Johan Bäckman: the Russian media’s favourite Finn
By Esa Mäkinen
In March this year 40 Russian journalists in Turku were expressing amazement at the cruelty of Finnish social welfare officials.
Finnish officials had taken the son of the Finnish-Russian Rantala family into foster care. It was claimed that the boy’s Russian family background was the reason for the move. At the centre of the controversy was the Finnish academic Johan Bäckman, who was constantly giving pointed statements about Finland to the Finnish media.
“One could even speak about a genocide of Russian children, because they are being taken away from their Russian mothers and fathers”, Bäckman said on Centr TV, one of Russia’s big television channels.
The child custody uproar swelled to vast proportions in Russia. According to an article in the newspaper Kommersant Vlast, the whole incident was largely incited by Bäckman himself.
According to the article, Bäckman, who presented himself as a spokesman for the Rantala family, gave several mutually contradictory statements before the case really took fire.
“In Finland, only a few officials knew about the problems of the Rantala family, as well as Finland’s leading ‘anti-fascist’, who actually started the whole scandal”, Vlast wrote.
Johan Bäckman was born in Porvoo in 1971. The family moved with his businessman father first to Turku and from there to Helsinki. The young man, who was interested in playing the bassoon, ended up in the Sibelius High School, which specialises in music education.
His first public appearances were in the Eurovision Young Musicians’ Competition. During one autumn he played the bassoon in the Radio Symphony Orchestra, but then came his military service and his sociology studies. His interest in music waned.
Then Bäckman found Russia by coincidence, when he took a language course at university.
“The Soviet Union collapsed when I was in the military. There was much talk about it, and it was interesting”, Bäckman recalls.
His sociology studies went well, and Bäckman worked as a researcher at the National Research Institute of Legal Policy. In the 1990s Bäckman lived in St. Petersburg and Tallinn for long periods of time, specialising in Russian organised crime.
In 2006 his doctoral dissertation Itämafia (“East Mafia”) was completed, and soon he was named adjunct professor at the universities of Helsinki, Joensuu, and Turku. Most recently Bäckman lectured on legal sociology at the University of Helsinki a year ago.
Bäckman has not needed to do much work for a living. His father was a wealthy CEO, and Bäckman himself had assets worth a million euros, and EUR 50,000 in capital gains income in 2005. After that, information on his wealth has not been public.
Bäckman himself denies that his wealth would have had much of an influence on him. “I would certainly do the same without it”, he says.
Already at an early age Bäckman had a knack for provocation. In 1996, as a sociology student aged 24, Bäckman had a book review published in Helsingin Sanomat in which he accused three Russia experts of “post-Finlandisation”.
Bäckman’s paradoxical term suggests that the deference shown to the Soviet Union during the period of Finlandisation has been turned upside-down and that the researchers saw Russia and Russian identity in an “exclusively negative” light.
Bäckman was respected as a researcher, even though he had not yet written a doctoral dissertation.
In 2001 WSOY published a 700-page collection of articles, edited by Bäckman, whose writers include some of the big names of the Finnish academic world: Alapuro, Klinge, Rautkallio, Hentilä, Kolbe, Vihavainen, Roos...
Then something happened. In 2002 the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs wrote in its media review that “Johan Bäckman has conducted a one-man anti-Finnish media campaign in Russia”.
Bäckman counter-attacked with a press release according to which “a new cult of anti-Russian fervour” is being built within the Foreign Ministry.
At the turn of the millennium, Bäckman ran a “Johan Beckman Institute” in St. Petersburg, which published books and a new publication called Ulkopolitiikka (“Foreign Policy”).
It was supposed to compete with a magazine by the same name published by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
In 2003 Bäckman was such an interesting figure that the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) aired a half-hour TV documentary about him.
It showed how the “mafia doctor” tests criminals’ weapons and kisses a woman in the pool of a public sauna in Russia.
After publishing his doctoral dissertation, Bäckman says in his own words that he was “radicalised”.
“I wanted to let off some steam”, he says.
First he published a fictionalised account of the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya called Saatana saapuu Helsinki (“Satan Arrives in Helsinki”), which savagely attacks a number of people, including MEP Heidi Hautala (Green).
After that he brought a group of Putin Youth to Helsinki’s Sanoma House (the editiorial offices of Helsingin Sanomat) to protest against an anthology of articles on Estonian history edited by Sofi Oksanen and Imbi Paju.
But he generated the greatest amount of publicity with his Russian-Finnish child custody dispute.
What followed is a familiar story. Bäckman’s reputation grew, but his honour went down the tubes. Researchers tend to take a dim view of him.
People close to him in organisational activities include Abdullah Tammi, the founder of the Finnish Islamic Party, who claims to be a former KGB agent, as well as Juha Molari, the Lutheran Vicar of Pohja, whose blog articles led the Espoo Cathedral Chapter to ask for a police investigation.
Molari has conducted a public exorcism on the steps of the Helsinki Cathedral to banish terrorists and the devil.
While Bäckman is a controversial figure in Finland, he enjoys great respect in Russia.
According to Kommersant Vlast journalist Nikolai Zubov, Bäckman is considered by many Russian media outlets to be a reliable source.
His fairly good command of Russian makes him an easy interviewee.
“In practice he alone has taken the role of the main expert of Finnish affairs because - to put it bluntly - nobody else has ever bothered to do it”, Zubov says.
