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Kokkola. The City

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Of the modern regions (maakunta) of Finland Central Ostrobothnia (Keski-Pohjanmaa) at the western, Bothnian sea coast is both the most obscure of all Ostrobothnias (there are four in total), and quite possibly of all 19 Finland regions altogether. By land area, 5129 sq. km (excluding sea areas), it is smaller than for example Suomussalmi alone; population, about 68,000, is comparable to a single mid-sized city like Vaasa. In fact it is the smallest Continental Finland region both by area and by population; only Åland is even smaller.

In truth the modern Central Ostrobothnia is somewhat smaller than the historical definition; for example, cities of Jakobstad and Nykarleby in Coastal Ostrobothnia, and a fair bit of rural North Ostrobothnia are considered to be culturally Central Ostrobothnian. Cultural boundaries however can be a somewhat vague thing, and generally Central Ostrobothnia is not associated with a strong cultural identity, the way especially Coastal Ostrobothia (the main Finnish-Swedish region, with rural area essentially completely Swedish-speaking) and South Ostrobothnia (deeply rural, conservative, proud, enterprising, shrewd, obstinate folks; generally "Texas of Finland" vibes) are. And administratively Central Ostrobothnia never formed its own county, belonging to Vaasa/Ostrobothnia/West Finland county as long as counties existed. Even today Vaasa is the closest bigger city and probably the go-to place for shopping and other stuff that cannot be done within the region itself.

Central Ostrobothnia, like a few other Finnish regions, is very much a one-city region, and this city is Kokkola, an old port city at the Bothnian coast. The municipality of Kokkola is inhabited by about 48,000 people, of which 36,700 live in Kokkola proper, and the rest is rural population; Kokkola merged with various nearby rural municipalities, which makes it the only coastal Central Ostrobothnian municipality nowadays. The rest are all inland rural fairly unremarkable places: Kannus, Toholampi, Lestijärvi, Halsua, Perho, Veteli and Kaustinen. Of these Kannus technically also has the city title, but is quite tiny and not really distinct from its neighbors.

Geographically Central Ostrobothia is a strip of land 40-50 km wide, stretching about 100 km from the coast inland to the southeast. Like all Ostrobothnias the region is quite flat, with rivers flowing from the southeast to the northwest into the Bay of Bothnia (Perhonjoki and Lestijoki most notably), and their valleys used for agriculture; although there are already very noticeably fewer fields here than in South Ostrobothnia with its famous "seas of barns". The coast also marks the transition between Kvarken (Merenkurkku, Finn. Sea Throat), the "throat" of the Gulf of Bothnia, with its huge archipelagoes, to the Bay of Bothnia (Perämeri, Finn. Rear Sea), the northernmost part of the Baltic, with relatively few islands and shores often sandy instead of rocky as is the norm in Finland. The most inland part of Central Ostrobothnia reaches Suomenselkä, a woody and boggy thinly populated watershed area, the most wilderness-like place of West Finland. Salamajärvi National Park, of which I wrote someday already, is located there partially on Central Ostrobothnia side. This is overall the only major nature conservation area in the region.

There is not much more to tell about the whole Central Ostrobothnia, and in this and the next post we’ll take a look at Kokkola, the city itself and the coast and archipelago nature around it. I used to live in Vaasa for 1.5 years, only 120 km away from Kokkola, and I visited the city several times, although of course now I wish I did it more. In particular I don’t have pictures of Kokkola center in good weather/time of year; only winter and spring ones. Also I wish I had explored the Ykspihlaja area and the archipelago west of Kokkola (Öja). But we’ll have to make do.

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Suomussalmi (Finn. Fishscale Strait) is a rural municipality in Eastern Finland, in the region of Kainuu. Kainuu is a remote, thinly populated area of thick wilderness-like forests, and Suomussalmi in particular is probably the most remote and wilderness-like part of Kainuu. It is a vast place by area, 5858 sq. km large, making it the 9th biggest municipality in Finland. The population however is modest, about 7700 people, making the population density only 1.45 people per square kilometer.

Suomussalmi is most famous as the site of some major battles of the Winter War of 1939-1940: the Battle of Suomussalmi, where a Soviet division occupied Suomussalmi village but was eventually driven away, and the Battle of the Raate Road, where another Soviet division attempting to aid the first one was surrounded and nearly annihilated on a small forest road. Of these battles and their monuments I just wrote in the previous post. But is there something else to see in Suomussalmi? Yes, of course! Mostly it is nature, but there are a few interesting man-made sights as well, and many of them are related to the land just beyond the border, White Karelia.

