Olga Davydova-Minguet’s journey from Petrozavodsk to Joensuu sounds like the plot of an adventure film. It was defined by two major historical events: the statement by president Mauno Koivisto in spring 1990 on treating Ingrians as returning migrants and the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union.

Olga Davydova-Minguet, born in Petrozavodsk, was in the springtime of her life in 1990. She had completed her university studies to become an interpreter, translator and teacher of the Finnish and Russian languages and literature, and the young woman travelled to Helsinki to meet acquaintances.

– My friends told me that Ingrians can apply for a work permit in Finland and earn Finnish marks. Actual marks, as in real currency! I walked out right there and then to show my passport at the police station – and got a work permit. It was amazing!

The young woman hammered away working in a store for almost a month. She earned around a thousand Finnish marks. Soon she returned to teach Finnish in the state university of Petrozavodsk for another year as a wealthy woman.

Business in Karelia

It was a period of time when Finnish businessmen rushed to do business in Karelia. Davydova’s interpreting skills were in high demand. A small company from Maaninka offered a summer job for the interpreter who still had a Finnish work permit burning a hole in her pocket.

– I was visiting Petrozavodsk for a weekend and came to Lakhdenpokhya where the trucks of the company from Maaninka were loading timber. The truck drivers asked me if I had heard about the coup. I could hardly believe it.

It was a serious situation and I realised that I had to get to Finland no matter what

When she arrived at the quiet and empty border, she had to accept the truth. The coup was real.

– The border guard told me that only Finns were allowed across the border from the Soviet Union to Finland. It was a serious situation and I realised that I had to get to Finland no matter what.

The resourceful woman ended up running to see the head of the border post declaring that the timber was hers, she was responsible for it and therefore had to get to Finland. Now the story goes that Olga Davydova-Minguet was the only Soviet citizen who was allowed across the border that day.

– I broke down as soon as I was on the other side. I felt like some door had been closed behind me for good and I had left my family in Petrozavodsk.

A new beginning for a seeker

From Maaninka, Davydova-Minguet’s journey continued to a company in Outokumpu that also did business in Karelia. However, in the midst of the worst depression in Finland, she soon lost her job in 1993.

– Life felt hopeless and without any prospects in the rented flat in Outokumpu. Once again I felt like a door had been closed. I had to grab a phone book and start calling around to ask whether anyone in the region needed an interpreter.

She got lucky with a call to the continuing education centre of the University of Joensuu, and soon Davydova-Mingut was working in full swing. She translated materials in a project that promoted the Finnish elder care model in Karelia. Her career in the continuing education centre continued in the Itäinnova unit where she taught Russian to Finns who planned to open businesses in Karelia. She has worked as an Associate Professor in the Karelian Institute since 2000.

An awarded researcher

Olga Davydova-Minguet got a doctoral degree in Joensuu in 2009. The topic of her doctoral thesis was the way Russians born in Finland and intending to return to Finland talk about Finnishness. A year later she was awarded by the Order of the Lion of Finland for her merits in the advisory board of ethnic relations in eastern Finland.

In 2016, the Doctor of Philosophy was awarded as the researcher of the year by the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers. The Union’s reasoning for choosing Davydova-Minguet was that “a researcher is actually more than just someone who does research; an active civil society operator conducts pioneering research whose significance exceeds mere academic purpose.”

At the core of internationality

Olga Davydova-Minguet’s Ingrian mother moved to live with her in Joensuu in 1999. Her father had passed away earlier. Her path crossed with her husband Alain Minguet when both were participating in founding the Joensuu District Multicultural Association in 2009. The family also has a daughter, Aino, who will start school next autumn. The family speaks fluent Finnish, Russian and French.

– When I first came to Joensuu back in the day, some shops had signs at the doors that said “only one Russian customer at a time” or “leave your bags by the cash desk” in poorly written Russian. Now the situation has completely changed and Russians are the face of immigration in the entire north Karelia.

Like many other immigrants, Davydoava-Minguet also praises the atmosphere in Joensuu and how schools and day-care centres treat multilingualism. Another important factor is Joensuu’s location. Living near the Russian border is good as a citizen of Joensuu.

Text: Sirkka-Liisa Aaltonen/Viestintä-Ässä