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Cultural Analysis, Volume 10, 2011

Understanding Urban Spaces: How Speakers of Russian Talk about Helsinki

Ekaterina Protassova and Anu Reponen
University of Helsinki, Finland

Abstract: Helsinki, the capital city of Finland, is multicultural. It has a distinct Russian component glorified by writers and poets. The city is also the history of the people who lived here in the past and who visit every day. Russian is the most spoken foreign language in Helsinki. This article examines how the inhabitants of Helsinki, whose first or second ;anguage is Russian, experience this city and describe it, what places in Helsinki are relevant for them, and what emotions and associations are connected to the urban places and names. Similarities and differences in the descriptions are discussed and explained. Peculiarities in the perception of urban spaces are discernible among the Finnish and Russian speakers.



To love or to hate a city, to understand its historical past and to penetrate its multicultural modern life is a task that can never be completed, and our different backgrounds lead us to verbalize it differently. The goal of this article is to find out whether the image of Helsinki is similar or different among Russian-speaking residents and visitors of different ages, and how this compares to the perceptions of the city as expressed by tourist guides and shared by the Finns.

The center of the city was built in the 19th century in the period of autonomy when Finland was under Russian rule, and so has a special appeal for the Russians. The city of Helsingfors (the Swedish name for Helsinki) was growing at the time. Deviation from its Swedish- language past went hand in hand with Russification. This can be illustrated by the history of the adaptation of the Russian street names. Some places in Helsinki have well-established Russian names. Many of them date back to the beginning of the 19th century, when Finland became part of the Russian Empire; others appeared later as new streets were built. We therefore began our project by studying historical documents.

The historical minority of Russian-speakers has been recently joined by large groups of immigrants and tourists. Today, one percent of the population of Finland are native speakers of Russian. The historical Russian-speaking minority comprises about 5,000 speakers, and their language differs from that of the so-called “New Russians” (not to be confused with the proverbial nouveau riche in post-Soviet Russia). Forty per cent of the 50,000 native speakers of Russian live in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Russian speakers are a heterogeneous group consisting of people of different ethnic backgrounds and of different nationalities. Russian is the third most spoken language after Finnish and Swedish. The history of the city with regard to its ties to Russia has been analyzed by Klinge and Kolbe (1999) and by Kuhlberg (2002). Different perspectives are presented by Poxljobkin (1974) and Jussila (2010). The image of Helsinki among Russian-speaking tourists has changed since Soviet times, along with geo-political and ideological changes.

In the framework of this project, members of the heterogeneous community of Russian-speakers were interviewed in groups and individually, with attention focused on the use of place-names and/or language biography. In addition, we organized an open essay-writing competition in Russian under the title My Helsinki, , in which both Finnish- and Russian-speakers took part. We compared articles in the Russian language media in Finland with opinions expressed on Internet forums. We also studied Russian tourists’ views of Helsinki in order to find out what places are perceived as familiar, cozy, important, interesting, appealing to the heart, and experienced as one’s “own,” and what places are avoided or perceived as miserable, foreign, belonging to the domain of the “other”. The results should help us understand the process of integration that follows immigration and is linked to adjustment to a new space.

An overview of the linguistic and demographic history of Helsinki

Looking back on the history of Helsinki, we can see that it has always been a multicultural city. Established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550, at first it was predominantly Swedish-speaking. Despite the fact that Helsinki has 450 years of history, the present-day site of the city center is much younger: the city was moved there in the 17th century. The naval fortress Sveaborg, constructed in the 18th century, transformed the place into an important military maritime fortification on the Baltic Sea. The meaning of its Swedish name was the “Swedish fortress,” and in Finnish it was pronounced and written as Viapori. Today the official Finnish name is Suomenlinna, the “Finnish fortress,” but Sveaborg remains its official Swedish name and is also used in Russian. After Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War and annexed Finland in 1809, the land was proclaimed the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, and Sveaborg came under Russian command. These changes led to the introduction of Russian as an official language in Finland that had to be learned by civil servants. Czar Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki to reduce the Swedish influence in Finland; its original location was changed, and the new town was built in the style of St. Petersburg. Helsingfors, as it was called in both Swedish and Russian, continued to grow and flourish as a trilingual city.

The period of autonomy is often described as a time when the Finns elaborated their national and linguistic identity as they began to use the Finnish language in newspapers, public meetings, and schools. All the art forms began to prosper, and the masters of architecture, painting, music, and literature had close ties not only with Swedish and French artists, but also with Russian ones. It is linguistically important that the Finnish- speakers outnumbered the Swedish- speakers in 1890 and became the majority of the city’s population (61,530 citizens). A special urban slang called stadin slangievolved on the basis of non- native Swedish and non-native Finnish with a substantial Russian component. Russian-speakers played a significant role in the life of the city, even though they did not form a big group. They were entrepreneurs, merchants, and military (Tommila 1983).

Finland gained its independence in 1917 and both languages, Finnish and Swedish, were adopted as state languages. Russian was regarded with disfavor because of the recent Russification attempts and a massive influx of Russian-speaking émigrés, as well as a fear of communist influence. The status of Russian deteriorated further during the Winter War (1939–40) and later, when the Soviet Union was the enemy of the Finnish Republic. From the end of World War II and until the 1970s, there was a massive exodus of predominantly Finnish-speaking people from the countryside to the cities of Finland, primarily to Helsinki. Between 1944 and 1969, the population of the city nearly doubled, from 275,000 to 525,600, and the role of the Swedish language kept declining.

