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A few days ago I had a walk in the vicinity of the village of Siuntio (Swed. Sjundeå), about 40 km west of Helsinki. A curious place; there are still city buses of Helsinki area and even commuter trains on weekdays, but the landscape is alread completely rural, with no new apartment block construction or anything else of the sort. So I was walking on a country road, and then, behind a bend, an inscription in Russian suddenly appears! "A serviceman must value the honor and battle glory of the Armed Forces of the Union of SSR, his unit and the honor of his military rank…"

Although I hadn’t really known about this particular place, overall this is not an especially surprising find in this particular region of Finland. Siuntio belonged to Porkkala area, leased out to the USSR in 1944-1956.

As early as during the negotiations between Finland and the USSR about possible territorial exchanges in the autumn of 1939 the main stumbling block was the uncompromising desire of the USSR to have a naval base in South Finland. Although the desired territorial exchanges on the Karelian Isthmus (which are generally far better known as the reason for the ensuing Winter War) could in theory be acceptable to the Finnish side, a base at Hanko in 120 km from Helsinki would have immediately become "a gun pointed into the heart of Finland". As we all know, the USSR eventually got what it wanted and more by military means, and in 1940-1941 Hanko area was leased out for its naval base; in the Continuation War in 1941 a whole separate front line emerged there, but eventually the Soviets were forced to evacuate the base. Among 1944 peace terms the new requirement by the USSR was now not Hanko but rather the so-called Porkkala area, even far closer to Helsinki; its border would have passed just 20 km from Helsinki center (nowadays Helsinki urban area has actually already reached that old border).

Of course, Finland didn’t have much of a say at the time. About 7200 people were evacuated from a territory of 380.5 km; mostly villages of Kirkkonummi, Siuntio, Degerby. The Soviets built a harbor in the Båtvik bay, and fortifications on the peninsulas of Porkkalanniemi and Upinniemi. This was technically a lease, not an annexation; the USSR was paying Finland for the area, and the lease had a fixed term (of 50 years, until 1994). The Finnish side nonetheless considered the area lost for all practical purposes for the foreseeable future, and the evacuees were granted new plots of land, on the same terms as for the far more numerous evacuees from the Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia.

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Vaasa Center. Part 1

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And so, without further introduction, let’s have a walk around Vaasa.

Area covered in this post:

1. And like in every other Finnish city, the heart of Vaasa is its Tori, the central/market square. The one in Vaasa is a mostly empty space, paved with cobblestone, and bordered by the three central streets of Vaasa: Vaasanpuistikko (Vaasa Parkway), Hovioikeudenpustikko (Court of Appeal Parkway) and Kauppapuistikko (Market Parkway).

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Vaasa, Kvarken, Korsholm. Overview

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On the west coast of Finland, at the Kvarken Strait of the Gulf of Bothnia, in the region of Ostrobothnia lies a city called Vaasa, or in Swedish Vasa. The sunniest city in Finland, and the most Swedish city of Finland. Its population is typical for a Finnish regional center, about 68,000. It is not a city foreign tourists visit often, save perhaps the Swedish ones, from just beyond the narrow sea.

For me Vaasa however is absolutely special, and far better familiar than any other Finnish city. Vaasa is the city where I spent my first 1.5 years in Finland, from December 2017 to June 2019. It is not a common choice for immigrants either. For foreign students maybe (there is a university in Vaasa), but not for work-based immigrants, and especially not for software developers like me. But I was lucky to find a job there in a small company, and even though the job was not very exciting nor paid particularly impressively, I still rather enjoyed it too.

Eventually however I was forced to move from Vaasa to Helsinki area to search for other jobs. I don’t really like living there after my experience in Vaasa, and maybe one day I will return (although more likely I will move to some other smaller city but not actually to Vaasa).

In any case Vaasa will always hold a special place in my heart, and I have a lot to tell about it. I started writing this by going through my photo archives and picking everything that could be relevant, and I came with about 750 pictures. Of course I will not use them all here, but we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully with Vaasa I can also start writing what I really like, which is the great guide into the glorious country of Finland.

