Helsinki, Finland – A Tale of Three Countries, An Introduction

Here’s the thing about Helsinki, there’s a Tsarist Russian feel to the buildings, in a rather Swedish looking city. Does that even make sense?

Well, at least that’s my impression of the place based on a short weekend trip.

I was in Helsinki for a weekend city break. The ticket prices and flight time on Norwegian Airlines looked fantastic (just over 50 euros return trip), heck I’d probably save more in Helsinki than a weekend in Stockholm (I thought), and I had friends in the city. So it was a no-brainer, a weekend in Helsinki it was.

Helsinki is the capital of Finland, one of the 5 Nordic countries (sticklers will argue that its 8 countries and regions, but lets not go there), a family of five countries in Northern Europe that share similar heritage and history and love to give each other a hard time.

But Finland is not a Scandanvian country even if Finns are stereotypically blonde and blue eyed. Don’t ever tell a Fin that he or she is Scandanavian, not unless you want to be locked in a sauna until you repent your sins 😉

As far as countries go, Finland is a young country celebrating is centenary as an independent country only this year. Helsinki is also a young capital. Unlike the other capitals of Europe that have centuries of history behind them, Helsinki was a small fishing village with no notable history until the 1800s when it became the capital of the Duchy of Finland.

The story of Helsinki and Finland cannot be told with just Finland alone, because two other very important players are involved, Sweden and Russia.

The earliest tribes living in modern Finland include the Tavastians and the Karelians and in the 12th and 13th centuries were the last few tribes in Northern Europe who had not yet been “physically evangelised” into Christianity. Wanting to expand their territory and carry favour with the political power in Rome (the Pope), the various Scandinavian countries as well as the Germanic countries made numerous crusades against the various tribes to subjugate them and convert them to Christianity.

They weren’t the only ones, the Orthodox Christians from Novogrod (the precursor of the Russian nation) were also casting influence on the Finish people. Bigger weapon diplomacy and the gradual growth of Sweden into a great power ensured that Finland remained a territory of Sweden from the 13th to the 19th century. This Finnish territory was governed on the West Coast of Finland, from the city of Turku.

I’ve talked so much and haven’t mentioned Helsinki yet. It’s not intentional, it’s simply because Helsinki wasn’t important till the 1800s.

So what of Helsinki? During the time of Swedish Finland, people from the uppland (where Uppsala is today) and nearby areas sailed to Finland and settled on the neck of the Gulf of Finland. The neck was called a called helsing in Swedish (the same reason for the names of the city of Helsingborg and Helsingor). A little village was established next to the rapids of Vanhankaupunginkoski, called a fors in Swedish. Together the place was known as Helsingfors or Helsinge.

Old and New Helsinki side by side

Helsingfors was just that a fishing village. However things changed in 1550. The Stockholm Bloodbath led to the rise of Gustav Vasa and the adoption of Lutheranism in Sweden.

Gustav Vasa used the occasion to extricate Sweden from the Catholic Kalmar Union and  to establish a Protestant state. But this also meant another problem. Gustav Vasa’s new country of Lutheran Sweden was now open to attacks from the Catholic Kalmars (Denmark-Norway), Catholic Germans including the Hanseatic League), Catholic Poles and Orthodox Russians. But it was not a military confrontation that concerned him. His main fear was that of trade, Stockholm was the only city, and a minor one within the large Hanseatic league that did trade across the Baltic Sea and he needed to establish new trading towns to challenge the dominance of the Hanseatic League.

One of the chosen cities was Helsinki. I’d like to write with dramatic flourish that Helsinki fulfilled its destiny, but well… no.

In 1550 Gustav Vasa decided that he needed a city in the east to counter the trading power of Hanseatic city of Reval (today’s Tallinn). The plan seemed good, with one problem Helsinki was suffering from a lot of problems. Firstly, it was ravaged by diseases, secondly it was a poor town, and thirdly Sweden had too many enemies and wars for Helsinki to ever have enough time of peace to actually build up anything.

This was clearly the case of the Vasa Ship before the Ship was built – the king want something and no one dared to say no to them.

Two hundred years after the decision to turn Helsinki into a trading town, it was still a fishing village. Time had stood still in the northern town but the world had passed Helsinki by. Sweden in the 1700s was going through its Golden era, it was the preeminent power in the region and needed to defend the more precious cities in the Swedish archipelago (sorry Finland). Helsinki (or Helsingfors as it was known then) was then chosen to serve another role – that of military fort with the construction of Sveaborg, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to serve as a defensive base against the Russians.

Not that the base helped much, since the Swedes lost Sveaborg and Helsinki to the Russians in the Finnish War of 1808.

The first war where the fortress was operational. It was the transfer of control from Stockholm to St Petersberg that allowed Helsinki to grow. Instead of managing Finland from St Petersberg, Tsar Alexander I decided to create a separate Grand Duchy of Finalnd. But he still wanted influence, and the then big city of Turku was too near to Stockholm. He then decided in 1812 to move the captial to Helsinki, much closer to St Petersberg and therefore within his ambit of control. And a new Senate Square and city centre was built.

A statue of Tsar Alexander II (the greatest builder of Helsinki among the Tsars) in front of the Helsinki Cathedral

But the movement of administration on its own is not enough (Naypidaw is the new administrative capitral of Myanmar, but Yangon is still the true capital. The same is true of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia), to truly be the capital other things needed to move – the universities and other institutions needed to move. This came in 1827 when a great fire burned down much of the city of Turku. The university in Turku moved to Helsinki and all other government offices moved too. This was the start of the rise of Helsinki and the decline of Turku.

Despite 600 years of Swedish control, the food and culture in Finland is not a hundred percent like Sweden, there are still very different things that are eaten as part of the diet. Such as meat broth and karelian pastries. Heck even the cinnamon buns are a little different! But we will get to that later on.

A meat broth soup, common in Finland during a cold day

Karelian pastry made with rye dough and filled usually with flavoured rice

Unlike most capitals that grew and established themselves, Helsinki’s growth was not stable. The 20th century was a tumultuous period, first with independence from Russia, followed by a civil war and then later world war two and later on a country at the edge of the Iron Curtain.  It was this time that people like Simo Hayha (The White Death) made their name.

Reminders of the Finnish War and the Winter War still present today.

Helsinki continued its development slowly but surely, and it announced its stepping up to a modern future (after the war) by hosting the Olympic Games in 1952.

Different parts of Helsinki can be seen in the various districts. Traces of the Russian style houses remain together with 60s style buildings in the working class Kallio district.

Then there are the old rich houses at the high end Töölö neighbourhoods across the lake, such as the National Opera Building.

And now a former industrial area in Munkkisaari is being revitalised into a “lifestyle” area.

Some things do not change though, Finns started the sauna tradition and practically everyone in Finland enjoys that. There’s 2 million saunas in a country of 5.5 million people! That’s a lot of hot rooms.

The sauna is really Finnish, at least the Swedes aren’t as into it as they are. Obviously centuries of influence from Stockjolm and St Petersberg mean that Finland and Helsinki have taken a lot of cultural influences from these countries, its only celebrating its centenary of Independence this year.

Still, this Finnish identity is distinct from the two. Join me as I explore Helsinki over the next days and finds out what makes this city and Finland different from Sweden and Russia.

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