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Multiculturalism in Helsinki has a long history

Where the Vantaanjoki River meets the sea a famous stone can be found, set in the foundations of Helsinki's first church. It is a reproduction of the gravestone of Hans van Sanden, a Dutchman who lived in the sixteenth century, discovered in archaeological excavations in the 1930s.

It is not famous just because it tells the tale of how a Dutch merchant wandered off to the faraway north. Hans van Sanden was not just any old traveller. He was the most prominent merchant in Helsinki at the time.  However, he was also not the only trader from Continental Europe to settle at the mouth of the Vantaanjoki River after the Swedish King Gustav I had founded Helsinki in 1550. The new city was to compete with Tallinn for eastern trade opportunities, and it attracted entrepreneurs from distant European countries as well as from neighbouring lands around the Baltic Sea.

Foreign languages have been spoken in the streets and alleys of Helsinki throughout the past 450 years. The first migrants to arrive came mainly from present-day Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Later, when Tallinn was annexed to the Swedish Empire in 1561, merchants, craftsmen and even hirelings crossed the Gulf of Finland in large numbers.

The more affluent city of Tallinn appealed to Finns in search of learning and employment, but there was also movement in the other direction.  One of the most significant Helsinki mayors in the seventeenth century was Kasper Reiher, a trader from Tallinn, who died in Helsinki but lies buried with his wife in the family tomb in the St Nicholas' Church (Estonian: Niguliste kirik) of the former German parish in Tallinn's old quarter.

Apart from Reiher and other Baltic-German merchants, the potentates of Helsinki in the seventeeth century were traders from Germany.  They settled here to trade and to acquire wealth.

Eighteenth-century wars

A century later, people arrived in Helsinki for very different reasons. The year 1700 saw the start of the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden, which was to last for 21 years and bring a heavy toll on Finland. A wave of refugees from Russian-occupied Livonia (part of what is today the Baltic countries) arrived in Helsinki.

In the wake of their arrival, plague broke out in 1710 in Helsinki, wiping out over half the population of the city.  The Old Church Park of Helsinki ('Vanha kirkkopuisto') is even today often called 'Plague Park', in memory of those ghastly times. This was where the refugees and inhabitants of Helsinki who died as a result of the epidemic were buried. Later the city cemetery would be established there.

The city was only just beginning to recover after the horrors of the epidemic when something even worse befell it. In the spring of 1713 Russian troops arrived in Helsinki in ships under the command of Tsar Peter the Great himself. Outnumbered, the men defending the city retreated, setting fire to the buildings of their hometown as they fled. Some of the merchants managed to make their way to Stockholm, but most of the residents remained at the mercy of the enemy.

The occupation ended with the Treaty of Nystad in 1721.  Life in Helsinki had to be rebuilt again practically from scratch.  Gradually, the inhabitants returned to their scorched city – some from Stockholm, others from the nearby countryside.

Two decades later, the Swedish Empire was once again at war with Russia.  The so-called War of the Hats, the 'Little Discord', as it is known in Finland, lasted from 1741 to 1743, and once again saw Helsinki occupied by Russians. The city was not destroyed this time, but the war further impoverished a town that was not wealthy to begin with. With the peace settlement reached in Turku in 1743, Sweden's eastern border moved back to Kymijoki River, which meant the loss of the important trading port of Hamina.   Many tradesmen and shopkeepers from Hamina moved to Helsinki, including the Clayhill family of merchants, originally from Tallinn, who later rose to prominence in their adopted city.

Viapori and the citizens of Helsinki

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Sweden had lost two wars against Russia and, as a consequence, its status as a superpower in the Baltic Sea region. Helsinki had been twice under occupation. Vyborg, the most important garrison town and commercial centre on the Gulf of Finland was in the hands of the Russians. A few years after the peace treaty was signed in Turku, a decision was taken in Stockholm for a new fortress to be built to protect the Sweden's new eastern border.

