Helsinki, Sweden

If you are invited to join a gathering of Swedish historians you expect to find yourself in Sweden. So why does my plane land in Helsinki?

It’s not quite as strange as it seems. Two hundred and fifty years ago Finland was a province of the Swedish empire and Helsinki was a Swedish town called Helsingfors, so it’s an appropriate place for a meeting of COSMOS, a band of historians dedicated to interpreting eighteenth-century Sweden as a cosmopolitan place. The Sweden of COSMOS is not the ‘Saab and social welfare’ place we think of. It was a country through which wider currents of European culture flowed back and forth – a place of French opera, German theology, Dutch business leaders, and the Chinese tea that Sweden’s East India Company shipped back to its HQ in Gothenberg. In cosmopolitan Sweden the leaders of fashion spent their money on an Engelska park – a garden in the informal English style.

Swedish Empire

Sweden's Empire

Eighteenth-century Sweden was cosmopolitan in one other obvious sense: it stretched far beyond the ‘core Sweden’ familiar to us. In 1700 Helsinki/Helsingfors was garrisoned by Swedes; so was the modern Estonian capital Tallinn (then known as Reval), so too Riga, now the capital of Latvia. There were even Swedish provinces in northern Germany. Most of this is now forgotten, but in Finland the imprint of Sweden remains very visible. Swedish is an official language and street signage in Helsinki is bilingual. Thus, my hotel has a Swedish address (Norra Järnvägsgatan , or North Railway Street, to give the unlovely English equivalent) and a Finnish (Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu).

The COSMOS seminar is to take place on Suomenlinna, an offshore island that is these days a popular picnic location, just ten minutes on the ferry from downtown Helsinki. In the eighteenth century Suomenlinna was not so welcoming to visitors; then, it was Sveaborg, the ‘Swedish fort’. The Swedes began the construction of Sveaborg in the 1740s to ward off the Russians, their bitter rivals for dominance over the Baltic. It was to stand as a riposte to the Russian citadel at Kronstadt, which controlled the approaches to St Petersburg. Gradually, Suomenlinna was covered by a network of bastions, gun batteries, dockyards and barracks. The base was so big that the garrison outnumbered the townspeople of Helsingfors.

Huge sums were lavished on Sveaborg; it was not money well spent. The mighty fortress surrendered to the Russians in 1808 after what the Swedish public considered an indecently brief show of resistance by the commander. Thereafter Sveaborg was a Russian stronghold and Finland incorporated into the Russian Empire, albeit as a semi-autonomous Grand Duchy. That’s why two cathedrals dominate the skyline around Helsinki’s inner harbour: the neo-classical Lutheran, embodying the legacy of Sweden’s sixteenth-century Reformation, and the onion-domed Russian Orthodox. And that’s why the main restaurant on Suomenlinna is Russian. You’re served plenty of cured fish, vinegary mushrooms and that peculiarly Russian answer to sweet-and-sour, pickled cucumber drizzled with honey. All washed down with tumblers of vodka, naturally.

Royal Navy in the Baltic (Painting)

The Royal Navy in the Baltic during the Crimean War

Much of Suomenlinna/Sveaborg survives from the eighteenth century, but not all. I’m just the latest British visitor, not the first. In August 1855, with the Crimean War deadlocked, the Royal Navy’s Baltic squadron relieved the British public’s frustrations by bombarding Sveaborg. Long-range mortars enabled the British to devastate the fortress from a safe distance. Today, visitors to Suomenlinna can enjoy wandering around a World Heritage Site; had it not been for the British in 1855 they could enjoy a lot more of it.

This post was contributed by Chris Evans, whose research interests include material culture and industrialisaton, and who teaches on Atlantic history and the abolition of slavery.

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