In the last two decades, immigration has grown in Finland and now accounts for 2% of the whole population. Immigrants usually dwell in the metropolitan area (that is, Helsinki, together with the neighboring cities of Espoo, Kauniainen, and Vantaa) because more services are available to them in their own languages and because they are able to form communities (cf., an electronic resource providing basic information about Finnish society and culture, accessed 19 February 2012).

Nearly one per cent of the total population are people who speak Russian as one of their home languages, and about the same number of Finnish- or Swedish-speakers have learned Russian at some point in their lives. Most of the “New Russians” are ethnic Finns and Ingrians and their family members. They emigrated from Russia within the framework of a repatriation program launched in the early 1990s.

The population of the city of Helsinki is 588,941 (31 January 2011), making it the most populous municipality in Finland. Finnish-speakers make up 83.7% of the population, Swedish-speakers 6.0%, and speakers of other languages 10.2%. Foreign-born citizens comprise 7.9% of the population (44,400). The largest groups of residents with a non-Finnish background come from Estonia (5,900), Russia (5,633), Somalia (2,400), China (1,150) and Thailand (680) (see www., a governmental source giving Finnish statistics, accessed 19 February 2012). In Helsinki, 2% of the population are native speakers of Russian. About 67% of the population are Evangelical Lutherans, and up to 2% are Orthodox (Finnish, Russian and Greek).

Helsinki has 190 comprehensive schools, 41 upper secondary schools, and 15 vocational institutes. Many of these use more than one language of instruction, and several languages are studied as target languages. Even at the pre-school level, bilingual kindergartens with Finnish and Swedish, English, German, French, Hebrew, Russian, or Spanish offer a variety of linguistic programs. In schools, more than 50 home languages are taught as optional courses.

Research on immigration and toponymy

To adopt a second way of life after immigration means to adopt the routes taken by the locals, to speak their language, and to act in the same way they do. The natives are aware of the history of generations who lived in the area; they know stories about remarkable or strange people, and legends about the city’s past. For the newcomers, the context is totally different. They may come from bigger or smaller towns or villages, bringing their image of the world with them. Some try to reconstruct what they left behind: émigrés from St. Petersburg find Nevsky avenue, and Muscovites recognize images of Tverskaya street in Mannerheimintie, the main thoroughfare of Helsinki. Others pick up knowledge and habits from the local people, and then there are those who just build their history, shaped by their own ordeals. Many remain oblivious to the metaphors behind the place-names, which are so dear to those who have lived their whole life in the city.

A new cultural context imposes a specific use of familiar and newly- learned names and reflects an interplay between imported and newly-acquired experience (a similar phenomenon of making a city “your own” was described by Fialkova and Yelenevskaya 2011). This is true for place-names too. Du Bois (2010, 122-127) considers name references as one way of constituting cultural identity in immigrants. She mentions that spatial references such as river and street names have a commonsensical meaning that is important for bilinguals: they discover what the locals call places in their new surroundings, partly real, partly mythological, and functionally polysemous. While identifying themselves with the city, immigrants demonstrate their knowledge of its geography and their rootedness in its rituals. They affirm their belonging, even if their speech habits differ from those of the native inhabitants. Sharing experiences of different events with the local people is also important, and such occurrences accumulate throughout the years one lives in a district. Immigrants’ spatiotemporal orientation to the city and their embodiment within it remain individual and linked to the toponymy.

For all the immigrants places such as the police station where they received their residence permit, the embassy of their own country, and restaurants with their national cuisine are culturally marked. Many retain memories of the buildings where they studied the language, outpatients’ clinics and hospitals they visited, the firms that employed them, and so on. As we will show further on, for children describing their favorite places in Helsinki such landmarks are not significant (cf. the notion of nodes in Fialkova and Yelenevskaya 2011).

Table 1 illustrates the methods of Russification of the street names in Helsinki during the time of autonomy; these are official names, as printed in Adres 1911, and Plan 1900 and 1903 (cf. Pesonen 1970). First, the Swedish name was used. On Russian maps of the period the name was transliterated. During the 19th century maps of the city often also appeared in German and French. Later, a Russian name was derived from the Swedish one with the help of a Russian suffix. At the third stage, the Russian name was translated from Swedish, and so was its Finnish version. Nowadays, maps of the city appear mostly in Finnish and Swedish and, for the use by Russian- speaking tourists, the street and place- names are transliterated from Finnish.

The street names in the history of Helsingfors

Swedish Russian 1 (19th Century) Russian 2 (1900) Russian 3 (1911) Finnish
Främlingsgatan Фремлингсгатан Фремлингская улица Чужеземная улица Muukalaiskatu
Gengatan Högbergsgatan Генгатан Хёгбергсгатан Енская улица Хёгбергская улица Ближняя улица Высокогорная улица Oikokatu Korkeavuoren- katu
Berggatan Villagatan Brunnsgatan Берггатан Виллагатан Бруннсгатан Бергская улица Вилла улица Брунская улица Горная улица Дачная улица Колодезная улица Vuorikatu Huvilakatu Kaivokatu
Skillnadsgatan Шилнадсгатан Шилнадская улица Раздельная улица Erottajakatu

From 1833 to 1917, street signs in Helsinki also bore Russian names. One example is Sofiankatu, [“Sofia’s street”], named after the mother of Alexander I, Maria Fjodorovna. One of the original names given to this German princess at birth was Sofia. In present day Helsinki Sofiankatu was chosen to be the street museum of the city in order to restore its historical atmosphere, and one sign has survived since the time streets had triple inscriptions. The Russian history of Helsinki is known only to a small section of the Russian-speaking immigrants. As a rule, new immigrants do not adopt the traditional Russian street names and other place-names used by the historical Russian-speaking minority. One of our informants singled out Sofia street, because it is the only name written in Russian on a street sign in Helsinki (Софийская улица – вот это да, потому что она по-русски написана, единственное название, которое сохранилось).

