I finally made it to St. Petersburg. It was enormous and beautiful, albeit with a patina of decay. Everything I had read about St. Petersburg’s relationship with Helsinki fell into place while I was there, just as it had when I was in Stockholm. These two much more powerful cities took turns ruling Helsinki–indeed all of Finland–until the early 20th century. It’s funny how you can read about such things for pages and pages but not actually get it until you’re there, standing in Palace Square, taking in the architecture of empire. St. Petersburg and Stockholm look like cities that have ruled other places, same as London and Paris.
I was born in North Carolina, in the American South. North Carolina is sometimes described as the “vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” Its history, filled with small farms and tradesmen, is much more humble than that of Virginia or South Carolina, the “mountains” to its north and south. North Carolina was slower to develop economically during the 18th and 19th centuries, and was the last state to secede from the US at the beginning of the American Civil War, perhaps because it had less to fight for. Meanwhile, Virginia and South Carolina were rich in southern aristocracy: plantations, old money, power politics.
Walking around St. Petersburg, along the River Neva that looks as long and wide as the Thames; and through the Hermitage, with treasure room after treasure room gilded and curlicued within an inch of its life, I realized that Helsinki too is a vale of humility, tucked between one Russian and one Swedish mountain.
Helsinki’s scale is so much more human. It has its own treasures but no real palaces or other grand displays of wealth and power. Its people are humble–they ask me “Why on earth would you want to study Helsinki?” And they ask it in my mother tongue, not their own–long ago they got used to having to learn other people’s languages.
The old power dynamics have left their mark on Helsinki–in the layout of the city, the buildings, and the street names–but they matter less now. Even if Helsinki never rules anyone else, its tech economy is making it a world player in its own right. And life is pretty great down in the “valley”–clean air, low crime, good housing. Moreover, the view of the mountains is spectacular.