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Suomenlinna

Started: 2017-09-09 12:17:26

Submitted: 2017-09-10 13:47:47

Visibility: World-readable

14th August 2017: In which the intrepid narrator visits the fortress of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

On our last full day in Helsinki, we set out to see the Fortress of Suomenlinna, a naval fortress protecting the approach to Helsinki harbor. (It also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) It was active mostly during the 18th and 19th centuries while Finland was under Swedish and then Russian rule.

Interior of Louhela Station in Vantaa, Finland
Interior of Louhela Station in Vantaa, Finland

To get there we took the suburban train from our Airbnb to central Helsinki, then walked through a park to get to the Market Square, which appeared to be populated mostly by small stalls hawking things at tourists. We dodged the tourists and the stalls, found and boarded the ferry, then climbed the stairs onto the open-air upper deck for the short journey across the harbor.

Figures flanking the main entry to the Helsinki train station
Figures flanking the main entry to the Helsinki train station

(The entire Helsinki public transit system operated on a proof-of-payment system without any fare gates or explicit ticket checks. At no point while we rode any public transit in Helsinki did anyone actually check our tickets, except when boarding buses. The general stance seemed to suggest an entirely different attitude towards paying for transit, a far cry from the puritanical attitudes that permeate American transit systems.)

Looking back at Helsinki waterfront
Looking back at Helsinki waterfront

I recognized at least one fellow Worldcon attendee on the ferry -- author Kameron Hurley. I considered the possibility that most of the people on the ferry were in fact Worldcon attendees, though I didn't see any obvious tells (such as genre or con t-shirts) on anyone else.

Julian, Calvin, and Kiesa on the ferry to Suomenlinna
Julian, Calvin, and Kiesa on the ferry to Suomenlinna

We disembarked on the island and tried to figure out where to go next. We wandered around a bit until I found a map in English (the first map stand we found was stocked out of English maps but had a selection in other languages that were somewhat less useful for me), then made our way past the large church in the middle of the island ("the only combined church and lighthouse in the world" according to my guidebook), and observed in the guidebook that the church had been modified to make it more Lutheran and less Russian Orthodox shortly after control of the island passed into Finnish hands early in the twentieth century.

We visited the main museum on the island for an overview of the fortress' history, including a video that was narrated in a dozen languages that one selected by picking up a small radio and selecting the right audio channel. The museum had a flintlock musket and a bolt-action rifle, produced about a hundred years apart showing different evolutions in infantry firearms, and I explained to Calvin how the weapons worked and how technology advanced to produce more powerful weapons.

The small upstairs portion of the museum had an exhibit discussing the conflicting aims of conservation, restoration, and interpretation -- especially when the area in question had been an active fortress for more than two hundred years, raising the question of which time period the buildings should be restored to. (It occurred to me to wonder whether technology like augmented reality could be used to show recreations of the area at different time periods.)

Channel between islands at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Channel between islands at the Fortress of Suomenlinna

We ate lunch on a pier in Artillery Bay in the middle of the fortress, between the two main islands that make up the fortress, with a good view of the fortifications and the buildings on the island. Our next stop was the submarine Vesikko, a small diesel-electric submarine operated by Finland in their wars with the Soviet Union that happened to be coincident with the Second World War. The sub was only capable of holding three torpedoes in its tubes, with no magazine capacity to reload, since it was only intended to operate in the Gulf of Finland. (I took the opportunity to compare and contrast the boat to the much larger, but contemporaneous, USS Pampanito, on display as a museum ship in San Francisco, an attack submarine operated by the US Navy in the Second World War, built with an operational range covering the Pacific Ocean.)

Calvin looks under the Vesikko Submarine
Calvin looks under the Vesikko Submarine

We continued along the southernmost island making up the fortress onto the main earthen fortifications themselves. In its two hundred year operational history, the fortress went through a variety of iterations as artillery changed and state-of-the-art construction technologies advanced from star forts, with their complicated mazes of interlocking firing positions, to simpler polygon forts. The fortifications we saw in the main batteries were mostly earthen, characteristic of polygon forts intended to defend against the advent of high explosives in the late nineteenth century, though stone dominated the secondary walls on the sides. A conservation note in the museum mentioned that the earthen embankments originally had much sharper edges but the edges had softened over time, and the curators were considering whether to restore some of the embankments to their original shape.

