help us to understand its causes, and by taking action we can help to reduce it.

Of course, racism is still a problem in Joensuu and unfortunately it can also be seen in the university. In 2013, researchers of immigration and racism were the target of online attacks. Last spring and this autumn, anti-Islam flyers were distributed on campus. A police report was filed on the matter, but the distributor of the flyers was never found and the police ended their investigation.

Space for Russian-language discussion at the societal level

Olga Davydova-Minguet headed a research project funded by the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, which studied the relationship between Russian-speaking people in Finland and the media. The Prime Minister’s Office grants funding for projects that can be used to support decision-making. The study was completed at the end of August.

The study looked at the media field as comprehensively as possible. It looked into which media outlets Russian-speakers in Finland follow as well as the effects of their media consumption. The study also involved analysing the information and other contents of Finnish and Russian national media. In addition, it looked into people’s voluntary media-related actions and other activity that is connected to media consumption. In light of this information, the study also evaluated the effect of Russian-speakers’ use of media on Finland’s overall security.

— In terms of security, the perspective in our project has been that of increasing overall security, placing an emphasis on social cohesion, interaction and communication. From this perspective, the fact that a portion of the population lives in a different media sphere can be seen as a disconcerting development.

— That said, our study has demonstrated that media is always interpreted in a way that is bound to context. Even those with the strongest pro-Russian views also follow Finnish national media or other non-Russian media in some way or another. In fact, one of the conclusions of our study is that spaces for Russian language discussion need to be developed at the national level, and we have to consider what would be the best “place” for such discussion.

In addition to Davydova-Minguet, the other project researchers were Tiina Sotkasiira, Teemu Oivo, Daria Kettunen and security expert Janne Riiheläinen. (The project has a blog at (in Finnish).) The project will be presented at a conference organised by the Cultura Foundation in Helsinki in mid-October. (

Wallpaper TV shapes people’s imaginations

— Russian-speakers’ use of media is transnational. Russian television can be watched from anywhere. And TV is the most important medium for Russians. It is always on at home in the background – it is like wallpaper.

The way Russian national television constructs the truth is very different, even opposite, to what people usually consider the truth in European national media.

— Russian television has a skillful way of reaching people, as the narrative is very emotional. TV news in Russia is also much more emotional than in Finland – there is a strong discourse of heroes and villains. The media wants to present Russia in a defensive position – “we are forced to respond to the allegations”.

— The goal of Russian national TV is to guide the viewer to have a pro-Russian view.

The research discovered that there are different kinds of media consumers. For some, the entertainment value is the most important aspect, and they do not identify with the ideology. Others identify with the media ideologically.

Olga Davydova-Minguet was already studying media use among Russian-speakers at the time of the Bronze Soldier controversy in Estonia. Media consumption and people’s relation to the media changed even more drastically when the war started in Ukraine. The conflict situation became heated, and even divided families.

Davydova-Minguet feels it is important for YLE to broadcast Russian-language news.

Russia, Russia, Russia

Another research project led by Davydova-Minguet is the international Perception of Russia across Eurasia: Memory, Identity, Conflicts project, which is funded partly by the EU and partly by the ERA-NET RUS Plus programme of the Academy of Finland. The countries involved in the project are the Baltic States, Poland, Kirghizia, France, Moldova and Finland.

The project studied the images people have of Russia outside the country.

— The research looked into both ordinary citizens’ and decision-makers’ conceptions of Russia. In Finland, people’s conceptions of Russia were studied in Central Karelia, mainly in Tohmajärvi. We selected this location for the research because a few years ago, it was the most Russian municipality in Finland. The municipality’s location near the border means that people deal with Russia on an everyday basis, they have personal relationships with those living across the border, and they cross it often.

— People’s images of Russia are based on their personal experiences of the country, crossing the border and dealing with Russians on both sides of the border. The location at the border also means the area is more sensitive to changes in the international situation. As border researchers, we are also interested in changes to people’s relationship with the border.

In the study, we look into images of Russia among Finnish residents of the municipality, immigrants and decision-makers. We also analyse media images of the country. The other researchers involved with the project in Finland are Pirjo Pöllänen and Teemu Oivo. The first interview and media data was collected in the spring and summer of 2016, and now the analysis phase is starting.

Next autumn, a large international conference will be held in Finland about this project.

One project after another

Once the big research projects have come to an end, it’s time to think about what to do next. Sixteen years in the world of research has consisted of one project after another. Now Davydova-Minguet is working as the first tenure-track researcher at the Karelian Institute of the University of Eastern Finland.

— In a way I’ve been lucky, because I’ve always found a new project as soon as the previous one has ended. Even so, I’m always afraid and anxious about my funding coming to an end.

Olga Davydova-Minguet would be interested in focusing more on border studies. The study of the politics of memory in the border region is her tenure-track project.

“The personal is political” is a theme that comes up many times during Olga’s interview.

— My interest in the position of Russian-speakers is certainly rooted in my own background. My interest in border-related questions comes from the fact that I have crossed the eastern border many times.

Olga Davydova-Minguet still has family and friends in Petrozavodsk. Many Russian-speakers’ parents live on the other side of the border. Davydova-Minguet’s mother lives with her daughter’s family.

Olga Davydova-Minguet has studied the impact of the border along with Pirjo Pöllänen, another researcher from the Karelian Institute.

— The border has many effects on people, including increased inequality.

A Russian-speaking Finlander

Olga Davydova-Minguet talks about herself as an “immigrant mannequin”. She is an exceptionally active player in civil society, who has dared to put herself in the game and give a face to Russian immigrants.

— The personal is political and a mannequin can become a critical member of society, she laughs.

She also takes the third task of a researcher seriously.

— Since I’ve been chosen for this position, I deliberately take advantage of my status and put myself in the speaker’s role. This provides a forum for influencing.

Davydova-Minguet is actively involved in JoMoni ry, the multicultural association of Joensuu. For the past couple of years, she has been its chairperson. The association has a couple hundred members.

— There has been a lot of discussion in JoMoni about when an immigrant stops being an immigrant. Even if you have lived in the country for 25 years, you are apparently still an immigrant.

We have also discussed coming up with a better name than “immigrant”.

— Suomenmaalainen, or “Finlander”, would be a neutral-enough name for anyone who lives here. “Finnish-Russian” is a very ethnicising name; “Russian- speaker” is better.

Davydova-Minguet feels that there is now a pretty good atmosphere for immigrants in Joensuu. Multiculturalism has become part of everyday life. Multiculturalism is also visible concretely in the home of the researcher and activist.

— I am a Russian-speaking Finlander, but how can my daughter be defined?

Olga Davydova-Minguet’s husband is a Frenchspeaking Belgian. Olga speaks to her daughter Aino in Russian, while Aino’s father speaks French. At day care, Aino speaks Finnish.

— This is another example of the personal being political: our decisions are making our daughter’s life more difficult, but also enriching it. More research should be done on multilingualism.

Olga Favydova-Minguet

  • born in 1967 in Petrozavodsk
  • Philologist, Finnish and Russian teacher, University of Petrozavodsk, 1990
  • Licentiate of Philosophy 2004 and Doctorate 2009, University of Joensuu
  • Researcher, University of Eastern Finland, Karelian Institute
  • Researches multiculturalism, immigration, border studies, the media and Russia
  • Medal of Merit of the Order of the Lion of Finland 2010
  • Civil society activist
  • Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers’ Academic of the Year award 2016

Text Kirsti Sintonen
Trasnslation Delingua
Photos Pentti Potkonen

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