Le Pays De France - Russians pack trains into Finland as sanctions bite

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Russians pack trains into Finland as sanctions bite
Russians pack trains into Finland as sanctions bite

Russians pack trains into Finland as sanctions bite

It's one of the few remaining routes from Russia to the EU: trains to Finland are packed with Russians fearful that now is their last chance to escape the impact of Western sanctions.

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After two years of pandemic, the 6:40 am from St Petersburg was full of largely Russian passengers as it pulled into Helsinki station on Thursday.

"We decided with our families to go back as soon as possible, because it's unclear what the situation will be in a week," Muscovite Polina Poliakova told AFP as she wheeled her suitcase along platform 9.

Travelling "is hard now because everything is getting cancelled," added Beata Iukhtanova, her friend who studies with her in Paris, where the pair were headed.

The Allegro express train linking St Petersburg to the Finnish capital is currently the only open rail route between Russia and the EU.

It is therefore one of the few remaining ways out of the country since the widespread airspace closures in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine a week ago.

"The trains coming from St Petersburg to Helsinki are now full for the next few days," said Topi Simola, senior vice president of Finnish railway operator VR.

He said that passenger numbers jumped on Saturday, two days after Moscow began its assault on Ukraine.

Since then, people's motives for travelling on the 3.5 hour twice-a-day service appear to have changed, Simola said.

"We can see from the luggage they carry that people are moving to somewhere else, they are basically moving for good."

- 'We are lucky' -

The Allegro train to Helsinki is, however, only open to a select few.

Russia stipulates that passengers must be Russian or Finnish citizens, a visa is required, and passengers must prove they have an EU-recognised Covid vaccination, not the Sputnik dose which is most commonly given in Russia.

Most passengers are therefore Russians who live or work in Europe, such as 14-year-old Maria and her mother Svetlana, who took a last-minute train to Finland after the cancellation of their flight on Sunday back to Austria, where they live.

"Everyone was like, 'I don't know what to do'," Maria told AFP. "First we thought we should travel through Turkey, but it's way more expensive than Finland, so we are lucky."

VR, which operates the service in partnership with the Russian railways, is looking to have the service opened to EU passport holders, and to increase capacity.

"We know that there are tens of thousands of EU citizens still in Russia and we assume that many of them would like to come back home," Simola said.

- 'Desperate' to leave -

Since the start of the invasion large numbers of Russians are reported to be looking to leave the country, worried that the borders will close imminently and about the impact of Western sanctions.

"Many people are in a panic," said Daria, arriving back in Helsinki a week or two earlier than planned, to resume her studies.

"I know some people who are quite desperate at the moment to go abroad," said Elena, a Russian who lives and works in Finland and who did not want to use her full name.

Elena was visiting her native Moscow when the Ukraine assault began last Thursday, and changed her flight to return to Finland on the same day, becoming one of the last to travel before flights to the EU were frozen.

A lot of people "don't feel safe, they know that the economic situation will be very hard from now on, and also many people from a moral perspective can't bear staying," the 37-year-old told AFP.

While trains out of Russia have been sold out, the return service from Helsinki to St Petersburg has only been 30 percent full, Simola told AFP.

"I'm not planning to go back to Russia anytime soon, that's for sure," Elena said.

But she added that despite the difficulties there, "it's impossible to compare it to the horrors happening in Ukraine at the moment."