Helsinki's Russian Heart

A vintage photographs of a statue of Alexander II in Helsinki's central Senate Square, which still stands to this day.

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The German-born architect who designed Helsinki’s central Senate Square admired St. Petersburg more than any other city, and he planned the central cathedral, the sweeping square and the classical buildings in its image.

The resemblance made Helsinki a convenient stand-in during the Cold War, when it was used as a location for Russian-set dramas such as “Gorky Park” and “Doctor Zhivago.”

While Helsinki is very much a Finnish city too, with its distinctive Art Nouveau architecture and contemporary buildings, the influence of the Russian period of its history is still easy to see.

Statues and monuments still commemorate the tsars, as does the central Aleksanterinkatu street, which is named after Alexander I.

Alexander I is depicted on a frieze on the top of the classical House of Estates, which dates to the 1890s. It shows him with representatives of the aristocracy, clergy and bourgeoisie at the 1809 Porvoo Diet, which set the terms of Russian rule of Finland. The Latin inscription reads “The laws and institutions of Finland are solemnly confirmed.”

Tsar Alexander II, is commemorated with a statue on Senate Square, which was put up in the 1890s, after his assassination. It’s flanked by statues of a worker with a hammer and a peasant woman with a sheaf of corn that look like smaller, less aggressive prototypes of Moscow’s Worker and Collective Farm Girl.

It’s dated 1863, when Alexander II visited and decreed that Finnish was the national language.

Helsinki’s classic Russian-style buildings include the former officers’ casino on the harbor, a green-painted building that’s now a restaurant.

The city’s baroque Natural History Museum was built as a boy’s school by Russian architects and was originally named after Tsar Alexander II.

More mundanely, the city’s main brewery, Sinebrychoff, is an omnipresent reminder of its Russian heritage. Now part of Carlsberg, it was started by a Russian emigre, Nikolai Sinebryukhov, in the early 19th century. The locals knock back the brewery’s most popular lager — Koff.

Finland’s tourism officials say Russians are now the largest group of foreign visitors, and they’re evident around town, whether in pricey restaurants or checking out the fashion stores on Aleksanterinkatu.

“Many of these bags go to Russia,” a tour guide said while passing the Louis Vuitton store on the Pohjoisesplanadi.

At Aero furniture store, which stocks Finnish design classics, a member of staff said that several Russians had bought the classic plastic bubble chairs — priced at 3,500 euros ($5,148) each.

Helsinki markets its Russian flavor to visitors from other countries. On the Senate Square, there’s a shop selling Russian souvenirs, from Lomonosov porcelain to matryoshka dolls. You can also see Russian souvenirs at the harbor stalls that catch the cruise-ship trade. There’s even a nostalgic Bar Moskva.

A strange leftover from the Soviet era is a wistful statue of a woman in a windswept part of the harbor. Its inscription says that it’s a monument to Soviet and Finnish friendship dating from 1968.

The Uspensky Cathedral

Helsinki’s most distinctively Russian building is the brick Uspensky Cathedral with its elaborate green roofs.

Inside, believers flock to the “Kozelshchan­skaya” icon of the Virgin Mary, which is considered to be miracle-working. It’s on display in a glass case, surrounded by crucifixes and pieces of jewellery given by people who believe that it helped them.

Alexander Karvanen was lighting candles as part of his lay work at the church.

An ethnic Finn, he has lived in Finland for 12 years but grew up in Lithuania and trained as a mathematician. Learning Finnish was the hardest thing about moving here, he said. “Mathematics was my divine gift. Everything depends on a person’s talents.”

Most of Finland’s Russian speakers live in Helsinki, he said. “A lot of them come here, Ukrainians, Belarussians and people from the Baltic countries.”

Some of the Russian speakers have lived in Finland for generations, he said, such as the cathedral’s former deacon, Gennady Stolbov, whose family has been in Finland for 200 years.

“The older generation came to Finland before the Revolution. The level of their faith is even higher,” he said.

One of the young men helping at the church said his father is Russian, but spoke shyly and with difficulty in Russian.

The Uspensky Cathedral holds its services in Finnish, reflecting the significant minority of Orthodox believers among the native population. The Finnish Orthodox Church differs in some respects from the Russian Orthodox Church — for example, it accepts the modern Gregorian calendar.

The yellow-painted Church of the Holy Trinity, off the Senate Square, dates back to 1827 and is the city’s oldest Orthodox church. It holds services in Old Church Slavonic, meaning that most of the Russian-speaking believers go there.

A short ferry ride from Helsinki is Suomenlinna, an island fortress that was built by the Swedish as a defense against the Russians. When Russia took control of Finland, it became a Russian military base and prison, including for political prisoners.

