Finland, Oy, Oy, Oy! Travel Notes from Karelia

One’s perception of Finland always depended on where you were coming from…and going to.  That truism remains, while in the post-Cold War era everything else one might say about the country and its people has changed. Read on….       


                   Finland, Oy, Oy, Oy!  Travel Notes from Karelia


                                             by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.   





For Old Russia Hands like me, Finland was always a way station rather than a proper destination. Most of us were merely making a day’s stopover when changing planes en route to or from the Soviet Union. In those days, that meant spending a night or two in Helsinki.  Some of us stayed for several months in what was a comfortable observation platform for researching the big neighbor to the East prior to going there.  Though we uniformly found the Finns to be hospitable, our level of enthusiasm for their country was always dependent on the direction of our route.   Outbound from Moscow, Finland looked exciting and Western.  Inbound from New York, Helsinki looked dull and provincial.

In the post-Cold War era, Finland’s relationship to Russia and its relative usefulness as a transit point for people like me have changed beyond recognition.  In the 1990s, when the Russian economy collapsed while reorganizing itself from command to market structure, the Finns were compelled to reorient their own economy away from the big neighbor at their doorstep and towards Europe and the world. Membership in the EU cushioned and facilitated this profound change.  As one small but relevant aspect of this reorientation, Helsinki ceased to be a hub for travelers to Russia.  And so my Finnish stopovers came to an end more than a decade ago.

In the new millennium, Finland became a stopover for many Russians, especially from nearby St Petersburg, on their travels to the European Union.  In effect, the Finnish diplomatic missions in Russia have been very liberal in granting Schengen visas to Russian travelers in exchange for mandatory and regular stays in their country on the way to or from their ultimate destinations.  It has clearly been a nice money-earner for Finnish retailers and, with their eyes open to residential opportunities, some of those travelers have also shopped for and acquired summer houses and apartments in Finland.

It is in this connection that over the past several years I have heard mostly glowing accounts of Finland from St Petersburg friends and acquaintances, who not only go across the border regularly to satisfy Schengen visa requirements but also to do their shopping for luxury goods they say are not available at home, including Finnish smoked fishes and other delicacies that Russians adore. From their Finnish travels, they also come back greatly impressed by the roads, the orderliness, the cleanliness which contrast starkly with Russian reality. As one family friend puts it:  ‘Finland is Russian landscapes plus civilization.’  Negative comments arise only in connection with the high prices of Finnish goods and services and in the awareness that Finns do not particularly like having Russians around.

All of these conflicting notions swirled through my mind when my wife and I decided to take a break from our long summer vacation at our dacha to the south of St Petersburg and to see for ourselves what the new, post-Cold War Finland is like, and to make our discovery trip in Finnish Karelia, the southeastern region of lakes, summer retreats and music festivals.


A tourist brochure on Finland which we read on the train ride from St Petersburg across the border towards Savonlinna boasted that Finland has been named (by travel agents? businessmen’s associations?) the world’s most desirable place to live. The idea is that the country is very ecology minded, has pure air and water, etc. which are good for your health.  However, our observations from a couple of days into the visit gave the lie to this notion. You need only open your eyes and look around at the population in Savonlinna: the number of obese, not to mention simply grossly overweight people who have ‘limited mobility’ is alarming.  The men have their beer bellies which follow from the tipple of choice, but the women are in a much worse plight: all too many are walking tubs of fat, sickly looking and much above their chronological age in appearance.  Little kids are skinny and cute, but the teenagers already show signs of serious future weight problems.  Something is amiss, but what can be behind this manifestly poor state of public health? 

 Maybe one other statistical item from the Finnish glossy marketing brochures bears mention: this country has the world’s highest per capita consumption of ice cream.  It seems to be on sale everywhere. And the street markets abound with vendors of cakes and other baked goods, which substitute for a regular meal given the steep price of restaurant food.

The observations above are not just random sampling of the pedestrians we spotted on the streets of Savonlinna, visitors to the street market, and so on.  They pertain also to the audience of the opera festival, to people who have paid down their 140 Euros per person for their seats. These are by definition members of the elites, whether state functionaries or business people or educators.  They bear no comparison to the sleek audience of German officialdom we have seen in another summer arts festival, the Ruhr Triennale in Bochum, a provincial backwater of Germany that draws in crowds from prosperous Duesseldorf and Koeln as well as further afield. 

As our journey wore on, we were struck by several other negative peculiarities of the indigenous population. One was the surprising number of deformed or demented folks wandering around aimlessly or ensconced on public benches.  On Broadway, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, they might be bag ladies/gents, the human detritus of a dog eat dog social environment. Here they are simply disoriented, disorderly souls who seem ready to topple over at any moment. 

