Finns on Thin Ice

Finland in the winter? Why not?, the ATLANTIC’S Phoebe Lou Adams decided one day, and betook herself to the land just below the Arctic Circle at a time when tourists disdain to tread. Some of the pleasures she encountered and impressions she gained are here recorded.

HELSINKI calls itself the White City of the North, but in early March, cumbered with two feet of snow, it sulked grayly under a gray sky. Pedestrians hunched into black coats, pulled fur caps over their ears, and scuttled like winter leaves before the snarling wind. Looking down from a hotel room where I read the mail at noon by the light of two flamboyant crystal chandeliers, I could hardly distinguish the men on the street from the women and decided gloomily that all Finns are alike.

This was a mistake, quickly corrected by observation on the level. Finns are not all alike. There is the long-nosed Finn and the short-nosed Finn, plus a subdivision of the short-nosed Finn, the flat-faced Finn. These terms, like most sober cataloguing, sound horribly unattractive; in fact, the Finns are handsome people. The long nose goes with cream-orange coloring and brass-gold hair. The short-nosed type may be fair or dark but generally has eyes of a silvery blue-green like the Baltic Sea and a bewitchingly childlike earto-ear smile. The flat-faced Finn has a complexion of pale, even burnt, ivory, and his eyes are purplish dark blue. I say “his” because my ethnographic observations were concentrated on men. Their features tend to be more pronounced, and their hair color is definitely more trustworthy.

In one respect, however, the Finns I met were indeed alike. They all lamented that anybody should be so misguided as to visit them in March when July is the proper month; provided, of course, that July does not disgrace itself with rain and fog. In short, they sounded much as New Englanders do, and for the same reason. Helsinki has a coastal climate and enjoys every whimsy of the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic Sea.

At the moment, the Gulf of Bothnia was frozen solid, and freight to Sweden was being moved by trucks on a route laid over the ice a couple of hundred miles north of Helsinki. Saltwater trucking was not of itself an innovation, for something of the sort occurs every winter, but the absolute cessation of ship traffic between Helsinki and Stockholm, which had lasted for weeks, was a matter for surprise and outrage. Finnish shipyards proudly claim to have made the fiercest icebreakers in the world, but these ships were delivered to Russia for use up around Murmansk. The Finns themselves maintain lesser icebreakers and had only recently succeeded in battering a channel from the Helsinki docks to something that would pass for open water. The achievement was being celebrated by a dock-workers strike, which nobody appeared to take seriously.

The strike did have one visible effect. Since no ships could move, the sun, when it finally came out, revealed Helsinki Harbor as a great, glittering plain on which pinpoints of red and blue fire and streaks of shark gray, silver, white, and watery lilac blurred and flickered away to a misty horizon. Bits of last night’s thin snowfall rose and floated on the wind like small transparent banners. The innumerable islands of the archipelago were indicated by clumps of trees, narrow pines and spruces rising blackly out of the white level.

Since I lacked the courage to demand a sixteenhour round trip on the trans-Bothnian truck route, I settled for a walk on the harbor. There was nothing remarkable about this enterprise. The harbor was already crisscrossed with paths leading from island to shore or island to island, and a scattering of people marched over the ice, obviously on their normal business.

The Finnish girl who was showing me about had never expected to have to hike half a mile out to a tugboat, but she made no complaint. We climbed over a yard-high dike of gravel and ice piled up by the snowplows, floundered and slithered down a drifted slope, and stood triumphantly on the frozen harbor. At least I stood triumphantly. Frozen salt water was no novelty to the Finn. She sniffed the wind and told me that I should have worn a hat, which was true.

The surface on which we stood was not ice but a rough, grainy crust on a layer of packed snow, and while there was some danger of going in over the boot top in spots where the sun had softened the crust, there was no danger of slipping.

