Understanding urban spaces: how speakers of Russian talk about Helsinki.

Author:Protassova, Ekaterina


To love or to hate a city, to understand its historical past and to penetrate its multicultural modern life is a task that can never be completed, and our different backgrounds lead us to verbalize it differently. The goal of this article is to find out whether the image of Helsinki is similar or different among Russian-speaking residents and visitors of different ages, and how this compares to the perceptions of the city as expressed by tourist guides and shared by the Finns.

The center of the city was built in the 19th century in the period of autonomy, when Finland was under Russian rule, and so has a special appeal for the Russians. The city of Helsingfors (the Swedish name for Helsinki) was growing at the time. Deviation from its Swedish-language past went hand in hand with Russification. This can be illustrated by the history of the adaptation of the Russian street names. Some places in Helsinki have well-established Russian names. Many of them date back to the beginning of the 19th century, when Finland became part of the Russian Empire; others appeared later as new streets were built. We therefore began our project by studying historical documents.

The historical minority of Russian-speakers has been recently joined by large groups of immigrants and tourists. Today, one per cent of the population of Finland are native speakers of Russian. The historical Russian-speaking minority comprises about 5,000 speakers, and their language differs from that of the so-called "New Russians" (not to be confused with the proverbial nouveau riche in post-Soviet Russia). Forty per cent of the 50,000 native speakers of Russian live in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Russian speakers are a heterogeneous group consisting of people of different ethnic backgrounds and of different nationalities. Russian is the third most spoken language after Finnish and Swedish. The history of the city with regard to its ties to Russia has been analyzed by Klinge and Kolbe (1999) and by Kuhlberg (2002). Different perspectives are presented by Poxljobkin (1974) and Jussila (2010). The image of Helsinki among Russian-speaking tourists has changed since Soviet times, along with geo-political and ideological changes.

In the framework of this project, members of the heterogeneous community of Russian-speakers were interviewed in groups and individually, with attention focused on the use of place-names and/or language biography. In addition, we organized an open essay-writing competition in Russian under the title My Helsinki, in which both Finnish- and Russian-speakers took part. We compared articles in the Russian language media in Finland with opinions expressed on Internet forums. We also studied Russian tourists' views of Helsinki in order to find out what places are perceived as familiar, cozy, important, interesting, appealing to the heart, and experienced as one's "own," and what places are avoided or perceived as miserable, foreign, belonging to the domain of the "other". The results should help us understand the process of integration that follows immigration and is linked to adjustment to a new space.

An overview of the linguistic and demographic history of Helsinki

Looking back on the history of Helsinki, we can see that it has always been a multicultural city. Established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550, at first it was predominantly Swedish-speaking. Despite the fact that Helsinki has 450 years of history, the present-day site of the city center is much younger: the city was moved there in the 17th century. The naval fortress Sveaborg, constructed in the 18th century, transformed the place into an important military maritime fortification on the Baltic Sea. The meaning of its Swedish name was the "Swedish fortress," and in Finnish it was pronounced and written as Viapori. Today the official Finnish name is Suomenlinna, the "Finnish fortress," but Sveaborg remains its official Swedish name and is also used in Russian. After Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War and annexed Finland in 1809, the land was proclaimed the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, and Sveaborg came under Russian command. These changes led to the introduction of Russian as an official language in Finland that had to be learned by civil servants. Czar Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki to reduce the Swedish influence in Finland; its original location was changed, and the new town was built in the style of St. Petersburg. Helsingfors, as it was called in both Swedish and Russian, continued to grow and flourish as a trilingual city.

The period of autonomy is often described as a time when the Finns elaborated their national and linguistic identity as they began to use the Finnish language in newspapers, public meetings, and schools. All the art forms began to prosper, and the masters of architecture, painting, music, and literature had close ties not only with Swedish and French artists, but also with Russian ones. It is linguistically important that the Finnish-speakers outnumbered the Swedish-speakers in 1890 and became the majority of the city's population (61,530 citizens). A special urban slang called stadin slangi evolved on the basis of non-native Swedish and non-native Finnish with a substantial Russian component. Russian-speakers played a significant role in the life of the city, even though they did not form a big group. They were entrepreneurs, merchants, and military (Tommila 1983).