The location chosen for the new sea fortress was the 'Wolf Islands' (Finnish: Susisaaret), off the coast of Helsinki.  Construction work began in the spring of 1748, with France providing some of the money. The fortress was named in Swedish Sveaborg, which became Viapori in Finnish. When Finland became independent in 1917, it soon acquired the new official name of Suomenlinna (‘Fortress of Finland’).

The construction of the fortress in the mid-eighteenth century changed the status of tiny Helsinki completely.  Over the course of just a few years an influx of construction workers in their thousands as well as soldiers from home and abroad arrived.  A number of brick factories, sawmills, rope makers and other production facilities were set up to serve the needs of the fortress construction site.

Ships brought goods for the Swedish officers from as far away as the Mediterranean. There were also luxury items that had never been seen before in Helsinki. Cultural life thrived. The construction of the fortress brought with it a breath of cosmopolitan air when, alongside the Swedish officers, came musicians and artists from different European countries.

Helsinki becomes capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland

If the construction of Viapori in the latter half of the eighteenth century had marked a great change for the little town of Helsinki, even more crucial was the surrender of the sea fortress to the Russians during the Finnish War between Sweden and Russia in 1808. Sweden lost that war as well, and Finland was annexed to the Russian Empire under the Treaty of Hamina in 1809.

Finland was made a Grand Duchy by imperial decree, and in 1812 Alexander I declared Helsinki to be the capital of Finland. With its newly acquired status, Helsinki underwent vast construction projects that lasted several decades.

J. A. Ehrenström, a native of Helsinki, drew up a new city plan, which was to be realised by Berlin architect Carl Ludvig Engel. He had been commissioned by the Tsar to design the buildings of the new capital. Helsinki was built in the style of Russia's capital, St Petersburg.

As the new, stylish city took shape, Helsinki became a place of interest for entrepreneurs in various industries also outside of Finland. Owners of coffee shops and restaurateurs were among the first to see the potential the new market had to offer. Swedish-born Kaisa Wahllund moved from Turku to Helsinki, where she continued to pursue her successful career as a restaurateur.

She was admired by students in particular, and ran several restaurants and hotels. Her restaurant in the park by the sea was so popular that the parkland surrounding it became known as Kaisaniemi. Still today, the park is an oasis of green in the city centre, and Restaurant Kaisaniemi can still be found where she established it.  A few years ago, the new library of the University of Helsinki was built close by and was named Kaisa. This shows how the name of the Swedish restaurateur lives on in the city.

Coffee house owners came to Helsinki from as far away as Switzerland. By the end of the 1820s, there were several Swiss patisseries in Helsinki. The most famous was the one run by the Catani family. For years the celebrated coffee shop stood in the heart of the capital on Pohjoisesplanadi. It started out in a wooden building in the imperial style, but when the Hotel Kämp was built in 1887, Catani had a splendid Neo-Renaissance style building constructed on a neighbouring plot to house his coffee and pastry business.

By the end of the century, another Swiss confectioner opened a shop in Helsinki: his name was Karl Fazer.  Helsinki was growing fast at the end of the 1800s, and entrepreneurs who had arrived from abroad – often from Sweden or Germany – dominated the catering trade. Two of the most famous Germans were Louis Kleineh and Karl König. The Hotel Kleineh, by Kauppatori, Helsinki's market square, bore the name of its owner, in the continental manner. German-born Karl König had started out as an actor, but he drifted into the restaurant business and took over the Biertunnel (‘beer hall’) in the recently opened Hotel Kämp. Soon König opened his own cellar restaurant.

Sausages, wallpaper and beer

The Swiss and the Germans also exerted a major influence in trade and business.  Two names stand out from the rest:  Stockmann and Paulig. G. F. Stockmann and Gustav Paulig both came from Lübeck, and the businesses they set up expanded rapidly at the turn of the century, and were to become major companies in the rapidly growing city. Today, the Stockmann department store is a Helsinki city centre landmark and East Helsinki is home to Paulig's coffee roastery.