We picked the tugboat as a goal because it sat out there like a duck frozen in a pond, and just beyond it a low ridge of piled ice blocks, catching the sun like a string of crystals, marked the edge of the open channel. As we crunched toward the boat, we met a tweedy man walking a dog, two elderly ladies displaying gay flower and velvet turbans above the inevitable black coats, some children lugging schoolbooks, a girl in a fur parka and high-heeled red boots, and a couple of men with briefcases. It was normal sidewalk traffic, short-cutting over the harbor. Off the point of an island halfway to the channel there was an assemblage of raw-wood fencing Carelessly thrust into the snow. It marked the hole in which a group of Finns, presumably addicted to self-torture, dunk themselves at intervals throughout the winter. The hole was six or seven feet in diameter, hacked roughly through a foot and a half of snow and what looked like two and a half feet of ice, but the depth of the ice, which darkened from yellow-gray to deep amber as it descended into the water, was impossible to estimate with any certainty.

The tugboat proved to be no tugboat at all. It was the pilot boat for Kotka, a port well to the east of Helsinki and just as thoroughly frozen. The whole pilot boat outfit was doing nothing very comfortably. They had a hole cut for garbage disposal on the starboard side and a blue motorcar parked to port. A strip of open water just wide enough for the boat ran from the bow to the main channel and its ice wall. A man with a pipe leaned over the gunwale and advised us against going any further. He said the ice could start breaking up out there at any time.

From the edge of the harbor, Helsinki deserved its romantic title, for pale buildings and snowcovered roofs led the eye east to where the walls of the cathedral surged white against the blue sky. The dome looked weightless as the wind which was numbing our noses and ears. We trotted, sniffling, in search of a coffee shop and had such trouble finding one that the Finnish girl became exasperated. She announced that the people in that district must be a dreary, stingy, housebound lot to permit such a shortage of one of life’s necessities, and prophesied early destruction for the whole neighborhood.

This was not an altogether baseless forecast. Although Helsinki was founded in the sixteenth century by the Swedish king Gustavus Vasa, it is not physically an old city. The antique habit of wooden construction and the usual run of fires ensured a constant renewal of buildings, and almost everything standing in the city today dates from the nineteenth century. The beautiful square below the cathedral is enclosed by cream-white buildings ornamented with shallow Palladian pilasters and moldings. They are not eighteenth century, but thoroughly post-Napoleonic, and they are the oldest structures around, with the possible exception of some military barracks, which are being preserved as items of historic interest. The pro-barrack party won its case by a whisker, for Helsinki is almost as hasty as New York in pulling things down, and at present is planning the abolition of a spacious, tree-shaded, romantically scruffy residential district to the west, a harmless informal waterfront park nearer to the center, and a number of blocks in the main business and shopping area. The sites are to be given over to apartment buildings and a great underground car park with a formal plaza, or cultural center, on top. There will probably be some nice little glass skyscrapers, too. The whole affair is under the direction of Alvar Aalto, Finland’s versatile, distinguished, indefatigably energetic architect.

A few traditionalists lament the passing of Victorian stonework, but most of Helsinki seems quite willing to let Mr. Aalto tear down anything more than ten years old, provided only that he replaces it with a block of flats. This disregard for potential historical monuments (and Helsinki owns some enormously pretty and charming old structures) is partly practical; a tenth of Finland’s four and a half million population has crowded into the city, and apartments are maddeningly hard to find. The situation may also involve emotions arising from Finland’s history.

In the mid-twelfth century, Eric IX of Sweden led a crusade to Finland and bloodily christianized the populace, regardless of the fact that some Finns had been Christians for years. He then took over the country as a Swedish province. Since the Finns had never thought to organize much in the way of a government, they had no notion of how to contend against one and remained a mildly disgruntled part of Sweden until repercussions from the Napoleonic Wars bounced them into Russian control. Russia governed the country, with increasingly arbitrary severity as the Romanoff dynasty became increasingly shaky, until the revolution, when Finland took the opportunity to declare herself independent. What this means, architecturally, is that nothing erected before 1917 can be considered a truly Finnish building, and I believe that quite a number of Finns would be pleased to see what they consider all that old colonial trash swept into the town dump.