Finland gained its independence in 1917 and both languages, Finnish and Swedish, were adopted as state languages. Russian was regarded with disfavor because of the recent Russification attempts and a massive influx of Russian-speaking emigres, as well as a fear of communist influence. The status of Russian deteriorated further during the Winter War (1939-40) and later, when the Soviet Union was the enemy of the Finnish Republic. From the end of World War II and until the 1970s, there was a massive exodus of predominantly Finnish-speaking people from the countryside to the cities of Finland, primarily to Helsinki. Between 1944 and 1969, the population of the city nearly doubled, from 275,000 to 525,600, and the role of the Swedish language kept declining.

In the last two decades, immigration hasgrownin Finland and nowaccounts for 2% of the whole population. Immigrants usually dwell in the metropolitan area (that is, Helsinki, together with the neighboring cities of Espoo, Kauniainen, and Vantaa) because more services are available to them in their own languages and because they are able to form communities (cf. www.infopankki.fi, an electronic resource providing basic information about Finnish society and culture, accessed 19 February 2012).

Nearly one per cent of the total population are people who speak Russian as one of their home languages, and about the same number of Finnish-or Swedish-speakers have learned Russian at some point in their lives. Most of the "New Russians" are ethnic Finns and Ingrians and their family members. They emigrated from Russia within the framework of a repatriation program launched in the early 1990s.

The population of the city of Helsinki is 588,941 (31 January 2011), making it the most populous municipality in Finland. Finnish-speakers make up 83.7% of the population, Swedish-speakers 6.0%, and speakers of other languages 10.2%. Foreign-born citizens comprise 7.9% of the population (44,400). The largest groups of residents with a non-Finnish background come from Estonia (5,900), Russia (5,633), Somalia (2,400), China (1,150) and Thailand (680) (see www.tilastokeskus.fi, a governmental source giving Finnish statistics, accessed 19 February 2012). In Helsinki, 2% of the population are native speakers of Russian. About 67% of the population are Evangelical Lutherans, and up to 2% are Orthodox (Finnish, Russian and Greek).

Helsinki has 190 comprehensive schools, 41 upper secondary schools, and 15 vocational institutes. Many of these use more than one language of instruction, and several languages are studied as target languages. Even at the pre-school level, bilingual kindergartens with Finnish and Swedish, English, German, French, Hebrew, Russian, or Spanish offer a variety of linguistic programs. In schools, more than 50 home languages are taught as optional courses.

Research on immigration and toponymy

To adopt a second way of life after immigration means to adopt the routes taken by the locals, to speak their language, and to act in the same way they do. The natives are aware of the history of generations who lived in the area; they know stories about remarkable or strange people, and legends about the city's past. For the newcomers, the context is totally different. They may come from bigger or smaller towns or villages, bringing their image of the world with them. Some try to reconstruct what they left behind: emigres from St. Petersburg find Nevsky avenue, and Muscovites recognize images of Tverskaya street in Mannerheimintie, the main thoroughfare of Helsinki. Others pick up knowledge and habits from the local people, and then there are those who just build their history, shaped by their own ordeals. Many remain oblivious to the metaphors behind the place-names, which are so dear to those who have lived their whole life in the city.

A new cultural context imposes a specific use of familiar and newly-learned names and reflects an interplay between imported and newly-acquired experience (a similar phenomenon of making a city "your own" was described by Fialkova and Yelenevskaya 2011). This is true for place-names too. Du Bois (2010, 122-127) considers name references as one way of constituting cultural identity in immigrants. She mentions that spatial references such as river and street names have a commonsensical meaning that is important for bilinguals: they discover what the locals call places in their new surroundings, partly real, partly...

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