The First World War shattered the old world, destroyed cities and gave birth to new national states. Helsinki remained the natural capital when Finland separated from Russia and became an independent republic in December 1917 under the shadow of world war and the Russian revolution.
Many of Helsinki’s strongest meanings are embodied by waterways. The capital city is shaped and defined by the Baltic Sea. The river, the ocean waterfront areas, the bays, shores and coastlines, as well as the isthmus site have, to varying degrees, figured prominently in the historical development of the city. The sea has played a role in building the city’s economic and symbolic image, as well as its spiritual urban essence, its blue-whiteness. The historic centre, located on the narrow peninsula, is linked to the sea in an exquisite fashion, and its neoclassical waterfront façade is the well-known emblem of the capital.
Helsinki has a particularly rich shoreline and very different spaces linking the city and the water. The presence of nature plays a central role in the city’s urban image. As the seat of government in Finland, Helsinki was mainly created in the 19th and 20th centuries, which were “centuries of capitals”. As a result, there is nothing medieval or feudal in Helsinki’s atmosphere. The first phase of the planning took place under the special circumstances of Russian rule, yielding a city of order and dignity. Engel’s city plan created the white architectural image of the neoclassical parts of central Helsinki. The central area of the city still retains rather low roof heights, and any vertical element is highly visible in the townscape. Even so, Helsinki today is no longer bound by this neo-classicist framework. During more than 150 years that have passed since Engel’s blueprint, alternative urban and planning approaches have been explored and a unique capital city has been constructed. With the 1952 Summer Olympics Helsinki joined the exclusive club of Olympic cities.
Helsinki’s stunning geographical location, extraordinary history and cultural riches make it one of the world’s most fascinating cities, situated in the innermost recesses of a wide archipelago, with seemingly endless islands, dotted by ancient and modern fortifications and the occasional summer cottage.
It is a city in which town and country enmesh in harmonious fashion. A busy urban thoroughfare can suddenly terminate in an unexpected wilderness of stark boulders and lofty pines, looming against a backdrop of blue sea and sky. As the French visitor and Fellow of the French Academy Xavier Marmier (1808-92) put it so bucolically after his visit in 1838:
This town stretches over a vast peninsula, dotted with rustic hills and cool vales; the sea surrounds it on all sides like a girdle of gold and silver, studded with woods and granite rocks. Here the sandy coast dips down level with the waves, which toss on it with a soft murmur their lace of foam, their fringes of mother-of-pearl and sky-blue. There the coast bristles with a rampart of massive rocks, topped further away by a pine forest. On the esplanade, on the quay, on the squares, there is activity, the continuous movement of people, horses, and, a few hundred years away, there is wild solitude, the far horizon, and no other sound than the sighing of the waves or the moaning of the wind.
Helsinki also lays claim to fame as one of the world’s most northern capitals, situated on the 60th parallel. Yet it is a city in which the balmy warmth of the summer’s day (last year it was a Thursday 🙂 ) can be enjoyed along the banks shallow ponds and lakes of almost spring-like warmth. Despite its cold winters, its environs have long sheltered human habitation. Indeed, its prehistoric settlement is far longer than its historical one.
The area around Helsinki had been colonised as far back as seven thousand years ago, at Kaarela, Pitäjänmäki and Vantaa, though it was first during the early Iron Age that more permanent settlements were established. Yet an increasingly cold climate and the ravages of the Vikings and even of the Finns themselves, who sometimes pillaged the coast eastwards as far as Novgorod, curtailed the lives of these settlements as well as of their inhabitants. Yet as the centuries rolled by, the inroads of the Vikings were gradually substituted by the arrival of Christianised Swedish colonists, many from the coastal areas of Norrland and Hälsingland, but some even from the Swedish interior, especially in the years around 1100.
At first these immigrants settled the coastlands from the Gulf of Bothnia, in the west, to the site of Espoo, just to the west of present-day Helsinki. But, within a century, they had moved further east, to colonise the coast of present-day Uusimaa, the province in which Helsinki is now situated. Only the outbreak of the Black Death in the late 1340s put a halt to this immigration, as the internal migrations of peasants, hunters and gatherers in Sweden itself reduce their need to seek work elsewhere. Still, numerous settlements on the south coast of Finland thrived despite visitations of the plague in the late 1340s. Koskela, a village near which Helsinki would later be founded, had already been long established by the time it first appears in historical chronicles from 1417, though virtually nothing remains to be seen from that period.
Although Finland, in political terms, had been integrated into the Swedish dominions as far back as the 12th century, Helsinki itself only became a political entity during the reign of Gustav Vasa (1496-1560), the first hereditary king of Sweden and the monarch who introduced the Reformation. It was during his reign that the first example of Finnish literature appeared in 1542: an ABC, under the auspices of Michael Agricola (C. 1510-57), Bishop of Turku and Finland’s leading Protestant reformer.
After the foundation of Helsinki at the mouth of the Vantaa River by royal decree on June 12, 1550, numerous burghers from such Finnish towns as Tammisaari, Porvoo, Rauma and Ulvila were obliged to move to the new settlement. The king’s intention was to make his new “city” a mercantile rival to the Danish Hanseatic one of Tallinn on the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland, for it was hoped that it would derive its wealth from the prosperous Baltic and Russian trade. But fate was to dash his hopes since the shallowness of the bay and other factors frustrated his plan to create a good harbour, and within a few years the unhappy settlers, after ardent and piteous petitions, were finally permitted to return to their previous homes. Many did, but fortunately not all. It was their descendants who in 1640 were relocated at Vironniemi in Finland, a name associated with Estonian traders and that part of Helsinki is known today as Kruununhaka.
