History of Helsinki

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The city of Helsinki was founded by a Royal Decree issued on 12 June 1550 by King Gustavus I Vasa of the developing superpower Sweden. He ordered merchants of the towns of Porvoo, Tammisaari, Rauma and Ulvila to move to the mouth of the river Vantaa in the parish of Helsinge (Swedish Helsingfors, meaning the 'Helsinge rapids'). The thriving trading centre of Tallinn on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland had long been an eyesore to Sweden, and the King desired to capture much of its trade to Helsinki, which was not only equally conveniently located halfway through the Gulf, but also provided an outlet from the rich hinterlands of Finland. Although this founding motive was effectively lost in 1561 when Sweden conquered Tallinn and Estonia, Helsinki nevertheless developed into a smug, moderately successful trading port.

In 1640, Sweden took action in order to display its new status as a superpower, and the regency government of the young Queen Christina reformed many Swedish cities, incorporating wider lanes and more impressive façades of buildings. In Finland two notable things happened. The Gymnasium in Turku was upgraded to a Royal University, and the city of Helsinki was moved from the rapids at the mouth of the river Vantaa to the outer islands; a place called Vironniemi ("Estonian Point"), its name reflecting the closeness of Estonia and its fishermen who habitually sheltered there. Both the Finnish (ie. Helsinki) University and the city of Helsinki commemorate the child Queen Christina as their founder. The new location of the city, however, was not strategically superior to the old one, as was shown by invading Russian troops during the Great Northern War in 1713, who razed the city to the ground. They occupied Finland for some eight years, and the story of Helsinki began for the third time in 1721.

The rebuilding of Helsinki also included a new church, named after Queen Ulrika Eleonora, which was finished in 1727. The snow church built in the Senate Square every winter is a replica of this, Helsinki's third church. The eighteenth century saw the founding of the island fortress Suomenlinna ('Finland's Castle'), then known as Sveaborg ('Sweden's Castle'). Intended as a military fortress and base for an offensive against Russia, the building of Sveaborg was begun by Augustin Ehrensvärd in 1748; the first phase was completed in 1750, hence it will be celebrating its 250th anniversary in the year 2000. Although even described as 'the Gibraltar of the North', Sveaborg's military record is not impressive. It surrendered shamefully without a fight to invading Russia in May 1808, marking the beginning of 110 years of Russian rule. In 1855, the by now hopelessly outdated Sveaborg was bombarded by British and French warships. The allies were fighting Russia in the Crimean War (which, despite its name, was fought on all fronts), and Sveaborg was still the gateway to St. Petersburg. Meaning to cause as much damage as possible, the allied artillery scattered 20,000 shells on the island fortress in 46 hours. Succumbing was inevitable.

Yet Russian rule did not only bring war. Without precedent, Finland was made an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, and in 1812 Czar Alexander I made Helsinki its capital. Destroyed completely by fire in 1808, it was possible to build the city up from scratch, and from 1814 two men were employed to design the city's street plan and main buildings to suit its new status. The name of Carl Ludvig Engel is still well remembered today, and a visit to Helsinki is nearly impossible without running into his work, which he designed over some thirty years. The Senate Square, Helsinki Cathedral and the University Library are all his, in the neoclassical style which permeates the city, and in the simple style and light shades of colour which later gave Helsinki the name of 'the White City of the North'. The man who designed the city's original street plan, Johan Albrecht Ehrenström, is today virtually forgotten, although he was the one responsible for the outcome of their city plan, and the only likely place one will run into his name is in the misspelled name of Albertinkatu.

The nineteenth century saw Helsinki thrive, bolstered partly by the gradual rise of national pride. The great fire of Turku in 1827 resulted in the University being moved to Helsinki in 1828. The Finnish Literary Society was founded in 1831. Up from four thousand in 1810, by the 1850s Helsinki had 50,000 inhabitants, and the pace of life was much the same as in many European cities. The Kaivopuisto Spa (unfortunately destroyed during WWII) attracted tourists, the Esplanade was a restful place for a promenade, and from 1840 Kappeli was already a favourite haunt for many. The 1855 bombardment of Sveaborg barely touched Helsinki (but for a couple overshot shells), and the population even gathered on hills to watch the dramatic 'fireworks'! The military withdrew from Sveaborg after that for some decades, and people began to enjoy their free time on the scenic island, a tradition running even stronger today. Steamships appeared on the scene, connecting Helsinki to Tallinn and St. Petersburg, followed by railways rather later. The University spread wider into much of the older side of the city, which it still occupies today. The face of Helsinki was being established. The New Theatre (now the Swedish Theatre) was finished in 1865, the Uspensky Cathedral in 1868, the (Old) Student House in 1870, the recently restored Hotel Kämp in 1887, and the national art museum Ateneum and the Old Market Hall in 1889. Three hundred years after the first ambitions of King Gustavus Vasa I, Helsinki had taken the place of Tallinn as the focus on the Gulf of Finland.