Second was the rampant alcohol abuse, notwithstanding the extravagant taxation on spirits and the very limited distribution through the state monopoly stores of Alko. Our experience showed that finding a bottle was more difficult in the Finnish provinces than in a virtuously abstemious Muslim country like Morocco. And yet, in bars and restaurants Finns seem to be drinking up a storm.

Binge drinking of the hard stuff was always associated with Finnish visitors to Russia in the bad old days. They were known to stumble out of the buses delivering them to Leningrad or Moscow. And so it was no great surprise when several fellow passengers waiting on the platform at the Finland Station  at the start of our journey in St Petersburg happened to be Finns and happened to be carrying plastic bags with ‘souvenirs’ that clinked as they walked.  Several bottles of cheap Russian vodka were already opened before our train left the station, and were duly drained to the bottom shortly thereafter.

At the opera festival two days into our trip, we were stunned when a proper looking lady in her mid-thirties tried to force her way down our row of seats looking in vain for her place.  She was assisted out, but then came back a few minutes again in her alcoholic fog.  After many years of opera-going, I confess this spectacle was a sad novelty.

And our 10 hour boat journey up the inland waterways of Karelia through lakes and canals from Savonlinna to Kuopio was spent entirely in liquor consumption by one of the eight Finnish couples who were our fellow passengers. The obliging crew served them rounds of quarter bottles of sparkling wine, followed by beer, then full bottles of still red wine, after which they began over again. On the side, they surreptitiously downed a brown-bagged half bottle of vodka. Another couple was modest in their liquor consumption on board, but once in Kuopio and upon arrival, along with us, at the hotel, they stopped at the bar before checking in. We found them there an hour later seated in the same armchairs, with an assortment of empty cocktail glasses around them.


The third and last feature of the Finnish population which impressed us is its taciturn, even misanthropic leanings. On that 10 hour boat ride, which took place on an off-day, with only a fraction of the normal complement of passengers, all of us spent most of the time at tables in the main salon/dining room. And in that time not a word was exchanged between the nine couples.  One lady spent the entire trip doing crossword puzzles and never looked out the window at the wonderful sylvan setting. Others occasionally exchanged remarks among themselves, though silence predominated.

The shorelines on both sides of the waterways made it clear that the Finnish notion of ‘back to nature,’ the preferred way of spending leisure time, places the emphasis on insularity, avoidance of all social interchange. Except for one settlement en route which resembled a holiday center, the houses were all well separated from one another so as to have little or no contact. Most seemed to have electricity, often from what must be underwater cables. Obviously a fortune was spent on this engineering infrastructure, though the weekend houses themselves were fairly modest one-story affairs. Not a single house had a satellite dish. It is easy to imagine that the sole pastime in such retreats consists in downing a bottle before or after the sauna and skinny-dip in the cold waters.

Our brief sojourn in our destination town of Kuopio suggested that the same pastime would apply to a provincial center like this.  The town’s pride is its campus of the Eastern Karelia regional university, which is said to rank among the 200 top institutions of higher learning worldwide. In what is a sad irony, the university  specializes in ecology, sustainability, and the like.  And yet a walking tour of Kuopio’s center before we bed down for our one-night in town ahead of an early morning departure for Lappeenranta revealed a nightmare scenario of urban renewal run amok. The city fathers had approved the razing of the central square and adjacent streets to make way for a multi-story shopping center, which probably one day will be rather imposing, if character-less. In the process, they removed a great many of the 19th century wooden houses which gave distinctiveness to Kuopio.

Lest my account of our week’s trip to Finnish Karelia sound churlish, I am obliged to say a word about the event which brought us here, the Savonlinna Opera Festival, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary. As we learned in the course of our visit, that hoary age is somewhat of an exaggeration since the initiative petered out during the First World War shortly after it began. It was not resumed by the Finnish Republic which emerged from the war and had more urgent nation-building tasks on its agenda. Indeed, the Festival owes its resurrection to the great Finnish bass Martti Talvela, who grew up in Karelia. From 1972 until 1979, Talvela headed the festival and put Savonlinna on the map of Finnish, and more broadly, European opera lovers. Having had the privilege to hear Talvela in one of his performances in the title role of ‘Boris Godunov’ at the Metropolitan, I can appreciate his achievement in giving this remote and not easily accessible part of Finland a cultural association well above the doubtful renown it also enjoys today as the venue for the World’s Mobile Phone Throwing Contest (reported earlier today on Euronews and the BBC).

Whatever the actual historical facts, the Savonlinna Opera Festival organizers nonetheless marked the 100th anniversary of their venture with elan. At the opening ceremony we heard congratulatory speeches from leaders of the Scandinavian, European and North American opera world. This year they staged both a newly commissioned opera and several of the more successful productions from the past which continue to enjoy great popularity with the Finnish public even if local professionals would prefer to move ahead with more modern visions of the classics.