The onomastic variations in the speech of Helsinkians when they refer to their home city is discussed in Ainiala and Lappalainen (2010), and the role of place- names in the sociolinguistic construction of immigrant youth identities in Ainiala andHalonen(2009).Otherstudiesexamine what reasons people give for using or avoiding specific names, whether official or unofficial, stigmatized or neutral. It turns out that these choices are connected with the process of self-construction. The ethnomethodological and socio- onomastic research that we conducted focuses on the use of urban place- names in Helsinki in spoken Russian, and is based on unofficial names and place terms in Russian and Finnish. The toponymic perspective combined with the sociolinguistic approach allows us to investigate the language and toponym usage of Russian speakers in Helsinki. The individual and group interviews that we conducted were videotaped, or tape recorded and transcribed. They make up approximately 40 hours of recording with “Old Russians” (cf. Reponen 2004; Protassova 2007) and about the same amount of time with “newcomers” of different ages. The interviewees discussed their attitudes to different languages, to their place of residence and its names.

Immigrants as name-users is a special theme for research, because patterns of name usage reflect ways of integrating into the receiving society and thus constructing their new identity on Finnish soil. Obviously, Russian speakers mostly use the same place-names as other Helsinkians—predominantly official Finnish names. However, for various reasons, places are also named unofficially. The place itself may be relevant for a person even if its official name remains unknown or identified incorrectly. For example, meeting places are often named unofficially. Self- invented unofficial names can be used to express stance, opinion of and feeling for the place itself, and certain name variants can be used as speakers’ identity markers or in order to convey specific implications or interpretations of the situation. Unofficial names belong to the toponymic landscape of all speakers, but there are particular sites which Russian- speaking Helsinkians call by the names coined by in-group members. We will demonstrate how these are formed, of what linguistic elements they are built, what functions they have, and what their social meaning is. We will also quote excerpts from the interviews in which our informants reflect on their naming practices.

Many names for things related to everyday practices are borrowed into Russian from Finnish, even if these concepts already have appropriate equivalents (cf. Protassova 2004). These are common nouns, although some place terms, such as a library, or an activity/ shopping/sports center, are used as proper nouns in speech, for example, “подойди к kirjasto” [“come to the library”]. In the utterance “М-бар – это прямо ihan keskustassa” [“M-bar is right, right in the center”], the speaker switches from Russian to Finnish in the middle of his turn and produces the particle “right” twice: first in Russian—прямо —then in Finnish—ihan. The place term “center” is produced in Finnish in the correct grammatical case—keskustassa. For some reason, the speaker chooses the Finnish variant instead of the Russian центр, although the latter is also used in this particular sequence. Perhaps the speakers remember the signboards above the buildings or heard Finns mention the names of these spots, and this is why they insert Finnish while primarily speaking Russian.

Many informants say that they Russify the pronunciation of Finnish names, which occasionally leads to misunderstandings. Thus, talking about her daughter, one interviewee says: ...она не воспринимает названия, если мы скажем с русским акцентом; то есть, ей надо Ω по-фински потому что она, как бы, воспринимает это вообще, как другое место вообще, может, как это не в Хельсинки”. [“... she doesn’t grasp the names if we talk with a Russian accent, so we have to repeat them in Finnish because she sort of perceives them as some other places, maybe not in Helsinki at all.”]

For a young bilingual, the Finnish variants are easier to recongize. She hears them outside her home, whereas her parents feel more comfortable using Russian-colored pronunciation of these names. The informant’s remark about her daughter certainly reflects more common linguistic differences between frist and seond generation immigrants.

The referent of the name may be unknown to the speaker, or it can be confused with some other place. The linguistic meaning of the place may also be unclear. Our interviewees told us where and how they had encountered such puzzling names, for example, some Finnish slang names, and how they found out what the referent or meaning of that name was. In the next example two informants are discussing the name Kompas [“compass”] which refers to a spot in the central train station that is a popular meeting place. In the course of the conversation it turns out that one of the interlocutors, Tanja, mistakenly believed that the name referred to an old observatory located in the Kaivopuisto park:

- Таня, вот, не знала, где это, раньше [”In the past, Tanja didn’t know its whereabouts.”]
- Да все знают, а мне, а мне объясняли, где такой, я знала Компас, который вот там, Kaivopuisto [“Yes, everybody knows, and they explained to me, to me, where it is, I used to know the Compass which is there, in Kaivopuisto.”]

Temppeliaukio (“temple square”) church is very popular among tourists who come to Helsinki. Russian speakers call it церковь в скале (“church in the rock”) because it is actually built into one. Notably, while almost all Russian speakers, both tourists and local residents, know this unofficial name, Finnish speakers do not have a corresponding informal version, and stick to the official name:

- А-а, как это церковь в скале называется? [“Um- um, what is this church in the rock called?”]
- По-фински? [“In Finnish?”]
- Да. [“Yes.”]
- Это, ну... (pause) Temppeliaukion kirkko [“This is, well, it’s Temple Square Church.”]
- Вот мы никогда не говорим, так не говорим. Церковь в скале хе хе она одна единственная и легче сказать, вот прямо, церковь в скале. [And we, like never say it in this way. Church in the rock ha-ha it is unique and it is easier to say simply Church in the rock.”]