The German community of Helsinki founded their own church in 1858.  Their place of worship was built at the foot of Tähtitorninmäki ('Observatory Hill') in in 1864.  The construction of the church was to a great extent due to the influence of then Governor-General of Finland, Baltic German Count Friedrich von Berg. The church was run by families such as the Stockmanns, the Pauligs and the Fazers, as well as the Seecks, who, like many other sausage producers, were of German origin.  Brewers were recruited from Bavaria to run Helsinki breweries.  Foreigners were depended on for many other occupations requiring specialist knowledge. Georg Rieks, who established a large wallpaper factory, was originally from Hanover. His success eventually led him to move his factory from Helsinki to St Petersburg.

When Finland was ceded to Russia in 1809, it was natural that Helsinki began to witness the arrival of Russian craftsmen and shopkeepers.  They moved to the fortress islands of Viapori mainly from the garrison towns of the parts of Finland lost to Russia in the eighteenth century.  These areas were known as Old Finland, and included parts of eastern Finland and the city of Vyborg with its surrounding area, which was annexed to Russia already after the Great Northern War in 1721.

Now settled by thousands of military personnel, Viapori sea fortress was an important provider of livelihood for business people. Among them was Russian-born Nikolai Sinebrychoff, who ran a very diverse business operation in Viapori but which mainly focused on beer and spirit production. By 1819 he had been granted sole rights to brew beer throughout Helsinki, and from the 1820s the brewery buildings at Hietalahti, then on the outskirts of the city, were established.

The monopoly lasted for several decades and made the Sinebrychoff family the wealthiest in Helsinki. They were also in the construction business and owned the Helsinki shipyard and extensive areas of land outside the city. Paul Sinebrychoff Senior was the city's highest taxpayer, and he was also involved in Helsinki city administration, being one of the City Elders and later on as member of the City Council. The family generously supported cultural life in Helsinki.

His wife, Anna, ran the brewery business at the end of the 1800s and gave large sums to charity.  The last of the Sinebrychoffs, Paul Junior and his wife Fanny, left their vast collection of art and valuables to the Finnish state in 1921. Now that collection is on display at the former family residence on Bulevardi street. The brewery moved its production facilities outside Helsinki in the 1990s.

In the mid-1800s the Russian merchant community in Helsinki was at its largest.  Of all the city's traders and business people, almost 40 % were Russian-born, as were more than half of those who traded in foodstuffs.  Almost all the vegetables and ice cream available in Helsinki were from enterprises run by Russians.

Among the richest business families were, apart from the Sinebrychoffs, the Kiseleffs, who had a sugar factory, and the Uschakoffs, who had a handsome business and residential building at the corner of Pohjoisesplanadi and Unioninkatu. Now the building houses the city tourist office.

Most of the Russian traders moved to Helsinki from Old Finland, the St Petersburg area or the Yaroslavl Governorate. But by the mid-1800s, some of them were already true natives of the city, being the descendants of Russians born there.   Marriages with spouses of Lutherans faith and the adoption of the Swedish language also speeded up their integration with the rest of the population.

Ties with Russia remained strong for many, however, because the Orthodox Church was very close to the heart of the Russian business community. Many of the wealthiest merchants contributed to the costs of the construction and interior decoration of the Holy Trinity Church, consecrated in 1827, ase well as the Uspenski Cathedral, consecrated some 40 years later, and the church known as Kotikirkko (‘home church’), consecrated at the start of the 1900s.  The Sinebrychoff brothers donated the beautiful iconostasis to the Holy Trinity Church, and a businessman named Tschernischeff donated to the parish the rectory building he had had built on Liisankatu, in which Kotikirkko is located.

1900 census: Finnish speakers become majority

Helsinki grew fast in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Industrialisation and the extension of the railway network both served to boost trade and the movement of people in search of work. This growth meant that what was formerly a typical coastal city where Swedish was spoken became a more Finnish city.  In the 1900 census, for the first time, there was a majority of Finnish speakers among the inhabitants.

The Russian revolution resulted in a significant influx of refugees into Finland.  Finland's eastern border was closed, but many were able to flee in the early part of the 1920s especially from the St Petersburg area, many of whom settled in Helsinki. Most, however, continued their way to the Continent, with Paris becoming a centre for Russian émigrés.  Helsinki Orthodox Cemetery is the last resting place for many well-known refugees.

