Tuesday, April 3, 2012


In our journey to Karelia we saw the traces left by Vikings, Hanseatic merchants, men of the sword, men of the cross and people of culture. We have now come to the end of our voyage and it is time to say “Farewell” to Karelia.

We thank the readers who have followed us on our journey and Markus Lehtipuu who guided us. We say farewell to the living and the dead whom we encountered on our journey in time and space as we ventured from west to east and back and visited historical sites renowned at different times during a millennium. We saw Karelia’s present: a sadly neglected waste land. We saw shadows of its past: a bountiful nature, a remarkable architecture and a rich literary culture. But we saw no signs of a future better than the present. Longing for the past had replaced hopes for the future.

We felt like passengers on a space ship lost in space unable to either reach its destination or return home. The epic poem Aniara: A Review of Mankind in Time and Space by Swedish writer and Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson – himself a volunteer in the Winter War – contains a ‘Song about Karelia’. In it a doomed passenger recalls his fondest memory of planet earth, to which he will never return. We share this longing to return to a lost home:

Skönast ibland sköna glimtar syns dock skymten av Karelen,
Som ett vattenglim bland träden, som ett ljusnat sommarvatten
i den juniljusa tiden då en kväll knappt hinner skymmas
förrn den träflöjtsklara göken ropar åt den ljuva Aino
att ta dimmans slöja med sig, stiga upp ur junivatten
gå emot den stigna röken, komma till den glada göken,
i det susande Karelen.

Wonder among many wonders is the glimpse of fair Karelia,
like a fleeting flash of water seen through trees one clear June evening,
when the lakes in summer lighten and the dusk has barely settled
e’er the sylvan-fluted cuckoo calls upon the gorgeous Aino
veiled in mist to venture forward, to arise from June’s warm water,
to sneak through the rising vapors and embrace the joyous cuckoo,
in the whispering Karelia.

Per Magnus Wijkman                                Emil Ems
Author                                                        Photographer

Friday, March 30, 2012


About five kilometers outside of the town of Viborg (Viipuri), lies Mon Repos, a late 18th century manor on a verdant island embraced by blue waves. Here on Europe’s Northeastern periphery, a continental European, Ludwig Heinrich (von) Nicolay (1737-1820), acquired the property Mon Repos and formed it as a physical embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. While lacking the opulence of German manors of the period, it possessed an appeal that with time earned it popular affection and symbolized the loss of this part of Finland to Russia in 1944.