Meeting places often have names invented by their users. In Eastern Helsinki, in a large shopping center, there is a sculpture officially called Kuru, a “stony gorge”. In one of the group interviews our young informants say that this is their meeting place, and they call it Камень [“stone”]: “Ну, мы обычно встречаемся возле Камня, ну вот этот памятник, что-то похожее на него, вот там мы обычно встречаемся с друзьями” [“Well, we usually meet near the Stone, you know, this monument, it’s sort of like a stone, and it’s there that we meet our friends”]. During the interview one of the informants speaks on the phone to his girlfriend in Finnish and uses the same name, Камень, but in Finnish, kivi. The speaker is not sure whether the place is known to the girl, so he also describes it as a flower: “menti takas se kiven luokse Itiksee ulkon siin on semmone kivi sellane kukka tiätsä” [“we went back to that rock, to Itis, outside there is such a stone, sort of a flower, you know”]. In general, talk in interaction is recipient-oriented, and place descriptions are no exception. The meeting place is described in different ways to the interviewer and to a close friend.

Another example comes from the Helsinki train station, one of the notable architectural spots in the city. The building is decorated with four statues called Lyhdynkantajat, “lantern carriers”. In Finnish folk toponymy, the statues are called Kivimiehet, the “Stone Men”. One of the interviewees describes this meeting place:

Мы много раз назначали встречу около страшных дядек, это значит около вокзала, там, где центральный выход; там же эти мужчины” [“Many times we fixed to meet near these frightening guys?, that is, near the train station, you know, there, at the main entrance, where you can see these men”].

The statues of the “Stone Men” are so popular among Helsinkians that they were used in several advertisements favorably received by the public (see, e.g., www., accessed 20 February 2012).

Young speakers of Russian use both Finnish and Russian slang names. Russian slang names are often derived from official names by using the colloquial Russian suffix –ik (masculine), as in Kaisik (for the Finnish Kaivopuisto), Espik (Esplanaadi), Itik (Itäkeskus), and Rautik (Rautatientori) (cf., Fialkova and Yelenevskaya 2011, 161). The subjects account for their use of slang names by making it clear that those names are the speakers’ own inventions and are used for their own reasons among friends. Yet, in Russia, the normal onomastic slang suffix used in street names and in some other cases is –ka (feminine), and the masculine variant may have appeared under the influence of the Finnish slang variant in –is (Rautis for Rautatientori, Itis for Itäkeskus).These hybrids are declined like genuine Russian words. Informants claim that such usage is much easier and handier when the conversation is in Russian. For the sake of convenience, some of our older informants change Finnish urbanonyms. By adding suffixes and adapting them to Russian morphology they make them sound like native Russian words. Besides, by making them familiar and handy, the speakers add a humorous touch: Kontulovka (for Kontula), Matveevka (for Matinkylä “Matthew’s village”. Matthew is Matti in Finnish and Matvej in Russian, so the etymology plays a role in these innovations). Again, the popular form in Russian is neuter, ending in–ovo, but in Finland the original Finnish word influences the slang form.

The following example illustrates how the Finnish word can be Russified in pronunciation and declension, and how the informants explain why they prefer to employ the Finnish borrowing kehä (“ring road”) in their Russian speech:

- Почти все говорят «кеха три», кеха один, кеха три», то есть как бы читают финское слово, а цифры говорят по-русски, «рядом с кехой», (смех) «на кехе» (смех) [“Almost everybody says ‘kehä three, kehä one, kehä three,’ that is, as if they were reading a Finnish word while saying numbers in Russian, ‘near the kehä (+ instr. case) (laughter) on the kehä .” (+prepos. case) (laughter)]
- Рядом с кехой, где ты по кехе, то мне этa первая кеха заколебала (смех) с ее пробками (смех) [“Near the kehä (+instr. case), where are you on kehä (+prepos. case), or this first kehä is driving me nuts (laughter) by its traffic jams.” (laughter)]
- А вот что на кольцевой, как-то вот по Финляндии это не звучит, даже кольцевая, такие там в Москве, в Питере – там кольцевая [“As to the ring road, this somehow doesn’t sound right in Finland, the ring road of this sort, this is in Moscow, and in Peter (the informal name of St. Petersburg), that’s where the ring roads are.”]
- Э, ну а здесь кеха [“And here there is kehä.”]

As mentioned earlier, the local identity of Helsinki Russians is constructed, among other things, through linguistic nuances and place-name usage. Whether official or unofficial, toponyms in immigrants’ speech are conventionalized among certain Russian-speaking immigrant groups (for example, among young people) as markers of double belonging: to Finland and to its Russian community (cf., Yelenevskaya 2011). A name can be misunderstood even if only its pronunciation deviates from the local norm. Immigrant Russian speakers hear names around them and learn them. They choose and use various versions of the same names creatively, differentiating between them, depending on the purpose. For example, young people are aware of slang names used by their Finnish-speaking peers but often prefer their own versions, as they put it. Besides Finnish speakers, Helsinki Russians also make a distinction between themselves and Russians living in Russia. So, they say kirpushka for kirpputori[“flea market”], while St. Petersburg dwellers sometimes use kirputorij which sounds more like a Latin name. In the interviews our informants describe how the new environment with its unfamiliar names and the new language have affected their perception of the linguistic landscape. Obviously, many official Finnish names are widely used as well.

Impressions and connections

For our contemporaries, most events of their life take place in towns, and this is where their cultural forces are applied and tested. Every city should have its own genius loci, understood here as an individual who connects intellectual, spiritual, and emotional events with their material milieu and shapes the image of the city for the group which shares the multi-layered subjectivity of his texts (Vail 2007).

The Russian-speaking genius loci of Helsinki was a famous writer Alexander Kuprin (1870–1938). He had visited Finland many times before the October Revolution of 1917, and afterwards lived in Finland as an émigré. In the 1930s he moved to Paris but kept warm memories of the country that had given him refuge.

