Thursday, July 5, 2018

Karjalan ylittäminen Suomeen (Crossing Karelia to Finland)

Day 37 was one of the more eventful on this trip, including having to cross the big city of Saint Petersburg at the crack of dawn to catch an early train from one of the most famous railway stations in the world, crossing the largely forgotten, but still disputed, territory of Karelia, to reach another border leaving Russia, returning to Finland for the first time in 33 years. Once there, I even managed to fit in another football match!

Don't forget Karelia

After last night's drama and final ecstasy of England's win against Colombia, I walked back to my accommodation under the beautiful light of a long drawn out dusk and I bumped into a group of (I have to say typically unfriendly and aloof) Brazilians, who didn't want to discuss the possibility of a Brazil v England final. When I got back I packed almost everything and set two alarms to make sure I got to the Technologishkaya Institute Metro station when it opened at 5:45 am.

I was woken from the middle of a deep and pleasant dream by Kaiser Cheif's "My Life" the song I have set on my mobile at 5 a.m. Time to get up and leave the quite grotty place I was staying and head off to Finland.

I packed my laptop and tidied the room a bit (not that that made any difference), made sure I locked the flat and headed down the dark stair case with the unmistakable smell of urine in the air. I had to put the keys in the letter box for the flat (No 43) but, hold on, I also needed them to open the door to the block.

Mr Bean moment averted, I opened the door and used my bag to keep it open while I popped back to drop of the keys. Yes. I am a real genius, aren't I?

Here's the proof:

The weather had thankfully improved and so, apart from avoiding one or two dodgy-looking characters who were loitering on the early morning streets, I got to the metro station ten minutes before it was due to open. A sad band of people soon gathered to wait with me, presumably off to work somewhere in the city. The lights came on five minutes later and then it was open, all fully functioning and fully staffed. Impressive.

Da Svidanya - "Apart-House Fontanka"

Empty streets

5:30 am


Waiting for the Metro to open

I bought my ticket to the Lenin Square - about five stops on metro line No 1 - and went to the massively deep escalator to the platform. The first train of the day arrived on the dot as scheduled, already half full with glum-looking people, again probably off to work.

The metro station, Lenina Ploshchad (Lenin Square) is right next to the Finland train station. This is the station made famous by Lenin (hence the name of the square) as it supposed to be the place he returned to Russia after ten years exile in Switzerland, in April 1917, to begin the Russian Revolution.

Very efficient Metro

Lenin Square & Finland Station

Lenin Square

The man himself

36 minutes to go

Imagine being there. It was probably something like this (not)...

Anyway, I went into the station, saw that the train to Helsinki was due to leave in 40 minutes so, relaxed, sat down, got my printed ticket out, which I'd bought over the internet from Perth, and strolled up to the gate to go to platform 2 as displayed on the screen.

The woman on duty looked at the ticket and shook her head.

"No. You go out" and waved form me to leave the station and go to the right.

Huh? but the metro station was to the right. I hesitatingly left and showed my ticket to one of the police on security duty and he confirmed with hand gestures that I had to leave this part of the station and find another somewhere around the side.

After a couple of abortive attempts I found the (not very well signposted, it has to be said) "International Departures" entrance, quite a long way from the square, where the Finland station faced.

Many other tourists, including many Swedish fans who'd been to yesterday's match like me, were getting on the train too. My seat was No 29 in carriage No 1. Perfect. I had a seat to myself with a lot of leg room. There was free Wifi and a power point (although it didn't work, it was supposed to).

Made it!
Within minutes a staff representative from the company "Allegro" that run the train came on board and in Finish, Russian and then English, welcomed us to the train and told us what would happen...

In 45 minutes we'd approach the border and we should stay in our seats while passport controller come through the carriage. This happens on the Russian side of the border and then again on the Finish side. Then, breakfast will be served.

Perfect. As the train pulled away, I couldn't help thinking of the Soviet days and how good it must have felt to be leaving Leningrad in those days, heading for the west - if you were lucky enough to be allowed to do so.

As the train sped across the green and pleasant countryside my mind pondered over just whose land this rightfully was. Before 1939, the border with Finland was just 32 km away from Saint Petersburg. So most of the train journey was actually through what used to be Finnish. Specifically the slice of Finland that is now part of Russia was called Karelia, or part of Karelia anyway.