The one style of building that escapes the distaste for anything left over from earlier regimes is the work of the National Romantic School, which evolved around the turn of the century with Saarinen the elder as one of its exponents. Perhaps because its appearance coincided with particularly energetic anti-Russian activity, perhaps because it owed nothing stylistically to Russia (it owed quite a bit elsewhere, but that’s another story), perhaps because of Saarinen’s later international reputation, the National Romantic style is still hallowed by national affection.

One obvious structure of the type is the Helsinki railroad station, designed by Saarinen, but who looks at a railroad station, particularly in a snowstorm? My first National Romantic specimen was the hotel at Imatra.

IMATRA IS a paper-mill center sprawled along a waterway leading out of the great lake complex in southeastern Finland. The tourist office described it as ‘’a long sausage of a town where you always hit the wrong end.” By taking the wrong turning I accidentally hit the right end, and we rolled into the courtyard of an enormous dark-colored building which suggested a castle, an episcopal palace, and a Wagnerian stage set. The place sprouted turrets, battlements, balconies, Romanesque arches, Gothic buttresses, round stone heads resembling Olmec gods, cornices, gunports, bay windows, water nymphs, and warts. I despair of doing justice to the National Romantic style. That hotel looked as though it had been designed by William Morris for a mad Newport millionaire, yet it had real charm, for all the anachronistic elements had been maneuvered into a balance that achieved dignity, comfort, and good sense. The discovery that most of the pseudo-antique hardware was nonfunctional made no difference. Even the suspicion that the great bronze-hooded fireplace was a flueless fraud was no matter. It was a handsome building, and the interior had recently been redone with great success and lavishly intricate plumbing.

The Valtion Hotel started as a summer resort for rich Russians (the Czar is reputed to have fished the neighboring waters with pleasure), and it overhangs what was at the time a fine gorge, a wide, boulder-crammed gash roaring with white water and shadowed by tall narrow pointed spruces rising straight as the teeth of a comb. The boulders and the trees are still there, but the water has been diverted to run a power plant. The diversion, I believe, was one of the first acts of independent Finland, and there is a certain justice in turning a despot’s rapids into democratic electricity.

Now that Finland is better supplied with power plants, there is talk of restoring the rapids, at least on Sundays in the tourist season.

Even out of the tourist season, the hotel was busy. The paper mills of Imatra draw customers from all around the world, and the dining room rattled with male voices speaking half a dozen languages. There was a silent gentleman with two pretty girls. Since he could waltz with only one at a time, the other girl was borrowed by various neighbors.

I was informed that this was usual and proper; no introduction necessary. Then I wondered whether the lonely paper buyers could have found girls of their own, and was told, “There’s no problem. Finnish girls are very agreeable” — the “very” was in vocal italics — “and they like foreigners. Especially with dark eyes. They adore foreign boys with dark eyes.” But suppose it’s a fat middle-aged foreigner with blue eyes? “Oh, that — hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. He’ll get nowhere at all.”

Imatra is only a few miles from the Russian frontier, and the officers of the paper mill that I visited were much aware of the fact. The mill, which is part of an enormous industrial combine owned principally by the government and the Bank of Finland, lies well out of town and has several divisions, the newest designed by the pervasive Mr. Aalto. It is a splendid plant. The great blocky buildings lie in a rough L shape, some made of concrete and some of faded red brick, while two tanks like gargantuan silos are a soft golden tobacco-brown. The pattern of color was beautiful in itself, and enhanced by the setting of new white snow and dark trees spread in a shallow, irregular curve beyond the outer wings of the plant. Driveways and parking lots were plowed to permit traffic, but not scraped to the ground, and they remained as white as the surrounding country. The tall chimneys puffed clouds of utterly white vapor.