The once renowned English Garden of Mon Repos
Nicolay bought the site, sight unseen, in 1788 from Duke Friedrich Wilhelm von Württemberg, one of the many Europeans recruited by the court in St Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great to ‘Europeanize’ Russia. Nicolay was born in Strasbourg and died at Mon Repos. He came to St Petersburg in 1769 as tutor for Catherine’s son, the future Czar Paul I (1754-1801). In 1776 Paul married Princess Sophia Dorothea von Württemberg (ah, networks!). After the court murder of Czar Paul I in 1801 (some Europeanization!), Nicolay finished an eventful career by serving as private secretary to Paul’s widow, now in her capacity as Dowager Maria Feodorovna. Enjoying the same distinguished title as Goethe, Geheimerat, Nicolay devoted himself to finalizing Mon Repos. Its similarity to Fredrick the Great’s Sans Souci in Potsdam is no coincidence since the manor’s first owner, Duke Friedrich Wilhelm, had modeled it on his uncle’s house Mon Repos in Württemberg, which in turn was modeled on Sans Souci.
Mon Repos manor in the 1830s
No trip to Viborg is complete without a visit to Mon Repos. So we drove out of the town along crooked roads, guided by intuition rather than by road signs. Perhaps it was not meant to be easy to find the manor because, as we were to discover, Mon Repos had survived the war undamaged but had fared badly during Soviet rule. Few sights are sadder for those who have seen the manor in the 1930s than the sight of it today. And few songs capture this sadness better than the song “Do you remember Mon Repos?” (“Muistatko Monrepos’n?”) from 1955. Click here to hear Annikki Tähti sing it. But the park has been well restored since 1992 and a walk in it does much to dispel this sadness. Mon Repos is more than just the buildings. Today the park is its greatest charm.
The manor houses of Mon Repos in the 1930s
We parked our car in the small parking lot beside a white six-door limousine, marveling at finding this symbol of conspicuous consumption here, and entered the gates to Mon Repos. No sooner had we stepped inside them than the magnificent landscaping seduced us. Our visit to Mon Repos started with a long, leisurely walk through its English Garden, once renowned in Europe.
A luxurious limousine surprised us in the parking lot 
Nicolay had designed the park as though it were an integral part of the manor house (and vice versa). He imported rare trees and plants from continental Europe. He decorated the park with statues, equipped it with well-placed benches for resting, arched graceful Japanese bridges over the streams, built piers for excursions by boat around the Bay of Viborg and designed much else to please the senses. In short, we entered a vast garden of delights. Thomas Jefferson at Monticello would have nodded in approval. Had Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like Voltaire, accepted the Czar’s invitation to visit he could have indulged himself in solitary reveries during endless walks here.
Arched bridges, pleasant to see and pleasant to tread
We approached the bay and saw a Greek Temple, called Neptune’s House, which Nicolay had built on a promontory. Thanks to voluntary Finnish efforts this temple had recently received a coat of white paint and glistened in the sun. Standing beneath its burnished pillars we enjoyed an elevated view of the sea. Only screeching seagulls, gliding lazily on warm up-winds, broke the silence.
The classical heritage flourishing
Creeks ran through the park and we crossed them on small bridges, artfully positioned in the gardens. Their aesthetic charm invited us repeatedly to extend our wanderings until we lost track of time.
The trails for walking through the park transported us in many ways
The walking paths led us along semi-wild shores and up steep hills where Nicolay had placed statues, obelisks transported from Italy, and the statue of a Karelian bard playing a kantele. Placing a singer of the orally transmitted Kalevala among classical pillars and statues incorporated this Finnish epic in the Homeric tradition. Unfortunately there is no picture of this statue, since we bypassed its location without noticing it.
Assorted classical monuments found a home at Mon Repos
On a small island Nicolay had built Ludwigshafen, a Gothic mausoleum, where he and other family members are interned. The short bridge across to the island was destroyed, so we could not visit it. However, we could observe the large building from Neptune’s House. It was a favorite site for visitors to stop at and be photographed.
A solemn moment in front of Ludwigshafen    
We encountered only a few visitors on our walks through the well-maintained park. One encounter provided a short spell of romance. A young couple, attended by the bridesmaids, celebrated their marriage by a walk through the gardens of Mon Repos to which they had been chauffaured in the large white limousine we had observed. We wished them luck. They deserved to feel like royalty on their wedding day. Who knew what the future held in store for them?
For better or for worse                                                        Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero …    
This festive encounter appropriately embellished the surroundings. Coming from the parking lot, we had entered Mon Repos by the back door. In the early 19th century guests would have arrived instead by horse and wagon driven down a long alley of trees at the end of which stood the manor with its impressive pillars. Since then this imposing entrance has been overgrown by the forest and reduced to a narrow pathway. We walked along it noting that it was unchanged since the 1930s, although a bit wilder.
Once the main entrance to the manor this alley remains unchanged since the 1930s
We had come to Mon Repos to see the manor house unaware of the English Garden. Instead, we had been enchanted by this secret garden where time stood still and spent an afternoon wandering in it. In the distance we could see the white pillars of the manor glistening in the sun. So we finally stopped our dallying and headed determinedly towards the manor. This, we thought, would be the highpoint of our visit. But as we came closer we saw that the windows of the houses were boarded up and that the paint on the walls was peeling. Standing before them we realized that the manor was in a sad state of disrepair. The shinning white pillars were but a Potemkin façade to impress the distant spectator. Closer inspection revealed dilapidated buildings close to their last days. This magnificent enlightenment manor had survived the war but prolonged neglect was leading to its slow destruction. I trust you understand why we do not show a close-up view of the façade.
An empty manor – haunted by the past
Since the park was so well maintained it was easy with a little imagination to see traces of former beauty in these boarded-up buildings. Behind the closed windows and peeling paint lay a paradise lost and opportunities missed. The manor houses were empty, the Finnish Government having removed the extensive library and furnishings at the outbreak of the war. Now only ghosts lived there. For over 70 years Mon Repos has had a past, but no future. We returned to the parking lot thinking that the best way to dispel the sadness of “Do you remember Mon Repos?” was by not forgetting it. So to listen to Maynie Sirén sing it in Swedish, click here, and remember Mon Repos. 

