The year was 1972, and I had never heard of Viipuri, then as now the city of Vyborg, Russia. Then one frosty January evening, Bertta Sokka, who had been born in the city when it still had a Finnish identity, brought a huge, encyclopedic book, Karjalan Tie (Finnish for “Karelian Road”), to her living room. Mamma, as I called her, was born in 1914, and during her many years she witnessed the city of her birth change hands from the Russians to the Finns and, heartbreakingly, back to the Russians for good in 1944.
I called her Mamma because she doted on me like the son she never had, darning my socks, knitting me sweater vests for the inhospitable Finnish winter, and making me Karelian rye flour pies stuffed with rice cooked in milk to take home to Tampere on weekends. When we met, I was just her daughter’s American boyfriend, living in Finland to study the development and structure of the Finnish language. But we loved each other from the start, and eventually, she would become my mother-in-law.
The book she showed me is long out of print, a relic, and a unique one at that. It chronicles the journey of the 31,000 ethnic Finns, complete with their children born in exile, who left Viipuri when the Red Army invaded and the city became part of the Soviet Union. All went to live in the free and democratic Republic of Finland. There was even a picture of my girlfriend, little Hilkka (born 1953), as a toddler, in the family history.
Can you imagine? The city, once a showcase for grand manor houses and gardens, was completely emptied after the territory was lost to Stalin by Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a former Lieutenant General in the Imperial Russian Army and, during World War II, Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Armed Forces. In the years to come, Vyborg would be repopulated with Soviet citizens.
Soviet bleakness replaced the Hanseatic charm that once made it such a compelling destination for proud Finns. Grand manor houses were laid waste and burned to the ground. Finnish names for streets were expunged, replaced with ones like Pioneer or Red Army Street.
So in April of 1972, I bought a weekend bus trip to Leningrad from Helsinki, a $40 Intourist travel package purchased mostly by young Finns wanting to party on cheap vodka and take a peek behind the curtain.
When the bus arrived, I was shuttled off to my hotel, a low-rent property called the Sputnik, trailed by street kids hustling to trade Communist medals of Lenin or Stalin for deodorant, gum, onions, or blue jeans. “Purukumi,” they cried, following me. “Mina ostan. Hyva hinta.” It was the only Finnish they knew. Translation: “Chewing gum. I buy. Good price.”
It had been my intention to visit Vyborg, 105 kilometers to the north, but a girl I met in the bar at the Europezhkaya told me it would be risky to leave the city without permission.
My idea was to see where my Finnish Mamma grew up, take several pictures, and show her I had actually been there. But the quest was, like Don Quixote’s, an impossible one, at least in the Brezhnev era.
Nearly 40 years later I made it happen. In the fall of 2011 I got wind of an easy way to go to Russia, by taking the St. Peter Cruise Line from Stockholm and returning via Helsinki. Now, if you’ve ever applied for a Russian visa, it can be a nightmarish process of forms, red tape, and frustration. The beauty of taking the St. Peter Line is that through a special loophole for people arriving by boat, you get a 72-hour visa on arrival in St. Petersburg.
One could easily spend all 72 of those hours just scratching the surface of St. Petersburg, the undisputed star attraction of the new Russia. Recently restored palaces such as Peterhof, the personal Versailles of Peter the Great, 30 kilometers west of the city, or the Catherine Palace, where teams of restorers are still painting gold leaf on sconces, are world-class attractions.
Then there is The Hermitage, considered, along with the Louvre, one of the world’s greatest art museums. And other attractions such as the Mariinsky Theater, where it might be possible to take in a performance of Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty.
But I was on a mission, so once ashore, I made my plans to visit Vyborg. My Russian friend Yuri, who now lives in Boston, arranged for Sasha, a 19-year-old college student, to drive me there—for a fee, of course.
Sasha showed up in his dad’s swell Peugeot, hardly the Zil that would have driven a diplomat to a dacha on the Karelian peninsula in the ’70s, but a plush vehicle well suited to a new Russia and the conspicuous wealth that has quickly spread with the acceptance of capitalism. The roads are quite good on this route; Stalin built them to move tanks and troops, so the slightly under–200 kilometer trip takes less than two hours when there is light traffic.
Sasha, girl-crazy and fluent in English, didn’t quite understand why I needed to go. “My family has a dacha close to Vyborg,” he told me, “so at least we can stop for a sauna on the way back to St. Pete.”