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Raate Road Monuments and History

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The name of the small Raate road (Raatteen tie), a 20 km long small gravel road going to the Finnish border in Suomussalmi (Finn. Fishscale Strait) municipality in the gloomy forests of Kainuu region, is well known to anyone at least passingly familiar with the history of the Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. One of the most devastating, if not the most devastating Soviet losses, happened here. Soviet forces, more than twice as strong as Finnish ones and much better armed in theory (they had a lot of tanks and artillery, while the Finns had no tanks and barely any artillery), were driven back beyond the border, suffering losses several times worse than Finns, with every 1 of 3 their men killed or missing in action.

Although the Mannerheim line on the Karelian Isthmus is relatively well known, and also where the Soviet breakthrough finally happened in February 1940, 2.5 months into the war, the USSR in fact had started war against Finland on 30.11.1939 elsewhere too, along much of its border. Suomussalmi and Raate road area was rather far in the north and mostly resembled wilderness on both sides of the border, more so on the Soviet one. Suomussalmi village it itself was a fairly insignificant place, but the aim of the offensive here was to quickly advance west, all the way to the city of Oulu on the Bay of Bothnia, and thus cut Finland in two in its narrowest place (about 200 km from the eastern border to the sea). The USSR believed that these lands were poorly defended and Finland would not be able to move a lot of forces here quickly when attacked. As a matter of fact, this assumption was perfectly correct, and this still didn’t help the USSR a single bit.

Let’s quickly go through what actually happened. This is a brief overview of course with some simplifications. I’m not an expert on the subject overall. Winter War and Continuation War already seem to be the best known parts of Finnish history (in Russia at least), while normally I’m much more interested not in courses of battles as such, but rather in questions like "why a war happened at all", "how a country and its economy functioned during the war" or "what the post-war resettlement and reconstruction looked like".

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Kerava (Swed. Kervo) is one of the multiple smallish towns around Helsinki, so-called kehyskunnat ("surrounding municipalities"). Kerava is located in Central Uusimaa, directly to the north of Vantaa and the Capital Region area (Helsinki+Espoo+Vantaa) which is the core urban area of Helsinki. Sitting by the Main Railroad (Päärata) of the country Kerava along with Kirkkonummi in the west are the only kehyskunnat which have regular tightly scheduled commuter train connections to Helsinki, where Helsinki area public transport (HSL) tickets are valid.

Kerava is a modest town and has neither an eventful history nor any major sights. Like for many other towns, the railroad was pretty much the sole thing that kickstarted Kerava’s development. Before the railroad (in fact the first railroad in Finland, Helsinki-Hämeenlinna) came in 1862, this was just a small part of Tuusula parish (from which the neighboring Järvenpää likewise split; Tuusula’s modern center, Hyrylä, is just a few kilometers west of Kerava), with a not particularly notable Kerava manor and two villages, Ylikerava and Alikerava (Upper and Lower Kerava), along the fairly minor Keravanjoki river, that flows to the south and into Vantaanjoki at the modern Helsinki municipal border. With the railroad however already in 1869 came a cement factory (the first one in Finland) and a few brick factories, and it only continued from there. The best known early Kerava industry perhaps was a carpentry factory, which among other things manufactured furniture for the House of Parliament of Finland; the very simple coat of arms of Kerava, showing just a carpentry dovetail joint, refers to those times. Already in 1870 Kerava became a junction station when a railroad to Porvoo (originally a private line) branched from it. However unlike e. g. Hyvinkää or Riihimäki Kerava never actually developed major railroad-related infrastructure (like a shunting yard or railway works).

In 1920 Kerava split from Tuusula into an independent municipality (market town, kauppala), having a bit over 3000 residents at the time. In 1970 it became a full city. Towards the end of the 20th century it assumed the role of an outer Helsinki surburb and began growing rapidly, like other kehyskunnat. However industry still plays a major role here as well. Kerava industry is nowadays mostly "new" plants, boring-looking gray boxes that were built here in a Helsinki outer suburb (or moved here from old industrial areas of major cities) so that they on one hand would have space to physically grow and good logistical connections, and on the other hand access to the workforce concentration of the Capital Region and other kehyskunnat. This phenomenon of course is not exclusive to Kerava. The best known companies that have production in Kerava are food industry, Sinebrychoff (beer and soft drinks) and Kokkikartano (ready-made meals); there is however engineering too, for example Metos which manufactures professional cooking equipment.

Modern Kerava has a population of about 37,000, making it the 30th biggest in Finland; however, it remains the 5th smallest Finnish municipality by area, a bit less than 31 sq. km. Kerava (like Järvenpää which is the next city to the north, slightly larger) was split from Tuusula in quite small borders, and includes nowadays a lot less surrounding farmland and forest areas than is common for Finnish cities (even for Helsinki itself). The distance to Helsinki center as crow flies is about 28 km.