Friday, March 9, 2012


Indestructible Viborg – the past lives on in the mind

Our journey nears its end. We made Viborg (Viipuri) the last stop on our trip, since we had heard that it was but a shadow of the lively town my mother visited 70 years ago. Before 1992 the rare visitor to Viborg often returned to Finland in tears. For old timers, Viborg is old memories and faded photographs: cultured, cosmopolitan, charming. But above all it is sadness. In their minds’ eyes they see Bishop Agricola’s steeple at the top of Vattenportsgatan (Vesiportinkatu, Water Gate Street), or St Olof’s Tower of the Castle or the Round Tower (Pyöreätorni) in the old city. Badly damaged during the last two wars and emptied overnight of its population, Viborg suffered continued destruction during the Soviet era. So we braced ourselves to see the worst.

Although many ruins remained, we discovered that some historical buildings had been renovated or rebuilt. The population was young and relatively fashionably dressed, the car park was rather modern, cafés and restaurants were somewhat lively and a modest night life existed. All this imparted a certain touristic charm, which compared favourably with other towns in Karelia. Having entered the town with such low expectations, we were thus pleasantly surprised.

After the dissolution of the USSR in 1992, the municipal governors started to care more about the town’s past and to plan better for its future. They returned the statue of the town’s founder and defender against Novgorod, Torkel Knutsson, to its square in time to celebrate the town’s 700th anniversary in 1993. The USSR had kept the statue in a closet since 1944 so letting it out was a tacit acknowledgment of the city’s non-Russian past. The new government had also restored some architectural treasures, such as the breathtaking Viborg Art Museum and Drawing School designed by Uno Ullberg (1879-1944) and built in 1933. It stands on a lot in the city’s harbour amidst soaring cranes, like a Greek temple viewing the sea and the sky. It is in splendid shape and serves today as a branch of the Art Museum in St Petersburg. We sent an appreciative thought to the authorities for taking good care of this masterpiece.
Ullberg’s Art Museum and Drawing School in the 1930s …                        … and in 2011 
Among much else, Ullberg designed a building for the Viborg Provincial Archives (1932-33). It now serves as an archive for the St. Petersburg Oblast. Finland managed to remove some of the historical archives before the end of the war but others were destroyed by the USSR. An unknown amount of Finnish documents remains there. Who knows how many vital statistics gather dust in that archive’s stacks? While the building keeps up appearances, if seen at a distance, a closer look reveals the customary shabbiness of socialist administrative offices.
Ullberg’s Provincial Archives houses shadows of the past
With the benefit of hindsight, the many functionalist buildings constructed in the early 1930s by the tireless Ullberg can be said to have inaugurated functionalism in Viborg. Only 15 years earlier Ullberg had excelled in a national romantic style similar to that of Eliel Saarinen. With his associate, Klaes Axel Guldén, Ullberg had, in 1909, designed the head office for the town’s legendary company Hackman and Co.
The facade of the Hackman building
Ullberg went on to design the office of the Nordic Union Bank (Nordiska föreningsbanken, Pohjoismaiden Yhdyspankki) 1913 as well as that of the Bank of Finland 1915, both in Sordavala (Sortavala). Nordic national romanticism was somewhat moody and sombre, lacking the artful decorations characteristic of continental European jugend. However, this more playful style could also be found in Viborg.
A spritely jugend style building in central Viborg
Functionalism erupted on the Viborg scene around 1930 like a force of nature. With the eastern border closed, foreign influences now came from the West. The Swede Sven Markelius held a lecture in Finland on functionalism in 1928 and Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) presented the thoughts of Le Corbusier in 1929 after a visit to France. Aalto had been awarded first prize in 1927 for his submission in the competition for a municipal library in Viborg. Influenced by Gunnar Asplund’s Municipal Library in Stockholm (completed in 1926), Aalto revised his design several times until his Viborg library stood completed in 1935 as yet another masterpiece of functionalism. Thus, Finnish functionalism was conceived and born in the short period between 1925 and 1935.
Aalto’s Library in Viborg admired by Jussi Mäntynen’s Elk 

