Tuesday, October 25, 2011


The Town Hall in Viborg (Viipuri), the multilingual city
Viborg (Viipuri) was a multilingual city almost from the start. Germans in Viborg used to say “Ein echter Wiburger geht auf allen Vieren” (a true Viborg-resident walks on all fours), i.e. speaks four languages. German was the language of commerce in this town embedded for centuries in the wide network of Hansa; Russian was the language of the Czar’s military after 1721; and Swedish the sole language of the administration until 1863 when Finnish was given equal status in the Grand Duchy. Finnish was always the spoken language of most of the town’s population.

In 1870 51 % of the city’s population spoke Finnish, 16 % spoke Swedish, 24 % spoke Russian (mostly Russian military) and 5 % German (Kaj Wahlbeck, Karelen - med kärlek, p. 102). People married over language lines resulting in homes where children spoke German with some aunts and uncles and Russian with others, Finnish with friends, Swedish at school or any other of the many combinations thereof.
Commerce and Industry converse in Viborg
Each summer affluent families from Viborg and St Petersburg moved to their summerhouses on the Isthmus, often around the sea-side resort town of Terijoki (Russian: Zelanogorsk). Two buildings there are symbols of linguistic and cultural integration: Villa Golicke and Villa Penaty. A third building – the Officers’ Casino – symbolizes the opposite: the threat of monolithic dictatorship. We set off in search of these houses. 

Villa Golicke was the summer residence of the Colliander family of St Petersburg. The poet Tito Colliander (1904 -1989) was born in St Petersburg, probably considered Swedish his mother tongue and was of the Greek-Orthodox faith. Like many other Finns, he left St Petersburg with his family during the Russian revolution, returning with a cosmopolitan outlook to the Isthmus, which was now part of independent Finland.

At Villa Golicke, he entertained Finnish poets who wrote in Swedish such as Gunnar Björling, Elmer Diktonius, Rabbe Enkell, Hagar Olsson, the Parland brothers and Edith Södergran. Villa Golicke was a “linguistic cluster” of the relatively few Swedish speaking literati on the Isthmus. There they met not only each other but formed a network with Finnish-language colleagues as well as one with prominent poets from Sweden such as Johannes Edfelt, Gunnar Ekelöf, the 1964 Nobel Laureate Eyvind Johnson and Erik Lindegren. As a multi-lingual and multi-cultural meeting place for artists and writers in the inter-war period, Villa Golicke became the cradle of literary modernism in both Finland and Sweden.
Can this be Villa Golicke?
In awe of Villa Golicke’s role in history, we headed towards Kuokkala, on the Baltic seaside just east of Terijoki, expecting to find there a Pantheon of poets. We entered an overgrown and unattended garden where we discerned a small shack behind wild-grown shrubbery. Had we come to the right place?  

Clearly not, we thought. It was far too small and lacked the glass veranda, famous for its many festive parties. So we admired instead Terijoki’s legendary 35-kilometer long sand beach to which the shack had direct access through a small gate.

Sand as far as the eye can see
Soon an elderly gentleman shuffled towards us from the neighbouring house. He confirmed that this shack was indeed Villa Golicke, of which he was the caretaker. He kindly fetched the keys to the house and allowed us to enter – a bedroom, a living room and a make-shift kitchen downstairs, all small. A bedroom upstairs, really a simple loft, contained a desk with an inspiring view of the beach and bay.
How many wind-sailors can this house sleep?
It was difficult to imagine that this run-down hovel had once been a literary Parnassus. Its pitiful state suggested imminent demolishment and replacement by a luxury waterfront villa. Location is all, as the realtors say. The current owners have saved the house from this fate so far, but not because of its cultural significance. The caretaker informed us that tourists, keen on windsailing in the bay 20 meters away, provide a rental income of 5000 Rubles (some 170 dollars) per night. This is a large amount to pay for the Villa’s low standard, but ridiculously cheap compared with the modern luxury hotels built recently further along the beach.
A more expensive alternative for spending the night 
The poets Elmer Diktonius and Gunnar Ekelöf spent the late summer of 1938 at Villa Golicke. On the train back to Helsingfors (Helsinki) they got off in Raivola to visit the 87 year old mother of Edith Södergran.  Edith’s poetry had been a source of inspiration for both these major poets. Ekelöf noted his surprise to find that culture could flourish in the solitude of nature’s wilderness – a solitude that has increased significantly since then.
The poets Elmer Diktonius and Gunnar Ekelöf (middle) with Edith’s mother in front of the Södergran house one year before it was destroyed.     Photo: Berndt Flygare, Nordiska Museet
The era of linguistic diversity before the Russian revolution, which Villa Golicke once symbolized, was formed by three attitudes. Tolerance allowed each minority group to maintain its own language - the individual’s personal choice of language was respected. Each language group was a minority somewhere. As Henry Parland put it: “Wherever I go I am a foreigner”. When many feel this same way, mutual tolerance is natural. Necessity required minorities to know the dominant language, and different languages were dominant in different functions. Thus, many had an interest in knowing more than one language. The owners of the many manor houses scattered throughout Karelia were often bi- or tri-lingual. Swedish or German may have been spoken in the drawing rooms but outside them knowledge of Finnish was indispensable. Knowledge of Swedish was necessary for those involved in administrative functions of government and of Russian for army officers. Finally, uncertainty as to what the dominant language would be in the future encouraged inhabitants to hedge their bets and know several. The dominance of Swedish, Russian and Finnish shifted over the centuries with the fortunes of war.
The rebuilt Villa Penaty - once a home now a museum for Ilja Repin
A kilometer further down the road in Kuokkala was Villa Penaty, home of the famous Russian painter Ilja Repin (1844-1930). He lived there with Natalia Nordmann, who donated the house on her death in 1914 to the Russian Academy of Art on condition that it would be Ilja Repin’s residence and atelier for life. Nordmann had close ties to Swedish-speaking families in Finland, including the Collianders. Repin stayed on in Terijoki when it became part of independent Finland, continuing the tradition of networked linguistic clusters. This earned him some opprobrium in the USSR. The border to the USSR was now closed breaking an important link in the cultural network and isolating Repin from his Russian connections and roots.
The artist’s study in Villa Penaty
Villa Penaty was destroyed during the wars. However, after 1991 it was rebuilt and Repin was now considered a Russian hero, fit to provide a new name for Kuokkala (Repino). It is a model museum with a good exhibition of his art and supplied with modern museum equipment (ear phones with recorded foreign language tours). Its current demonstrative elegance contrasts with the shabbiness of Villa Golicke. 