Yet the city’s period of prosperity had still not arrived. In fact, in the late 17th century it suffered from a variety of disasters, not least fires, which ravaged the wooden town at regular intervals. As a result, Helsinki hardly grew in size as the 18th century dawned, it had no more than 1,700 inhabitants.
When the Russian Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) founded his new imperial capital St Petersburg in 1703 on the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland, the portents for a new and even more ominous era seemed to have arrived, one with dire implications for Sweden-Finland. Already two years before, the Great Northern War had broken out between Sweden and Russia, a state of hostilities that continued until 1721. Despite the brilliant martial qualities of the Swedish King Karl XII, it became clear to the world that Sweden’s brief position as a great power was at an end. After peace was made, the Russian border was radically readjusted to the detriment of Sweden-Finland, a situation that its rulers were powerless to change. Not only was the important province of Karelia, including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg, in Russian), lost to Russia, but Helsinki now found itself out on a limb, within a short journey from the new Russian frontier that was now literally on its maritime doorstep.
True, in the wake of the city’s evacuation to avoid brutal treatment by the Russian forces, it was burnt to the ground by the departing Swedish administration itself, keen to ensure that no practical use of the site could be made by the invaders. But with the subsequent return of Helsinki to Sweden, this was to prove the last catastrophe to afflict it on such a scale. Henceforth, Helsinki would accommodate its residents without a break and without the alien occupation of enemy troops. As a result of such continuity, a significant number of Helsinki families can even today trace their ancestry back to the 16th century. Later, the so-called War of the Hats broke out between Sweden-Finland and Russia and raged in the years 1741-3, taking its toll on the political and social fabric of the city, with a renewed occupation by Russian forces. But this proved a minor setback in the generally modest growth in prosperity that Helsinki enjoyed in the course of the 18th century. In fact, by 1800 Helsinki had grown into a rather large town, by Swedish standards, with around 3,000 inhabitants excluding an even greater number of military personnel and ancillary staff who resided on Viapori (now Suomenlinna in Finnish, Sveaborg in Swedish) its recently built military fortress. As such, Helsinki had become Sweden’s fourth largest town with a harbour, in terms of mercantile imports the third most important in the kingdom.
The upheavals of the Napoleonic period brought about many changes in the city, but by 1809, as the war between Sweden and Russia came to an end, a new era of economic prosperity and political importance dawned for Helsinki. With the Treaty of Hamina, Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Czar, even if the administrative capital continued to be Turku. Yet the fire that in 1827 destroyed much of Finland’s old capital – a city in any case tainted for the Czar by its close geographic, economic, social and cultural links to Sweden – made a major development of Helsinki, itself ravaged by fire in 1808, a necessity and so it came under consideration as the new capital. All the more so as it was much nearer to St Petersburg, and thus more subject to Russian influence.
The fire that had broken out on November 17, 1808, was the most fateful but also the most fruitful for Helsinki. A young man, Gustaf Lindqvist, employed by a local trader by the name of Cadenius, knocked over a candle in a wooden shed. As a result of the rapid spread of the ensuing fire, more than a quarter of Helsinki was destroyed, as sixty-one houses were razed to the ground. Terrible as it was, this happened at a very fortuitous moment, when the needs of the Russian Czar coincided with those of his new grand-ducal capital.
This provided the opportunity for the creation of what was really a totally new city, dependent upon the financial largesse of the Czar Alexander I (1777-1825) and conceived as a whole under the direction of the German architect Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840). The reconstruction included the building of both Lutheran and Orthodox churches, government buildings and a new university. It was to take more than thirty years to accomplish, after the deaths of both the architect and his patron. Still, by the 1850s the grand designs of Engel had been completed and the city assumed a proud and elegant appearance, one of which its by now 16,000 inhabitants were rightfully proud. The outbreak in 1853 of the Crimean War, which was to last three years, had little lasting effect on Helsinki, despite the bombardment of Suomenlinna Fortress on islands at the entrance to the city’s harbour.
The city’s growth and development did not stop there. In 1880 some three quarters of the city’s architecture was still composed of one and two-story wooden buildings, but this was soon to change dramatically. By 1900 Helsinki had grown into the Grand Duchy’s most important industrial centre and a city of 91,000 inhabitants. In the process, construction on a massive scale rapidly transformed the face of the city. In essence, this urban growth was a reflection of industrial development and change in the rest of Finland, leading to large-scale migration, not only from country to town, but abroad as well.
Other major changes were also underway. In 1906 Finnish women were granted the franchise, making Finland one of the first political entities to give women the vote, after New Zealand. This was quite an extraordinary feat, considering it was still part of the Russian Empire, where such a political franchise was otherwise impossible. The city, meanwhile, continued to expand. By the advent of the First World War, Helsinki’s population had grown to 140,000. The First World War, independence in December 1917, and ensuing Civil War in the early months of 1918, created upheaval both social and political, but these were temporary and by 1920 the city had grown still further.
The city’s great test was to come with the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. By the advent of the Winter War of 1939-40, the population of Helsinki had burgeoned to 317,000 as large numbers of refugees from the east flooded into the capital. War against the Soviet Union broke out again in 1941, leading to Finnish recovery of the ceded territories and lasted until 1944 when the Finns were irreversible forced out, resulting in the final resettlement of thousands of Karelians (from the former Finnish territory of West Karelia) throughout Finland, but especially in Helsinki. The lost territories were then ceded to the Soviet Union. Despite bombing, most of the city was left intact since relatively few bombs hit their targets and after an initial onslaught when the Russians had other objectives to focus upon. One of the terms of peace between Finland and Soviet Union was that the Finns turn on their erstwhile German co-belligerents, which they did, declaring war on and then driving out the Nazi forces stationed in the north of the country in the so-called Lapland War of 1944.