Aalto’s library in Viborg was severely damaged in the wars and was long the prey of the elements. In 1996 the Swedish Alvar Aalto Society was founded and proceeded to renovate the Library at a pace largely determined by voluntary contributions. We walked in the Library and in the park, the two forming a unit, feeling as though we were in a different world. We admired the lecture hall with its famous undulated ceiling, which had been finished the year before, and the clean whiteness of the building’s walls and halls.
The Library auditorium carries its 75 years like a feather
During our visit the library was virtually empty. Books had been packed and moved to allow the last interior renovations to be completed by 2013. Looking impressively spic and span the building’s clean modernism looked out of place in an otherwise grim urban environment. We hoped that the surroundings would gradually adapt to the Library rather than vice versa. However, the building, soon fully restored to its state as of 1935, still looked at least 25 years ahead of the society now surrounding it. Closing this time gap would be difficult.
Books being stored during renovation of the Library
Caught in a time warp, we wandered back towards the old town. Many of the older buildings there had been destroyed during the war but those that remained had not changed since then, except for the worse. Buildings were poorly maintained and some were abandoned.
Viborg - 70 years after the war!
Some war ruins still stand as they stood when the war ended 70 years ago. Many medieval houses that had survived the wars were unchanged since then except for wear and tear. So the past was always present. Thus, we were not surprised to see a medieval damsel appear on a narrow street and head towards the Castle. We asked her for directions to the famous Vattenportsgatan (Vesiportankatu, Water Gate Street), which once had the reputation of being Finland’s most beautiful street. She pointed us to it.

Few people were out walking and we felt as though we were in a deserted city. But in this small town it was impossible to get lost. Even a stranger felt at home here. We soon arrived at Water Gate Street, leading from Bishop Agricola’s steeple in the heart of the old town down to the harbour gate. The street had not changed since the last years of the 1930s. The buildings were a bit the worse for wear but in reasonably good shape compared to other parts of the old town.
Water Gate Street with Agricola’s steeple in the 1930s and in 2011.
Find the differences between then and now!

We sauntered on in good spirits to see another of Viborg’s many landmarks: the Round Tower (Pyöreätorni) in the old city, which King Gustav Vasa ordered constructed in 1550. The omnipresent Uno Ullberg renovated this Tower in 1923, converting it rather surprisingly into a restaurant and café. These now conduct a brisk business. We enjoyed a good lunch, surrounded by murals depicting scenes from the town’s long history. At our table we admired the mural depicting King Karl Knutsson (Bonde) (1409-1470), who was the powerful military governor (hövitsman, valtionhoitaja) of Viborg 1442-1448. Those with good eyesight and knowledge of Swedish can read the text on the wall. The murals appeared to have been there for 500 years but were in fact added by Ullberg. Sitting in these pleasant, medieval surroundings we felt transported back to the days of the Common Realm.
The medieval Round Tower in Viborg’s centre provides food – also for thought

Viborg’s prime landmark is the Castle, once one of the three most important fortifications in the Realm. Built in the 1290s and successively fortified against recurrent sieges for four centuries, it guarded the eastern border. During the Great Northern War (1700-1721), Peter the Great occupied it in 1710 while Charles XII was occupied in ‘non-core business’ in Southern Russia. We climbed up the stairs of St Olof’s tower to get a bird’s eye view of the town and its surroundings. It was a faire sight. All the town’s blemishes faded when viewed at this distance on a summer day. Viborg was a virtual town. One saw always the past beyond the present. How could anyone fail to fall in love with Viborg, in spite of everything?  
The old town of Viborg – alive in our dreams

We left town thinking what a waste of rich natural resources and strategic location the current political and economic system imposed! “Waste not, want not!” as Mother used to say. Here was a harbour located at an historical cross-road of trade with a hinterland rich in natural resources. Yet the farms lay vacant, the forests were underutilized, the water polluted, the towns impoverished and most houses uninhabitable. Can Viborg regain its former prosperity? Twenty years ago I visited a desperately run-down Tallinn one month after Estonia’s re-emergence as an independent state. I have since returned at roughly five year intervals and observed how quickly and dramatically a democratically elected government, a determinedly implemented market economy and a deep economic integration with the EU have restored the run-down town centre and raised the inhabitants’ low living standards. It is now difficult by casual empiricism alone to see a difference between Tallinn and other Hanseatic towns. In similar circumstances Viborg – and Karelia – could rapidly restore its former prosperity. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Suur-Merijoki - an architectural master piece
Photo: Neuscheller; © Museiverket
During mother’s visit to Karelia in 1937 she was fortunate to see two jewels of Finnish architecture. The Viborg  railway station and the manor house Suur-Merijoki outside the city were prime examples of national romanticism (Jugend, Art Nouveau Nordic style) as developed by three pioneering Finnish architects.