From Kuokkala we drove northwest along the sandy coast, feeling as though we were on the Riviera. We entered the town of Terijoki proper and saw to our surprise a well-kept Lutheran Church, right in the middle of it. It was built in 1909 in Jugend Style with Josef Stenbäck as the architect. We felt right at home.
The exceptionally well-kept Lutheran Church in Terijoki
The town was clean and casually elegant. The population was well-dressed. The leisurely spirit contrasted with the grim poverty of Pitkäranta and Sordavala (Sortavala) further north. Obliged to visit the Apothecary on the main street, we were impressed by its clean interior and professional staff.
A life-saving pharmacy in Terijoki
Terijoki is located near St. Petersburg, which explains the tidy upkeep of the town. The long sandy beach, running for miles on either side of town, brings in well-to-do-tourists and contributes to a relative affluence. Buildings from the Stalin era are unusually well kept, as seen below, and cater to the conspicuous consumption of the visitors from St Petersburg.

Large and brackish summerhouses owned by affluent St Petersburgers sprout like mushrooms in the forests and meadows of the Isthmus. You will find no pictures of these in this blog. The closer we came to St Petersburg, the more security cars and gated communities we observed. These pretentious buildings appeared to be grafted on to a foreign body.
Neo-Stalinist architecture is well-preserved
The gravitational pull of St Petersburg on Terijoki was strong already a hundred years ago. Petrus Nordmann, a cousin of Natalie, wrote after travelling to the Repins from Helsingfors (Helsinki) in 1909: “… we travelled through this former Finnish farmers’ village, which during the last twenty years has been transformed into a genuine Russian resort community with many shops, wooden sidewalks, muschikar [Roma street musicians] and ample, pearl-bedecked wet-nurse s.” (Kaj Wahlbeck, Karelen - med kärlek, 1994, s. 76.)

Already in the 1890s, Russia proposed incorporating the increasingly Russian speaking suburbs of Terijoki and Kivinebb (Kivennapa) into St Petersburg’s municipality, but without success. The numerous attempts then to Russify the Grand Duchy, met with strong opposition, including the assassination of the Russian Governor General Nikolaj Bobrikoff in 1904 by Eugen Schaumann. Today, the whole of the Isthmus is incorporated in St Petersburg Oblast. The economic pull from St Petersburg will inevitably incorporate the southern Isthmus even more into Russia, eliminating the last traces of cultural diversity that once characterised it. That era was ended in two steps. First, the Soviet Union closed the border in 1918. Second, it moved the border north in 1944 to include the whole Isthmus in the Soviet. Thereby, it became the dead-end and the provincial backwater that it is today.
The Officers’ Casino in Terijoki – a haunted house 
The third building we visited in Terijoki, the Officers’ Casino, provides a grim reminder of what could have happened to all of Finland. Here Stalin gambled - and lost.  During the Winter War he set up Otto Ville Kuusinen (a leader of the Finnish Reds in the civil war of 1917-1918) as head of a puppet government for all of Finland and housed it in the Casino. 
Otto Kuusinen signing the pact establishing the "People's Democratic Government of Finland"
Kuusinen failed to move his puppet government to Helsingfors and spent the rest of his life in central positions in the Soviet system. This once magnificent building is now abandoned and rapidly deteriorating. Let us hope that it still has a future, although not as a memorial to Otto Ville Kuusinen, who now like Bertrans de Born portrayed by Pound in Near Perigord, wanders headless in purgatory for stirring up strife!
The Casino – utopia restored?
Ralf Parland (1914-1995), yet another Parland brother, said in 1958: “The Isthmus was a bridge between different cultures and world views. Therefore, it appealed to us cultural vagrants, who felt ill at ease in those days of nationalistic slogans and closed borders. The Isthmus was our utopia.”  (Olof Ruin, Dagbok (2008) s 90). Is it possible to restore some of that utopia of cosmopolitan culture and open borders? Villa Penaty now honours Ilja Repin as a Russian nationalist and is an attraction for Russian tourists. Villa Golicke, once a Parnassus for Finnish and Swedish poets, is a forgotten and run-down hovel, which the odd Swede or Finn enters with high hopes and leaves disappointed (unless a sun-tanned windsailing youngster). Could not the Swedish Academy and the two Literary Societies in Finland purchase Villa Golicke and the Officers’ Casino and renovate them tenderly as sanctuaries for poets and other artists? Poetry and art are windsailing for the soul. And in these days of global extremism and intolerance the soul sorely needs some succour. 


  1. Most interesting to read about this multi-lingual area and about the poetic residences of such famous writers! Being an ex-teacher of languages this information really impressed me!

  2. Very interesting information and very nice pictures. I have to go to Viipuri before it's too late, to find if there is any reminders of my family's hamlet, the land for it donated by some Danish king ages ago. The hamlet is put out as Maelkinkylae on maps printed before WWII.

  3. Spännade!
    Stort tack,