Mind you, Vaasa is a fairly ordinary Finnish city. But it’s a great place to live in, and also, unlike some new Finnish cities (for example, Vaasa’s neighbor and rival Seinäjoki), there are bits of interesting older architecture and local history hidden here and there pretty much everywhere. Overall I hope this and the later posts can be a real look into what, let’s say, second-grade Finnish cities look like.

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Public transport in Helsinki area. Part 2

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In the second part we will explore in more details current modes of public tranport of the HSL system of Helsinki, including an overview of their function, routes and vehicles/rolling stock used. Details on what exactly is HSL and how the public transport system works in general can be found in the first part.

Commuter trains

Commuter trains scheme.  The green part of the scheme to the top right is non-HSL regional train area.  Source: HSL
Commuter trains scheme. The green part of the scheme to the top right is non-HSL regional train area. Source: HSL

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Public transport in Helsinki area. Part 1

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Helsinki is the capital of Finland, and by far its biggest urban area. Although the population of Helsinki proper is about 650,000, it forms a contiguous urban area with several different municipalities, over 1.2 million people large (~1/5 of the population of the country). With the belt of outer commuter towns, it exceedes 1.4 million people (~¼ of the population). In comparison, the second biggest urban area (Tampere) is home only to 335,000 people.

As such, Helsinki is currently the only city in Finland having highly developed and well-functioning public transport. As of 2019, it is the only Finnish city having any form of commuter rail, metro, trams and BRT (bus rapid transit). In other words, all other Finnish cities are limited to basic bus networks. Car traffic dominates other Finnish cities, while in Helsinki car ownership and especially car use is drastically less widespread (though still common). While other cities are undertaking some steps to improve their public transit (Tampere in particular is building a tram line, and regional train service from 2020 will be improved around Tampere and in a few other locations), they are still completely incomparable to Helsinki.

Since summer 2019, I’ve been living in Espoo (Helsinki suburb) and as such, have an ample opportunity to experience Helsinki public transport on my own. Previously I also lived in Vaasa (a much smaller Finnish city), Yekaterinburg (a Russian city roughly comparable to Helsinki in size), and in St. Petersburg (a Russian city much bigger than Helsinki), which all form useful reference points. In this two-part article, I’ll try to explain Helsinki public transport as best as possible.

Let’s start with a short summary:

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Lule Lapland: Laponia Area

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And in the final part of the Lule Lapland series, it is finally time to see the beauty of the northern nature, which is why I was there all along. But as it generally happens in my travels, I saw loads of other fascinating stuff on the way, which is why I had to write the first five posts about less awesome but still interesting places.

Laponia area, as I already mentioned at some point before, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a continuous amalgamation of a number of national parks and nature reserves, centered mostly around the Lule River valley and including a good chunk of the Scandinavian Mountains. Generally it shouldn’t be confused with Lapland (as in, north of Finland, Sweden, Norway in Russia) or Lappland (as in, a specific province of North Sweden). Not all of the notable areas in North Sweden, and not even all of the national parks of North Sweden, belong to Laponia; for example, Abisko doesn’t. But Laponia, if considered a single area, would indeed be far bigger than any single national park, at about 200×100 km size.

Many parts of Laponia are indeed a sheer wilderness, where you’d be lucky to find a marked trail. The most accessible parts of Laponia are Muddus and Stora Sjöfallet national parks; both of them have road connections, marked trails and shelters. Stora Sjöfallet, being more or less in the center of Laponia, is also where the overall visitor center for the area is located. These are also the only parts of Laponia suitable for day hikes. So, I visited them both.

I started with Muddus, but first not the Muddus proper, but rather with its tiny northwestern part, the Oarjemus Stubbá fell. It is effectively discontiguous with the rest of Muddus, separated from it by vast mires with no trails through. But it is a nice and easy to visit fell which was on my way (from Gällivare to Stora Sjöfallet), so I decided to stop here.