Although Suomenlinna is now a peaceful UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is still used as a minimum-security open prison where low-risk prisoners near the end of their jail terms work on construction projects away from the tourists. It’s also a residential area with a playgroup and apartments in old stone houses with communal hallways.

A naval academy also operates on one of the interconnected islands, but there’s no sense of heightened security or barbed-wire fences.

The Russian influence is clear on the walk up from the ferry port, with small pretty wooden houses like dachas. The church used to have onion domes, which have been replaced by a lighthouse tower, but it still has a bell cast in Moscow.

The incredibly well-preserved cannons that still stand around the defense walls have inscriptions that show that they were made in Perm and St. Petersburg in the 19th century.

Most poignantly, on the beach, a rock bears a large inscription in curly Cyrillic handwriting. Washed by waves at low tide, it reads, “carved by an unhappy prisoner, Ivan Vodopyanov, 1860.”

A pretty town of wooden houses and narrow cobbled streets, Porvoo is now full of strolling tourists and dogwalkers, but it was once the setting for talks that changed the course of history for Finland and Russia.

Russia’s Tsar Alexander I came here for the Diet of Porvoo in 1809. Taking over from Swedish rule, he granted more rights and autonomy to Finns, something that the town still celebrates with statues of Alexander and relics such as his unwashed wine glass.

The coastal town is about 50 minutes by car or three hours by pleasure boat from Helsinki. Its Old Town is a small area of wooden and stone houses on cobbled streets — some too narrow and steep to take cars. There are plenty of gift shops and museums and visitors flock for the Christmas market, but about 800 people live here full time.

A Finnish rock star has bought one of the largest houses in the Old Town, where Alexander I stayed on his visit to the city in 1809.

While still at war with Sweden, the tsar and officials of the Russian Empire met Finnish aristocrats, clergy, bourgeoisie and peasants for talks lasting several months.

Back then, Porvoo was a tiny provincial town with just 2,000 inhabitants, but it was picked for its position near the coast and far enough away from the Swedish border.

The result of the talks was that Alexander I allowed Finland autonomy and the freedom to use the Finnish language, although Russia controlled its foreign policy. It is seen as a step towards independence — hence the lasting affection for the tsarist regime.

Unusually for a secular figure, a statue of Alexander I stands in the 15th-century cathedral, and one of the town’s streets is named Aleksanterinkatu after him.

The town’s museum shows a painting showing him at the talks in the cathedral, standing in front of a magnificent throne. He refused to sit down because Russian Orthodox believers stay on their feet in churches.

The museum devotes most of its space to the tsar’s visit, including the luxurious wooden buggy he arrived on, a glass that he once drank from — complete with wine stain — and a fan that he picked up after it was dropped by a local girl at a ball in his honor.

According to local legend, Ulla Mollersvard danced with the tsar several times after he gallantly picked up her fan. He then came to visit her family and gave her a jewelled pendant, but their love affair didn’t end in marriage. The museum has a painting of her in middle-age still wearing the pendant.

The locals also built a triumphal arch for the tsar, although it was only made of wood and cloth, so hasn’t survived.

Celebrations for the 200th anniversary were held in the cathedral this year and shown on Finnish national television. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was present and met the local mayor.

Sadly, in 2006 the cathedral was damaged in an arson attack by local teenagers. The roof was completely destroyed and has been replaced, but most of the baroque interior survived.

Once a purely Swedish-speaking area, the town still has about a third Swedish-speaking inhabitants. The current mayor is the first ever to have Finnish as his native tongue.

The largest employer is an oil refinery, but tourism is very important — about 1 million visitors come every year. The Russians are the largest group, local officials say, and there are about 1,000 Russian-speaking permanent residents, too.

The newer part of the city, where most of the 50,000 population lives, includes a few streets of well-maintained 19th-century wooden houses that could come straight out of Russian novel. Among them is the yellow house museum of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg.

The manor house at Porvoo where Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich was
born in 1917. The house is now an luxury hotel popular with Russian tourists

The nearby white-columned Haikko Manor, whose grounds run down to the bay of Finland, was once a favorite with Russian aristocrats, and one of the claimants to the Romanov crown after the Revolution, Vladimir Romanov, was born here in 1917. Today, its suites include the Romanov Suite, which has some rare photos of the children of Grand Duchess Yelena Romanova playing on the beach.

The hotel’s large park displays sculptures by Finnish artist Miina Akkijyrkka, who created giant cows out of pieces of old cars.

Formula One driver Mika Hakkinen held his wedding at the hotel in 1998.

Source: The Moscow Times
5 January, 2011