It is so close to St. Petersburg, and this is a real European city. From the train station we pass to a large square, as big as half the Field of Mars. On the left-hand side, there is a massive gray marble building looking somehow like a church in the Gothic style. It is a new Finnish theater. On the right-hand side, there is a severely styled National Ateneum. We are in the very center of the town.

We go upwards along Michelsgatan. Because the street is so narrow, and the houses have three or four storeys, it seems to be dark but, nevertheless, it makes an elegant and solid impression. Most of the buildings are Jugendstil [Art Nouveau] architecture, with a Gothic nuance. The facades have no cornices and no ornaments; the windows are placed asymmetrically, they are often framed on all sides, etc. (Kuprin 2001, 313, translated by the authors).

The themes raised in this essay are still warmly embraced by the Russian speakers visiting Finland or living here permanently. First and foremost, it is the question of equality: the absence of beggars but also of the rich; secondly, it is appreciation of cleanliness and neatness. It is also about the respect for women, children, the elderly, and the disabled. Even the places mentioned by Kuprin have retained their importance for contemporary visitors: the central train station, the Finnish National Theater and the Ateneum (the museum of Finnish national art) are unlikely to be missed by Russian visitors to Helsinki. The pseudo- Gothic architectural style of Helsinki still makes the visitors dream of an ideal medieval city, although this image is misleading.

In order to have a more detailed picture of the role of the city in the life of Russian speakers we organized an essay-writing competition on the subject of Helsinki, supported by the local Russian-language newspaper Spektr which is published in Helsinki, the University of Helsinki, and the City Council of Helsinki. We asked the participants to write about their feelings and about places that were dear to them in Helsinki. We received 64 texts, all submitted in Russian. Some of these contained impressions of tourists from different countries, some were written by Finns learning Russian, the rest were composed by speakers of Russian living in Helsinki and able to write in Russian. The level of proficiency among members of the latter group differed, revealing various stages of attrition. In addition, we analyzed Internet discussions to obtain further evidence of the impressions of Russian tourists. The views of those who live in Helsinki were supplemented by articles about Helsinki in the Russian- language media in Finland.

The first excerpt we cite was authored by a retired Finn whose hobby is studying Russian, which is rather typical of the leftists, and whose youth fell in the1960s. He reflects about his relations to the city, important places in the town and the stages in its history that he has witnessed and gone through like many of his peers:

My home town is Tampere. I was born there during the war time. I loved this town very much, I was a local patriot! As a child, I visited the maritime capital Helsinki many times with my parents. My mother came from Helsinki, and my grandmother, my aunt, and my cousins lived here.

I remember the Olympic Games of 1952 quite well. Helsinki was then in the center of attention of the whole world! I do remember that it rained every day!

Having completed my high school studies at Tampereen yhteiskoulu, I entered the Medical School of the University of Helsinki. I managed to succeed at the second attempt. The city was really bilingual at that time, and one could hear and see the Swedish language in the streets of the capital much more than today. After I had become a physician, I worked for some years in other towns of Finland, but I came back to Helsinki at the end of the 1960s.

Today, Helsinki is quite a different city! Connections to the outside world, to the West, South, and East have become better and, especially in the last few years, we have had more and more tourists from Russia. Today, the Russian language can be heard in the streets and in the shops of our town. Yes, the former bilingual city has become a multilingual international city.

My dearest place is Esplanadi with its monuments. It is the heart and soul of the capital, especially on a spring evening one can experience the magic “blue hour” there! In summer, my favorite is the sea fortress of Suomenlinna, and in winter the museum island Seurasaari where I usually walk once a week.

My wife and I, we have two traditions. In spring, together with our friends, we take part in the day concert of the City Orchestra in Finlandia Hall. One can notice that our student caps, once white, are becoming yellower every year... The festival of the First of May in Helsinki is a unique carnival, It means champagne, balloons, and spring music played by students. The second tradition belongs to the Day of Independence on the 6th of December. Then we visit the common grave in the Hietaniemi cemetery where Marshal C.G. Mannerheim lies among the heroes of the capital who fell in the war of 1939–1945.

What about Tampere? I haven’t forgotten it! I often go there. But now I may say that I am a “stadin kundi” [slang: a “guy from the capital”] and I love the capital of Finland ...

T.L., a 14-year-old bilingual boy from a mixed Finnish-Russian family who participated in the competition, wrote:

I live in Helsinki. Helsinki is a typical European city. Everything is clean, tidy, comfortable and peaceful, and one doesn’t find crowds of mad people anywhere. That is why it is pleasant to live in Helsinki. It seems to me that the city is constructed especially for the habitation of many people. All of the areas have something of their “own” and whatever differences there are between them, they were built almost in the same style.

For example, when I walk in my district, Itäkeskus, I feel that it is “my” district. I know where the things are as if they were in my own pockets. I also know that it was built wisely. Houses, department stores, and parks surround a big shopping center. It is interesting for us, teenagers. On the other hand, the center of Helsinki is a large labyrinth with tall buildings, department stores, and shopping centers. It’s Babel, and people are in a hurry. So I like it less. It still remains strange to me, and I am not really familiar with it.

If we compare the center of Helsinki with the center of St. Petersburg, the center of St. Petersburg is more beautiful and old. But the suburbs of St. Petersburg are terrible! They are dirty and messy. There is nothing like this in Helsinki. Of course, Helsinki has its imperfections. There is absolutely no antiquity like in the European cities. Even Stockholm, another northern city, has its Old Town. Not to mention beautiful Paris, where the whole center is old and gorgeous with its medieval and Renaissance buildings and cathedrals. Helsinki was assembled in the Middle Ages from wood, therefore nothing old has remained. But Helsinki is my dear capital, and it was built not for tourists, but for the Finns, the inhabitants themselves, and to my mind, there is no better place to live.

