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Finnish Russia
 Jan 10, 2013

Medieval Vyborg is referred to as the westernmost city of Russia in traveling guides, though formally Kaliningrad and Baltiysk are nearer to Europe. But Vyborg is known for a more solicitous attitude to its conquered foreign heritage. This is not only evidenced by menus and road signs in Finnish, the attempts to conserve the architecture of Northern modern, or by restoring in 1993 of the monument to Swedish marshal Torgils Knutsson, the founder of the Vyborg Castle. The descendants of Soviet citizens who migrated to Vyborg after the war could adopt and preserve the best of this foreign culture.


Image: GEOPHOTO / Oleg Glebov

About 8 a.m. you may see more joggers on Vyborg quays than at any regional Marathon. This is not some swank – most local folks simply tend to their health. They run by fishermen with rods who are particularly numerous on the sandbar at two dragon ships – the informal emblem of Vyborg. Prevalent among the fishermen are older folks who hide a flask of warmer upper somewhere near a jug with worms. In many cities such a gap in priorities and values may incite mutual denouncement. Here you’ll see nothing of this sort: a teenager wearing shorts hugs one of the fishermen on the run and tells him some joke; everybody is smiling. It does not matter that much, whether he is his neighbor, colleague or father-in-law.

“Our city is not large – about 80,000 residents,” explains journalist Andrei Kolomoisky. “Not that everybody has met each other, but long-term residents know each other pretty well. Not everybody likes the pace of life in megacities; some prefer quieter living. For instance, I’ve dwelled most of my lifetime in St. Petersburg and would not go to a dull provincial town with no landmarks, where few jobs are available. But Vyborg is something special; it has its own aesthetics, even if not in a metropolitan style – perhaps for this reason the city is flooded with the natives of both capitals. There is some spirit, liveliness and nerve in its unkempt demeanor; this spirit vanishes into thin air in St. Petersburg with its endless fences, enclosed yards and overcrowded parking lots.”

The close proximity to the border is felt in Vyborg: the nearest frontier post is 40 km away and St. Petersburg is slightly more than 100 km away. Finnish tourists are in abundance here regardless of the season. Mean tongues quip that they come to buy cheap vodka and gas, but this is not so. Finns set out for nostalgic tours to look at the once second largest city of their country, which some remember from their early years. And while in the 1990s they arrived in buses and walked in groups, fearing aggression, now many stay at the places of their friends – the residents of Vyborg.

“One day I came to our yard on Krepostnaya Street and saw an elderly Finn, looking around and examining everything,” says the guide Galina Kucherenko. “When I looked out of my window, he was still there sitting on a bench deep in his thoughts. When I came out to talk to him, I already guessed that he lived in my house prior to the war. I invited him to come in for a cup of tea. He was 35 years older than me; we spoke English and made friends. He remembers the Vyborg Cathedral on fire after bombings, with its only tower extant nowadays.”

Many similar stories can be heard in Vyborg. In the 1980s, when the prohibition law was effective in Finland, coming every summer from Helsinki to a private house on the city’s outskirts was the former owner of that property. He would rent a room with a veranda, paid money up front and then nobody ever saw him sober. But usually a higher quality cultural exchange takes place. Finns are amazed at the plainness and breadth of soul they find in the Russian dwellers of Viipuri (the Finnish name of Vyborg) who are ready to open their doors to every stranger, while Vyborg residents, in their turn, marvel at Finnish integrity that often borders with naivety. Russians wonder why Finns are so slow to see that they can be sold kvass instead of cognac or that they can be cheated in some other way.

“Ten years ago our Finnish friends felt convinced of their cultural superiority,” says historian and literary critic Sergei Achildiev. “They thought Russians in general were drunkards and thieves, though decent and talented people can occasionally be found in their midst. This was certainly because they feared Russia and did not understand the Russian soul. Today their understanding has changed. The Finnish friend of my colleague in Vyborg tells him at parting: ‘Don’t worry, when we reclaim Viipuri, we won’t drive you away.’ My colleague answers: ‘Take care that we do not drive you away from Helsinki.’ When people communicate and swap jokes at one level, you cannot say that someone’s culture is superior. A heap of tedious academic works have been written about the mutual enrichment of cultures, but in Vyborg everything is practical. Any schoolchild speaks some English. You may not care about automobiles as you cross the street – anyone will let you go. In summertime many bicycles can be seen at school entrances, and many private homes have either a sauna or a Russian bath. And at police stations they gradually forget how a Finnish guest robbed on the street looks.”

It is symptomatic that Finns consider the Russian racer of Formula 1 Vitaly Petrov as their compatriot. He was born in Vyborg like Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president and Nobel-prize winner.

Between hammer and anvil

Founder of Vyborg Torgils Knutsson was a warden of an underage Swedish king in the XIII century. A fortified castle in that place helped keeping the entire Karelian Isthmus under control. No sooner had a year passed since the erection of the castle, than Novgorod warriors came up to its walls, only to sacrifice their lives in vain. Russians unsuccessfully tried to seize Vyborg once in a century or so, but only Peter the Great succeeded in this undertaking in 1710.


Image: GEOPHOTO / Oleg Glebov

By and large, Vyborg had never been a truly Russian city until the Soviet times. Swedish and Finnish residents had always been in the majority here and Lutheran faith had never been persecuted. The Great Principality of Finland enjoyed many rights of a sovereign nation and by the turn of the 20th century 80% of the Vyborg population were Finns.