When the war ended with a return to normality in 1946, a large number of new independent communities sprang up around Helsinki and these, along with the older ones, were incorporated into the city. In contrast to the relatively expensive and more up-market accommodation in central Helsinki, the new suburbs were built as cheaply as possible, and with little attention paid to architectural details or the luxury of space; the desperate priority of housing large numbers of refugees quickly had made speed a necessity. Still, many incorporated a simplified modernist design and took advantage of the city’s unspoiled surrounding countryside.
The 1950s was a period of redevelopment, but by the 1960s and 1970s the tide was turning and an increasing number of people returned to the inner city of Helsinki. There, during the 1980s and 1990s, old industrial areas, occasionally dotted with even older wooden houses, once again met residential needs as the industrial fabric was removed or redeveloped.
The best place to being a tour of Helsinki is in the market place in front of the Swedish Embassy, not far from the South Harbour, near where the boats formerly arrived from Sweden, Estonia and elsewhere, carrying thousands of tourists every day to and from the capital. If one stands with one’s back to the old Quarantine Basin, at the foot of the Esplanade, one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Finnish capital in all directions. To see the west – in front – look up the central promenade, extending through the leafy park, full of cafes, which makes up the Esplanade. This grand thoroughfare was laid down in the early 19th century, and the Swedish Theatre stands in the background, with the old red light district and the working-class area of Iso Roobertinkatu beyond.
It was Svante Olsson, the Swedish son of a torpare (a variety of crofter) who left the greatest imprint on the Esplanade. He had already carried out important landscape designs in Sweden, first at the great aristocratic estates of Tullgarn and Säfstaholm, then at royal properties at Stockholm’s Palace and Haga. When he arrived in Helsinki, aged thirty-three, to become the city’s first landscape gardener, a huge task lay before him and he was to remain here for over fifty years. The Esplanade had previously served as a grazing ground for horses, and it was not one urban entity, but three— namely, the Kappeli Esplanadi, the Runeberg Esplanadi and the Theatre Esplanadi, focused as they were around their most significant features. But the landscaping activities of Olsson gave them a new “green” unity. In 1889 he radically altered this area, one of the city’s four so-called green spaces, by laying out trees, shrubs and flowerbeds throughout the park. He also encouraged the development of other green spaces, so that by the 1920s the city had at least thirty-two. He then redeveloped the hilltop upon which Engel’s Observatory is situated into one of Helsinki’s most charming parks, a project that took fifteen years to complete. Yet, at the time, he faced considerable opposition, and at one stage, an important and ungrateful government official revoked his free pass on the city’s trams. Despite this slight, he preferred to remain in Helsinki rather than take up the position of Head Gardener to the City of Stockholm.
To the left of the Esplanade, southwards, towards the boat terminals, rise up the hill on which the Observatory is situated, at its foot the Kaivopuisto Gardens, where the famous Ullanlinna Spa was located, and some of the grandest of the old aristocratic residences.
To the right, northwards, however – and this is the most picturesque of the views – stands the true heart of Helsinki, Senate Square, the University, the old Senate House and rising above these neoclassical buildings like a crown, the Great Church of St Nicholas. Beyond it, hidden from view across the Long Bridge, is the old industrial working-class district of the capital. And beyond this new suburbs extend, embedded among the granite boulders and gentle pine-covered hills, each representing a different generation of Helsinki residents. As the city has expanded to the north like a fan, it now covers quite a number of islands on either side of the peninsula on which old Helsinki is situated.
All of this is set against the backdrop of the sea – the Gulf of Finland, with its countless islands of granite boulders, interspersed with the occasional pine. For centuries the sea has been the primary conduit of communication for Helsinki, for trade as well as for the less welcome arrival of foreign troops. More recently, it has also provided a splendid venue for tourists keen to experience some of Europe’s most beautiful and pristine nature, where the colours blue and white dominate, the colours, fittingly, of the Finnish flag.
Today, parts of Kruununhaka, situated between Senate House Square and Pohjoisranta, remain as the oldest area of Helsinki still in use as a residential area. An area of tall, eclectically inspired houses, its apartments tend to be large and comfortable. This district had been constructed long before the great re-development of the city under Czar Alexander I in the early 19th century. In those early days, Finland was under the sovereignty of the kings of Sweden. Indeed, Finland had belonged to Sweden since the 13th century and would do so until the Napoleonic Wars effected its transfer to Russia.
During the 17th century the grandest residence, where the royal Swedish governor Count Per Brahe the Younger (1602-80) stayed on his rare visits to the province, was situated by the harbour. Two stories high, it encompassed a ballroom – an extraordinary luxury in Finland at that time – with a special suite reserved for Brahe, whose father, the elder Per Brahe, had been a courtier of King Gustav Vasa. It was he who had made the younger Brahe a count and a member of the council of regency as well as the governor of Finland during the years 1637-41 and again from 1648-54.
