How an 18th Century Sea Fortress Has Become One of Finland’s Most Popular Tourist Attractions

Donna Wichelman Europe

Winter bashed Northern Colorado this year. We’re not used to endless days of arctic cold, snow, and cloud cover. Colorado claims 300 days of sunshine a year with average January and February temperatures in the low 40s ℉ (4 ℃), and we grouse when we don’t get them. Yet there are regions like Finland, where arctic winters provide great enjoyment as snow creates a magical winter wonderland. People ski and ice skate to work and school and the Northern Lights dazzle the sky.

Northern Lights: Lapland, Finland, Courtesy of Dreamstime

Reindeer Graze in the Midnight Sun: Finland, Courtesy of Dreamstime

We must clarify first that Finland generally is not considered part of Scandinavia. They are not geographically part of Scandinavia, nor is their language related to Scandinavian. Scandinavia consists of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, whose languages come from North Germanic. Finnish is related to the Uralic language family of the Ural Mountains in western Russia, Hungarian and Estonian being the other two main Uralic languages.

I visited Finland in August when the sun still shone at 11 p.m., and I sat in the garden enjoying drinks with good friends at Billnäs (an hour west of Helsinki). I also experienced Helsinki in February, exploring the city’s history and culture, even when we had six hours of daylight. As a land of a thousand lakes and 75 percent of it covered in pine forests spread across 130,678 square miles (33.8 million hectares), a person can imagine the peaceful beauty of the landscape. According to one resource, Finns are the happiest people in the world. But that wasn’t always so.

Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) is one of the many fascinating places to investigate. The sea fortress, spread across six islands, is iconic of the disputed ownership of Finland over the centuries and continues to play a big role in Finland’s culture since it declared independence in 1917.

Suomenlinna: Helsinki, Finland, Courtesy of Dreamtime

Kings Gate, Suomenlinna: Helsinki, Finland, Courtesy of Dreamtime

Finland’s modern era began in the 12th – 14th centuries when Sweden and Russia clashed over the geographical area. In 1323, Sweden and Russia signed a peace treaty giving western Finland to Sweden and eastern Finland and Karelia (the border area between Russia and Finland) to Russia, but the story doesn’t end there.

Sweden made Finland a province of the country ruled by Stockholm, though Finns experienced mostly freedom, and Turku became the province’s most important center. Then, in the sixteenth century, the Reformation reached Finland, establishing the Lutheran Church as the State religion. Protestantism’s emphasis on making the Bible available in the vernacular language ignited a cultural revolution to create a written Finnish language. By 1642, a Bible written in Finnish became widely available.

Despite Sweden’s strong influence in the region, Russian advances continued to engender conflict. Sweden needed to reinforce their defenses and constructed a central fortress, later named Sveaborg or Viapori in Finnish, on the Susiluodot islands off Helsinki. Building the fortress should have taken four years, but war and other delays meant it never was completed as planned. Forty years later, construction ended. The sea fortress was used as a naval base in the Russo-Swedish War of 1788–1790, but it never saw battle until 1808, when Russian forces ambushed the fortress and forced surrender.

View of Suomenlinna from the Mainland in Winter, Donna’s Photo Gallery

View of Suomenlinna from the Mainland in Summer: Helsinki, Finland, Donna’s Photo Gallery

After Russia occupied Finland in 1809, the Russian Emperor Alexander I gave Finland extensive autonomous power as a Grand Duchy whose governing body was a Senate made up of Finns. That allowed for the creation of the Finnish state, removing Russian authority. Helsinki became the capital of Finland, and the university founded in Turku in 1640 moved to Helsinki in 1828. The Language Decree in 1863 made Finnish the official language, and the Conscription Act of 1878 gave Finland an army of its own.

Still, Viapori remained an essential Russian military base. They expanded the perimeter to nearby islands and built a Russian Orthodox Church. But it fell into disrepair during the following years, the situation becoming apparent during the Crimean War, when Viapori sustained heavy damage by a combined Anglo-French assault. During the late 19th & early 20th centuries, Russia made extensive repairs to Viapori, but the fortress lost importance.

In the meantime, Russia began reining in Finnish separatism with a policy of Russification. But the Russian Revolution in 1905 allowed Finland to create a new unicameral Parliament in 1906, known as the most radical parliamentary reform in Europe and the first to give women the vote.

As the First World War loomed, the Russians again activated Viapori as a Naval Fortress of Peter the Great to protect St. Petersburg.

Abandoned Shipyard, Suomenlinna: Helsinki Finland, Courtesty of Dreamtime

On December 6, 1917, Parliament approved the declaration of independence drawn up by the Senate. At the same time, the left and right wings of Parliament could no longer reconcile their differences, and in January 1918, Civil War commenced. It ended with victory for the government troops in May, and Finland became a republic in the summer of 1919.

War enabled the newly founded Finnish government to take Viapori in 1918, renaming it Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland). The fortress became a prison camp for Red Army prisoners, the last to be released in May 1919.

Suomenlinna housed various Defense Forces units and became a Finnish garrison. During World War II, the forces stationed on Suomenlinna included anti-aircraft and artillery units and acted as a base for the Finnish submarine fleet.

Defense Forces gave up control of Suomenlinna during the 1960s and early 1970s and came under civilian administration. Only the Naval Academy remains within the fortress. Since then, buildings have undergone renovation, including residential units and the Russian Orthodox Church, which underwent reconstruction and converted into an Evangelical Lutheran Church. Suomenlinna is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Finland and joined UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1991.

Naval Academy, Suomenlinna: Helsinki, Finland, Courtesy of Dreamstime

Suomenlinna Church: Helsinki, Finland, Donna’s Photo Gallery

Numerous other historical sites in Helsinki and the countryside should not be missed. Below is a gallery of only a few of them. For more information on things to do in Finland click here.

St. Nikolas Cathedral and Senate Square, Donna’s Photo Gallery

Christmas Market, Senate Square, Dreamstime

Uspenski Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Dreamstime

Uspenski Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Donna’s Photo Gallery

Sibelius Monument & Park, Donna’s Photo Gallery

Temppeliaukio Church—“Church in the Rock”: Helsinki, Finland, Courtesy of Dreamstime

Traditional Timber Residences: Billnäs, Finland, Donna’s Gallery

Fiskars, Finland, the Home of Fiskars Cutlery and Scissors, Donna’s Gallery

Back Garden of Eden Billnäs Bed and Breakfast: Billnäs, Finland, Donna’s Gallery