In 1896 three students at the Technical Institute of Helsingfors (Helsinki) formed the architectural firm GLS: Herman Gesellius (1874-1916), Armas Lindgren (1874-1929) and Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950). Together with their families they formed a professional cluster. Saarinen’s second wife was Gesellius’ sister Louise, who later worked with Eliel as a professional colleague. Their two children, Eero and Eva-Lisa, were to be their ‘apprentices’. Saarinen’s first wife remarried Herman Gesellius. This remarkable cluster of architects was embedded in an international network formed by proximity to St Petersburg and a common language with Sweden. Already by the mid-1930ies their buildings in distant Karelia had achieved international fame and attracted many visitors.

Driving eastward from Helsingfors, one of Mother’s first stops was no doubt Suur-Merijoki, located about 10 km west of Viborg. The St Petersburg businessman Maximilian Othmar Neuscheller had commissioned GLS to design a summer home for him and all three architects worked on the house 1901-1903. Neuscheller was an avid photographer and took pictures of the house upon completion. It was as though he immediately realised that GLS had created a masterpiece for him.
Suur-Merijoki in color
 Photo: Neuscheller (about 1905), using first colour camera in Finland; © Museiverket
Suur-Merijoki was a ”total art work” (Gesamtkunstwerk), meaning that the architects designed not only the house but also its interior decoration and furnishings. Each of the firm’s three architects designed a number of rooms. Here are two.
Plan for the hall (Eliel Saarinen, 1902);                   Plan for the bedroom (Herman Gesellius, 1903)
Source: Museiverket (We are obliged to Pepita Ehrnrooth-Jokinen for expert guidance)  
Having heard enthusiastic reports from old timers who had visited this house in the 1930ies, we set off to find it. Guided by a pre-war road map, we kept branching off onto smaller and smaller country roads. The car tracks grew fainter and fainter and finally disappeared and the forest closed in around us. No cars had been driven here for years. We gave up our search and stopped the car to get out and stretch our legs before turning back. We had stopped close to a pile of granite stones. Upon closer inspection, we realized to our dismay that this pile of rubble was all that remained of Suur-Merijoki. The Soviet Air Force had bombed the house during the Winter War, completely destroying it. All that remained standing was a stone archway and some cellar fundaments.
Before the war …                                                                       … and after                                       
Photo on the Left: Neuscheller, © Museiverket 
The bombing may have aimed at Satakunda Airport which the Finnish State built on the land after having purchased the manor in the 1930ies. Transportable rubble had been removed and recycled by the Soviets after the Continuation War. Abandoned by man, nature took over. Now silence and solitude prevailed in the forest.
Exploring what remains of Suur-Merijoki
Fortunately, Suur-Merijoki has a well-known companion building, Hvitträsk, just outside Helsingfors which allows us to imagine what this destroyed past might have looked like. GLS built it 1902-1904 as private residences for the three partners and their families. Lindgren withdrew from the partnership in 1905 to become head of the School of Architecture at the Technical Institute of Helsingfors and Gesellius died in 1916 after several years of illness. Saarinen sold Hvitträsk in 1949 to private owners. The Finnish State bought it in 1981 and since 2000 a foundation under Museiverket manages it.

Despondent, we drove back to Viborg to see what remains of the train station there. Saarinen and Gesellius had together designed and built it in 1910-13. A companion building is the train station in Helsingfors designed by Saarinen in 1907 and opened (after much redesigning) in 1919. Both stations are in a characteristic national romantic style. The designs initiated a professional debate that contributed to the subsequent breakthrough of functionalism in Finland in the late 1920s.
Gesellius-Saarinen’s Train Station in Viborg                 Saarinen’s Counterpart in Helsingfors
Before Soviet troops withdrew from Viborg in the Continuation War in 1941 they blew up the train station. After the war the USSR replaced it by a station built in the neo-classical style favoured by Stalin. However, one part of the Gesellius-Saarinen station, in red granite, remains standing at the far end of that building.
All that remains today of Gesellius-Saarinen’s Viborg Train Station    
Around the corner from the Viborg railroad station we saw a bus station that looked like an early example of Finnish functionalism. The bus station had been redesigned by the Viborg architect Uno Ullberg in 1937. We had lunch at the restaurant there, which we recommend to any retro-traveller who wishes to experience a Soviet worker’s lunch. The experience could also cure him of nostalgia for the workers’ paradise.