Interestingly, although there was, at one point, a Karelian Soviet Socialist Republic, it was soon 'demoted' to a so-called "Automomous" Soviet Socialist Republic. In classic Soviet double-speak, ASSRs did not have the right to secede like other 'standard' SSRs did. If it had been left an 'SSR' no doubt we'd have had another country today, called Karelia that was, like Moldova, closely tied to its neighbouring "motherland" but still dominated by local Russians who had migrated there since the war.

Karelian should have been the 16th Soviet Socialist Republic

Karelia is a stretch of land between the existing border of and the White Sea to the north. It contains two of Europe's biggest lakes and, before it was annexed by Stalin, it was one of Finland's most prosperous regions. 400,000 people who were living there were forced to leave and had to resettle in Finland. This represented about 10% of Finland's territory and, by some accounts, 30% of their economy. In comparison, in percentage terms, the gain for Russia was tiny.

Karelian slices - yet more land to Russia

The migration hadn't always been one-way. Some Finnish immigrants in the USA and Canada who had suffered in the great depression in the 1920s there, returned to Soviet Karelia soon after the revolution, inspired by the glorious revolutionary struggle. They soon became disenchanted though.

I watched a film about this recently I think it was called "The Eternal Road."

Why did Russia have to take a slice of Finland? Haven't they got enough land already?

Of course, the answer given, as always, is security. Leningrad (as it was then) was vulnerable to invasion as the Finnish border was so close. Sure. Finland is such a threat and such a long history of imperial intent. So why not just take the whole of Finland to be sure?

Some think that is what the Winter War was all about, but the Finns defended bravely and managed to hold the line. Typically, they lost more territory in the peace treaty signed with Moscow than they did in the war itself.

And what about Saint Petersburg itself? Before 1703, there were few, or no, Russians living there. It was Nyenskans, a Swedish (another local bully in ancient times) fortress. It was, of course, Peter the Great (great at the "Age of Empires", no doubt) who just decided that Russia needed a port on the Baltic Sea so he was going to have one. He started the Great Northern War with Sweden, won, and then built a massive city there. St Petersburg has only existed about 100 years longer than Perth, in Western Australia.

New city in 1744, about 75 years before Perth, Australia, was founded
Going back further, before the Swedes built their fortress, the land was inhabited by local Finno-Ugric speaking people. Finland and Estonian are very similar languages and, of course the whole of that region would have spoken it before the greedy bullying people came.

Fittingly, the Estonian and Finnish national anthems use the same tune.

Ah well. Where do you draw the line, eh? My home city Perth, is the result of a similarly greedy, bullying empire wanting more and just taking it. That kind of thing was not only acceptable in those days, it was seen as good, powerful thing. Peter "the Great", right?

Anyway, all these thoughts were buzzing in my mind as we headed towards the former second largest, and formerly very prosperous, Finnish city of Vyborg ("Viipuri in Finnish) and then border itself.

Vyborg, this is Vyborg

What 'Allegro man' said, happened exactly as predicted. There were no hassles with the passport controllers and the breakfast was delicious - salmon salad, yogurt, rye bread and cheese. You could help yourself to as much coffee/tea as you liked.

Nice breakie

I got a bit of kip and soon I was arriving in the splendid main railway station of Helsinki.

I got some more cash, Euros here, no longer the Finnish currency it was when I last came. I asked some information helpers if I could exchange a note I'd kept all these years and they laughed.

I bought a public transport card and set off to find a cafe to do my blogging as I was too early to check in to the hostel.

After doing yesterday's blog and two lovely cups of Latte, I walked down to the No 4 tram route where a tram was just arriving. Within ten minutes I was at the very clean and efficient and modestly priced Eurohostel. I have a basic room with a shared bathroom and toilet down the corridor. It's cheaper and better than the place in St Petersburg.

Having had a nice shower and got changed. It was time to do a bit of exploring.

As I said, I had been to Helsinki before, in the summer of 1985, when I was part of the "Baltic Peace and Freedom Cruise", a kind of gesture that was sticking the finger up at the Soviet Union, at the time, occupying the three Baltic States quite harshly. The cruise started in Copenhagen and then sailed across the Baltic Sea close to the coasts of the three occupied states. We were not allowed to land and had to stay in international waters. Looking back, it was quite a risky thing to do. There were a hundred or so people aboard, many from the USA and Canada but some from England.

