Finnish Kremlin Supporter Sparks Slander Scandal
Published: August 29, 2012 (Issue # 1724)
MATTI PAAVONEN / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Bäckman at a demo arranged by pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi in Helsinki in 2009.
Russian media made unfounded accusations against a Finnish professor after he expressed support for the imprisoned members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot earlier this month.
Several Russian news outlets reported that Teivo Teivainen, a professor of world politics at the University of Helsinki, faces up to five years in prison for trying to break into a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the Finnish capital with a canister full of urine.
Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, Finnish YLE radio and the University of Helsinki have all exposed the accusations as false, but Russian media seem to be in no hurry to publish corrections of their earlier reports.
The “canister of urine” fiction became a national story in Russia when it was reported by Interfax, the major news agency, and picked up by other news agencies, websites, newspapers and major television channels on August 15, two days ahead of the verdict in the Pussy Riot trial.
It came more than two weeks after Teivainen had stopped during his World Political City Walk next to Uspenski Cathedral, Helsinki’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral (which was closed at the time, in keeping with its schedule), where two women donned Pussy Riot-style colored balaclavas and called for the release of the imprisoned women.
While international media reported on the trial, describing it as a “medieval witch trial” and a “farce,” and published images of the defendants sitting in a cage in the courtroom on their front pages, many Russian media were discussing the “attempted blasphemy” in Helsinki, arguing that Pussy Riot would also have faced a prison sentence in European countries for their punk prayer. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went as far as to say, on Aug. 20, that “staging a blasphemous event in a church” was punishable by a two-year prison sentence in Finland.
Interfax, as well as other Russian media, referred to only one source in their reports: Johan Bäckman, who was identified as a “prominent Finnish human rights activist and adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki.”
In reality, Bäckman is Finland’s best-known supporter of the Putin regime, and is notorious for his highly eccentric public statements and campaigns.
Bäckman has stated that Estonia has no right to exist as an independent state; that the Winter War was started in 1939 by Finland, rather than the Soviet Union; that Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered by Putin’s enemies in an attempt to discredit him; and that disputes over the custody of Russian-Finnish children in Finland were a “genocide of Russian children” and manifestations of “Russophobia.”
His recent article about the Pussy Riot trial, published on his website in Russian, is titled “Pussy Riot: The Face of Fascism.” In it, Bäckman complains about the “leniency” of the two-year sentences passed on the women, arguing that “feminism is a crime against mankind.”
“Pussy Riot is a violent assault on democracy in Russia, [an assault] committed against Orthodoxy, against all the confessions of Russia, against Russian statehood, against the Russian nation and its unity,” he continues.
Many of Bäckman’s previous statements have been readily and uncritically reprinted in the Russian press, leading Helsingin Sanomat to dub Bäckman “the Russian media’s favorite Finn.”
In an article titled “Criminal proceedings launched against organizer of attempt to repeat the Pussy Riot performance in Helsinki,” Interfax reported on Aug. 15 that Bäckman and several other people had signed a complaint to the police.
“Criminal proceedings have been initiated under two Finnish Criminal Code articles concerning the violation of rules on religious tolerance,” Bäckman was quoted as saying.
A paragraph containing a reference to the “canister full of urine,” although technically unattributed, was inserted between quotations from Bäckman.
The University of Helsinki published a statement the following day in which it asked the media to correct the information and denied the accusations against Teivainen, who had spoken in support of Pussy Riot during one in a series of walking tours organized by the university and Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.
During these tours, Teivainen stops at different sites and discusses international political issues with his audience. During the walk on August 3, he stopped near the Bank of Finland, where he spoke about the global economic crisis. During the stop near Uspenski Cathedral, he spoke about the human rights situation in Russia.
“The walking tours included several vivifying pieces of performance art, one of which was held in front of the cathedral,” the University of Helsinki’s statement said.
“In it, two masked women expressed their support for the group Pussy Riot. The performance did not constitute a crime.”
The University of Helsinki specifically stressed in its statement that Bäckman (who identified himself as “Dr. Johan Bäckman, Adjunct Professor in Sociology of Law, University of Helsinki” in his petition and a letter to this newspaper) “is not a professor at the University of Helsinki, neither is he employed by the university.”
Replying to questions from The St. Petersburg Times, Bäckman did not stand by what he told Interfax about criminal proceedings against Teivainen, despite the fact that it was published as a direct quotation, and denied he was the source of information about the “canister full of urine.”
“Regarding claims of his arrest, charges pressed against him by prosecutor or the urine, this information appeared in my knowledge in non-Russian media first and is of contradictory nature,” Bäckman wrote in English.
“Therefore the urine issue is not put forward in the crime report [or] the complaint to the university, because it is vague. For example, there are some four-five versions of the urine issue. Some media claimed it was not Teivainen, but participants who carried the urine.
“I have never claimed he was arrested nor charges were pressed against him, because I do not consider that information reliable. However the fact that Teivainen was not arrested should be confirmed by the police. There is no such confirmation.”
The only Finnish source known to have published the urine claim was web news service Verkkomedia.org, which ran an article on the case on Aug. 7 and removed it two days later. In a letter of apology to readers, it said that the article was based on information taken from a Russian website, from where it had since disappeared.
In his letter to The St. Petersburg Times, Bäckman insisted that Teivainen could face up to two years in prison on blasphemy and disruption of religious service charges for organizing what he called a “political protest against the church,” despite the fact that the church was closed.
“In my opinion it would be the same thing as if somebody protested against a Synagogue waving Nazi flags with Nazi uniforms or against a Mosque waving insulting Muhammad caricatures,” Bäckman wrote.
According to Teivainen, two people, Rauni Salminen and Tommi Lievemaa, last week retracted their signatures from Bäckman’s petition to the University of Helsinki, in which he demanded that the university fire Teivainen.
“It is true that I have retracted my name from the petition to the University of Helsinki,” Lievemaa wrote to The St. Petersburg Times.
“Naturally there is no real ground, in my view, for the police investigation either. Since I had a discussion with Mr. Teivainen on the telephone and had some more information about the event he organized in front of the Uspenski Cathedral, I decided to withdraw from the petition.
“It seems that the previous information about the ‘Pussy Riot event’ was quite highly exaggerated (a jug of urine and so on). This event was only one part of a larger ‘promenade of world politics,’ that was organized in cooperation with the Museum Kiasma.”
Salminen did not reply to queries sent to her email address and Facebook page.
Despite the retractions, their signatures were still on the petition on Bäckman’s website when checked Tuesday.
According to Teivainen, given the absurdity of the claims, Bäckman’s smear campaign was not aimed at the Finnish police, the administration of the University of Helsinki or the Finnish public, but at Russians unfamiliar with life in Finland. “In fact, I do not know of any genuine journalist in Finland that would trust him as a source,” he wrote.
“As there are clearly no legal grounds whatsoever for these claims, they obviously play some other purpose,” Teivainen wrote on his Facebook page.
“One possible logic is that if you spread lies of this kind and try to make people even for a moment believe that ‘Pussy Riot style action’ could lead to a judicial process also in countries like Finland, it may help to ‘normalize’ the trial in Russia. Other motives are also possible.”
Despite the fact that the accusations have been exposed as unfounded, articles making these claims are still available on Russian websites, and no Russian news outlet has yet published a correction. Bäckman sent a link to an article titled “Scandalous Finnish professor has accused the Russian media of lying,” published on Saturday by the Rosbalt news agency. After briefly citing Teivainen, Rosbalt repeated the false “canister full of urine” accusation as established fact.