Other courtiers, government officials representing the Swedish Crown, and various dependents were also beginning to take up residency, at least occasionally, in Helsinki, even if Turku continued to be the capital throughout Swedish rule and well into the 19th century. Some of the estates they owned and occupied were situated in the countryside outside Helsinki and were directly linked to royal largesse. Gustaf II Adolf (1594-1632), for example, had granted the demesnes of Meilahti, Munkkiniemi, Tali, Huopalahti, Latokartano and Lauttasaari to the riding master Gerdt Skytte, a devoted retainer of the king and an important courtier of his time.
Meilahti’s history through the centuries is a mirror, in many ways, of that of the ruling circles of Helsinki itself. Thus, with political vagaries most of the lands connected to Meilahti had already been transferred to the ownership of the corporation of Helsinki in 1650, at which time they were used for both residential and grazing purposes. Then in 1682 the estate was again transferred, this time into the ownership of the war commissioner Johan Gripenberg. His proprietorship also proved brief, and by the 18th century the wealthy Dutch immigrant sea-faring Mattheizen family had acquired it. They embellished the Baroque country house erected there with Chinese tapestries and other grand decorations still to be found on view.
After Finland was transferred to Russia as an independent Grand Duchy under the Czar, Meilahti once again acquired new owners. None other than the new governor general, Count Fabian Steinheil, purchased it during the 1820s together with the rest of Tamminiemi. His contribution was to add a small country residence in the empire style, a style much favoured in the heady days of early imperial rule in Finland.
Under his daughter and her husband, Count Stewen-Steinheil, Meilahti enjoyed a period of splendor during the 1840s, never to be seen before or since. Among the guests who stayed there for lengthy periods while enjoying the seemingly endless festivities were the famous Count Vladimir Musin-Pushkin and his wife Emilie, as well as her sister, Aurora Karamzin, a famous beauty of the Russian Court who was also a lady-in-waiting to the Czarina Alexandra, consort of Nicholas I. The house and garden became the venue for a splendid cavalcade of aristocratic gatherings throughout the summer months. It was said that even the lawns were draped with fabrics so as to prevent the ladies from sullying the trains of their gowns.
Aurora Karamzin was also associated with another important country house of the nineteenth century, the Villa Hakasalmi (Hagasund), today the City Museum at Töölönranta. Designed by Ernst Bernhard Lohrmann, the German who had succeeded Carl Ludwig Engel as the city’s chief architect, and built in 1843-7, it was first the home of Carl Johan Wallen, an important administrator in the city’s government and former governor of Viipuri in Karelia to the east. Situated just outside the city limits, it combined the amenities of both town and country. Of the two principal floors, the lower contained the kitchen, service rooms, and the rooms used every day by the family; on the floor above were the public rooms, used more rarely: two salons, the dining room and a guest room. Its stylistic appearance differed radically from that favoured by Engel, eschewing strict classicism in favour of an Italianate villa arrangement and style. After the owner’s death, Aurora, who was Wallen’s stepdaughter, took over the villa. She continued to live there until her death in 1902. Strange to say, her descendant Catherine Oxenberg, the daughter of a Yugoslavian princess, became famous as the character Amanda in the famous American television serial Dynasty.
As for Meilahti, it was once again sold in 1847, this time to Count Alexander Kushelev-Bezborodko. He was the first of a number of proprietors who briefly lived there, including Captain Gustaf Jägerskiöld, until in the 1870s the city of Helsinki once again acquired it. Not only did the summerhouse enter Jägerskiöld’s ownership, but the island of Seurasaari, too, on which the open-air historic village museum would later be created. Other principal parts of the property were then conceived as part of a new suburban villa zone, but since no one showed any interest in purchasing them, far from the city as they were, the area remained undeveloped for some years.
To the east, however, such plans for development proved more successful, and in 1873 the architect F. L. Calonius built the luxurious Villa Kesäranta, now used as the official residence of the prime minister. In today’s context the most important building erected at Tamminiemi from imperial times was the Villa Tamminiemi (Ekkudden), designed by the architect Gustaf Nyström, later the residence between the 1940s and 1980s of successive presidents of Finland, most famously of President Urho Kekkonen.
The periphery of Helsinki still abounds with a number of other noteworthy manor houses from the Gustavian period. These include Tuomarinkylä Manor from 1790, situated at Kartanomuseontie. It had been commissioned by Johannes Weckström, an administrator of military finances, but changed owners several times until in 1917 the City of Helsinki acquired it. Restored in 1960 and more recently in 1986, it serves as a museum of country house life of the late eighteenth century. Also noteworthy is the late eighteenth-century Espoo Manor House to the west of Helsinki, which originally belonged to Governor Anders Henrik Ramsay, the scion of a Scottish family who had immigrated to Finland. It was considerably altered in 1914-15 by W. G. Palmqvist, who extended it and added a large colonnade that serves as a verandah. A bridge with stone vaulting, the oldest of its kind in Finland, is also to be found in its park, not far from Espoo Church, with origins in the late fifteenth century.
Like so many cities and towns in Finland at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Helsinki was a conglomeration of wooden houses and other buildings, prone to the ravages of fires. One of the last remaining examples of these wooden homes can be seen in Kruununhaka, where the Burgher’s House, at Kristianinkatu 12, now a branch of the City Museum, is decorated, as it would have been in the 1860s. A relatively small house, its modest interior is furnished in the fashion of the times, including an interesting period kitchen. It remains unmistakably rustic in appearance, so unlike those built in other European cities during the mid-nineteenth century.