The BBC did a documentary about it called "Cry For Home" which looked at why three young people from England would do such a thing. Carmen Laanemagi and Pauline Reimers were the others featured.

We got off the boat here in Helsinki and marched through the streets. We'd planned to protest outside the Soviet embassy here but were not allowed. My biggest memory of the few hours we were here was the very warm reception we were given as we marched through the streets.

Some of the chants we did...

"Nyet Nyet Soviet, Da Da Lietuva"


"Freedom for the Baltic States"

were a little cringe-worthy but none were as bad as the producer, Richard Lightbody, teased us about...

"K, K, KGB, when will you let our boyfriends free!?"

We did a similar march in Stockholm and no-one was interested, but in Tallinn, hundreds of people lined the streets and stopped to applaud us. Clearly, as many Finns had experienced Soviet brutality themselves, it was something real to them. Swedes hadn't.

Last time in Helsinki, in 1985, I made the front page of the Svenska Dagbladet

I tried to find the place where the boat might have landed and the streets we might have walked down but it all seemed quite different.

OK enough serious stuff. Time for football!

HJK 2 Kemi 0

The World Cup has a two day break now, but here in Finland, it's the middle of their season and there was a full program of games in the Veikkausliiga. The one team in the league in Helsinsink, the quite famous, HJK were playing at home, so it was a no brainer for me to go.

So, after a quick burger, I caught the tram to the HJK stadium.

I was impressed with the all-seater stadium but not the price of the tickets. I'd paid 5 euros in Lithuania and Latvia to watch football there. Here it was at least 20 euros and as much as 33. I paid 25 to sit in the stand opposite the cameras because Boro said he was going to watch a stream of the game, so I wore my England bag on my chest.

The Olympic Stadium (National) next door is currently being rebuilt.

Expensive Beer Here

The Veikkausliiga this season, strangely, has only one central Helsinki team this season, but that one team (HJK) is the best supported and strongest. I went to see them play a top versus bottom of the table clash against a team called Kemi.

Kemi are playing in the top league for the first time. It's a small town of just 25,000 right in the north of the country, near the Swedish border. Apparently it has a big Karelian community.

They had a tiny band of vociferous supporters who had traveled over 700 km to be there. Kemi put in a solid performance but were eventually overcome 2-0 by the league leaders.

Kemi fans travelled over 700 km
Both sets of fans were supporting their teams really well, the locals often singing "HJK" (but it doesn't sound like that in Finnish) and I have no idea what the Kemi fans were chanting but it occurred to me that one of them should have been...

"Kemi, Kemi, Kemi, Kemi, Kemi, Karelians!"

The game was pretty good. Like in Vilnius it was played on an artificial surface but it is apparently of a very high standard being on their fourth iteration. There just isn't enough daylight in the stadium for natural grass to grow here, I was told.

Heavily watered pitch before the start
I was impressed with the quality of most of the play (apart from the shooting, which was sometimes abysmal).

I luckily happened to record the first goal, from a free kick.

Behind me for the second half were sat a bunch of Swedes who had done the same trip from St Petersburg as me and were watching a match on the way home. We had a bit of banter about the forthcoming quarter final but we kind of all agreed that whatever happened, the match would at least be played fairly with little or none of the cheating tactics shown by some teams.

We are Swedish Supporters
It was heart-warming the way that the Swedes joined in with the chanting of the band of fans fom Kemi.

"They need all the help they can get"

And it brought a tear to my eye to see the Kemi players come over to their group of loyal fans and applaud them. I had shook the hand of their main man, and congratulated him on his fantastic support. For once a football fan who also had a decent, but strong, singing voice.

So, HJK stretched their lead at the top and Kemi slipped further behind in the relegation battle in the Veikkausliiga.

Finland are ranked 62nd in the the FIFA list, higher than the three Baltic States, but unlike Latvia they have never appeared in the finals of any major football tournament.

Finland were ranked higher than Russia before the World Cup started

They were put in a very tough World Cup qualifying group and, not surprisingly failed to get to Russia.

Four big teams in their group

Finland had a few notable performances, though, including a win against Iceland and an away draw at Croatia.

After that, I went back to the city center and had an incredible expensive beer. I had the smallest quantity, about the same volume as a wine glass, but it still cost 5 euros.

How much money do these people earn?

By now all the restaurants were closed so I ended up having another burger from MacDonald's before catching a tram back to the hostel and getting a much needed night's sleep.

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