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Sveaborg: Finnish fortress has Russian roots

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Sveaborg: Finnish fortress has Russian roots


Sergey Vinogradov

There is a place in Finland, where they tell about the history of Russia in 15 languages every day, without a lunchbreak. Sveaborg (or Suomenlinna in Finnish) is a fortress which is now part of Helsinki city limits. It was founded by Sweden in the 18th century, then conquered and reconstructed by Russia, which owned the fortress for more than a hundred years, and passed it to Finland in 1917 following the country’s independence.

Sveaborg is considered to be the most visited attraction in Finland (more than a million guests come to the fortress annually) and the only UNESCO site in Helsinki. But this year, Sveaborg has got into the news feeds of global agencies not due to tourism records - at the end of August negotiations between the presidents of Russia and Finland took place here.

Sveaborg. Photo credit:

They know in the fortress museum why Sauli Niinistö, the Finnish leader, invited Vladimir Putin to Sveaborg. The employees told the Russkiy Mir that Finland considered the fortress to be a territory of common history with Russia and Sweden and carefully preserved it. The exposition and the atmosphere of the museum are devoted to historical relations with neighboring powers. Here they conduct tours in Russian (you can register for them on the Russian-language website of Sveaborg), present books on political and social relations between our countries and peoples across the centuries.

Where is Crimea and where is Sveaborg

Visitors to Sveaborg who come here from dozens of countries around the world will learn not only about the history of Russia, Finland and Sweden, but also about Crimea. To be more precise, that European countries used to lock horns around the Russian peninsula more than 150 years ago. And the northern fortress also got its share during the Crimean War.

But first, let us say a few words of how the Swedish stronghold became Russian. Construction of the fortress began in 1746, a few years after the end of one of the Russian-Swedish wars. The Swedish government decided to build fortifications in the Wolf Skargard and strengthen the fleet to have advantage in future clashes. All the planned work was completed a quarter of a century later. The construction cost a lot of money to the Swedish treasury.

The Diana, a historical sloop. Photo credit:

The fortress became famous throughout Europe, received the flattering nickname - "Northern Gibraltar". But it belonged to Sweden for less than half a century. As a result of the last big war between Russia and Sweden, which happened in 1808, the fortress became Russian. Moreover, the siege lasted two months only (it became surprisingly bloodless), and the winners got hefty trophies - more than a hundred military ships, more than two thousand guns and thousands of prisoners.

The best Russian military engineers came to Sveaborg. They took into account mistakes of their predecessors that were revealed in the battles and made the fortress truly impregnable. In any case, no one succeeded in seizing Sveaborg after that. In 1855, in the midst of the Crimean War, the fortress, where the Russian garrison had been located for more than a dozen years, was besieged by the Anglo-French fleet, which started shelling. For nearly two days more than fifty ships fired at the fortress from all guns; the besieged forces fired back, reducing the number of enemy fleets. The fortress survived.

The battery. Photo credit:

Over the years, it has become a real island city - dozens of structures were built: from a sailor's school to an Orthodox Church and a telegraph. During the World War I, Sveaborg bristled up again preparing for Germans’ attack on Petrograd, however it did not have to fight off.

During the Second World War, the former Russian walls of Sveaborg experienced the power of Soviet aviation - German boat flotillas were based in the fortress, which by that time had belonged to Finland for a quarter century.

Honor to Russian weapons

Sveaborg finally lost its military significance in 1973. The fortress was transferred to civilian authorities and soon became a museum. After a couple of decades, they began to conduct tours in Russian, which are now conducted on a regular basis. Russian-speaking guides have joined the Ehrensvärd Society, that has the exclusive right to conduct tours in the fortress. The company actively invites people who want to try on the role of tour guides to work. Over the years many Russian-speaking residents of Finland have passed through Sveaborg.

The Russkiy Mir spoke with Alina Ualamo, the curator of the Russian department of the Ehrensvärd Society. She is a graduate of the history department of Leningrad University and courses for guides at the Intourist and has lived in Finland for many years. Alina works with groups of Russian-speaking tourists. Autumn for her is the calmest time of the year. In spring and summer tours follow one after another. And in winter, during the New Year holidays, Sveaborg again becomes Russian-speaking place.

In casemates of the fortress. Photo credit:

There have always been a lot of Russians and Russian-speaking visitors from Israel and the CIS countries who select tours in Russian, she says. - Some recession was observed five years ago due to well-known political events, but now the number of Russian-speaking visitors is actively growing. There are many groups, as well as independent tourists. What are the most often asked questions? They are about the Russian period of the fortress, of course. Many are surprised that Sveaborg was Russian for more than a hundred years; many admit that they did not know about it.

It is impossible to talk about the Russian period in the history of Sveaborg without mentioning the “honor of Russian weapons”, which the EU does not favor. We asked the curator of the Russian department if during the period of anti-Russian sentiments the museum management had recommended to reduce enthusiasm about the Russian pages of history. Alina lifted her hands in dismay – then what it should be talked about, since the Russian period is the most interesting and rich in facts… And guides are forced to reckon with this fact when they tell about the fortress in any language.

The outline of tours and objects of interests are the same in all languages, the guide continues. - We talk about the Swedish and Russian periods and about what is in the fortress now. In Sveaborg, we walk through the Russian merchant quarter, look around the Orthodox Church, Russian post office, school, officer club and telegraph, playpen for the Russian garrison.

By the way, none of the above mentioned buildings are empty - there is a museum, cafes, hotels. The Finnish officers club is located in the Russian officer club.

Sveaborg is a special place for Finns, our interlocutress believes. - It is a revived story for them, and they carefully preserve it. So many schoolchildren come here every day, there are lessons held. The history of the fortress almost coincides with history of Finland in general. They both were a part of Sweden, then a part of Russia, and then gained independence, preserving the best from the past.

When the Russians Came

Alexey Shkvarov, a renowned historian and writer, a candidate of historical sciences, a lecturer at the Universities of Helsinki and St. Petersburg, has been studying history of Sveaborg for many years. He knows more than anyone about the military exploits of the fortress defenders, but not only that. He can tell you in details how soldiers, officers and other residents of Sveaborg of the Russian period lived, what they did and who they married.

When the Russians Came…, his fundamental work, has been published in Helsinki over the past three years; its total volume has exceeded one and a half thousand pages. The work is a statistical study of families of Russian army men and Finnish women in various Finnish garrisons of the 19th century, including Sveaborg. The data was obtained from Finnish archives.

Russian soldiers in Sveaborg. Photo credit:

According to Shkvarov’s research, the Russian army command encouraged marriages of Russian soldiers to local girls, ordering them to marry in the Orthodox rite. For Finnish women, the Russian military men were considered to be a good catch, and marriage provided a certain social position.

And children, of course, were born. For example, in 1861, an important year in Russian history, 28 babies born in Russian-Finnish marriages were christened in the Sveaborg Church of Alexander Nevsky.

One of registers of births, marriages, and deaths has the following record: “Anna, the daughter of Prokof Ivanov, the son of Manushkin, a clerk of the Sveaborg Commandant Administration, and his wife Sophia Bertilson of the Lutheran faith.” And there are hundreds of such records in the National Archives of Finland. And you cannot conceal them in any fortress.

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