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Porkkala Parenthesis (Soviet naval base in Finland in 1944-1956)

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Immediately after the end of the Continuation War (Finnish-Soviet war of 1941-1944, part of the World War II) the USSR imposed, among other almost overwhelming demands, one particular condition: the areas west of Helsinki, around Kirkkonummi, Porkkalanniemi, Upinniemi and the fortress island of Mäkiluoto, were to be emptied of all population and leased to the USSR for 50 years, for the purpose of establishing a Soviet naval base. Finland had no choice but to agree, despite the obvious threat to Helsinki and the need to evacute over 7 thousand additional people, along with hundreds of thousands others from the permanently lost Karelian territories. The base became known as Porkkala Udd in the USSR.

Although Finland fully expected that the USSR would hold on to this base until 1994 if not forever, the USSR managed to surprise it by returning it already in 1956, as geopolitical developments and high upkeep costs were apparently making the base rather impractical. Finland was faced with some dilemmas about what to do about the property of the previously resettled population, and decided to establish its own base in place of the former Soivet one. The population otherwise in the end returned to their houses, and nowadays Kirkkonummi especially became effectively a distant suburb of Helsinki, rapidly growing in last decades. Few traces remain of the period that the Finns call Porkkala parenthesis.

But let’s start from the very beginning.

1. Our story begins with Kirkkonummi, a rural municipality to the west of Espoo, and Espoo is in turn just west of Helsinki. The municipality is also known as Kyrkslätt in Swedish; most of its original population dates from the Swedish colonists who came here in the Middle Ages, and the municipality had long been mostly Swedish-speaking. The namesake church (both Finnish and Swedish names mean "Church Moor"), built in the late 15th century but partially rebuilt since, is the only thing remaining here of the Middle Ages. Before the 20th century Kirkkonummi history wasn’t especially remarkable. The old King’s Road Turku-Vyborg passed by the church, and the Coast Railroad Helsinki-Turku joined it in 1903.

This was in fact originally meant to be a post about Kirkkonummi overall, but the Porkkala part far outgrew everything else, so I decided to split it out and write about the modern Kirkkonummi, the local nature and non-military history highlights on another occasion.

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The northernmost municipality of Lapland, of all Finland and really of all EU (for, as we know, Norway is not an EU member) is Utsjoki, or in Nortern Sami language Ohcejohka. A piece of land 5372 sq. km large, but inhabited by only 1206 people, it looks like that on the map (Utsjoki is north of the violet border line, south of it is Inari):

Already on this map you can see that most of Utsjoki is sheer wilderness, pierced by only two roads coming from the south. Virtually all population clings to the valley of the great river Tana (Teno or Tenojoki in Finnish and on the map, Deatnu in Northern Sami), the border river of Finland and Norway. There are three border crossing points from Utsjoki to Norway (of six existing in all Finland), in Karigasniemi, Utsjoki central village, and Nuorgam.

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The sixth sea island of South Finland that I visited this summer was Ulko-Tammio, in the Gulf of Finland off the coast of Hamina, 12 km from the neareast mainland point and 27 km from the city of Hamina itself. (The previous ones were Haapasaari, Kaunissaari of Sipoo, Örö, Utö and Isosaari.)

Thankfully I don’t have to write quite as much about this one as I did about Utö (that was a pretty massive task, requring many days to research and write properly). Ulko-Tammio was never permanently inhabited, nor it was a major military base for long, so its history is relatively brief.

Ulko-Tammio is an island about 1400×700 m large at the widest; I couldn’t find its exact area but it’s almost certainly below 0.5 sq. km. Its shape is approximately of the Russian letter Ч, only mirrored. It is one of the bigger islands belonging to a quite sparse archipelago strip stretching from Haapasaari (15 km from Ulko-Tammio) to the northeast to the mainland at Virolahti. It is one of the closest islands to the sea border between Finland and Russia (8 km from that border), and certainly the closest such island available for a casual visit. Someri island on the Russian side 19 km away can be easily seen from Ulko-Tammio.

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Utö. Part 2

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Let us continue with our Utö walk, starting with the most prominent feature of the island, the Utö lighthouse.

1. Finland has several dozen lighthouses, although some (newest) of them are quite unimpressive-looking automated structures which do not really look like proper lighthouses. There are plenty of classic-looking ones, though. Of these Bengtskär west of Hanko is probably the best known, Harmaja off Helsinki coast is seen by the greatest number of people, and Glosholm near Porvoo (destroyed in the war in 1940) inspired the shape of the Moomin house from Tove Jansson’s books.