Path on top of the fortifications above the Gulf of Finland
Path on top of the fortifications above the Gulf of Finland
Calvin on the guns at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Calvin on the guns at the Fortress of Suomenlinna

Starting here the stroller became increasingly hard to maneuver across the cobblestones and up and down the fortifications, though the stroller ramps next to the stairs were a nice touch.

Stroller ramp at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Stroller ramp at the Fortress of Suomenlinna

We walked around the fortifications on the island, in various states of decay, conservation, and restoration. I looked out over the Gulf of Finland, sparkling in the afternoon sun, and imagined Estonia and the rest of Eastern Europe lurking over the horizon. A stiff breeze blew from the water, but the air smelled wrong: I expected a salt spray from the ocean. Despite being connected to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Finland is sufficiently isolated from the ocean, and supplied with enough fresh water, that the gulf itself is basically fresh water.

Gulf of Finland from the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Gulf of Finland from the Fortress of Suomenlinna

When we reached the lower fortifications, on the furthest extent of the island, Julian began walking with his hands clasped behind his back, as if he were a general inspecting his troops.

Julian inspects the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Julian inspects the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Julian inspects the guns at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Julian inspects the guns at the Fortress of Suomenlinna

As we walked around the fortifications, past the small guns on the small gunports on the side of the island, connected to other guns built into the masonry wall at regular intervals, to I tried to imagine what the fortress was like while it was active.

Fortifications at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Fortifications at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Fortifications at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Fortifications at the Fortress of Suomenlinna

We headed back in the general direction of the ferry dock, though a different section of the island than we'd walked through before, and stopped by the massive drydock on the side of the island. It was originally built when the island was a Swedish fortress, and was expanded when Finland was a grand duchy of Russia. It's still in use today -- it felt like a decaying but still-in-use industrial site and had a couple of boats of various sizes mounted on blocks in the dock.

Drydock at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Drydock at the Fortress of Suomenlinna

We stopped by the island's military museum, a fairly small museum filled with artifacts from Finland's wars with the Soviet Union. (Calvin liked the hardware; I was interested in both the hardware and the history.) The pictures and text on the walls explained modern Finland's complicated military history: it gained independence from Russia during the Soviet Revolution and immediately launched into its own civil war pitting the Reds and Whites against each other; though to Lenin's chagrin the Whites won and Finland did not join the Soviet Union. Finland took the opportunity afforded by the Second World War to wage a border war with the Soviet Union, forming an alliance of convenience with Nazi Germany, then dissolving the alliance when the tide of war shifted and making its own separate peace with the Soviet Union -- at the cost of a good chunk of territory on its eastern border. During the Cold War Finland stayed out of the continent's entangling alliances, reaching something of a realpolitik agreement with the Soviet Union: Finland had its own domestic policy (unlike the Soviet proxies in Eastern Europe) and stayed out of international policy. This arrangement continues to this day: Finland remains out of NATO but is a full member of the European Union, adopting the Euro and opening its borders as the part of the Schengen Area.

Drydock at the Fortress of Suomenlinna
Drydock at the Fortress of Suomenlinna

We headed back to the ferry dock and caught the ferry back to the mainland. We walked past the imposing (if a bit austere) Helsinki Cathedral. A small plaque next to the statue in the middle of the square in front of the church had a QR code pointing to a website with a video of an actor speaking as if he were the Russian tsar depicted in the statue -- though the English QR code took me to the Finnish video so I had to navigate to find the English video.

We took the metro to Just Vege for supper, then took the tram back to the central train station. We had to catch a bus back to our Airbnb, since a railway strike had shut down the suburban trains at 18:00. I made one last quick stop at our local market to make sure we had enough granola and milk for breakfast, and returned to the Airbnb to pack to leave Finland the next day.

For more photo from Suomenlinna and my last day in Finland, see Photos on 2017-08-14.
You always learn more from someone whom you disagree with.
- Dr. Shepherd, 23 August 1999