So, the image of Helsinki is compared to other places familiar to the author. Due to his age, what may be considered by adults to be the most important things about the city—historical and artistic values—remain unknown to the adolescent. His experience of the Russian city of St. Petersburg makes him appreciate the calmness of Helsinki, while many Russians sometimes feel bored by its tranquility. This attitude can be frequently found in other essays by the young writers. For example, S.P., a 15-year-old girl from a Finnish family studying Russian since kindergarten, composed this text:

I was born here and I want to live here. My elder sister already lives on her own and can go to the city center whenever she wants to, but I cannot. I practice figure skating six times a week, and when this is over, I have to go home immediately. My parents do not like it when I go to the city center in the evening, but when they allow me to go, it becomes a very happy day. When I can go to the city center, I go to the cinema, cafés, or to the Kamppi Center for shopping.

I go to the cinema at Tennispalatsi because this is my favorite theater. The auditoriums there are very big and the choice is very good. In Tennispalatsi I like it that when you have no time to go to the shop to buy something because the film is about to start, you can buy candies, ice-cream, popcorn, or lemonade right there. When you watch a film at Tennispalatsi , it is very easy, you just buy your ticket and popcorn and that is all you have to do, you watch the film and you will have lots of fun. Tennispalatsi is situated in the very center of the city, and this is one of the reasons why it is easy to go there.

My second home and another place I like to be is the Helsinki Ice Hall which is very big and old and not so cold. It lies not so far from the city center and can be easily reached. There are two arenas and many locker rooms. When I was small and came with my mom to see how the girls were skating there, I told her that when I grow up I would skate there too and people would applaud me very loudly. This is the dream that I would like to fulfill.

Helsinki is the place where you can dream and make your dreams come true.

This essay reflects the naive picture of the city where people go shopping and to the cinema, sit in cafés and practice sports— one of the most important hobbies among Helsinkians. Girls and boys intuitively love their closest neighborhood and places where their friends live. Most of the Finnish youngsters appraised the city in the same way. When the results of the essay competition were published such vision of the city was criticized by the Russian-language newspaper Spektr. The editor wrote that she was sad that the children had not learnt about any of the other interesting things in the city (Gusatinskaja 2011). Yet the essays of the children from the Russian-speaking families in Helsinki could console her. These texts depict cultural attitudes of families who encourage their children to visit museums and architectural monuments. These essays also reflect the writers’ love of nature, the zoo, squares, and avenues. Thus, the expectations of adults differ, and so do the texts produced by the children.

The essays of the adults can be divided into two groups: those written by visitors and those by inhabitants. The inhabitants tend to look for those aspects of Helsinki that are connected to the Russian influence, so that they can justify their presence in this city, their immigration, and their sense of belonging to the city’s past and present, to its cultural heritage and contemporary life. They seek to affirm their membership in the community of Helsinkians and, therefore, their equal share in the city’s investments and dividends. The contribution to the modern prosperity may be justified by deeds aimed at the wellbeing of the community, and also by strolls, trips and excursions through the city that provide good knowledge of its structure, past and present, and by living memories. This is the way the Russian- language newspaper Novosti Helsinki [“Helsinki News”] positions itself. A sense of delight at the Finnish way of life is commonplace, although many are disappointed by the lack of joyfulness in the atmosphere and their own inability to cope with difficulties when the Finnish way of life, including its values, has not been learned at an early stage of immigration (Tabakova 2010). We also observed gender-related differences in the perception of Helsinki. Men’s essays emphasize military monuments and remnants of the wars. Women are fond of the “masculine” character of the city that helps in many ways and supports whatever happens in their life (Helsinki is like the male protector they dreamed about in Russia but who never appeared there, indeed, to feel safe does not necessarily mean to have a husband with enormous biceps—good social welfare is sometimes enough).

As mentioned earlier, we have also received essays from speakers of Russian from different parts of Russia and the “near abroad” (the CIS countries). For many, Finland is the first European country they ever visited, and it ranks high as a tourist destination in Russia. On their road of discoveries some tourists tend to look for stereotypes and expect prejudices against the West to come true. In this case they see only what they want to see, for example, medieval fortresses associated with the tales by the Grimm brothers who belong, of course, to the German tradition, while ignoring the real Finnish history as reflected in the fairy tales by Z. Topelius. This is why they skip the modernity but enjoy the Jugend style. Another conception is the “Scandinavianism” of Helsinki that is definitely different from other Nordic metropolises, by virtue of its Russian past inter alia. Alternatively, the visitors imagine what life could be like in Russia if the Bolshevik October Revolution had not happened. The places that visitors like in Helsinki are those tourist attractions where they can relax or enjoy life, but not those where the Finns like to be, with the exception of Suomenlinna (sea fortress) and Seurasaari (open air museum). Many essays mention that thousands of seagulls and squirrels are part of the city landscape and they capture the imagination of the visitors.

Writing for the oldest Finnish Russian-language newspaper known by its asymmetric name as The Finland [in Russian] or Russia [in Finnish] Trade Road, Jakkonen (2011) summarizes what brings Russian tourists to Helsinki: They come for shopping and for non- material quasi-retailing from tertiary industries such as sports, medicine, and so on. They wish to visit various places of interest, or just to obtain a Schengen visa, which is allegedly easier to do in the Finnish embassy than in the embassy of any other country. Judging from the topics discussed on the Internet forums, among the specific products attracting Russian tourists are fish, candies, coffee, tea, clothes and even the dishwashing detergent “Fairy,” known to be of better quality and cheaper than in Russia. Importantly, these consumption-related issues are hypocritically avoided in the essays written by the Russian participants of our competition, as these topics may be considered too petty or too arrogant.