It was the very destructiveness of Helsinki’s fires that also provided the opportunities for renewal, with wider streets, larger houses and more fashionable amenities than before. When in November 1808 a great fire ravaged the whole of the city, devastating the area between the two harbors to the north and the south, it presented a pretext for the rebuilding of this strategically important fishing port and garrison town. Originally, a military officer named Anders Kocke provided a plan for the reconstruction, based upon the earlier layout of the small town but with minor extensions along the “rational” rectilinear layouts prevalent in Europe and the United States at that time. But after Finland was transferred to Russian rule in 1809, many changes were in the offing. Helsinki was about to become the new and vibrant capital of the Russian Empire’s latest territorial acquisition. This initiative was duly seized by the Russian Czar, who promulgated an imperial decree in 1812, according to which not only was the transfer of the governmental seat to Helsinki confirmed, but the creation of a new and imposing capital laid out. The plan was given its final form five years later in 1817 under the direction of Johan Albrecht Ehrenström. Ehrenström (1762-1847), an entrepreneurial figure, had lived a colourful life not without its up and downs. He had been put in the pillory in 1793 and was later imprisoned for treason, having had his death penalty commuted. Yet after 1811 his position in Finland seemed to change as he was rehabilitated and became actively involved in the redevelopment of the new Finnish capital.
It had obviously not been a very prepossessing place in these days, if the Pole Faddei Bulgarin, who had first visited the city in 1808-9 while a soldier in the Russian army, is to be believed. It was, he remarked, “one of the most insignificant and wretched little towns in Finland, a village, almost, a few streets of red wooden houses, built on rocks and impassable mud.” Perhaps it is the old Burgher’s House that provides the best illustration of this aspect of old Helsinki, though it is decorated in the style of the 1860s rather than of the time of its construction. Yet it was the end of a tradition, rather than the start of a new one.
Sensing the opportunity of turning this new rustic capital into a showcase city, Alexander I commissioned one of his favourite architects, Carl Ludvig Engel, to create a new and majestic city centre for the Finnish capital. This was to be the beginning of the German architect’s immensely significant relationship with Helsinki. He left his mark on the city as no other architect would do before or since, for he was to build thirty public buildings and to supervise the construction of more than six hundred others.
Engel had first come to Finland in 1814, when he carried out a design for a sugar refinery at Turku, and was shocked by the ruggedness of the terrain. As he wrote to his parents from Helsinki on May Day 1816, since:
all of Finland is nothing but a rocky cliff … boulders the size of buildings must be blasted away where the new streets will be laid out. The crashing and banging of exploding stone is heard day in, day out, at all points where the new city is to be built.
By no means despairing, however, Engel saw this as a unique opportunity and eagerly took up the challenge.
Engel’s first commission from the Czar was the restoration of the old Bock House, on the southeastern corner of Senate Square, at the corner of Aleksanterinkatu and Katariinankatu, carried out between 1816 and 1819. This structure had originally been built in 1763 for the merchant Gustaf Bock, but in 1801 had become the residence of an important city official. Under the Czar’s scheme, it was to serve as the new residence of the governor general, the imperial representative appointed to live in the capital. To this end, it was enlarged in 1817 by the addition of an upper floor, in which a ballroom was placed and a balcony attached for public proclamations and such like. It was from here that Alexander I, on a rare visit to Helsinki, appeared before the crowds gathered outside on his name day, September 11, 1818. As he showed himself on the balcony, to great popular acclaim, the new façade provided a perfect backdrop, decorated as it was by a diminutive Ionic portico of four free-standing columns supporting a triangular pediment incorporated into the upper two floors. The renovated building also contained a large barrel-vaulted assembly room. Later, in 1837, it became Helsinki’s City Hall. When that function was moved to the Society House, it was occupied by the Municipal Court, not far from where, on the south side of the square, the new Magistrate’s Court was later built. As such, the Bock House was among the first of a number of important official edifices in the capital. During the late 1980s it underwent a major restoration, together with the Burtz and Hellenius Houses, and today also incorporates a new building in which the City Council Chambers are now located. Important receptions are now held by the City Council in Bock House.
Yet it was not so much the Senate Square but the Esplanade, that tree-lined avenue in the heart of Helsinki, that provided the central axis to join the new and the old districts of the city from east to west. Moreover, for all the modern building in stone, most of the houses continued to be of wood. Nor could the granite stone upon which the city was built always be relied upon to provide substantial foundations. On the contrary, some houses were also built not on rocks, but on sandy soil, where considerable preparations had to be carried out in order to make building at all possible. As Mrs Tweedie, a lady who held strong views on a plethora of subjects, wrote in 1897:
The town stands either on massive glacial rocks, or, in other parts that have been reclaimed from the sea, on soft sand; in the latter case the erection has to be reared on piles. For the foundation of the house mentioned, long stakes, about 20 feet in length, were driven into the ground. Above this pile a sort of crane was erected, from which hung a large heavy stone caught by iron prongs. Some twenty men stood round the crane, and with one ‘Heave oh!’ pulled the stone up to the top, where, being let loose, it fell with a tremendous thud upon the head of the luckless pile, which was driven with every successive blow deeper into the earth. When all the piles were thus driven home, 4 or 5 feet apart, rough bits of rock or stone were fitted in between them, and the whole was boarded over with wood after the fashion of flooring, on top of which the house itself was built.
Unioninkatu, running north-south on the western flank of the Church of St Nicholas, had now become the principal thoroughfare of Helsinki, like St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect or Berlin’s Under den Linden. Though it was diminutive in size by comparison to the former, it was taking shape as an elegant showpiece for its new imperial master’s generosity.