In Russia, the First World War led to the Communist Revolution in 1917. Seizing its opportunity, Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917. Yet Russian troops were still within its boundaries, and internal turmoil led to civil war. The government withdrew to Ostrobothnia, and Helsinki was taken over by Finnish socialists and the Red Guard, who declared a People's Republic of Finland. While the White army under General Carl Gustav Mannerheim desperately fought to gain control of the country, the government eventually sent for help to Imperial Germany, whose army's Baltic Division managed to gain control of Helsinki. The end of the war brought Germany's defeat, and its troops retreated from Finland. The government soon controlled the country again, and the Republic of Finland was born for good.

As a nation, Finland was not tested until the outbreak of the Second World War. During its first part, the Winter War (30.11.1939-13.3.1940) Helsinki was only bombed nine times. The Continuation War (22.6.1941-30.9.1944) brought heavier air raids, yet thanks partly to extremely efficient anti-air artillery, only 799 bombs, less than 5% of those dropped, landed in the city area. City casualties of both wars with the Soviet Union only came to 241 people killed and 109 buildings destroyed. Those who fell at the battle fronts, however, numbered much higher. Most of them were brought back to be buried in Hietaniemi Cemetery.

The hero of the war was Marshall Mannerheim, who was elected president in 1944. His burial on a freezing February day in 1951 brought the people of Helsinki to the streets in mourning, as the Marshall was laid to rest in Hietaniemi. Mannerheim is still held in highest esteem by all Finns, as is shown by the naming of Helsinki's largest street in his honour. A statue of the Marshall riding his favourite horse (unveiled in 1950) is situated by the new Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma (finished 1998).

The new century saw the winds of nationalism blowing stronger than ever, and the Art Nouveau buildings (locally the style is known by its German name Jugend) of the city (especially in Kruununhaka, Katajanokka, Ullanlinna and Eira) are a visible reminder. Buildings by architects like Herman Geselius, Armas Lindgren, Eliel Saarinen and Lars Sonck (such as the Railway Station, the National Museum, all of the Eira district, the Eira Hospital, and the Kallio Church), are great examples. Art Nouveau was followed by Functionalism, a flagship of which is Lasipalatsi (the Glass Palace), so named for all its windows.

After the war Helsinki developed a fully-fledged suburbia, and in 1965 its population surpassed half a million. Previous to that, in 1952, Helsinki had successfully hosted the Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium, which raised the city's name into common world-wide knowledge. Architecturally, the second half of the century belonged to Alvar Aalto, whose buildings are nearly as numerous in Helsinki as those of Engel.

Although the car is still the most popular form of transport, Helsinki has an efficient public transport system. To add to the many tram lines criss-crossing the city, and an efficient bus system, a subway was constructed in 1982, extensions of which are under discussion today.

Culturally and socially Helsinki went through the same movements as the rest of the world. The 1990's were of especial interest, with Helsinki flowering into a new era of cultural enjoyment. The decade saw the construction of the New Opera House and of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the restoration of Lasipalatsi, the Cathedral and Hotel Kämp, and the renovation of the two new cinema multiplexes, Kinopalatsi and Tennispalatsi. It also saw the ongoing restoration of Suomenlinna (the former Sveaborg, renamed in 1917, now one of UNESCO's world heritage sites and a great place to picnic!), as well as of Kallio Church and the National Museum,. The year 2000 celebrates the 450th anniversary of Helsinki as well as its being one of the cultural capitals of the European Union for the year.

Although Helsinki is a relatively young city, with its oldest building dating only from 1757, the wish of King Gustavus I Vasa has been fulfilled, if in a different fashion. Today Helsinki is a cultural focal point of the Baltic region, and not only because it is one of the cultural capitals of the year, but because of all the activity it generates and attracts. Strong winds from an active and amazingly diverse society of arts and culture are reason enough for the city to sail proudly in the waters of the new millennium, and everyone is encouraged to hop on board!