The destruction of Suur-Merijoki and the Viborg train station was a heavy blow for Eliel Saarinen. Some of his best works do not exist in situ, either because his designs were not constructed (like the Smithsonian Art Center) or because, once built, they were destroyed in the wars. Fortunately, some of Saarinen’s houses in Karelia survived leaving a treasured legacy there. Dr J. J. Winter, whose home we had seen in Sordavala (Sortavala), had commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design a summer home for him on the shore of Lake Ladoga about 8 kilometers outside Sordavala.

We set off in search of doctor Winter’s summer house, called Tarunniemi, only to be stopped upon arrival by a guard at a vast gated community. Upon hearing our wish to see the house designed by Saarinen, he allowed us to enter. We made discrete inquiries and were given to understand that a Russian businessman had bought the land with Winter’s house in 2000 and was now converting it into a summer holiday resort. A few vacation homes had already been built and were available to rent. A condition for purchase of the land had been that the buyer must renovate the house designed by Saarinen. The exterior appeared in good shape but since the house was not open we were unable to see the inside. A look through the windows suggested that it was not furnished. No Gesamtwerkkunst here! Maybe this was just as well, since the house seemed destined to serve vacationers mainly as an assembly point for evening cocktails. Although it was already June, we saw no summer guests. The house appeared lonely and we suspected it missed more convivial times in the past.
Dr. Winter’s summerhouse outside Sordavala   
Saarinen’s national romantic style made us feel at home abroad. It was strikingly similar to houses in an affluent suburb outside Stockholm built about the same time and in a similar national romantic style. We went down the steps of Tarunniemi to the waterfront and admired the view of Lake Ladoga. Sitting on the bench in the stillness of a summer evening we realized that this was the house we had seen from the ferry on our way to Valamo. No wonder we had experienced a sense of déjà vu although we had never seen the house before.
A relaxing view of Lake Ladoga
Albeit amateurs, we recognized that the unknown owner had taken care to restore Saarinen’s house and hoped that he would continue to treat it with the respect it deserved. Upon our return we found a rumour in a Finnish newspaper that the owner was a relative of a V. Putin. We were hardly surprised.

Saarinen left Finland in 1923 with his family to serve as guest lecturer at the University of Michigan after winning second prize in the competition for the Chicago Tribune building. There, George Booth commissioned him in 1925 to design the Cranbrook campus in Bloomfield Hills, near Detroit. He became President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and was its principle architect. Here Saarinen created a physical and intellectual environment that is recognized as the birthplace of American modernism. At about the same time in Germany, Hitler destroyed the Bauhaus School and many of its pioneers found refuge in the United States. The Swedish sculptor Carl Milles arrived in 1931 as resident artist and Head of Sculpturing. He lived next door to the Saarinens. Saarinen also designed the Cranbrook School for boys and the Kingswood School for girls in Bloomfield Hills.

Given his location in the American Midwest, it is not surprising that Saarinen in 1947-1950 also designed the Art Center and prepared an expansion plan for Drake University, both in Des Moines, Iowa. His son Eero completed the Residence Halls at Drake after his father’s death in 1950. Eero was to become one of the foremost modernist architects in the USA with works such as Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., the TWA Flight Center at J.F. Kennedy Airport, New York, and the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Missouri, on the Mississippi River.
The Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa, designed by Eliel Saarinen and completed 1950
Saarinen’s years in America and my mother’s years in Finland created intersecting circles of personal history. Mother was born in Des Moines and she died there 100 years later. She was very proud of the Art Center and supported it actively in various ways throughout her life. When doing so she recalled the many buildings by Saarinen that she had seen in Finland. She no doubt spoke enthusiastically of Saarinen to her friends on the board of the Art Center. Nor was it a coincidence that one of Mother’s daughters attended Kingswood School in Cranbrook, where she sculptured. She created objects there and at the Des Moines Art Center that later in life would turn her home and garden into a Gesamtkunstwerk. I digress, but only in a superficial sense.

On the way back from looking for Saarinen’s works in war-ravished Karelia we drove through Kurkijoki. This was the only county in rural Karelia which was Swedish speaking, having once been populated by immigrants fleeing a famine in Sweden. We passed a small jugend house in Hiitola parish which caught our eye. In striking contrast to the surrounding dwellings the house was in excellent shape, having been restored recently.
A house in Kurkijoki county designed by a Master in 1915
Even our untrained eyes could see that this modest house was the work of a master. We stopped to look more closely at this remarkable house, which appeared “out of this world”.

