Sailing away from St. Petersburg was a real challenge for our captain. The Gulf of Helsinki is only 6 - 10 feet deep and we need at least 27. The Russians have dug a narrow channel just deep enough for the likes of us all the way into the harbor. Captains need to make reservations to come and go since we pretty much take up the whole shipping channel. No passing lanes.
As we sailed we came very close to Kronstadt, one of those forbidden secret military locations that the Russians would leave off the map so no one would know they were there. In these days of Google satellites this seems like a laughable concept, but in the day Russian pilots would come on board to make sure that no one was photographing this top secret submarine port as cruise ships went by. The port lecturer came on the PA and gave the history of the place. It always was a small natural island, but when Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg, he wanted to place a fortress out front to protect it. When the water froze, he would have battalions of peasants haul sleds full of boulders across the ice creating more land for the island. The site always was military in nature and during Soviet times, locals were not allowed to go there without a visa. After the Soviet Union fell, Kronstadt became a ghost town, but there were definitely signs of activity there today - respectable looking war ships moored in front of the crumbling buildings.
St. Petersburg suffers from flooding that is unrelated to tides or rainfall. Because the water around it is so shallow, it is moved by large changes in barometric pressure. Plans were made to build a movable dam near Kronstadt, a massive undertaking. After the Soviet Union fell, the construction came to a stop. Vladimir Putin, a son of St. Petersburg, found spare cash in the budget after all and it has recently been completed.
After the Texas sized magnificence and luxury of the buildings in St. Petersburg, Helsinki was a shock to the system. Finland has been an independent country for less than one hundred years. In physical size it is the largest country in Europe, but it only has five million people. For many centuries it was part of Sweden and even today the signs are in Swedish and Finnish. Peter the Great took them over and they were not able to get out from under Russian domination until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Most of the wooden buildings from Swedish times burned down, so most of the buildings we saw today were relatively modern and unostentatious. If you don’t have royalty, you don’t have the need to show off your wealth.
There appears to be little “keeping up with the Joneses” today. On our bike tour our guide pointed out the high priced neighborhoods, but to our eyes the ones he didn’t point out looked just as nice. By design none of the buildings, even downtown, are very tall and except for an occasional church spire, it all was about the same height. We were left with the impression that everyone in Helsinki was upper middle class. Nothing was very fancy; no one looked poor. The apartment buildings had balconies and were surrounded with garden and trees. I would have been content to live in any of the places we saw today. But the square footage in dwellings is allocated somewhat differently, since there are 3 million saunas for the 5 million Finns. No home should be without one.
Although our guide said the Finns lag behind other European countries in terms of bicycle usage because their weather is so nasty, nearly the whole ride was on well marked, paved bike lanes. City traffic was separated from us by narrow traffic islands and the green and yellow trams ran down the middle of the street. After the last few warm and sunny days, it felt good to have on a rain coat. A foggy misty hid this modest city at times.
The Finns have much to be proud of. They were the only European country to keep the Russians out at the end of World War II when the Soviet land grab was on. The Finns were the only country to entirely repay their war debts to the Russians and to the US. They held the first post war Olympics in Helsinki and have had more outstanding athletes, especially in running, than their small size would predict. Many of the world’s people communicate with each other on their Nokia phones. Whenever students are evaluated nationally, Finnish students and their well paid and highly respected teachers come out on top. Now if only it weren’t so dark and cold there for so many days of the year.