An overview map of Laponia and other information is available from laponia.nu website. Note however that the Swedish version of the website is more complete.

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Lule Lapland: Gällivare

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The municipality of Gällivare (pronounced "yellivareh") is the second northernmost municipality in the inland part of North Sweden. With its vast 16,800 sq. km area it includes a good chunk of the Scandinavian Mountains, but the population is quite minor, at 17,600 people. Of these 10,300 live in the city of Gällivare proper, and about 4200 more in the nearby settlements of Malmberget and Koskullskulle.

This remote area was once inhabited only by the Sami people, and is in fact still divided into three mountain Sami and one forest Sami "village" (sameby). A lone, low mountain named Jiellovárre (Cracked Fell) by the Sami existed in the foothills of the Scandinavian Mountains. In the 1690s, some Per Andersson from Prästholm in Råneå, a place way down by the Bay of Bothnia, first discovered iron ore at Jiellovárre. It took quite a while to actually start at least exploratory mining, in 1735 by Captain Carl Johan Thingwall. Thus the history of Gällivare started. The mountain was initially knows as Illuvare in Swedish, then as Gällivare, and then as simply Malmberget (Ore Mountain), but the name Gällivare stuck for the whole area. It was not the first mine in North Sweden though; that honor belongs to Svappavaara even further in the north, where a copper mine, a fairly large one for the time and location, operated from 1664 until the 1700s; currently there is another iron mine at Svappavaara.

The early history of the iron mine was long and confused, with it changing owners many times. The ore deposit was huge and of the highest quality, but the problem, of course, is that it was in the middle of nowhere over the Arctic Circle, and iron ore is a bulky thing to transport. All attempted mine operations remained small until the end of the 19th century. The ore was generally transported by the local Sami people on reindeer sledges to smelters closer to the Bay of Bothnia and civilization; of course this was ridiculously inefficient.

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Lule Lapland: Lule Valley and its dams

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North Sweden has a number of major rivers that you’ve probably never heard about. And the biggest North Sweden river that you’ve never heard about (unless you’ve been reading previous posts) is Lule River, or Lule älv in Swedish, which also means "Lule River". It is born in the wilderness of the Scandinavian Mountains near the Norwegian border, originally as two forks, Greater and Lesser Lule (Stora Lule älv, Lilla lule älv), which merge only after they come down from the mountains, at the village of Vuollerim. Bigger parts of the forks, and the entire length of the resulting Lule River, flow through Swedish forest Lapland, a land of logging, mosquitoes and reindeers. Well, reindeers in Sweden go into the mountains in summer, precisely to escape mosquitoes; forests are their winter habitat.

Lule River has been actively harnessed for hydro power in the 20th century, because a big river in the wilderness flowing from the mountains is precisely what you want to harness for hydro power. The first hydro power plant was built there in Porjus as early as 1915. Two more came only in the 1950s, and the rest was built in the 1960-1970s. There are in total as much as fifteen hydro power plants on Lule and its forks now. Their combined power output is about 4200 MW. That’s already more that the entire hydro power production of all Finland combined; Finland, although obviously the best country in the world, does not really enjoy great opportunities for hydro, although it has been using what it does have fairly well.

It is relatively easy to travel along the Lule valley by car and to see most of the power plants, along Road 97 (Luleå-Jokkmokk), and then even farther, along a section of the Road E45 to Porjus, and up there to Vietas and Ritsem in the heart of the Scandinavian Moutnains on an unnumbered road. Power plants are basically the reason why all these roads exist at all, it’s not like anyone would build roads here for reindeer herding. This is rather fortunate, because you can now use these roads to travel to some of the greatest Swedish national parks, including Muddus and Stora Sjöfallet.

While exploring the Lule valley, you can easily get a feel of how destructive hydro power is to the local environment. No more salmon in Lule, obviously, and significant areas have been flooded, greatly affecting reindeer herding and the traditional livelihood of the Sami people in these lands. But, well, on the other hand you get your electricity carbon-free, and these days it’s what really matters. Indeed, Sweden produces nearly all of its electricity carbon-free; half of it comes from nuclear, and half from hydro, and well this is that hydro. It has to exist somewhere after all.