Senate House Square, newly created by Engel from what had formerly been a ramshackle area with small houses and a church, was the principal public space of the capital, a large area on which public demonstrations and festivities could be held. It was also the site of the Senate House, after which the square was named, a building upon whose construction little expense was spared, as the city’s most prominent secular edifice. The Senate of Finland, as the Finnish government was called, had its seat here. Appropriately Engel chose for this, his first monumental building on the square, a Corinthian colonnade, the grandest of the classical orders, to adorn the exterior. An oval throne room, similarly decorated, overlooked Senate Square, with at either end a slightly projecting pavilion. The main block is rectangular in shape, while three wings to its rear, of lesser height, were decorated with ionic colonnades. The north wing was built by Lohrmann, in 1853, but later made way for another building, by C. R. Björnberg, in 1900.
The architectural inspiration for the Senate House derives from the Italian architect Carlo Rossi, whose works from the early 19th century include the Yelagin Palace and Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Sources from ancient Greek or Roman architecture might also have played a role. In any case, a library had been included in the east wing, based on the Baths of Diocletian, but it has long since disappeared in the course of remodelling. In the 1980s the complex underwent a thorough restoration.
Other building projects commissioned by Alexander I and carried out by Engel include (to name the most important) the university and its library, a military school for orphans, and a house of social assembly, all of which are discussed in other chapters. Together these formed a major undertaking, at great expense to the Czar. Yet even he did not possess unlimited money, and spending in Helsinki also had to be balanced against that in Russia proper, even if resources were largely raised in Finland itself. Still, all in all, by the time Engel’s commissions were completed, a total of 4,229,743 roubles and 91 kopecks had been spent. This vast sum had been found not only from various local taxes, but also from an excise duty on salt as well as an export duty on tar, so sought after by foreign shipping. The State Loan Bank in St. Petersburg also assisted with substantial funds.
For those carrying out the work the rewards could be considerable. The building trade was very lucrative and some, like the Russian Uschakoff family, made their fortune in manufacturing building materials. The villa at the North Esplanade, 19, now a city information bureau, would become a supreme example of Jugendstil in Finland, when Lars Sonck restored it in 1904. Others, like the Korastieffs, made theirs as building contractors. Still, it was clear to all that without the benevolence of the Czar, Helsinki would have remained a dusty village on some rocky crags. A suitable monument was duly commissioned to testify to the foresight and generosity of Helsinki’s imperial patron. By the entrance to the harbor, against a backdrop of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the Empress’ Stone was erected, a monument built to commemorate the visit of Czar Nicholas I and the Czarina Alexandra in 1833, when most of the rebuilding— though not the Great Church— was largely completed. It is still in Market Square today, despite the ebb and flow of political change, crowned by the Romanov two-headed eagle, symbol of the Russian Empire, and recently resurrected as the symbol of the Russian Federation.
Needless to say, when members of the imperial family went to Helsinki, their aristocratic courtiers were sure to follow and this they did in ever growing numbers, until the debacle of the Crimean War once again sidelined the Finnish capital socially. By then Helsinki had become totally altered from what it had been a few decades before. When the military officer Bulgarin returned in 1838 to the city of his youthful military days, it had changed beyond recognition: from a town of some 3,500 souls, it was now a city of 12,000.
It had also come to attract a large number of the Russian aristocracy under Czar Nicholas I, not so much for political reasons but as a summer resort. This was especially true during the 1830s, when by virtue of its proximity to St. Petersburg and the need to circumvent travel restrictions for those who wished to go abroad (introduced in reaction to the Decembrist uprising that had greeted the ascension of Nicholas I), many aristocratic Russians came to Helsinki.
Among the eminent, if sometimes extravagant, visitors who arrived at this time was the Princess Yusupov, notorious in the Russian capital for her Neronian feasts, during which the marble statues in her gardens were replaced by serfs in the appropriate poses, nude or not, as the fancy moved her. Her parties in Helsinki may have been more restrained, but her house at Kaivopuisto was built at great expense and with considerable elegance in the classically inspired style of the times. Legend has it that the proximity of her reputed lover, a certain Captain Isakov, imprisoned in the Suomenlinna fortress, was the true reason for her seasonal removal to Helsinki. It was believed that the site of her house had been chosen because of the proximity and ease it afforded her in surreptitious visits to and from her convict amour. History remains silent on the veracity of this hypothesis. In any case, the Princess Yusupov was not alone in her choice of Helsinki as a summer playground; the Princesses Gagarin, Trubetskoy, and Musin-Pushkin, also favoured it, with retinues of paramours and personal retainers.
By 1850 Helsinki could boast a population of 17,000, not exactly a rival to Stockholm or St Petersburg, but not insignificant by comparison to its size at the beginning of the century. Yet in the second half of the century, with the growth of the city westwards as well as into Kamppi and Kluuvi, the city burgeoned much further.
The upper echelons of Helsinki society now lived in Kruununhaka, especially in the vicinity of what is now Liisanpuistikko. But in many places vestiges of the city’s older, more humble origins remained; many of the houses beyond Engel’s monumental centre were still comprised of one or two-story wooden structures on plots separated by wooden fences. Houses of stone remained few and far between, even if the new construction of wooden houses was prohibited. In any case, the southern side of the Esplanade and the area around Kasarmitori still had quite a number of two-story wooden houses, so Helsinki’s appearance, especially on its periphery, remained rather rustic and like that— except for Engel’s city centre —of Finnish provincial market towns in general.
