13 stories from Helsinki’s past

1. The name ‘Helsinki’ has Swedish roots. It stems from Helsingfors, where helsinge is the name of the place and fors means a waterfall. The latter is because there are plenty of cliffs around and the local rivers form several waterfalls. As such, Helsinki is young, much younger than neighbouring cities of Stockholm and Oslo. The city was founded in 1550 near a small waterfall on the river Vantaa.

Gusta Vasa

2. Helsinki was founded by Gustav Vasa, the king of Sweden who, at a school age, pierced the Bible with a dagger and shouted to his Danish tutor “God damn you and your school!” There’s a tapestry depicting the scene in Upplandsmuseet. In the 17th century, a ship was built and named after this royal dynasty. It was the most costly and opulent vessel at the time though constructed with serious engineering faults. The ship sank during its very first sailing off the Stockholm’s harbour, was lifted from the sea bottom 333 years later and is now a museum exhibit.

3.  In the 18th century Helsinki becomes a fighting arena between two antagonist powers, Sweden and Russia. During the devastating Great Northern War the city was burnt, besieged and exposed to famine at least 4 times. In 1809, the Grand Duchy of Finland became part of the Russian Empire.

4.  Then a question arose as to where the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland would be. A long period of discussions, votes, correspondence and petitions to the Russian Emperor ensued and, 3 years later, on the 12th of June 1812 tiny Helsinki became capital of the Grand Duchy. Helsinki beat Turku due to better geographic location – the former capital was too close to Stockholm. The historians also note an astonishing amount of cunning and elegant turn of phrase in the letters of Helsinki residents to the Russian tsar.

 5.  One of the city’s stories involves Carl Ludwig Engel, an architect from Berlin. His graduation certificate marks his refined style of drawing and it was him who partook in creating Helsinki we admire now.When Helsinki turned into capital it was still a minuscule settlement of just a few blocks and it had to be changed as soon as possible. The then-Counsellor of State Ehrenström began to relentlessly search for an architect able to cope with the task of city reconstruction. Following his meeting with Engel he proposed the latter to take the position of Helsinki’s main architect and fortunately Engel accepted.Karl ludvig Engel

Senate square16. In the 19th century nearly 30 buildings and amazing architectural projects were realised in Helsinki making the city one of the best examples of Empire architecture. However, this had its secrets.The most famous Engel’s work is the Cathedral on the Senate Square in the very centre of Helsinki. It was conceived as the city’s focal point and main Lutheran temple. The Lutheran temples are known for simple architectural details and mostly have only one dome, and the original design was alike. But authorities from Saint Petersburg sent an order demanding to reshape the building to make it look like an orthodox church. That’s what made the main Lutheran Cathedral so unique – with its 5 spires and simple features it’s the city’s most prominent landmark, but paradoxically a visitor won’t feel the dome’s height and scale from the inside – just as in a modest and simple Lutheran temple. And this is also one of the secrets of the talented architect Carl Ludwig Engel. 

7.  In 1870 the first railway to the metropolis of Saint Petersburg was laid, and Helsinki became a popular resort for the imperial elites. The baths built in parks welcomed 27,000 bathers annually and a new fashion to take a bath in Helsinki quickly gained popularity. The Russian nobility astonished the Finns by extravagant attire and unbelievable spending. During this period the lavish buildings with Neo-Romantic architecture were built on the most popular streets of Aleksanterinkatu, Esplanadi and the Northern embankment. The Dormition temple was erected being one of the largest orthodox temples in Western Europe to this date. Helsinki becomes the biggest and richest city in the country.

Elias Lönnrot

8.  So who are the Finns? What are their unique mentality and culture?In the 19th century there was an amazing person named Elias Lönnrot. He defended the doctoral dissertation on medicine, graduated from the humanitarian faculty and was deeply interested in old Finnish oral poetry. In order to find and write down these myths and legends of the Finnish people Lönnrot sets out on ethnographic expeditions in Finland and Karelia. And he made all his 11 journeys on foot or by a small boat!As a result he could gather a huge collection of ancient stories and tales, which are also called the runes or poems. Lönnrot decided to unite them into one body thus creating the famous Finnish national epic Kalevala. The mythical characters from Kalevala often appear on the walls of Finnish houses, or as unusual monuments on the city streets. They even contributed to a new style in architecture which made Helsinki widely known beyond the city limits. But that’s another story.

