Russian Helsinki is alive and well

The Adjunct Professor of cultural history and Liaison Manager of Aleksanteri Institute Elina Kahla guides you on a tour to Russian Helsinki, from the statue of the ”Good Tsar” to the Red Flag.

Helsinki became the capital of Finland in 1812 thanks to Russians. The Russian Tsar Alexander I wanted to remove Finland from the Swedish sphere of influence, far away from Stockholm and closer to St. Petersburg. The location of The Sea Fortress of Suomenlinna in front of Helsinki was one determining factor. There are still traces of Russia to be found in Helsinki. My friends from abroad go and admire the Uspenski Cathedral and the statue of Tsar Alexander II repeatedly arouses curiosity among them. I’ve been explaining the presence of the monument of a foreign sovereign by telling them that Alexander II was an especially favorable tsar for Finland.

What other signs of Russian influence there may be found in Helsinki?

The socioanthropologist and author Elina Kahla works as an Adjunct Professor of Cultural History and Liaison Managerin the Aleksanteri Institute. Kahla, who is also a distinguished translator, interpreterandteacher, worked as the leader of the Finnish Institute of St. Petersburg from 2012 to 2016. Additionally, Kahla was born in Tapiola, Espoo so she has always been living near the capital. 

Kahla is therefore certainly the right person to answer how the influence of Russia is visible in modern Helsinki. At first glance, the topic might sound odd and bring many kinds of feelings up. The attitudes towards Russia are generally more contradictory than for example towards the Nordic countries. If we’d discuss the Nordic Helsinki, nobody would raise their eyebrows.

Kahla starts from the beginning. After the Finnish War Sweden lost the area of Finland to Russia in 1809. The governance of the newly acquired area was organized in such a way that Finland gained independenc in its internal affairs. Helsinki became the capital city.

At that time, the Finns didn’t have national self-esteem or a specific understanding of being Finnish.

From the time of Grand Duchy of Finland, there are many landmarks. Kahla points out that the landmarks are often well-known but not the background and the meaning behin of them .

Keisarinnankivi (the Tsarina’s Stone) at the Market Square commemorates the Tsarina Alexandra, Nicholas I’s wife’s visit to Helsinki in 1835 and it’s the oldest monument in Helsinki. Kahla tells the text on the pedestal written in Finnish is especially exceptional. The Finnish language had no official status back then while the official language were Russian and Swedish.

It turns out that I’ve been on the right track as to the meaning of the statue of  Alexander II (The Tsar of Russia from 1855 to 1881). The statue may puzzle foreign visitors, but it’s no wonder the statue stands where it is and why it has not been removed.  Kahla opens up the meaning of the statue more closely.

Alexander II was a significant emperor to Finland. He expanded the autonomy of the Finnish self-government in many ways. When looking at the statue one should also keep in mind the symbolic meaning of it, Kahla states.
Senaatintori, Aleksanteri toinen, DeepHelsinki
Aleksanteri II statue at Senate square

On the pedestal of the monument one can spot the Latin words lex (law), pax (peace), lux (light i.e. art and science) and labor (work) and on the every side there are sculptures representing these values. Kahla tells, the idea was that a good emperor respects the values carved on the pedestal. 

It’s thereforeno wonder that the Finns remember Alexander II as ”the good Tsar”. When the Russification era later began and the Finns lost rights they had earlier had, the Finns arranged demonstrations by the statue of ”the Good Tsar”.

An independent, Finnish sense of nationality had started to develop. 

The beginning of the Russian era shows itself in many other things than in just a couple of statues. When an insignificant, peripheral village was established as a capital, it had to be made look like a metropolis of the imperial Russia, a city that could be taken seriously.

The grandiosity of the imperial Grand Duchy arrived at the new capital city. Architect Carl Ludvig Engel designed and made magnificent, grand buildings representing Neoclassicism be built according to the model of St. Petersburg. According to Kahla, the whole surroundings of the Senate Square dates back to this era.

Even the university was built much larger than the students would have needed at that time. The university was also seen as part of the Russian empire and they built room for visitors and explorers, too.

As an interesting and less well-known sight of the Russian Helsinki Kahla mentions the orthodox cemetery of Lapinlahti, which is the oldest cemetery still in use in Helsinki. Kahla describes beautifully decorated, magnificent tombstones and chapels with onion domes erected for wealthy Russian merchants and officers. 

Here and there you may spot other small reminders of the imperial era, too. You just have to know where to look. For example, on the wall of the Finnish Museum of Natural History, you can see a small flame-shaped window. These kinds of windows used to be part of Orthodox chapels and one of them once located in the current museum.

The Russian empire, however, came to its end and the autocracy of tsars fell apart only 100 years after the Grand Duchy of Finland was established. Revolution surged through Russia and the relationship to the Eastern neighbor started changing.