More people from the Russian Empire

Helsinki's Jewish and Tatar business communities also have their roots in the Russian Empire.   Men often had to serve as long as 25 years in the Russian army. When that time was over, soldiers had often become so well acclimatised to their surroundings that they and their families stayed there.  That was the case for a good number of Jews who had served in the Russian army.

In the Russian Empire, the business practises of Jews were regulated strictly.  They were only allowed to deal in certain types of food, handicrafts and mainly second-hand clothes.  Early on, the Jews of Helsinki had their very own market, Narinkka, which was mostly a place for selling second-hand clothing. The last site of the market was in Kamppi, near the city centre, where it was until the late 1920s.

When Finland became independent in 1917, the Jews were given full citizenship.  Many Jews continued as entrepreneurs in the clothing industry, which in the most successful case led to the establishment of a chain of stores in the city. The name Narinkka re-emerged soon after the turn of the millennium, when a new shopping centre was built in the city centre at Kamppi, very close to the square where the Jewish vendors once traded. The same area of the city has been home to the synagogue of the Jewish community in 1906.

Among the so-called traditional ethnic minorities is another, smallish one, whose roots are in the Russian Empire and who also became well-known as merchants: Helsinki's Islamic Tatars.  Most of the ancestors of the members of this group arrived in Finland in the early twentieth century and some later after the Russian revolution.

They have their roots mostly in the Muslim villages around Nizhny Novgorod. Helsinki's Charitable Society of Muslims was founded in 1915, and the Finnish Islamic Congregation in 1925.  Over decades, the Tatars became known in Helsinki principally as traders in furs and rugs.

After the Second World War

Finland had to hand over more than 10 % of its territory to the Soviet Union after the Second World War.  The entire population of Karelia, the biggest of these areas in the east of the country, moved to other parts of Finland. More than 400,000 refugees from Karelia were resettled in this way in the autumn of 1944. One of the most important cities in the area ceded was Vyborg, from which around 30,000 people moved to Helsinki.  Vyborg up to the Second World War was Finland's second largest city and the most international in character. Most of its German and Russian speaking inhabitants and Tatars moved to Helsinki. The German parish of Viborg, for example, was incorporated into the Helsinki parish.

In 1990, just 1.3 % of the inhabitants of Helsinki spoke a language other than the country's official tongues, Finnish and Swedish.  At that time, 90.8 % spoke Finnish. The following year saw the break-up of the former superpower that was the Soviet Union.  The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by a considerable influx of migrants to Finland. Finns and Ingrians who had lived mainly in and around St Petersburg since the old days had been persecuted under Stalin.  Estonia was also home to a significant group of Ingrians.

Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 and regained its independence. In Finland, President Mauno Koivisto declared that the Ingrians were Finns and could move to Finland. The large-scale migration that would last for years was soon under way. Most of the Russian speakers among the Ingrian population knew no Finnish, although a large number of those who migrated from Estonia did speak the language.  Hardly any Russian was spoken in Finland at the time. The number of 'old immigrants', those who had fled to Finland prior to 1991, was very small.

This meant that the number of speakers of Russian began to increase rapidly.  At the same time, in the early of the 1990s, Somali refugees who had resided in the Soviet Union/Russia moved on from there to Finland. This wave of migration was something Finland had never previously experienced.

In early 1995 Finland, along with Sweden and Austria, joined the EU. Movement from one country to another was easier in the EU than it had been before EU membership. This is reflected clearly in Helsinki's current population.  In the year 2000, 5.3% of the residents of the city spoke a language other than Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue. In 2010, that figure was 10.2%, and by 2015, 13.5% of the population spoke a foreign language.  Russian was spoken by over 16,000 people, Estonian by more than 11,000 people, and Somali by almost 8,000 people. That same year the total population of Helsinki was 620,715.

Martti Helminen is Senior Researcher at City of Helsinki Urban Facts.

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