This mill makes various grades of heavy-duty paper, lumped as “board,” and pulp. The mill people admitted to a certain preliminary apprehension about the place. They were not sure they could get their machinery into Mr. Aalto’s masterpiece. Evidently they managed, for the enormous machines, as long as a city block and as high as a small house, sat there clanking, steaming, fuming, and spitting. Misty rainbows showed against the high windows, and the floor was cut everywhere with little channels of water. We climbed up and down on spidery metal staircases and eventually reached the roof, where the chimney enveloped us in a cloud of cold steam. It smelt slightly of burnt sulfur, and the mill man apologized. It is the mill’s ambition to be absolutely inoffensive.

There was a considerable view from that roof. The frozen lake, thickly dotted with islands, stretched away to the northern horizon, and on the south and east lay rolling country with clumps of houses, wooded patches, and mill chimneys throwing columns of steam with a tongue of dark color at the base. “Our old mills,” said the paper-mill man. “The Russians took them in the war.” He eyed the display from the chimneys, and added, “Russian style. See that dark spot? Incomplete burning.” Obviously, incomplete burning is a sin against economy, efficiency, and the will of God.

Luncheon was in what had once been the summer cottage of a Prince Obolensky, alleged to be still alive somewhere in Sweden. Someone grunted, “Must be around a hundred,” and there was a general chuckle. The mill officials were rightly proud of their guesthouse, a pleasant wooden building on the edge of the lake where a small red tug was fussing around some log rafts in a stretch of open water. The Finns have preserved the delicately ornate interior of the house while removing miles of gingerbread from the outside. Evidently the princely cottage had been a small town house encased in a phony Swiss chalet. It is now an elegant mixture of old and new, with a palatial sauna in the cellar.

There were interesting pieces of modern Finnish sculpture and ceramic work scattered about, and the dining room contained a painting of Helsinki’s small open market, the one devoted to baskets and located down on the waterfront. The painting had been done before new buildings cut off the view of the water, and I could not recognize the spot until this was explained to me. “See that ship in the background?” I located a blurred gray mass and realized that it was not a church steeple but the upper works of a battleship. “We had two of them. One was torpedoed, and the Russians took the other. We hear they’re still using her.” A drawling voice down the table remarked, “That’s half the old Finnish Navy in one picture,” and there was much laughter.

AFTER luncheon, which was memorable even by the high standards of Finland, a map was brought out to show the location of all the company’s holdings, which include lumbering forests, pulp, newsprint, board and paper mills, a shipping line, and some machine tool factories. Much of the machinery I had seen came from the United States or West Germany, but although the Finns began by buying papermaking equipment abroad, they have since learned to make it themselves and are now selling complete paper mills to various new countries with ambitions toward industrialization and self-sufficiency.

What would this do ultimately to Finland’s paper export trade? One of the directors shrugged and said cheerfully, “If they have trees, they’ll learn to make paper. Then we can’t sell it to them anyway. So we sell them the machinery now and take the profit while we can.” He added, wryly, that some of the paper mill customers lack trees or machinists or both; in spite of the mills, they will be buying paper for some time to come.

The map was large and hung on a stand. There was a pointer to indicate the various plants, and all that geographical equipment led to talk of the Karelian territory taken by Russia. Out of seven men present, six proved to have connections, via ancestors, marriage, or early residence, with the lost province. Suddenly everybody was on his feet, and the pointer went from hand to hand. “This was my town.” “My wife comes from down here.” “We used to visit my uncle in this little place.” One man, grinning sourly, swept the pointer eastward off the map. “I spent a very interesting visit down here.” He had been part of that Finnish advance into Russia which so amazed everybody (except the Finns) during the war. It was disconcerting, he recalled, to have “all those American tanks coming at us.”

This statement, historically improbable, to put it civilly, was evidently Finnishly indiscreet as well, for the whole company burst into distracting chatter and diversionary tactics with the brandy bottle. I was never able to extract another word on those unlikely tanks.