When we got back to our computers we discovered that the house was designed in 1915 by Lars Sonck (1870-1956) for his brother Karl Joel Sonck. Together with Eliel Saarinen he was the leading national romantic architect at the time, active mainly in the Åbo (Turku) region. He designed Ainola, the home of Aino and Jean Sibelius, completed in 1904, and Villa Guldstrand, Nådendal, (Villa Kultaranta, Nantali), in 1916, which is now the official summer residence of the President of the Republic. We thanked the unknown present owner for having spotted this gem in the wilderness and restored it.
Architect Lars Sonck from Western Finland designed this house for his brother
We drove off to see the once-famous but now-deserted sandy beaches in Kurkijoki. Alone on the beach balancing between sea and sky, we reflected upon the many sad memories of a destroyed legacy that we had seen in Karelia. Creative spirits had produced rare works of art and culture here. War had destroyed them and expelled the population leaving behind a wasteland. After Europe’s many wars the European Union has done much to reconcile former enemies. But Karelia remains an open sore. How much sand must run through the hourglass before it heals? 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


19th century Ikon; Valamo Monastery in the background
As Mother travelled east with me in this Nordic country in 1937 she noticed an increasingly exotic flavour. She passed more and more churches with the characteristic Greek Orthodox cross on their steeple. A significant Greek Orthodox population lived in Karelia and contributed to its special character. Upon Finland’s independence in 1917, the Orthodox churches in Finland had become an autonomous entity directly under the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople and with a Orthodox Seminary and Patriarch in Karelia’s second largest city Sordavala (Sortavala), close to where most of the Greek Orthodox in Finland then lived.
The Seminary and headquarters of the Greek Orthodox church in Sordavala 
This made Karelia different. No wonder Mother’s acquaintances in the diplomatic community in Helsingfors (Helsinki) urged her to visit the famous Greek Orthodox monastery on the island of Valamo (Valaam) in Lake Ladoga. So Mother took the ferry from Sordavala to Valamo, where her vessel docked below the Monastery. Upon stepping ashore she entered a different world – a world of contemplation, community and communion with God.
Valamo in the late 1930s
About 150 monks lived on this distant island so as to be free from the distractions of the material world. Most lived in the large central monastery, while some chose to live as hermits in small cabins (sketes) scattered throughout the islands. They praised god not only in the Cathedral but also in their daily life, which was self-sufficient, simple and ascetic.
The Monks’ traditional winter bath at Epiphany
Photographer: Sergey Kompaniychenko
But no man is an island and the bell soon tolled for this special community. Two years after Mother’s visit the monks were no more on this celestial isle. History had repeated itself. Today the Karelian homeland is gone, its population is scattered and its identity is diluted. The relatively few Greek Orthodox adherents dispersed in today’s Finland are mostly descendants of those who fled from Karelia in 1941 and 1944.

Founded as the most northerly Greek Orthodox monastery around 1000, give or take a century, Valamo was ideally located for a community that wished to avoid the temptations of the world. However, located on the border between East and West, it was repeatedly visited by bloody conflicts. Here, both spiritual and temporal realms clashed. Swedish forces burnt the buildings and killed the monks in 1576 during one of the many wars with Russia. Valamo fell to Finland-Sweden in the Stolbova Peace Treaty of 1617. The Swedish kings, which the Constitution required to be Lutheran, let the monastery stand empty for over 100 years. Freedom of religion did not characterize the times; on the contrary. Many Orthodox believers fled to Russia fearing prosecution by the king’s Lutheran Church.

When this area reverted to Russia in 1721, the Orthodox Church initiated a major reconstruction programme, which laid the ground for the buildings that we see today. But during the Winter War the USSR bombed the monastery (which at the time was in Finland).
Havoc after Winter War
Finland evacuated about 150 monks to Heinävesi, where they founded New Valamo. After 1944 when Ladoga Karelia was ceded to the Soviet Union, Valamo monastery and other Greek Orthodox establishments in Finnish Karelia were again placed under the patriarch in Moscow. They eked out a meagre existence for a few years under an atheistic regime. Soon that regime closed the monastery and used the buildings for secular purposes, during which period they deteriorated. The monastery was not returned to the Orthodox Church until 1989. Would it be in bad shape? Would we see memories of the past haunting the present? We decided to find out and, following in Mother’s footsteps, we boarded the passenger ferry in Sordavala.