Yuri told me to give the kid $150, part of which was to cover the gas. But his profit disappeared shortly after he took a wrong turn down a one-way cobblestone street inside Vyborg. A police van nearby flagged us down and summoned him inside. He emerged a half-hour later, while I sat puzzled in the Peugeot.
“I bribed the cop for $150,” he told me. “I can lose my license if I get reported.” He shook his blond locks in despair. “Being a border cop is the best job in Russia,” he told me.
Vyborg is a lovely little town of gardens and parks, so the first thing we did was stroll through one on the main road leading to the center of the city. It was early fall, and the trees were green and leafy. “Well,” I told Sasha, “Vyborg has retained some of its old charm.” Sasha had no idea what I was talking about. He knew nothing of the city’s history, I discovered. In modern Russia, the Finnish War, as the Russians sometimes call it, is little more than a footnote of history.
Then we got in the car, drove a long kilometer into the main town square, parked legally, and proceeded to the rynok, Russian for market. Looking around the large, down-at-the-heels market hall, I saw a profusion of appealing goods: various types of fresh berries, wrapped chocolate, bulk peanuts, a pile of fava beans, cheap electronic goods, and a Cyrillic sign that said “Marlboro,” which is the Russian way to say “cigarettes.”
This was truly a different Russia than the one I remembered, a country where goods were so scarce that one could, reputedly, buy a woman’s friendship for a stick of deodorant and 2 kilos of onions. The Vyborg marketplace, in contrast, seemed to fairly overflow with things to buy.
Most of the vendors shocked me by offering their wares in Finnish, but when I responded, they had no idea what I was saying. “Many tourists come from Finland,” Sasha said. “They know you aren’t from here, so they repeat the names of things they sell in Finnish, but that’s all the Finnish they can speak.”
Later, walking through the streets, it was obvious buildings were Finnish in design; an abundance of brick, turrets, and influences from the Jugendstil school you can still see everywhere in Helsinki. A round building with a white exterior, copper dome, and a spire on top captured my attention. “This is a nice restaurant,” said Sasha; 19-year-old boys are always hungry.
Inside, Café Respect had but a few tables and a menu in Russian and English. Sasha ordered solyanka, a meat and sour-pickle soup, while I had fish, a local pike-perch, in a casserole dish. After scraping off the cheese, it was reasonably palatable, and the black bread was delicious. This was the new Russia, but Soviet-era service remained. It took a good 45 minutes to get our food, and we were the only table.
After lunch, we left on foot to the city’s number one tourist attraction, Vyborg Castle. To get there, you cross a bucolic river over a beautiful, jiggling bridge near the town center.
Vyborg Castle, Viipurin linna in Finnish, was for centuries one of Finland’s three major castles. It was built in 1293 by Torkel Knutsson, Lord High Constable of Sweden, and further fortified in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The castle is located on an islet overlooking the Bay of Viipuri, and was, for centuries, the Karelian peninsula’s first defense against Russia. The main castle is surrounded by high walls and has a four-story tower in dead center. Visitors can climb the tower for a small fee, affording spectacular views of the bay on sunny days.
It also has a crowded souvenir shop, crammed with medieval artifact knock-offs, clothing and banners embossed with crests of their faded glory. “No one buys anything here nowadays,” the proprietor told me, disappointment tracing his lightly accented English. I didn’t.
The sun was fading, the temperature dropping, so we returned to the car and headed to Sasha’s family dacha, located behind a gate in a small, upscale lakefront community. The family pays a watchman from Uzbekistan to keep an eye on the place. He’s always there, and he was happy to see Sasha, kissing him on both cheeks. A sauna came next.
I never did get to see the Sokka family home. When we drove by the address I gave Sasha, all that remained was an empty lot. The house, it seems, burned to a cinder in some year I couldn’t determine. “Don’t bother checking records,” Sasha told me. “No one is going to care.”
But the ghosts haven’t been completely laid to rest. I could smell them in the air, the faint scent of birch that seems to me so unmistakably Finnish, and the turrets that speak of fading shreds of medieval culture, and the quietus of a bygone era.
Would I have been better served to let memory fade, and spend that extra day in St. Petersburg, where I could have eaten one more deconstructed borscht cooked by a trendy chef, or visited the architectural marvel called the Stroganov Palace?
Who knows? But our personal journeys lead us down unexpected paths, and mine took me to a city that deserves, at least, to be remembered, like the lady who inspired me to visit it.