None of the Finns had been to Karelia since it became Russian property. They said it is not permitted. “We can go to Russia easily— to Moscow and Leningrad and so on, and there are a lot of Finns working up on the north coast now because we have sold them a power plant. But no Finn gets permission to go to Karelia.” There was a general nodding of heads in confirmation.

The frontier line on the map showed various wobbles and bulges of which my hosts thought poorly. They said that Stalin had just drawn a straight line when he laid down the terms of the peace settlement, but the crews actually surveying the border did not follow it. “We lost our mills because of the weather. It was cold, and those fellows went into the nearest town to get warm, and there they saw a couple of good-looking mills. So they moved the line to include that town.”

Despite the lost lands of Karelia, the problem of resettling all the people who left that area (what percentage? “Everybody who wasn’t too old to move”), and the hijacked paper mills, these businessmen spoke of the war with something like reluctant affection. They could not approve of the war itself, but they could approve of certain commercial results deriving from it. The resettlement problem was an enormous stimulus to the building trade. Russia demanded indemnity in things, particularly ships and machinery. Finland of necessity hustled to create factories that could make these things, and once the indemnity was paid off, found herself in possession of such a large and capable industrial plant that she was able to enter the international market in, for example, paper mills and icebreakers. “In that respect,” said one gentleman, “the war did us a lot of good. And the Russians have become excellent customers. They got used to Finnish machinery, and they rely on it. They buy a great deal of our stuff.”

Elsewhere, I heard that Russia has lately become ambitious to sell as well as to buy, and is making such an issue of peddling cars in Finland that the embarrassed Finnish government has found it expedient to register Soviet-made vehicles at a lower fee than that charged for American or Western European cars. This looks like blackmail, but there may be practical balance-of-trade reasons for it. If Finland does steady business with Russia, money spent on a Soviet machine will come back again, while money spent on a Ford or a Volkswagen may be gone forever. And while there is no obvious connection between cars and canals, it may be worth mentioning that the Russians have recently agreed to open to Finnish ships the canal that runs from the lake through what was formerly Finnish territory and into the Gulf of Finland. The cutting off of this canal has been a great inconvenience to the whole Imatra district, and Finland is now busily repairing her end of it.

Finland is in a difficult position. Her capable, energetic, ingenious people are hampered by limited natural resources and are wedged in between the uncontrollable Russians and the acutely profit-conscious Swedes, at the end of a long supply line that raises the price of imported necessities to terrible heights. The Finns cannot be poor since poverty, in addition to being uncomfortable and humiliating, invites correctional interference by neighbors. Neither can they afford to grow rich enough to be worth robbing.

My desire to have a closer look at the frontier aroused a certain amount of dismay. While there seems to be no actual regulation against driving down to the end of the road, turning around, and driving away again, it was implied that such a maneuver might cause the Russians to think, an event to be avoided whenever possible. In the end, and after I had sworn to commit no indiscretions with the camera, it was agreed that we could go part of the way.

The turnoff was a junction with a sentence-long Finnish name on a signboard. (Practically every word in the Finnish language is at least ten syllables long, and the simplest exchange of information sounds like a debate between gently babbling brooks.) the road was one car wide, the snow plowed down but not clear. We progressed along a white trough between high snowbanks, crossed an open field, and moved into a wood where the road twisted its way sharply upward among the black tree trunks. At the top of the rise there was a scooped-out place for turning and a sign forbidding picture-taking.

We got out and peered through the trees. We were overlooking a slope leading down to partially open country cut by waterways and patches of forest, then a belt of thicker forest, then scattered rooftops and the mill chimneys trailing white ribbons with that deplorable smudge at the base. The sky was brilliant light blue; the snow glittered like fragments of glass and showed no mark of road, ski track, or foot. It all looked peaceful as a Christmas card, but the east wind blew sharp in our faces.

“The guard towers are in that belt of woods. They have certainly seen us by now,” said one of the Finns. I could see nothing but trees.

Since the turnaround proved too small for the car, we backed the zigzag quarter mile to level ground. It was, I suppose, a small victory for the Soviet Union.