A snowy museum day in Rovaniemi

After yesterday’s gorgeous sun, the clear skies deserted Rovaniemi. Clouds blanketed the city, and snow fell steadily throughout the day, adding an extra layer to the already snow-covered ground. There was a silver-lining to the change in weather: the freshly covered pavements were more walkable. Given the less-than-ideal weather, we planned to dedicate the day exploring museums, a perfect indoor activity.

Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), an architect whose ties to Lapland remained strong throughout his career, played a key role in the town planning of Rovaniemi. Following its destruction in the Lapland War (more below) and by the Germans in World War II, Aalto spearheaded the reconstruction effort, devising the Reindeer Antler Plan to reshape Rovaniemi. The city’s aerial view bears a striking resemblance to reindeer antlers!

In addition to his contribution to urban planning, Aalto designed the Rovaniemi Library, our first stop of the day. Like the Rock Church and Oodi Library, light served as a central theme in Aalto’s design, with indirect natural light and unique light fittings enhancing the ambiance.

Having bought a combined ticket yesterday to see the three main museums in Rovaniemi, we started with Korundi, the cultural centre. Helsinki Arts Museum had been somewhat underwhelming but Korundi exceeded our expectations. The theme of nature and nurture and the changes happening to our planet were especially well depicted without being preachy or heavy-handed.

Our plan was to eat at Arktikum again but we saw that there was a buffet at Korundi, which was similar to, but different from, Arktikum’s buffet. Since we were beginning to feel hungry, we settled for Korundi’s cafe. I had a “massaman potato curry” accompanied by courgette rice topped with dill. There were the usual (as at Arktikum) salads, including a few new ones, like a bean and grain sprout. It was delicious. Having topped up with a second serving, I was very full at the end of the meal and had only a snack later as an evening meal. I was getting used to and beginning to like the Finnish tradition of making lunch the main meal of the day, especially the buffets.

We enjoyed the relaxing cafe atmosphere for a bit longer, allowing our meal to settle. Our next stop was Pilke House, a science centre (and the second museum on our list). This had more interactive exhibitions and was good fun for people of all ages. We were able to go on various trucks.

Adjacent to the Pilke is Arktikum, our final museum of the day. Having explored some exhibits yesterday, we popped into the remaining ones. Some exhibits were text-heavy, but the visit was rescued by some of the historical artefacts illustrating the descriptions.

Finland has had a fascinating history, which I gleaned from the exhibits and The Short History of Finland (J Clements, 2022). The country has been dominated by Sweden to the west and Russia to the east. You can still see statues of Swedish kings in town centres.

Russian rule

Russia has left its mark on Finland too. Alexander II (1818-81) is fondly remembered by Finns (the “Good Tsar”) and his statue stands proudly in central Helsinki.

By the early 1900s, the relationship between Finland and Russia began to sour. Alexander II’s grandson, Nicolas II (1868-1918), was the last Tsar of Russia and tried to “Russify” Finland, for example by making Russian the first language. He is known in Finland as the “The Perjurer” for his betrayal of the Tsar’s traditional oath to uphold Finnish autonomy. His reign was characterised by political and social unrest, culminating in the collapse of the 300-year Romanov dynasty.

Nicolas II’s hold on Russia loosened gradually: defeat in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War (sometimes called World War Zero because it was the testing ground for military innovations used in World War I); Germany declaring war on Russia in 1914; and the nail in the coffin, the Russian Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power.

In 1917, Finland took advantage of Russia’s fading fortunes and declared independence, which was a bold or foolish move for a country without an army!

Civil War (1918)

Finland itself experienced a revolution when it split into two factions: the (conservative) Whites and the (socialist) Reds. This was tragic since they had much in common. The leader of the White military forces during the five-month Finnish Civil War, and the great hero of Finnish history, was Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who had served thirty years in the Russian army.

The war quickly turned into a brutal and bloody conflict, marked by atrocities committed by both sides. Mannerheim’s leadership experience meant the Whites were better organised. They also had military support from the Germans, something that’s little spoken of today given Germany’s history in the early 20th century. The Whites defeated the Reds, established control over Finland, and initiated a period of “White Terror”, which targeted Reds and sympathisers.

Winter War (1939-40)

The rivalry between the Whites and Reds was put to one side to fight a common enemy in the Winter War. Mannerheim was dragged out of retirement to lead the fight.

The Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union began in 1939. In this David and Goliath battle, the Finnish army used their local knowledge to repeatedly outmanoeuvre the poorly trained and inadequately supplied Soviet forces. Despite facing overwhelming odds, the Finns received international admiration for their resilience and determination. Even Winston Churchill praised their tenacity, noting what “free men can do”.

The war ended with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty, in which Finland gave up territory to the Soviet Union but kept their independence.

In churches all over Finland, a signed decree from Mannerheim can be found framed on the wall, awarding a medal to the “mothers of Finland” for their own sacrifices.

Continuation War (1941-44)

In 1941, Finland, alongside Nazi Germany, tried to regain the territory Finland had lost in the Winter War. They launched a military offensive against the Soviet Union. Finland’s alliance with Germany was a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” rather than an ideological affinity to Nazi Germany. When the tide began to turn against Germany (and its allies, including Finland), the Soviet Union and Finland signed the Moscow Armistice, in which Finland again ceded territory.

Lapland War (1944-45)

After the signing of the Moscow Armistice, Finland turned on their German allies, ordering them out of the country! The Germans were taken aback by this sudden reversal. The Lapland War ended in April 1945 with the withdrawal of German forces from Finland, although they left significant destruction in their wake. The Germans left the land strewn with mines. Over subsequent years, Finns (and reindeer) lost their lives or were injured by these landmines.

Finland’s involvement in World War II had profound effects on its society, economy, and political landscape. To this day, Finnish men perform national military service.

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