When all the tourist brochures, UNESCO, tour guides and youtube videos said that you should visit a place its always a good idea to be skeptical. Tourism is an industry anyway, but I did the math and it turned out that a trip to the sea fortress of Suomenlinna would not cost me any money, so I decided to try it out.
The public ferry to Suomenlinna was conveniently located near the Market Square and regular ferries depart every 15 minutes all year round (people live on the island) so I made my way to the ferry after having a horse meat burger at the popup stalls nearby.
Suomenlinna was the sea fortress that protected empires. It was the Swedes who first attempted to build a fortress on these islands to protect its crumbling empire.
Empire, I see you frown? Sweden did have a empire, an important one at that. It was called the Swedish Empire and lasted close to a century, beginning with the Thirty Year War and ending with the Great Northern War.
The year was 1748 and the Swedish Empire had collapsed, losing almost all of its former territory except Finland. The new power in the Baltic Sea was not Sweden but Russia. The Swedish armed forces had lost many soldiers, its naval power was a shadow of its glorious past and every offense against the enemy quickly became a scramble to hold on to what was left. The Swedish nation was in crisis and after lengthy debate it was decided by the Riksdag, to build a fortification in the Gulf of Finland to serve as a first base against further Russian expansion/encroachment (depends on whose side you take).
Despite losing much land to the Russians, including swathes of Finland, Helsinki was still under the control of the Swedes and the parliament decided to build a fortification to protect the rest of Sweden from Russia.
The task of building the fortress fell to field marshall Augustin Ehrensvard, later also the commander of the 285 ship strong Swedish Archipelago Fleet. His brief was to build a fortification a short way from Helsinki that would successfully hold off the Russians. The land he chose was a series of islands jsut outside of Helsinki and the name of the island chain (and fortress) was to be Sveaborg.
Burial Site of Ehrensvard on Suomenlinna
Ehrensvard chose to build a bastion-fortification, a fortress that followed the contours of the area with defensive walls flanking each bastion that were able to cover fire for the bastion. Apart from being harder to scale and attack (since such a fortress would be defended on all sides), it also had the ability of being less conspicuous to the unsuspecting enemy and hence able to take an enemy fleet by surprise, each window and field of view enabling looking over rather wide area and overlapping with each other.
There were two aspects to the fortification, a series of independent fortifications spread over 6 islands (hence 6 independent forts next to each other each having to be scaled separately) and a naval dockyard. Each individual fort was connected within itself through the stone walls, allow safe movement of soldiers to wherever they were needed within the fort.
This fortress was not meant to be stand alone though. It was situated a short ride away from Helsinki (then called Helsingfors) and would be reinforced with the navy from Helsingfors in the case of an attack. It was, by any measure a rather impregnable fortress and construction took place relatively rapidly because of the en-massing Russian threat across the Baltic Sea.
King’s Gate, the entrance gateway to the fortress for friendly forces from Helsingfors
The product was not just a defensive fortification, it was also an architectural marvel.
The natural beauty of the island must have helped morale when the soldiers were fortifying the bastion. But there was a problem, a rather big on too, by the time the fort was put in service the Russian control of the Baltic Sea effectively rendered the fortress useless. The Russians were able to blockade the route from Stockholm to Sveaborg meaing that the fortress was choked. On its own, the fortress would have stopped a fleet landing on Helsinki but it was not able to turn the tide for Sweden. For starters the fort did not even have the necessary facilities to treat wounded soldiers and repair the ships within the Archipelago fleet. It was just a beautiful fortification without much use.
The construction of Sveaborg had an unexpected effect on Helsinki. It turned the erstwhile unimportant fishing village into an important city and drew people from the countrysides to move to Helsinki to trade and live there. Something must be said about this. Note that by this point Helsinki had already been a city under Swedish control for some 200 years, and many attempts to make something out of the city had failed. So this economic growth of Helsinki was not something to be scoffed at.
T he fort was useful, but too late to be useful for Sweden, it was still useful for the Russians however and so when the whole of Finland was annexed from Sweden and formed into a Grand Duchy, Sveaborg was used as a vital defensive fortification. Its purpose – to prevent an attack on Russia (especially St Petersburg, by the Swedes). After taking over the fortress, the Russians continued to build on the fortress and added cannnons to the fortifications.
And this time under a much stronger and well prepared military, the fortress showed its use. Despite being heavily shelled during the Crimean War, the Anglo-French forces were not able to breach Suomenlinna and had to give up their attack, an important stalement that enabled to the Russians to emerge from the Crimean War without further loss.
The fort was handed over to Finalnd when it declared independence in 1917 and after the Russian Revolution and its relevance as a fortress had diminished with the change of nature of warfare. Sveaborg become a Finnish tourist destination. The first thing that was done was to change the name of the fortress, and the name of the fort as change to Viapori and later Suomenlinna (Suomi being the Finnish name for Finland).
I sailed away to return to Helsinki and turned back to look at the fort. It didn’t cost anything (I bought a tourist travel card), and was beautiful and rich in history. In this case, the guides were right, this was a must see in Helsinki.
ON THE MAP