The sea journey takes about 2 hours and is pleasant when the sea is not rough. The fare was exorbitant but when we saw that most of the passengers were Finnish we understood that we were paying ‘tourist prices’ for the ferry, as we had for coffee at the empty new cafeteria by the small dock. Most Russian visitors took the overnight boat from St Petersburg to Valamo.

The ferry left the small pier in Sordavala and for about thirty minutes steered through a cluster of islands reminiscent of the Stockholm archipelago. Early June was exceptionally warm, so we basked on deck in the sun while the cries of the seagulls broke the silence and the ferry’s prow parted the waves and sprayed us with foam. Transposed to this distant country we felt transported back to those carefree summer vacations of early childhood. In this festive mood the few farms and cottages on the receding coastline took on a familiar look. Especially one large house on the waterfront inspired a strange feeling of déjà vu. Where had we seen this familiar house before?  The political borders on our map told us we were in Russia. But the borders of our mental maps told us we were at home. We searched our memories but in vain. This puzzle followed us unsolved for several days.
Leaving Sordavala, our ferry passed a hauntingly familiar house on the shore of Lake Ladoga
After a while we lost sight of the land behind us and the vast expanse of water that opened up ahead reminded us that we were on Europe’s largest lake. We relaxed until we saw in the distance the monastery’s spires and domes floating on the water. The ferry passed through a narrow straight guarded by a freshly painted chapel.
A chapel welcomes pilgrims to a sheltered cove on Valamo
We glided silently into the sheltered harbour where the ferry docked. We had reached a safe haven. On the hill-top, the monastery glowed in the noonday sun. The buildings were far from being run down. We gazed in surprised amazement as they glistened in the sunshine.

The harbour was a hive of activity. Construction workers were hard at work expanding the docks to receive more vessels and building new facilities to entertain more tourists. We descended the gangplank and were engulfed by stalls catering to tourists.
The harbor today with the Valamo Monastery on top of the hill
We squeezed our way through the crowds and past the vendors and ascended the hill to the monastery, only a few hundred meters away. Bulbs had sprouted in the lawns and flowers in bloom cast a cascade of colors.
On the hill to the Monastery a Madonna with child welcomed us amidst blossoming June flowers
At the top of the hill, we approached the entrance to the Monastery and passed through the Holy Gates into a large open square.
The Holy Gates – the entrance to the Monastery
We stood in the square in front of the breathtaking sight of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour. Pilgrims and tourists alike stood silent in awe of its beauty. The gold leaf on the crosses of the Cathedral and its turquoise roofs contrasted with the white buildings and the green leaves of the trees. Monks in long black habits hastened back and forth tending to the grounds and the buildings. The recent renovations gave the monastery a sparkling appearance. This was a far different sight than what had greeted Mother seventy years ago. The throngs of people diluted somewhat the feeling of a sacred place. Were there more tourists than pilgrims there? To get a glimpse of earlier monastic life click on the word "Video".
Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour in refurbished splendor
We entered the Cathedral, which was crowded with worshipers celebrating a holy day. Invisible behind a screen some monks chanted while others walked among the celebrants swinging holders of burning incense. Young and old attended the service. We were witnessing a timeless ceremony. The apparent confusion could not conceal a sense of deep emotion. The ceremony was the same today as 100 or 1000 years ago; the same in this renovated dome as in a hermit’s hut.

Restoration of the monastery had started in 2002 and made rapid progress. The grounds and the many buildings were in good condition. The costly renovation was largely funded by the State but we understood that the choir of the Monastery had also contributed funds raised by world-wide singing tours. State support for the Monastery reflected the Government’s promotion of the Orthodox Church as a symbol of Russian nationalism.
Monks singing in the Cathedral – above them the golden splendor of the dome
Photographers: Emil Ems (left) and Hieromonk Savvaty (right)
The sums spent restoring Valamo had led to impressive results. However, viewed over the centuries this latest reconstruction seemed to be only one swing in history’s pendulum between destruction and renewal that haunted the Monastery. What Caesar could give, he could also take away. A next generation to visit here might well find the buildings in disarray again. For us, the restored elegance of the Cathedral did not project a sense of “power and glory” but was a reminder of the impermanence of matter, of vanity. So like the monks, we contemplated the transitory nature of our existence and, taking the long view, tried to find meaning in the greater scheme of things:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.http://valaam.ru/en/photos/oldvalaam/1667/