When Mumford (1961) was dreaming of an ideal organic city where nature and technology achieve a balance, he was perhaps imagining a town with the qualities of Helsinki. Nature and hi-tech, for example, meet here every day. In 2009 Helsinki became a member of the international Network of Good Food Cities of the World, and in 2011 Helsinki came first in the “Quality of life” survey conducted by Monocle magazine (Monocle 2011). Due to this symbiosis of qualities and what came as a surprise to us, almost all the young Finnish authors underscored the comfort of living in Helsinki, and writers of all ages were impressed by its tranquility and orderliness.

For Russians, as for Finns, the city is a place where dreams come true, yet the Russians perceive the city as a mystery, while the Finns emphasize its comfort. When something is put into action and functions without great pomp, it always comes as a big surprise for the Russians. The city embodies freedom and, for a Russian, to feel free and on your own, when nobody oppresses you, is to learn about yourself and your feelings, to live making use of all your senses. For visitors from Russia and many other countries, Helsinki is unlike any other city in the world; it is like an animal from the woods. The Russians ask themselves what kind of inhabitants Helsinki can shelter and what it means to become a true Helsinkian. They wonder whether they are ever going to be like Finns. The essay writers reflect about dilemmas of allegiances: If Helsinki is not their birthplace, how can they love something other than their own homeland? Does this mean that they are traitors, or just that they have found a place for honest and free people that they always longed to find and now aspire to stay with? Then, more general questions about urban life arise: If this is a town, then what can be called a town? What is the meaning of culture and architecture in urban settings? Is the town its people or its nature? What is the meaning of life? Without the experience of Helsinki, these reflections might not be possible. Such reflections often arise among travelers. A participant in the competition, E.S. from the Ukraine, shares her experience:

I am thankful to you, the magic city, for having shown to me what is true love and real friendship. I thank you for making me appreciate every moment of life. I would like to say a lot of grateful words but, instead, I will again confess my love and my infinite respect for you, my dear town.

An anthropomorphic attitude to the city (the city as a friend, father, and mother) is a very strong element of the relationship with the city in literature and in informal discourse.

The Image of the City

The image of the city Due to the pronounced Russian influence in architecture (an example of which is the Uspensky Orthodox Cathedral dominating the harbor, although it operates mostly in the Finnish language), the official tendency is to describe Helsinki as a capital where Eastern and Western cultures meet. This description replaces the previous “Daughter of the Baltic Sea” that did not fully correspond to the inner form of the word “Helsinki” in many languages other than Finnish. The image-makers of Helsinki underscore that Helsinki is a northern city, enjoying its marine surroundings with many islands, combining the old and the new, traditional and high-tech, artificial parks and natural woods, museums and nightlife—the city where everything is nearby. “Helsinki’s identity has been formed by cultural influences from both the East and West” (the Helsinki Today brochure, 2011).

The series of Helsinki City Tourism brochures (Helsinki—Visitor’s Guide) underlines different features of the city every year. Thus, in Helsinki 2010, as compared to Helsinki 2009, the best places recommended to visitors reflected the results of the visitors’ votes on the Internet, while Helsinki 2011 placed on its cover words from different languages describing the city as “peaceful,” “green,” “friendly,” and so on. Among these is the Russian adjective modnyj [“in vogue”], which might mean that this characteristic of the city is most attractive to the Russian- speaking tourists who come to Finland in their millions, often just for shopping. For the Finnish people, it is important that Helsinki hosted the Summer Olympics in 1952. This symbolized recovering from the war and post-war sufferings, and put Helsinki on the world map. More recently, membership of the European Union, participation in the program of the “European City of Culture” in 2000, and designation as the World Design Capital in 2012 are milestones in self-perception and are dear to all Finns. For the Russian tourists, these achievements are markers of the life they could not benefit from at home and a source of reflection:

Why do the Finns, who have received far from the easiest part of the Earth to inhabit, and who share a common past with the Russian Empire, do better than the Russians? Why is their quality of life so high?

The brochures do not answer these fundamental questions. The idea that in the past Finland and Russia were parts of the same country is the most important myth about Finland, and without myths no symbolic domestication of any city can be performed (Istorija 2005).

The brochure 24 hours in Helsinki (Tourist and Convention Bureau 2011, 16) recommends, among other things, a visit to Kafe Moskova, i.e. “Moscow café”. It was founded by the famous film director Aki Kaurismäki to suit his own taste, so that nobody else would like it, but it became popular nevertheless. Besides, Helsinki has several restaurants specializing in Russian cuisine, which is held in esteem thanks to Marshal K.G. Mannerheim, who liked it. The Russian restaurants are run by Finns, and a number of dishes are thought to be Russian, although they are not (for example, salted cucumbers with honey, borsch with sausages, and open cabbage pie with mayonnaise). Many people enjoy the special flavor that Russian culture from Czarist and Soviet times has given to Helsinki.

To get to know a city should give a special pleasure. To absorb the city, to identify the relationship between maps and the 3D reality, to classify its qualities, and to sort out impressions of its sights and attractions is partly hard work and partly an adventure. “Nearly every sense is in operation, and the image is a composite of them all,” wrote K. Lynch (1960, 2). In the Russian tourist guide (Goldenzweig 2003, 5) we read:

There is no such city.

There is salty sea air, boulders strewn around, the mirror of the Sanomatalo and the balls of light in the hands of the train station Atlantes. There are no Atlantes—their silhouettes fade in the granite. Here people do not look you in the eyes; they worship silence and treat an accidental touch like an electric discharge. The city is dissolved in an unrealistic manganese sunset, a sterile world behind the glass, a pervasive mirage of Scandinavia leaving you perplexed: where is the city? Where is smog and where are traffic jams, where are fashionable clothes and, after all, where are palaces and castles? What is happening?