Hki arc

9. In order to understand the Finnish people you must be attentive. In particular, note how they construct their dwellings. The Finns have their own national style in architecture and this is largely how they perceive their identity.This style is called the Finnish national Romanticism. As the term implies, the Finnish nation and its historic heritage are put under romantic lens in an effort to create something absolutely new. The style born in the 19th century is close to architectural trends of Scandinavia and Central Europe but has its Finnish peculiarities and motives.Moreover, the Romanticism in architecture is often interpreted in a psychological manner: the buildings designed with this style demonstrate emotions, rich imagination and dreams of the people rather than mere practicality and rational performance of the houses.Therefore you should certainly pay attention to funny and appalling trolls, animals, plants and even whole scenes from Kalevala on the houses. Besides, the shapes of houses, doors, window openings and roofs are worth your attention too.

10.  Did you know that Finland is the first country in the world to give women the right not only to vote but to be elected as members of Parliament?It happened in 1907 when European history was forged in Finnish cities and villages. That year all citizens that reached the age of 24 of both genders, from modest servants to landless peasants, were allowed to vote.Thus the country had the very first parliamentary elections, and it took a year to organise election commissions, prepare polling places, elaborate vote counting procedure and, most importantly, inform the citizens about their right to vote.The first laws included the law on working time in the bakeries and… the law on the total prohibition of alcohol. The latter came into force only 10 years later because Finland was part to the Russian Empire at the time and the Russian tsar didn’t like this law much.

11.  Finland is a versatile country. It was part of Sweden for 600 years and today Swedish is the second national language here. So don’t be surprised to see names for streets, stations, bus stops and other objects duplicated in Swedish throughout a city.For more than 100 years the nation was part of the Russian Empire and during that time the Finns became aware of their identity, built their capital Helsinki and created their own architectural style. You can now find here such curious souvenirs as Russian matryoshka dolls or eat delicious pelmeni in the old Russian restaurant.On 6 December 1917 the country became independent and a new era of its history began.

Mannerheim12.  One of the central streets of Helsinki bears the name of the most prominent military leader of Finland – Carl Gustaf Mannerheim.Here is how the German ambassador to Finland Wipert von Blücher described him: “Field Marshal Mannerheim had a tall, fit and muscular body, noble posture, confident bearing and chiselled facial features”. You can check it for yourself – his statue is in the city centre, not far from the railway station.Marshal Mannerheim began his military career in the Russian army but returned to his motherland and later became the commander of the Finnish army. He was the Finnish President for two years and it was him who managed to draw his country out of the Second World War. This is considered to be one of his most important accomplishments. Nowadays historians believe that no other figure could do the same.Many Finns have interest in Mannerheim’s life. His biography and career are studied much better than biography of any other Finn. Nearly three hundred books about him have been published both in Finland and abroad, and new research papers keep on appearing.Jan Sibelius

13. The history of the great music knows only one Finn – and this is Jean Sibelius. Neither before nor after him could any Finnish composer ever reach such professional heights.If you look at his photograph you will see a frowning man with furrowed brows but in reality he was a witty and merry man, the true life and soul of the party. Here is one of his popular quotes: “My orchestrating is better than Beethoven’s and I have themes better than he had. But he was born in a land of wine while myself in a land of kefir”.He began composing music at the age of 10, at young age matriculated at the legal faculty, quit after several years and became student of the Musical Institute where his works were performed even by his professors.He cherished the nature, his home didn’t have neither running water nor electricity so that no sounds would distract him from work.Music for Sibelius was not ethereal but very visible. Like A. Scriabin he associated it with colour. For this reason or due to its melodicism it was used as musical score in more than 150 films.


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