In the event, the blockbuster of the Festival’s first week was the staging of ‘Aida,’ which must have involved more than 500 musicians, singers and extras on stage and in its lavishness was easily the equal of the Verona Arena productions.  Finnish opera lovers knew what to expect and Savonlinna was fully booked for the weekend bracketing the ‘Aida’ performance. 

Musically the production of Aida was world class, with Germany’s stellar tenor Johan Botha singing Radames.  The Russian mezzo soprano Smirnova was a wonderful, powerful Pharaoh’s daughter. Aida was less exciting but still very competent and the blending of voices was masterful. Much as I enjoyed it, much as I was pleased to see a vision of ‘Aida’ that its composer Giuseppi Verdi would have surely relished for its faithfulness to his intentions, I nonetheless could not purge from my mind the feeling of passé which nearly 30 years of ‘Eurotrash’ productions in Western Europe have imposed on us. There was on stage no attempt to read politics or social messages into ‘Aida.’ No videos showing Mussolini’s gallant warriors taking charge in Abyssinia.  Instead the operatic intervals were danced by real classical ballet dancers.

The other very beautiful and vintage production at Savonlinna which we were fortunate to catch was ‘The Magic Flute.’  Here again we were treated to first class artists and conducting, to a sensible stage decoration and costuming, to a solution for the spoken parts which ensured that the Finnish-speaking children in the audience would be enchanted, as they should.  And there was no particular attention to the Masonic elements or other political-philosophical elements which Mozart had thrown into the mix of his most successful popular entertainment.  Gerard Mortier would be disdaining, but the audience lapped it up, as a Met audience in New York would have done under the long intendancy of Joseph Volpe.

What emerges from the foregoing is a picture of (musically) very conservative Finns. The Festival management’s attempts to be ‘with it’ by putting on an evening of ‘cross-over,’ a classically trained band of hard rock cellists with the appropriate name of Apocalypse, caught the mature and square audience by surprise. They were jovial and good sports about spending their 100 plus euros on a gig for teenagers. And in anticipation of possible adverse reactions, the management had vendors selling ear plugs in the  entranceways to the auditorium!

The other attempt at avant garde in Savonlinna, the premiere of the new opera ‘Fenice,’ with libretto in Italian (a ‘first’ in this jealously Finnish-first country), was a talentless dud. The story-line was so thin that it would fit on the back of an envelope with room to spare.  The score was a pastiche, drawing on compositional techniques from several generations of opera. It opened with something resembling Berg’s ‘Wozzeck,’ then moved around in time before settling into a faux bel canto, which gave some very good arias to the singers and won the audience’s affection.

The audience at the several performances we attended was overwhelmingly Finnish and from the capital, but there was a sprinkling of foreigners, mostly English speaking, and a very few Russians, probably music professionals.  At our lodgings we exchanged notes with a couple from Singapore and New Zealand who came to Europe precisely to hear several evenings of opera at the festival and were leaving for a few days in Helsinki before heading home. They were especially satisfied with ‘Aida.’

At the general rehearsals, the audience was drawn mostly from the townspeople, who were given free passes in a successful public relations move by the Festival organizers.  But then again, the Festival is the economic locomotive of the very short (six week) tourist season of Savonlinna, and clearly is a big contributor to the local economy.  

We closed out our visit to Finnish Karelia with a stopover in Lappeenranta, which is, for most Russians coming across into Finland for their shopping and to satisfy the terms of their Schengen visas, the beginning and end of their Finnish travels. Here indeed are the ‘greener pastures’ which they are looking for, the reference point for their discontent over Russian realities.

In a word, Lappeenranta is a picture perfect resort with a cluster of medium priced four-star hotels just near the lake, with its pretty street market selling the ubiquitous Finnish strawberries and green peas in the pod,  carved wooden knickknacks and grilled or fried freshwater fish that you will find across the country to the shores of the capital, Helsinki, this summer.  It has several appealing lakeside restaurants and it has a modern shopping center with H&M and other international retailers well known to Petersburgers. In addition, Lappeenranta has preserved its early 19th century wooden town hall and Lutheran cathedral, together with a few other nearby solid planed log buildings bearing witness to its past as a center for Russian-Finnish merchants.  One of these houses is now a heritage museum of regional importance. Among the souvenirs for sale are reproductions of 19th century photographs from Lappeenranta and of the Karelian capital to which it once reported, Viipuri – today’s Russian border city of Vyborg.  Of course, to any Russian with some sense and sensibility, the contrast between orderly and attractive Lappeenranta and the chaotic and largely ugly Vyborg has to be a source of deep embarrassment.

To sum up, my brief but varied sojourn in Finnish Karelia turned up both some unattractive features of this  Western society so close to Petersburg, and some gleaming attractions which indeed justify the wistful remarks of Russian friends and acquaintances who wonder why their domestic surroundings are often so blighted.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012






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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.