Lighthouses in these days of GPS are no longer particularly important for marine navigation, but most are still operated (since marine navigation is the kind of thing where you really want to have a plan B if something goes wrong). All Finnish lighthouses are automated (the latest ones were automated in the 1980s) and do not require any permanent personnel. All are located on islands (sometimes shallows), typically small outlying ones. Thus visiting most lighthouses is challenging. Only a few are accessible by road or public passenger ships; some others can be visited in summer by a scheduled boat, but most lighthouse islands can be reached only by own boat or on a special occasionally arranged tour. Many such tours are arranged by Suomen Majakkaseura, the Finnish Lighthouse Society, which also participates in maintenance and restoration of lighthouses on a volunteer basis, although most of their tours are meant only for the society members (it costs 20€/year to be a member). Almost all lighthouses can be actually climbed also only with a tour guide. The society’s website has probably the most complete catalog of Finnish lighthouses and daymarks, although only in Finnish.

Utö is another well-known and relatively easy to reach lighthouse. It is the oldest lighthouse in Finland, originally built in 1753 (in a different, more traditional round shape). Its importance is fairly clear; as we mentioned in the previous part, the fairway through the Archipelago Sea to ports of Turku and Naantali starts here, and back in 1753 in the Swedish era Turku was the capital of Finland. The original lighthouse was destroyed in the Finnish War of 1808-1809 and rebuilt in a different shape in 1814. Even this second incarnation of the Utö lighthouse is the oldest existing in Finland.

The lighthouse was originally operating only in ice-free time. The first electric lamp and radio equipment it got in 1935. Unfortunately I didn’t see the lighthouse in action this time.

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Utö. Part 1

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Over a month ago we were looking at Haapasaari, a still inhabited small Finnish island out there in the Gulf of Finland, about 25 km from the coast of the city of Kotka. We also mentioned that this is not the only island of its kind in Finland.

The best known and the most impressive such island is however very easy to identify. It is Utö (Swed. Outer Island) in the Archipelago Sea (Saaristomeri), the area of the Baltic west of Hanko and east of Åland Islands.

Utö on Google Maps
Utö on Google Maps

Utö, less than 1.5 km wide and 0.81 sq. km in area, with a permanent population of about 40, is incredibly far from anywhere and incredibly isolated. Well, of course there are much more isolated places in the world, but for Finland and really for the whole Baltic Sea it is an extreme outlier. Perhaps Estonian Ruhnu in the Gulf of Riga could compare, but even Ruhnu is over 10 times greater in area.

Utö is as close to the edge of the world as it gets in our narrow sea. The distance to all three of the nearest significant cities is 90 km, to Turku, Hanko and Mariehamn. The closest inhabited island (Jurmo) is in 13 km. The closest place with a road ferry connection is Kökar, an outlying island of Åland about 5-7 km wide, and 30 km away from Utö. The closest point of the mainland is probably about 80 km to the northeast. In these 80 km fits in the whole spectre of the Archipelago Sea islands, beginning from large ones up to 10 km wide, separated only by narrow straits and not really feeling any different from the mainland, but then the islands begin to get smaller and straits wider, and after Nagu and Korpo the outer archipelago (ulkosaaristo) area begins, dotted with thousands of tiny rocky islets, with islands of any size uncommon, and islands supporting a permanent population — rarer still and too small to have a real road network.

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Among abbreviations that every foreigner soon learns when moving to Finland is PKS, or pk-seutu, which means pääkaupunkiseutu — the Capital Region. This in truth refers more to an urban area than a region: the city of Helsinki and its satellite cities of Espoo and Vantaa, 1.2 million in population in total. Both Espoo and Vantaa are in practice just loose agglomerations of mostly residential low to middle density areas, with no single clear center and no clear border with Helsinki or each other, and not much of an identity even. They aren’t even signposted on road signs; it’s always either Helsinki or just a specific city area like Matinkylä. They are really the only "cities" of such kind in Finland. Yet they still are completely independent municipalities, with own city councils, budgets, city plans etc., and at this point they have no plans to ever merge with Helsinki.

The pk-seutu however includes one more city, and its name is Kauniainen, from the word kaunis meaning "beautiful", or in Swedish Grankulla, meaning "spruce hill"; the Swedish name is the original one, and often affectionately abbreviated to "Grani" even in Finnish. One could be excused for not knowing of Kauniainen’s existence, as it is, unlike the other three cities, quite small: only 9800 residents. And small not only by population, but by area too; at 6 sq. km, this is the smallest Finnish municipality by area. It is an enclave of Espoo, located there along the railroad between Espoon Keskus and Kilo areas, measuring 4×2 km at the widest.

For most practical purposes Kauniainen can be considered just one of the Espoo city areas, a rather minor one at that. Yet due to a quirk of history it is legally an independent city. Kauniainen is traditionally thought of as a rich Swedish-speaking area, which has some truth to it; it has a large fraction of Swedish-speaking residents (34%), and it is indeed rather well-off, although there are also some fairly ordinary older apartment block streets there, and it is not the richest place in Finland in general (that honor would go to Westend, an area of huge villas in the southeast of Espoo).

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