“The Imperial authorities slipped up on the secession of Finland from Russia, which only formally took place under the Bolsheviks, though in reality had happened much earlier,” believes historian Pavel Serpukhov. “Few locals spoke Russian and it was only in 1914 that a seminary for teachers of history was built. Lenin had long lived in Finland and understood that this land is the worst soil for the Communist ideology to take root. And when he came to power, he let Finland go in peace. Vyborg became a cultural capital of the young Finnish Republic. Here the most exciting edifices were erected; the place was densely populated with artists, writers, musicians. A university also functioned and there were up to 86,000 residents in the city at the time – the absolute maximum in its entire history.”

Having lost Vyborg during the Soviet-Finnish war (1939-40), Finns reclaimed the city in 1941 only to cede it again to the Soviet Union in 1944. In that year almost the entire population abandoned Vyborg and the USSR received a dead city razed to the ground by numerous bombings.

“The new population was brought in freight cars from the Volga region and Tatarstan; the colonists were promised housing and work,” says Pavel Serpukhov. “Few expected that the Soviet authorities would try to conserve the historic architecture, since many buildings were severely damaged and mined. In Konigsberg, for example, almost everything was demolished and then a new city was built in a green field. Nevertheless Stalin ordered Vyborg to be included in the list of 15 cities that were to be restored in the first place. During three years they restored everything that could be restored in the historical center.”

Not that the Soviet people carefully guarded Vyborg’s heritage. All Finish place names were renamed and only four dwellings have survived until now out of all medieval burghers’ houses that dated from 15th – 18th century. On the other hand, they are Russia’s only buildings in this style. Nevertheless, the area of historic development is huge and comparable to Riga, for example. Yet about a million residents reside in the Latvian capital and Riga’s budget for heritage conservation is significantly larger than that of Vyborg. Even today Vyborg is in need of funds equivalent to a 10-year budget of the entire district, for the restoration of all historical and cultural memorials.

Be that as it may, Russia’s only medieval knight’s castle with St. Olaf Tower was preserved here under Soviets, along with the Town Hall, Clock Tower and the marketplace. After the break-up of the USSR they tackled the library of great Alvar Aalto (this is Russia’s only building designed by “the father of modernism” of Northern Europe – a well-known Finnish architect) and returned to the pedestal Torgils Knutsson who now gazes across the bridge at the monument to Peter the Great.

Finns would not go on any nostalgic tours if old Viipuri lost the features so dear to their hearts. And the fact that tourism is flourishing in the city corroborates that the development strategy and tactic were rightly chosen.

The life of others

“Many believe that the only objects of note in Vyborg are the castle and rock park Monrepo,” says Darya Klimashevskaya, head of Vyborg’s information and tourism center. “In reality the city is rich in both objects and events. Two monasteries have been preserved – one Franciscan and one Dominican. The city hosts the second largest branch of the Hermitage. A couple of dozens big festivals are staged here, including 12 music ones! The key issue is competent creation of tourist infrastructure. It’s not enough to bring our guests to the castle and tell them: this castle was built in this or that year. A quality product looks different.”

Darya Klimashevskaya’s colleagues built near Vyborg an entire community a la the Wild West with saloons, Colts and cowboys. Vyborg Castle for 20 years already has been one of the main centers of historical reconstruction in Russia. Every year, starting in early summer, dozens of tents are set up all around, with Teutonic knights and Novgorod men-at-arms roving over the place, and connoisseurs from all parts of Europe coming to feast their eyes on historical shows, courtesy to a direct train from Helsinki to Vyborg and to the fact that yachts of any size can be anchored at the local port.

Extension of the border zone prevented tourist operators from launching full-scale operations: several scenic isles around the city were closed. Large seaports emerged in neighboring Primorsk and Vysotsk and the gas main Nord Stream now runs by Vyborg. But locals do not perceive this as the heavenly manna, since they are used to relying on their own enterprise.

“Even by European standards there is an impressive array of private ventures in Vyborg,” says Darya Klimashevskaya. “Mills, bakeries, boat-building yards, driving schools, agencies trading in firewood, whatever! They always believed in small business, discipline, thrift and hard work of any particular person here. Even today I feel this in my tourist business: where there are ideas, solutions are always found. Someone propels a drama puppet show, another turns a hostel into an informal art center like 10 Pushkinskaya in St. Petersburg, and the third entrepreneur starts the evil witch Baba Yaga house for kids. One of Vyborg’s most famous brands is the cracknel with mint, nutmeg, marjoram and cloves or allspice. I believe it was not easy to surprise Europe with a tasty bum cheek during the Middle Ages but the bakers of Vyborg were adequate to that task.”

Perhaps the mentality of the Vyborg townsman is the very ingredient that Russia lacked 100 years ago to avoid the tragedy. Figuratively speaking, the local cracknel is the best remedy for revolutions. An unprecedented experiment was carried out in Vyborg: how Western values can be perceived by the Russian soul. The experience of modern-day Vyborg shows that the two are easily compatible. And this experience is worth studying.

Denis Terentyev

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"And we will preserve you, Russian speech,
The great Russian word.
We will keep you free and pure,
And pass you on to our grandchildren,
Free from bondage forever!" Anna Akhmatova "Valor"

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