Kahla tells, how the revolution and its side effects reached Finland as well. In 1917 part of the soldiers started a mutiny during which they executed Russian officers in Suomenlinna Fortress and in the streets of Helsinki.

It all took place in front of the people of Helsinki, Kahla says.

In the 6th of December 1917, Finland became independent but the country was torn between ”Reds” (social democrats) and ”Whites” (conservatives) and the animosities between the two group led to the Civil War of Finland. During the Civil War and since then the anti-Russian feeling grew stronger in Finland.

The Soviet Union was born in the wake of the revolution and the relationship between the new state and Finland soon became chilly. Kahla tells a story from this period that has been told as true: a Russian woman died of a heart stroke in the streets of Helsinki because she was too afraid to call for help in Russian. Speaking Russian wasn’t acceptable anymore.

By the time of the beginning of World War II, the Soviet Union started to pursue the countries which earlier had gained independence from Russia. It persuaded its small neighboring countries to accept seemingly small concessions and concluded a secret agreement with Germany outlining their zones of occupation.

From Finland, the Soviet Union demanded, among others, that Finland would lease the outer islands of the Gulf of Finland to the Soviets and give away territories from the Karelian Isthmus. Finland refused to comply with the demands or to be pressured. With the contribution of imperial Russia, the Finns had developed a sense of nationality and they held on to it despite the extremely tense political atmosphere.

Our independence came at a huge price, Kahla states and refers to the years of war with the Soviet Union.

However, as a result of the wars, Finland remained independent. Kahla reminds that when World War II came to its end, Helsinki was the only belligerent city on the losing side which was never occupied. The Finns started to rebuild the country and a balanced politics with the Soviet Union.

When I ask Kahla if or how the post-war past related to the Soviet Union can be discovered in Helsinki, I get interesting tips again. The signs of the Finnish-Soviet relations may not be as obvious as the ones of imperial Russia but they are still to be found.

Kahla starts with the Russian Embassy in Tehtaankatu. I was built during Stalin’s era in 1952 and according to the building history it represents Socialist Classicism. Even though both Stalin and the Soviet Union are dead and buried, the symbol of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle still remain above the main entrance of the embassy as a memory from the old times.

As another example of the Finno-Soviet relationship, Kahla mentions the Russian Scientific and Cultural Center. The center was opened at a solemn ceremony in 1977, and Urho Kekkonen, the then-president of Finland attended the opening ceremony, too. There is especially one feature on the wall of the building that draws the attention of the spectators: a large mosaic piece of art, representing a huge, impressive flying flag to the Soviet Union.

The piece of art was being covered from the collapse of the Soviet Union to 2011 when it was again revealed to the public. The Soviet Union may have caused so much headache to Finland on the whole, that it took 20 years before one could look at the red flag in the cityscape again.

There is also a beloved and hated statue called World Peace in Hakaniemi, which represents Socialist Realism. Helsinki got the statue from the city of Moscow in 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the polls, the statue constantly makes it to the top three whether it is about the loving or hating the monument. Once, it has been coated with tar and it has even been tried to be blown up.

Russian Finland still lives also in names of the places. Kahla tells, that for example the names of the streets have seldom been changed despite the political changes. For instance, Aleksanterinkatu, Liisankatu and Dagmarinkatu (Aleksanteri street, Liisa street, Dagmar street) still remind us of the age of the Grand Duchy and imperial Russia.

Wait a second! Who’s Dagmar?, I ask from Kahla. It doesn’t sound Russian.

Kahla tells that the name refers to the spouse of Tsar Alexander III, the empress Maria, who was originally a Danish princess and born as Dagmar. Aleksanteri street owes its name to Alexander I and Liisa street to his empress Elisabeth.

Kahla also mentions that next to the Alppipuisto park there is another park named after V.I. Lenin. The Lenin park seems to have had a hidden meaning, which can be traced back to the political turbulence during the time it was opened.

The park was opened in 1970, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Lenin. The Soviet Union had occupied Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the political pressure on Finland was intense. By naming the park as Lenin park the Finns wanted to remind the Soviets of the fact that Lenin himself had given Finland its independence and it was not up to the other Soviet leaders to take it away. There have been heated discussions on the name – and renaming – of the park but so far it has stayed unchanged.

All in all, when discussing Russian Helsinki, it certainly does not mean that Helsinki is nowadays ruled by Russia or Russians. The presence of the Russian landmarks and sights in the city rather tell a story about a small nation and its journey to independence, and how the independence could be maintained even though it meant wars and ingenious balancing in a precarious world political environment.

The 101-year-independence of Finland isn’t a small achievement when one thinks about the destiny of the bordering states of the Soviet Union after World War II. They all fell into the Soviet sphere of influence in a way or another. The Baltic countries were annexed to the Soviet Union and the whole of Eastern Europe was occupied by the Soviets, the countries serving as a buffer zone to the Soviet Union without any true independence.

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