Love thy neighbour
Finland has been independent since 1917, so why does
still pay homage to a Russian Emperor? The answer, says Jeremy Atiyah, is that
the Finns have a tradition of being rather nice to their oppressors Helsinki
I am trying to understand
30 March 2003
All I know about the residents of this city is that their trilling language is not an Indo-European one. It seems, in fact, more closely related to the language of bears and elks than to that of (say) Swedes or Russians. By day, the people of
Or so I suspect. And others have drawn similar conclusions. Back in the 1920s, indeed, the Finns were a rather modish people in the salons of western Europe, what with Sibelius the composer, Alvar Aalto the designer, and the original "flying Finn", Paavo Nurmi (not to be confused with Mika Hakkinen), who won four golds in track and field in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Word got out, back then, that
Maybe Finns just don't do cities, then? Maybe the miraculous fact that they have emerged from history with a state of their own owes more to their ancient traditions of being nice to traditional oppressors. Finlandisation, it used to be called: and aren't they still at it now? A lady from the
"You see, this place is so authentic," she tells me. But authentically what? Its velvety interior and Dickensian lighting make me suspect that Rasputin and Dostoyevsky are drinking vodka at the next table. The food here – cranberries and steak – is far better than in
I am not yet sure. The next morning, strolling the sleety streets, I find that the pale pastel plaster façades of the Finnish capital also look remarkably Russian. Senate Square, the city centre, is an ensemble of neoclassical buildings that would not look out of place in
"Yes, the good Tsar," points out Kaarina, hastily. "The one who emancipated the serfs ..."
Groping for reasons, I begin to speculate: might it be that
But after declaring independence in 1917, the Finns must have faced a dilemma regarding their imperial statue. Should they tear Alexander down and risk offending the Russians? Or should they keep him, and risk offending the Soviets? To do nothing, in the end, seems to have been viewed as the least offensive option.
I stroll down to the harbour to find that it, too, is dominated by the sinister-looking Uspenski Cathedral, a giant Russian confabulation of dark bricks and domes. Not that the Finns seem to care about things like this. The place I am heading for now is an offshore island. Perhaps the fort of Sveaborg ("
A few fur-hatted old men are aboard ship. Under our movements, the ice plates murmur like sherbet as they slide slushily together; a seagull perches on a wobbly ice floe. Looking back, I now see that
But once on dry land again, 15 minutes later, I feel more hopeful. Here the snow is deep and crisp. No noises are heard. Big old trees sprout among the yellow buildings. And, suddenly, I have a beardy little guide at my side. Sveaborg, he declares, was originally designed 250 years ago to dominate the eastern Baltic. "It had the greatest dry dock in the world," he adds, in a confidential whisper. "After the Russians had built
"Yes, the Swedes did," says the man, airily. "In those days there was no difference between Swedes and Finns. Anyway, as I was saying ... this fort housed a lively community before
As late as 1790, in fact, the Swedes were still beating the Russians in these parts. Not for much longer though: 20 years after that, they abandoned this whole "invincible" fort to a fleet from
These days, Finns call the place the Suomenlinna, "
I look south across the Baltic, beyond dribs and drabs of snow-covered islands. From that direction, I suddenly remember how, during the Crimean War in 1854, British ships had humiliated the Russians by launching a bombardment upon this very hillock where I now stand. "Oh, a savage attack," my guide is now recalling. "Savage. We took many casualties."
"You took them?"
"Yes. The Russians took them."
That's it. I'm ready to give up. The Finns must be out there on their lakes somewhere, eating their cranberries, not here in
"Don't be stupid," she says. "We're off go-karting."
"Off what?" I gasp.
"Go-karting. Round a race-track."
She's serious. This, apparently, is what the people of
"Car man with guts" is how the local paper describes the owner of this place. I see tiny cars with real engines, awaiting starters' orders. But there is no air pollution inside: giant air conditioners suck out heat, fumes and the whiffs of burnt rubber as soon as they are generated. And yes, Mika Hakkinen is a regular visitor to the track. To prove it, pictures are promptly brought out for my benefit, showing Mika grinning like a bear.
In my overalls and helmet, I think I look authentic. I'm soon off in my go-kart, hugging hairpin bends, screeching down the straights. The maximum speed (I have been warned) is 60mph: electronic controls prevent will prevent me from exceeding this. But suddenly, in my throttle, I can feel
Thus revved up, so to speak (as Kaarina points out), I now have no choice but to indulge in
Having changed into nothing, I enter the innermost steam room to find a naked disc jockey and a naked banker. The disc jockey is mumbling about the need to get relaxed before going on the night shift. "If sauna and beer can't relax you, you must be dead," says the banker. "That's right," growls the disc jockey. "Real Finns are born in the sauna. And after we die, we are washed and laid out here."
The naked banker and I retire, wrapped in towels, to the outer room to drink our beers and stare into fish tanks. I tell him about the go-karting. He reminisces about great sauna experiences of his life. I have never felt so relaxed in my life. This is it, then. Finnish
British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.ba.com) is offering return flights to
Travelscene (020-8424 9648; www.travelscene.co.uk) offers a two-night break in
Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512; www.finland-tourism.com/uk).