Arja Paananen is an award-winning Russian correspondent for the newspaper Ilta-Sanomat. She has reported about developments in our eastern neighbour for nearly 30 years, helping readers get to know the Soviet Union of the glasnost era and Russia during Yeltsin’s and subsequently Putin’s presidency. Paananen graduated from the University of Jyväskylä, with a degree in Russian language and culture.
Paananen originally comes from Viitasaari in central Finland. Her home was a secluded farm, where children learned the art of milking by the time they were ten. She was enthusiastic about writing already as a young child and made newspapers of her own. She was interested in languages and had pen pals from different countries.
She began to dream about upper secondary school and university, although not all of her relatives encouraged such ideas.
“Grandma said that it wasn’t worth it for me to go to upper secondary school, because I would anyway marry somebody soon and stay home to work with the cows. I became the first secondary school graduate in our family.”
At upper secondary school, she chose Russian as an optional language and the teacher of this subject turned out to be highly inspiring. Throughout Arja’s childhood, the news gave the impression of a frightening Russia, but through the language studies, she started to see the human side of the country.
After upper secondary school, Paananen enrolled in Alkio College in Korpilahti to study journalism. When admitted to the University of Jyväskylä, she chose Russian language and culture as her major. Her combination of study subjects was rather unusual in the late 1980s. She also took political science as a minor, which she also did with journalism later on when this subject became available in Jyväskylä. In retrospect, each subject offered the exact skills and knowledge that an IS special reporter on Russia needs. At university, she also learned about the idea that even those with authority can and must be challenged, and that there is no need to do everything by the old rules.
The best part of her study years was the freedom in planning how you spent your time.
”I often went to swim early in the morning in the swimming hall next to campus and continued from there to lectures. Sometimes I had long days filled with lectures, but at times I had a day off in the middle of the week, and then I might do a shift as an on-call reporter for Keskisuomalainen, the local newspaper, in order to finance my studies, and at night I might go to dance in Jyväshovi.”
Her university studies included language training in Moscow. At the same time, the era of glasnost was beginning and the Soviet Union was approaching the end of its existence. Paananen had already worked as a summer reporter in a couple of years and now became inspired to report about the disintegrating superpower. She stayed in Moscow for nearly three years, since her news articles were selling well.
“I took book-based exams for my studies at the University of Jyväskylä. The university sent the questions to the Finnish Embassy in Moscow and some consul watched over me as a side job when I took the exams. That was how we did remote learning at that time! I came up with and proposed this arrangement myself, but it enabled me to eventually finish my studies even if at a slightly slower pace.”
In 1994, Paananen started as a reporter at Ilta-Sanomat, the same post she holds today. She has now observed Finland’s neighbour for thirty years. She has lived in Russia for several years and her working languages are Finnish and Russian. In 2018, she received the Suomen Kuvalehti Journalist Award for her long-term and expert reporting on Russia.
In 2011, Paananen’s exposé on false doctors was selected as the News Story of the Year in the Bonnier Journalism Award competition (Suuri Journalistipalkinto). She exposed two false doctors who had practiced medicine with fake qualifications. In her investigations in St. Petersburg, Paananen found out that their degree certificates were fake. At the same time, she revealed severe shortcomings in Finnish systems and authorities’ practices in the medical profession. The exposure of the false doctors was recognized in Russia as well. Paananen received the News Story of the Year Award in 2007 too.
A reporter’s work is actually about continuous learning. Each story is like a small essay, for which you have to familiarise yourself quickly with at times quite difficult new things, search for information from different sources, evaluate the reliability of the information, and then submit the result to the readers for their judgement.
“It suits my nature that that I often do all this within a single day, and then in the next day, I have again a new topic and a deadline awaiting. I could never have become a researcher – that was another thing I realised at university.”
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