A taste of Finland

posted in: Travel | 1

It’s a short trip from St Petersburg to Helsinki. In fact it’s a short trip between Helsinki and Tallin. Large, colourful ferries ply between the cities. I expect a few hundred years ago they would have been raiding parties, not ferries but we’re more civilized these days. Aren’t we?

An island outside Helsinki

Finland is a very wet place, dotted with lakes and islands. As we sailed into Helsinki’s harbour we passed many islands and lots of small boats. One thing about cruises is that you’re never anywhere for long enough to get more than a superficial glimpse at a place. Helsinki was no exception. I would have loved to go to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, built when Finland was still part of Sweden, but it’s too far away to do the place justice in such a short day. So that was out.

Once again, Pete and I wouldn’t be joining the tour groups leaving the Norwegian Sun. Our Finnish Friend, Heikki, was kind enough to meet us at the quayside and act as tour guide for the day. We’d met Heikki the year before in London when his book, Tulagi Hotel, and my book, To Die a Dry Death, were first published. But in fact Heikki and I had known each other online for a few years via the writer site (now passed into history) Authonomy.

That year, Heikki, Pete and I were all stuck in London when European air traffic was halted because of the eruption of that volcano in Iceland with the impossible name. It was pretty amazing to see signs on the motorway stating that Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world, was closed. While Pete and I held our breath that the emergency would end before we were due to fly home, Heikki at least had other options. He made a mad dash across Europe using trains, hire cars, and ferries, to finally make it back to Helsinki. It took nearly two days. A flight takes a smidge under three hours.

Helsinki Cathedral at Senate Square – with statue of Czar Alexander III

Heikki took us on a driving tour of the city, pointing out some of the major buildings. Senate square is dominated by the white Helsinki cathedral with its dome. In the depths of winter the wide steps leading up to it are covered with snow and lads enjoy doing a bit of skiing. The statue in the middle of the square is of Alexander III, Czar of Russia. I hadn’t known about that comfortable relationship with Russia. Finland became an autonomous part of Russia in 1812 and Alexander re-established the Diet (parliament) of Finland in 1863, further increasing Finnish autonomy. Things certainly changed after the communist revolution.

Uspenski cathedral
Wonderful religious art
One of the domes

We went to visit the imposing Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral which towers over the city. Here again, the Russian influence was obvious in the art, the style originally coming from Constantinople.

As it happened the local military museum had an exhibition about the Winter War, a little-known conflict between the USSR and Finland at the beginning of WW2. Heikki is a keen military historian and we were more than happy to take a look and hear all about it.

Note the swastika – not the Nazi version. This is a Finnish vehicle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_use_of_the_swastika_in_the_early_20th_century
Machine gun emplacement, Winter War (photo from Wikipedia article)

Having just taken over half of Poland in September, 1939, Stalin decided now was a good time to bully other smaller neighbours. He demanded that Finland hand over part of its territory near Leningrad, for ‘security reasons’. At the time, Finnish territory came quite close to Leningrad. However, the Finns refused the demands. So Soviet troops invaded Finland in November, 1939. You’d think they would have learned from Napoleon’s disastrous attack on Moscow. But No. They expected to walk in and take over easily. The Ukrainian troops used for the offensive were ill-equipped and unused to fighting in forested mountains. The Finns might have been outgunned and outnumbered, but they knew the mountains and forests and the bitter cold. And they could ski. They conducted essentially a guerrilla war, using white garments as camouflage, skiing into Soviet camps, firing as they went, then vanishing. The tough little local horses replaced vehicles. After initial setbacks the Soviets reorganised and pressed the Finnish defences. The Finns couldn’t win against such a large adversary. The war ended in March 1940, when the Finns agreed to lose 11% of their territory near Leningrad. The tiny country could not afford to engage in a long war. But they’d enhanced their own reputation while making the Soviets look inept.

Heikki’s relatives had fought in the war and he had done two years conscription in the armed forces. It was fascinating to hear some of the stories from those times as we looked at the museum’s artefacts. Like the Swiss, the Finns are prepared to defend their territory. But the greatest rivalry they face is against the Swedes in ice hockey.

We went to a lovely restaurant for lunch and enjoyed the local salmon, chatting all the while. There’s nothing like sharing a place with someone who lives there. You can visit cathedrals and castles, ooh and ahh over beaty spots – but that visit to the military museum with Heikki to explain gave Pete and I a glimpse of the Finnish character that you wouldn’t get any other way.

We would be sailing this evening, heading for Stockholm.

  1. Robin Helweg-Larsen

    Someone asked me about The Winter War a couple of days ago, and it highlighted how patchy and vague my historical knowledge is. Thank you for the quick summary!

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