Journalist Vladimir Shislin of the news agency Interfax says that Bäckman is a popular source of information, and that there is no reason to question the information that he gives out.
“Contrary to other Finns, especially Finnish officials, he seems to sympathise with Russian mothers who always lose child custody cases in your courts”, Shislin says.
According to YLE correspondent Jarmo Mäkelä, 149 articles concerning Finland were published in the Russian media in May and June this year.
According to a column written by Mäkelä in the Finnish agricultural sector newspaper Maaseudun Tulevaisuus (the mouthpiece of MTK, a trade organisation representing the interests of farmers, rural entrepreneurs, and forest owners), Bäckman was a source or the initiator of the topic in 42 of these items.
Bäckman himself denies this.
His official title of adjunct professor is also an advantage in Russia. The University of Helsinki has declared in an op-ed piece that Bäckman does not speak for the university when he airs his views.
However, his title cannot be revoked.
Bäckman’s public modus operandi is typical for that of a provocateur. He distorts and exaggerates facts, and rarely admits to having been wrong.
For example, in the summer Bäckman held a press conference in St. Petersburg.
According to Interfax, he said that in Finland, 10,000 children are taken into foster care annually.
In reality, there are just 2,500 new cases each year, according to figures put out by the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).
When presented with these figures, Bäckman first denies that he ever said it, and then says that he did not make any mistakes.
However, after a few e-mails he concedes.
“In my public appearances, I use provocation as a tactic, when necessary. I provoke deliberately and professionally. My provocation also applies to numbers”, Bäckman writes.
Bäckman’s figures are swallowed by the Russian media, and the journalist who wrote the article takes a moderate stand on the matter.
“It isn’t our fault if the figures that he gives are incorrect”, Shislin of Interfax, says.
What is Bäckman trying to achieve with his activities?
At present, Bäckman works actively in an organisation that he has set up himself called the Antifascist Committee of Finland, which is also known by its Finnish abbreviation Safka.
In practice the organisation comprises a blog and a group of like-minded people who organise demonstrations and campaign on the Net.
The Antifascist Committee appears to be a passionate defender of Russia. Safka activists are particularly angered by comparisons that are made between communism and fascism.
“I feel that no crimes committed by communism exist”, Bäckman says. In his view, the Soviet Union never occupied Estonia.
“There was no occupation. There is no historic evidence of that”, Bäckman says.
His book and his blog give the impression that Bäckman is primarily a pro-Russian nationalist.
Bäckman defends Russia, because he feels that the cause is an important one.
He himself says that this is not true, and that Russia is quite capable of defending itself.
In the summer of 2010 a question was put forward on a YLE news broadcast as to whether or not Bäckman gets instructions from “official Russia”.
He denied the claims and continues to do so.
Journalist Zubov of Vlast says that he believes that the greatest beneficiary of Bäckman’s activities is Bäckman himself.
Bäckman has some personal experience of conflict between spouses.
He has been involved in a legal dispute with his former spouse, a woman who was born in the Soviet Union.
The court records indicate that both have been convicted of acts of defamation of character.
There has been a certain air of caution when writing about Bäckman in the Finnish press.
The most important reason for this is that the adjunct professor of legal sociology is eager to file complaints of slander and libel, or at least to threaten to do so.
Court records show that he has won a couple of the lawsuits that he has initiated.
Bäckman himself has also been convicted of slander in July 2009.
In the summer Bäckman applied to the Helsinki District Court for an injunction to prevent WSOY from publishing a book that touched upon him.
In a letter sent to the publishing house, Bäckman claimed that in the past five years he has won five libel lawsuits in court.
“I hope you don’t have to meet me there”, he wrote.
While this article was being written, Bäckman claimed he had filed a criminal complaint against the MTV3 television network over a current affairs programme.
The producer of the programme denies this.
All in all, Bäckman does not seem to have had significant success in court cases involving defamation of character.
Bäckman himself explains that he wants to see Finnish society develop in a more fair direction.
“I want to eliminate the pathological anti-Russian feeling from Finnish society and from the Finnish press”, Bäckman says.
“When they say that Finland is a country under the rule of law, nobody believes it, damn it”, Bäckman says.
When asked why he speaks of an ongoing genocide of Russia children, he says that he is speaking of a “cultural genocide”, or the destruction of Russian identity.
In recent months Bäckman has hardly been seen in public - except in Russia, where he recently took part in a TV discussion on the Winter War.
Bäckman soon plans to publish a book on the Winter War.
Its main message is that the history of the Winter War has been falsified in Finland.
Historian Ohto Manninen has shown that the Russians perpetrated the "false-flag" shelling of Mainila, which the Soviet Union used as a pretext for starting the war, claiming that Finnish artillery had fired on its troops.
Manninen bases his findings on original Russian sources, but Bäckman does not believe in their authenticity.
“I feel that no such sources can exist”, Bäckman says.
So you have seen the sources, and that they do not exist?
“In my opinion, if Manninen claims to make reference to some sources, he is falsifying them.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.12.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Hundreds of listeners and a handful of protesters attend publication of book on Estonia (24.3.2009)
Book accuses media and Green MP of inciting anti-Russian sentiment (1.3.2007)
Bäckman apologises to Paavo Salonen over comments on child custody affair (23.10.2009)
Anti-Estonian Johan Bäckman refused entry at Port of Tallinn (27.4.2009)
Book stokes controversy over Estonian history (31.3.2009)
ESA MÄKINEN / Helsingin Sanomat