Wednesday, 5 September 2007


One of the most striking things about Helsinki is the dominance of its skyline by two very different churches. Approaching the city from the sea, you see the blazing white Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral to the west, and the glowing red Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral to the east. Inside the two cathedrals, the differences couldn’t more striking. The Russian Orthodox cathedral is littered with golden Byzantine iconography, while the Lutheran church is a sparse, monotone mass of white walls.

Given their geographic locations, its not hard to see the two as symbols of a country torn in two different directions, between the Lutheran Swedes to the west and the Orthodox Russians to the east. Finland spent 300 years under Swedish rule, followed by a century under Russian rule after Russia wrested the territory from the Kingdom of Sweden in 1809. It was only in 1917 following World War I that Finland declared its independence and became an independent country for the first time in its history.

Familiarity with this history made me expect on this, my first visit to Finland, to encounter a country with one foot in the east and one foot in the west. After all, its geographic position would suggest this, as would the fact that Finns are neither Scandinavian or Slavic, but rather Finno-Ugrain (a linguistic group consisting of Finns, Estonians, and Hungarians). The sight of the two cathedrals seemed to confirm this in-between status I had pre-conceived in my head.

But once I explored the city I found that this is actually not the case at all. There is virtually no trace of the city’s Russian history. In fact, it would appear that Russia’s 108 Year occupation left no imprint at all. Aside from the Orthodox Cathedral (which boasted a whopping zero worshipers inside when I went) and a statue of Tsar Alexander II in Senate Square, everything in the city is of Scandinavian origin.

In fact, Swedish is a co-equal language with Finnish in Finland. This means that every street sign, document, menu, and direction is in both Swedish and Finnish. This creates an odd sight (as seen above) as some streets have completely different names in the two languages (ie, it’s not the same name translated into both languages, it’s two different street names). The city has two names, Helsingfors (Swedish) and Helsinki (Finnish). Every neighborhood also has a Swedish and Finnish name.

I have a Finnish friend who lives in Helsinki, so when I met up with him for drinks last night I was asking if there’s really enough Swedish speakers to justify the dual signs. I mean even in Quebec, where the official languages are English and French, streets only have one name! He told me that about five percent of the country speaks Swedish as their first language. But, he conceded, every single one of those people would also be able to speak Finnish fluently. So why the two signs?? He just shrugged and said, that’s the way it is.

But if seems odd to me considering Sweden hasn’t controlled Finland for about 200 years. For centuries, the language of the educated and ruling class in Finland was Swedish, and the language of the peasantry was Finnish. However in the late 19th century, while Finland was part of the Russian empire and during a period of Europe-wide nationalism, Finnish was elevated to the status of an official language, and it was made the everyday working language of the country.

So why does Swedish still have such a prominent role today? From living in Prague I know the Czech Republic went through something similar with German. For hundreds of years the language of the educated, ruling or merchant class was German, and the language of the peasantry was Czech. But during a surge in nationalism and its independance following World War I Czech became the main language, and today Czech is the only official language, with not many Czechs speaking German. Of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that the Czechs expelled almost all the Germans after World War II, but aside from that, it just kind of makes sense for Czech to be the language of the Czech Republic.

So apparently the Russians were just really bad at Russifying Finland, and they were unable to shake Sweden’s hold over the country. I was thinking about it today and I realized Finland is the only country that was formerly part of the Russian Empire that was not subsequently sucked into the USSR after World War II. Its sister Estonia just 25 km to the south, to which Finns are closely linked ethnically and linguistically (in fact apparently the two languages are mutually intelligible), wasn’t as lucky. In fact I was talking to Finns about their visits to Estonia (a 20 minute ferry ride) and they said it’s like another world, and you really see the Russian influence there.

All this being said, Finland is different in many ways from Sweden. You notice right away the drastic difference in English proficiency here. I wrote in my last entry about how shocked I am when I’m in Scandinavia by how dead-on everyone’s American English accent is, even people working at McDonalds. In Finland on the other hand, store clerks speak very limited English with very thick accents. And last night when we were at the bar and I was meeting some of my friend's friends, they had limited English and very thick accents as well.

The Finns are also, in my experience, very cold compared to the Swedes, who are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I found both the people I met at the bar and the people I met for my interviews to be very distant and stand-offish, and no one would look me in the eye. This could have just been my experience, but it was a noticeable difference from Sweden.

I’m actually on the plane at the moment heading back to London, we’re flying over Copenhagen
right now (or near it anyway). Apparently there’s a transit strike in London so I have no idea how I’m getting home from the airport. Taxi? What’s a taxi?

The flight from Stockholm to Helsinki was actually my first flight between Schengen Zone countries, meaning you can go between them without a passport. I’ve taken trains and boats between them, but wasn’t sure if it worked the same on a plane. Sure enough, it was as easy as a flight from Rochester to New York. How much easier my life would be if the UK would just sign up for that treaty.

It occurs to me that Helsinki is the furthest north I've ever been, and probably ever will be. Unless I go to Alaska at some point. But even Anchorage is south of Helsinki. This is also, funny enough, my first time in this particular time zone. You have to go way east to get into "Eastern European time."

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