One important aspect of the new imperial administration introduced into Helsinki after the Grand Duchy’s incorporation into the Russian Empire was the official Russian nomenclature of hierarchical ranks in 1826, which ordered both military and civil positions, superseding that of Sweden. According to this system long established in the Russian Empire, all official administrative positions corresponded to fourteen classes and covered 168 posts. Each entailed its own responsibilities and privileges and each had its corresponding uniform, edged in green, the colour of Russian officialdom (this replaced the blue used on Swedish uniforms when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom). Generally unpopular for its rigid regimentation, the nomenclature, first established by Peter the Great in Russia in the 1720s, finally disappeared with the end of autarchy, only to be formally abolished in the early 1920s.
Yet some reform of Finnish political life was possible under Russian imperial rule and none was more important than the abolition of the estates and the introduction of the first Finnish parliament or Diet. This momentous event occurred in 1863 with its first convocation and was the first major political change since the cession of Finland to Russia. Within six years Czar Alexander II, a relative liberal, had ratified a new act, according to which a frequent and regular convening of the Diet was envisioned and greater liberties provided. Forever afterwards Finns would think of this Czar with great affection, the principal reason why even today his statue can be seen in the centre of Senate House Square, the most important site for commemoration in Finland. It was created by the sculptor Walter Runeberg (1838-1920), a son of the poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, and is flanked by other statues representing Law, Peace, Light and Labour.
Finns, of course, did not only look to St. Petersburg for political leadership. They also looked to what was then the Russian capital for work and career advancement. In fact, St. Petersburg was in many ways Finland’s most important city throughout the nineteenth century. A large proportion of its population was from Finland and for much of the century St. Petersburg was home to more Finnish-speakers than Helsinki. Before the construction of the railways, transport by water to St. Petersburg from the central and eastern provinces of Finland was a relatively simple matter. Parts of Karelia, at Finland’s south-eastern corner, virtually abutted onto the suburbs of the northern Russian capital, while even Savo was easier to reach than Helsinki, connected as it was by a splendid series of lakes and canals. Moreover, many Finns worked seasonally on the railways, while in St. Petersburg Finns provided considerable seasonal labour in the building trade during the middle and later nineteenth century.
There were also several schools and churches in St Petersburg in which Finnish was the main language, and many well-educated Finns made their way up the military and civil service ladders in the imperial capital. Indeed, they were an especially favoured people there, with considerable freedom of movement in and out of Russia, not reciprocally granted to native Russians themselves with respect to Finland.
By 1840 at least 11,300 Finns, craftsmen, domestic servants and labourers, were at work in the Russian capital, making it by far the most populous Finnish-speaking city, after Helsinki (13,300) and Turku (13,200). By 1869 the number of Finns in St Petersburg had risen to more than 16,000, making them the largest ethnic minority there after Germans and a labour force definitely to be reckoned with. There were also many Ingrians who had settled in the Russian capital from the surrounding countryside, where they had resided for centuries before the foundation of the city and who spoke a language closely related to Finnish.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon of Finland with Russia, though long-lived, came to a sudden unhappy end. The beloved and modernizing Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and his successors, Alexander III and Nicholas II attempted a more forced integration of Finland into Russia. This coercive approach was paradoxically part of reforms by Russian liberals to further modernize the government of the empire, to make it more rational and efficient and therefore better able to serve all its inhabitants more effectively. From 1889 onwards growth of Pan-Slavism, with its emphasis upon a unified and unitary state run from St. Petersburg, severely undermined the relatively harmonious relationship Finland had enjoyed under its various Russian grand dukes since its transfer from Sweden to Russia. In reaction, a new constitutional party was formed in Helsinki, bringing together both Swedish and Finnish speaking Finns of all persuasions. Focused initially upon a campaign of passive resistance to all attempts at Russification and infringement of Finnish political and cultural rights, its members in government office, often partisans of the Young Finns Movement, increasingly refused to implement the administrative measures that the imperial government demanded. This often led to sackings and the creation of a disgruntled segment of former administrators. As a result, it was the so-called Old Finns, “Uncle Toms” of accommodation as the Young Finns saw them, who came by default to fill their positions, taking the adage “bent, but not broken” to heart. It was perhaps just as well, for though on the surface more accommodating, their suppleness enabled them to endure the ever more vicious winds of change which blew westwards towards Helsinki from St. Petersburg.
Russian imperialism in Finland, for all its negative reputation and frustrations, also encompassed many benefits, especially in the early days of Czarist rule. It offered a wholly new labour market to Finns, whatever their skills and abilities. Yet it is important to emphasize that these opportunities affected every level of society from the lowest to the highest. For by means of the fourteen ranks that formed the hierarchy of the Russian civil and military bureaucracy, a Finn, whatever his origins, if he possessed the requisite degree from the Swedish-speaking Åbo Academy in Turku, could in Russia enter the eighth rank, thereby gaining the status of nobility. Ironically, the structure of Russian society was such that these opportunities were very rare indeed for native Russians. Not surprisingly, then, the combination of career opportunities and status made Russia for many decades an attractive place for Finns to develop careers both in the army and navy and the civil service. Indeed, it was not until 1848, that the first Finnish flag – not the current one but the Grand Duchy’s coat of arms against a white background – flew and the national anthem was sung for the first time in a public place, all under the placid eyes of the Russian authorities.
The more negative aspects of imperialism became apparent as the nineteenth century drew to a close, for it was during the period from 1890 to 1905 that the most concerted efforts at Russification were made. The Finnish currency was abolished and by virtue of the Post Manifesto of 1890 the Finnish postal system was integrated into that of the Russian Empire as a whole, losing all independence. The issuing of Finnish postal stamps was prohibited. At the same time, the use of Russian as the language of governmental administration and schooling was promoted.
