October 03, 2017

A Finnish Finish

A Finnish Finish

We arrive in Nokia, Finland under cover of darkness. A two-hour drive in our rented hybrid Toyota Yaris takes us through a region thick with picturesque forests and lakes, and we are met by Matti, our generous and gracious AirBnB host, who, among other things, insists we sample his favorite local restaurant sometime during our stay.

Oh, the burdens of travel…

The Red Declaration. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

Tampere, which neighbors Nokia, and for which a cellphone company has yet to be named, has a long history as an unabashedly leftist, workers’ city. It was here on November 1, 1905, during a general strike, that workers published the famous Red Declaration (because of the paper it was printed on), which called for the Senate of Finland to resign; demanded universal suffrage, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. It also had the gall to ask for an end to censorship. 

It was also in this city (now Finland’s second largest, after Helsinki), and also in 1905, that Vladimir Lenin met Joseph Stalin for the first time. Lenin lived here for two years before leaving the Russian Empire for Western Europe in 1907 (then returning in 1917 with German aid). And that may be one reason why the city is home to one of the last museums in the world to Lenin. Housed in the Tampere Workers’ Hall on floor 2.5, the newly redesigned and reopened museum is a welcoming, innovative little place. But it is also annoyingly “neutral” in its coverage of the worst aspects of the Soviet era, while at the same time unforgivably kitschy. It is not clear what one is to make of a museum that sells copies of Anne Applebaum’s Gulag five paces away from a display that encourages you to put on a long overcoat and photograph yourself driving a Russian motorcycle with a crooked manikin of Lenin in the sidecar.

Take Lenin for a ride? {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

It is also worth noting that, during Finland’s Civil War (January-May, 1918), Tampere – then the most industrialized city in Finland – was the site of one of that war’s bloodiest battles, in which at least a thousand Reds (and all the 200 or so resident Russians) were executed when the town was retaken by the Whites.

At the center of Tampere’s old town is the huge Tampella factory, once a thriving manufacturer of paper machines, locomotives, and military weaponry that played a large part in the city being nicknamed “the Manchester of the North.” It sits astride the channel through the center of town that connects two lakes of disparate heights – providing the constant source of water energy that made industrial development possible here in the 1800s. Today the factory has been repurposed into museums, shops and offices.

The Tampella Factory {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

* * *

Through the kind and able auspices of Suvi Turtiainen, a journalist for Helsingen Sanomat, the country’s largest newspaper, we meet with two extraordinary Finnish centenarians, Saima Ritalahti and Helmi Hellman. 

Finland was part of the Russian Empire in 1917 (incorporated into the fold in 1809, it declared independence in December 1917, making this also an important round-anniversary year for Finland).

Saima Ritalahti. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

At this point, however, we have only general impressions to relate of our meetings, because neither of these fine women spoke a whit of English or Russian. So we worked up a list of questions and follow-on questions that Suvi will pose to the centenarians, and then we will learn what we have witnessed when the recorded transcripts are translated for us, some weeks hence. 

It is not a comfortable feeling, flying blind like this, but we sit quietly and listen to interviews we cannot understand, then have challenging tri-lingual photo sessions. 

When we first meet Saima, we think perhaps she is her daughter, so young does she seem to us. Not a year over 70 we whisper to one another. And she is very amiable and her whole family is extremely active and energetic (maybe it’s all the coffee they keep offering us). Indeed, when, late in the interview, Saima mentions that she still dances to keep active, Misha blurts out that he would love to dance with her. And so they do. But shortly Saima tires of Misha’s patronizing, slow and careful pace, and casts him aside to dance blazingly fast circles around the room with her daughter.

Helmi is considerably less mobile than Saima, but her spirit is equally strong. She had a very active life, and was a member of Finland’s only gymnastic troupe back in the 1940s. But her early life was marked by loss, when both her brother and father died in a prison camp, as the family was on the losing side (the “Reds”) in the Finnish Civil War.

Helmi Hellman. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Today, Helmi lives in a nicely appointed single apartment in a home for the elderly. Interestingly, this is the first centenarian we have visited on the entire trip who lives in an “institution” per se. And Helmi is our last of 22 interviewees. All the others lived on their own in apartments or with family.

Helma (left) in her acrobat days.

Both Saima and Helmi spent many long years working in textile factories – a rather typical profession for this area. And both have seen family members emigrate. For Saima, two of her daughters left the country, and for Helmi, it was her sister, who first emigrated to the US, and then to the USSR – something many Finns did, under the false hope that they were heading to a workers’ paradise, where many died an early death.

Mikhail and Paul pose with Helmi, the final hero of the expedition.

* * *

The “cost” of Suvi’s invaluable help on the Finnish leg of our journey is that we will grant her an interview for a feature that runs in Helsingen Sanomat. It hardly seems that we are compensating her fairly. But then I find out about the public sauna.

As I am not a fan, to say the least, of hot environments, I do not immediately “warm” to the idea of a sauna on the shores of the Baltic, despite everyone insisting it will be a memorable experience. Yet they are right. But it is not memorable just because of the intense, choking heat and our close proximity to lots of sweaty bodies (all in bathing suits, mind you). But because this is part of the interview process: we are followed around and photographed at the sauna, drawing curious looks from the over-heated locals, as we jump into the Baltic to cool down from the steam, as we enjoy cool beverages and suck in our guts to look good for the photographs which are, of course, not chosen by the wise photo editor. 

Still, for all that, it is a memorable experience. The pungent smell of overheated wood stays in my nostrils for days, and the combined effect of multiple trips into the various steam rooms, followed by quick plunges in the icy Baltic, has assured that I will not sweat - for lack of excess fluids - for at least 5 days.

Mikhail on the shore after the sauna. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

Which is good, because the next day we make a wrong turn in our little hybrid Yaris and get snared in a Tampere ticket trap. It would have been a hilarious situation if it had not cost us 100 Euro. At the end of a narrow block of a roadway under construction, a gang of six heavily-armed Finnish police officers wave car after car into a parking lot, where they take their turn getting a ticket for mistakenly driving in a bus-only lane (the other options not being clearly marked). Of course, it would have been more honest and efficient to post a single officer at the start of the problematic roadway to warn off unsuspecting drivers. But what would be the fun in that? And how many Euros would that earn the Tampere Police Force?

* * *

The final stop on our expedition is Helsinki.

We are exhausted and a bit irritable after a packed month of traveling, interviewing, photographing and filming. But the stay is short. Misha is actually heading off to St. Petersburg with Suvi, to do a bit of work on a different journalistic project. And I am to find my way to a little hotel east of the capital, where I will spend a final night in what was once the Russian empire before flying home.

Alexander II's statue. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}


The Helsinki waterfront. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

After wrestling with some logistics, we tour a bit of the downtown, including Alexander Square, which has a massive statue to Tsar Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881), though we expect few of the visiting tourists understand who is towering above them. And then we explore the waterfront, imagining where the ship Emperor Pavel I might have been tied up – the ship on which the father of centenarian Marina Goncharova (whom we met in Tarusa nearly a month before) served, and which mutinied shortly after the abdication of the tsar in 1917. We imagine that it looked then nothing like it does now, covered as it is in kiosks selling touristy wares and fronted by shi-shi outlets and hotels. 

But the world of today is very far from what it was 100 years ago, and if there is one thing our centenarians have taught us, it is that if you want to get on in this world, you have to roll with the change. Resilience is not about resistance, but about bouncing back. And moving on. 

Now we just have a book and movie to assemble before the end of the year.

Honestly, after all we have seen and done, how hard could that be?

The final picture from the expedition.

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