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Lule Lapland: Gammelstad

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Gammelstad means simply "Old Town" in Swedish, and in the context of Luleå refers to a location about 10 km away from the modern Luleå. It is not an "old town" in the sense you would see some cool medieval stone buildings; rather, it’s a church town (kyrkstad), which is quite a particular kind of place. Church towns of this kind mostly existed only in Norrland in Sweden, although some were also known in Ostrobothnia, Swedish-speaking part of Finland on its west coast, and in Sami areas in Finnish Lapland and North Norway.

Church towns consisted of small and quite basic cottages, clumped around, well, a church. They were meant to house churchgoers who lived too far from the church, and could not attend a service and return back home on the same day. This explains why they were only necessary in remote and thinly populated (at the time) areas, such as Luleå. Cottages were mostly privately owned, so in other words everyone had their own cottage. (Attending church was kind of a big deal, yes.) A particular subtype of church town was a Sami church town (lappstad, Sami town); the semi-nomadic way of life of Sami people naturally meant it was difficult for them to attend churches. The Gammelstad of Luleå however is not a lappstad; Luleå has always been a Swedish, not a Sami settlement. The best surviving lappstad is located in Arvidsjaur in Ume Lapland, farther south. It’s still however an order of magnitude smaller than Gammelstad.

Most church towns didn’t survive to this day for a few obvious reasons. People don’t really saw any obvious need to preserve a bunch of rather ordinary shacks, and they were usually torn down and replaced with new buildings, when these church towns became no longer necessary. And of course "a bunch of closely standing wooden cottages" is basically a synonim for "a huge fire just waiting to happen"; many of these church towns burned down.

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Lule Lapland: Luleå

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Luleå is the regional center of the Norrbotten Country of Sweden, and by far the biggest Swedish city north of Umeå.  Its population is 44,200 as of 2018; the population of the entire municipality is 77,800. It is located on the northwestern coast of the Bay of Bothnia, and is a relatively important transport junction; this is where the Ore Railroad (Malmbanan) across the mountains to Norway begins. I’ve been a bit curious to visit Luleå for quite some time, and this trip presented a good opportunity. So I dropped by.

The name "Luleå" means, quite simply, "Lule River"; Luleå is located at the mouth of the Lule river (which we’ll explore further in later posts), and å means "river" in Swedish. This is a common pattern for many cities all along the Swedish coast of the Bay of Bothnia: Umeå, Skellefteå, Piteå, Luleå, Råneå, Torneå (more commonly known as Tornio, as it’s now a Finnish city) and probably some more smaller ones. As Luleå is located not too far from the Finnish border (130 km by road), it also has a Finnish name, which in my opinion sounds far better: Luulaja. Curiosly, all these -å-city names were Finnicized in completely different ways; Torneå is Tornio, Råneå is Rauna, Piteå is Piitime (Piitime? really, wtf?), and Umeå is Uumaja, at least following the same pattern as in Luleå-Luulaja.

Luleå was founded in 1621 by the order of Gustav Adolf II, one of my favorite Swedish kings, the Lion of the North and the Snow King. However for a long time its growth had been hampered by the particular Swedish regulation (Bottniska handelstvånget) that forbade the cities on the Bay of Bothnia to conduct any international trade directly; they were only allowed to trade with Stockholm, and thus Stockholm merchants made big money at the expense of both Westrobothnians and Ostrobothnians. Indeed, the regulation is also the same reason why the growth of the Bothnian cities which are currently in Finland (such as Vaasa, Kokkola and Oulu, all founded in the beginning of the 17th century as well) was similarly hampered for a long time. The regulation was struck down in 1765, and it was largely the effort of Anders Chydenius, a Finnish-Swedish statesman mostly associated with Kokkola, who was an early proponent of the freedom of trade.

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