With the promulgation of the February Manifesto in 1899, Finnish autonomy itself came under severe threat, as Russian intentions to remove power from the Grand Duchy’s four-chamber assembly of estates became clear. Women dressed in black, and wreaths were laid at the foot of the statue of Czar Alexander II on Senate Square. The artist Eetu Isto produced in response his inflammatory allegorical painting, Attack (1899), in which his anthropomorphic embodiment of Finnish national identity, “The Maid of Finland”, a beauteous maiden defending a vast tome of law against would-be attackers, acquired immense importance as a national symbol of Finland’s vulnerability and defiance.
On March 13, 1899, a mass demonstration of discontent took place in Senate Square and a petition with more than 524,000 names was also submitted to the Imperial throne. As the Finnish author, Aino Kallas, wife of Estonia’s first minister to the Court of St. James in the inter-war years, wrote at the time:
A telegram received by a certain Danish newspaper says that the Czar has not consented to receive our delegation, a group of 500 men. More dispiriting yet, it has been ordered to leave St Petersburg at once, otherwise it will be expelled!
It is not in vain, now, that Finns wear mourning dress, or place wreaths on the statue of the Law. It is as if a great funeral is being conducted here, the funeral of truth, justice, light and freedom. ‘C’est fini!’
Extremism triumphed in 1904 when, with anti-Russian feeling reaching a crescendo, the Swedish-speaking Finn and son of a former senator, Eugene Schauman, took matters into his own hands and cold-bloodedly assassinated Governor General Nikolai Bobrikov before committing suicide soon afterwards. Another assassination of a Russian official occurred the following year, when Eliel Soisalon-Soinien, a government prosecutor, was murdered, but afterwards such events ceased.
The Russian authorities made no attempt to cease their policy of Russification, and as they persisted in the early years of the 20th century so did the hostility of many Finns towards the centralizing tendency of the Russian government, especially among some Swedish-speaking segments of the population. Already, in 1903, some Swedish-speaking university figures had formed a conspiratorial society for the purpose of fomenting armed struggle against the Russian authorities. Yet a basic problem remained, for Finns as a whole were unable to come to an agreement on precisely how Russification should be resisted. As a result, great bitterness prevailed not only between Russians and Finns, but among the latter on whether a passive or active approach should be taken.
With the outbreak of revolution in St. Petersburg in 1905 and the General Strike in Helsinki that followed in its wake, conditions appeared for a while to improve. The student Hella Wuolijoki, later post-Second World War director of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, who hailed from the province of Estonia (until 1918 part of Russia), wrote many years later of her considerable relief at the time:
Finally, the news arrived that the emperor had signed a manifesto according to which legal conditions were restored to the country and an extraordinary meeting of the estates was called to deal with parliamentary reform and electoral legislation, with the aim of introducing universal and equal voting rights.
In any case, other political changes were also in the offing. In 1906 the Diet of Estates, only recently installed in 1891 was abolished by the Diet itself. In its stead a unicameral parliament was established. (Later, the Diet’s premises at Snellmaninkatu 9, designed by Nyström and with a tympanum containing a relief by Emil Wickström depicting Czar Alexander I at the Porvoo Diet of 1809, was used by a variety of learned societies for meetings, although they too have now moved elsewhere.) The political atmosphere at the time must have been electric. This must also have been the case at the House of the Nobility, where representatives of the aristocracy had their seat, situated in Hallituskatu 2, with its pseudo-Gothic façade behind which a vast assembly room is located. (Like the nobility itself, it was less structurally sound than might have appeared from without, and steel reinforcements for the ceiling had to be added by Nyström as the Russian period drew to its close.) Still, the centralizing pressure from St. Petersburg to conform to Russification continued in the following years, only really to find itself aborted as a result of the First World War.
The outbreak of this war provided yet another push towards the approaching rupture of Finnish-Russian political unity. Instead of large numbers of Finns rushing to the aid of the Czar and so-called sister nations of the Russian Empire (some, it must be said, did do this), at least 2,000, a disproportionate quarter of whom were Swedish-speaking, went over to the German side. Joining the 27 th Royal Prussian Jaeger Battalion, many of its members were to play a key role after Finland unilaterally declared herself independent of Russia on December 6, 1917, a red-letter date still commemorated today. Despite two vicious wars and economic upheavals, Finland has retained its cherished independence since that time and has gone on to become one of the world’s richest and most successful countries, a model to those in both East and West.
So perhaps all things considered, the legacy of Russian imperialism was by no means all bad, like a marriage, happy in its early years but turned miserable and unpleasant as it drew to a close. After all, as the writer, Matti Kurjensaari wrote in A Story of Helsinki (1962), the heart of Helsinki on the southern tip of its little peninsula still retains its essentially imperial legacy from the early nineteenth century, even if the north has different traditions as a suburb of workers:
In the south lies Ehrenström’s and Engel’s Helsinki. This means a traditional order, senators, professors, The Book about Our Country (by Topelius), Doric columns, theatres, opera, posh restaurants, educational establishments. In the north, there are factories, workers, hubbub, machine oil, steam, hearth stoves, fuchsia in the windows.
However true that may be, it is the new marriage of a royal and imperial past with a working, industrialized and highly technological present that has made Finland the contemporary success story which it is.
From Helsinki: A Cultural History, by Neil Kent (Interlink Publishing, 2014).