Nothing will happen in Helsinki: it lives for itself, absorbed in itself, and concentrated on itself. It neither rejects nor pays attention to strangers, being matter-of-fact and polite. It hides, bringing the invisible mobile phone to the ear. This is teleportation through the receiver. It [the city] conceals traces and leads you onto the streets where you will find the sun, ceremonial shop windows and Japanese tourists with cameras, but where you will never get hold of the city itself.

Similar reflections can be found in a series of advertising photographs published by Time magazine in 2000. Helsinki was celebrating its 450th anniversary then and was declared the official European City of Culture. The photographs emphasize the feeling that the nature of Earth and the nature of men and women can be genuinely sensed in a city that is nowhere and yet everywhere. Appealing to the five senses, the pictures do not tell us anything about the structure of the city, except that it is full of moisture and water.

Some essays submitted by Russian- speaking residents of Finland and analyzed in this study reflect the same sensitivities and emotions. To illustrate this, we cite an excerpt from the text by V.P., a Russian-speaker living in Helsinki:

This city smells like spring: the early spring of March, the dripping water of a thaw that comes after the Epiphany frosts. It smells like the melting snow upon the reddish-brown sidewalks, like the almost sweet salt of the Gulf of the Baltic Sea and like sharp fir-needles. It rains, and the light drizzle hovering in the air—now icy, now prickly, now warmly and gently enveloping the streets—evaporates and leaves traces of moisture on the cheek of a passer- by, as if a palm passed over it. [---] This city seems to hint that it is on its own, like a cat on a seafront pier, as if by accident found near the fishermen. It belongs to nobody, it is ephemeral, mirrored in the rain spilled upon the pavement that will dry up. It looks as if there were no city, as if the mirage of the daybreak dream disappeared the minute you opened your eyes. The tramways clank at the turns and pedestrian crossings, as if telling each other the latest news. The bells of the Three Cathedrals play the second part, and the bicyclists rushing along the roads echo them.

The texts we analyzed reveal striking similarities in the image of the city created by very different people with different life experiences.

The image of the city, changing only slightly over time, is presented in Finljandija 1972, 1994 and 2000). For example, in 1972, the words of V. Lenin from 15 June 1913 are quoted: “If in Finland we see culture, civilization, freedom, literacy, educated women, and so on, this is solely because there is no such ‘social disaster’ in Finland as the Russian government” (Finljandija 1972, 6). Unfortunately, 100 years later, the same opinion is expressed by the Russian media.


In order to discuss the social environment of the places we live in, we must take into account not only the demographic constellation of the citizens and various urban aspects (including architecture, history, design, and so on) but also field research exploring communication about places and, in particular, their names. In our research, we combined methods derived mostly from socio-onomastics, ethnography, sociolinguistics, content analysis, and conversation analysis.

Owing its uniqueness partly to its “Russian” past, Helsinki has a specific romantic flavor in the eyes of the Russians visiting or living here. It is a European capital with a false Gothic style, a city boasting proximity to nature (the sea, seagulls, forests, rocks, and stones). It is a Nordic town without particularly long traditions, eluding those who want to capture its particular character. This study enhanced our understanding of the image of Helsinki for the speakers of Russian and Finnish, as well as for the bilingual immigrants who have their own peculiar patterns of communication. We understood what places are dear to them, what their feelings are when Helsinki is compared to the places where they lived before, and how the Russian-speaking community is layered. We also came to understand how familiarity with the city affects the quality of everyday life, and vice versa.

We studied historical transformations of official place-names and the emergence of unofficial ones coined by immigrants of different age groups. We explained the use of such names linguistically, for example, in comparison with the slang terms used in Russia, and gave their psychological and sociological antecedents. The “Old” and the ”New” Russian terms for various places were also discussed: the names used in the Czarist era have vanished from the city’s toponymy, but they are still present in the discourse of the “Old Russians”. The new immigrant identity is constructed through the use of markers of the new life. Historically, Russian names of the Helsinki streets went through a series of transformations. First, they were transliterations of the Swedish names; then they were partly adapted to the Russian language: the word “street” was translated and a Swedish name was transformed into a Russian- like adjective with a Russian suffix. At the final stage the Swedish name was translated completely, in the same way as its Finnish counterpart. Today, Russian speakers adopt Finnish names in their original or slang form, or make up their own variants. Young people use hybrid slang words, while some adults apply Russian models to Finnish place- names. Urban names commemorate facts of integration, acquaintance with Finnish urban culture, a clash of prejudices, and real-life stories. Different explanations have been offered to interpret the specific use of urbanonyms in the speech of Russians in Helsinki.

The image of Helsinki is reflected in the minds of its residents and tourists, and it contributes to the fusion of cultures. The Finnish sources try to present a visitor-friendly version of the Finnish understanding of history, whereas the local media in the Russian language seek to facilitate a long-term task of familiarization with the new surroundings by immigrants and guests. What happens in the minds of those who try to formulate their feelings about Helsinki reflects conflicting feelings that range from repugnance at their former sufferings to satisfaction with the city that offers them completely new and favorable experiences. Their perceptions and prejudices clash and, as a result, they either seek emotional refuge in the past or comfort themselves saying that their dreams have come true, even though reality turned out to be a far cry from what they expected.

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The Column of the Empress Alexandra

The Uspensky Orthodox cathedral, one of the symbols of the city

The Statue of Emperor Alexander II in Senate Square

The former house of the Russian Seller Kiseleff, now a fashionable department store

Sofia Street, a museum about streets

Café Sofia which serves Russian food