Suomenlinna Fortress is also known as the Sveaborg, or Swedish Castle, and also as the Sea Fort because it occupies a cluster of small islands just outside of Helsinki, Finland. A relative latecomer to Scandinavia, Suomenlinna was built by the Swedes in response to the construction of Russia’s new capital at St. Petersburg, which posed a serious threat to Finland. It also served as a maritime base, and at its height boasted one of the largest and most modern shipyards in the world. Although it is no longer in military use, most of the fortress was restored over the last few decades, and over 800 Helsinki residents call Suomenlinna home. It is now the most popular tourist destination in the Finnish capital.
One of the most geographically isolated countries in Europe, Finland was historically an afterthought of European power politics, spending most of the time under the direct control or at least influence of the Swedes. In the mid-18th century, however, Finland was suddenly thrust into the European spotlight when Peter the Great of Russia established a new national capital and major new port at nearby St. Petersburg. The new Russian city sat on the eastern borders of Finland, which immediately became a target for Russian expansionism.
Sweden, which was then in control of most of Finland, responded rapidly. A string of fortifications was erected along the Russian frontier. But the focal point of Finland’s defense was the construction of a massive military and naval base in Helsinki to check the threat of the growing Russian navy. A site consisting of four islands was chosen and extensive fortifications built on each. The forts were built on the islands to protect them from the threat of Russian land forces. Unfortunately, this also left the garrisons at Suomenlinna unable to effectively protect the City of Helsinki.
During the Napoleanic Wars, Sweden fought in opposition to the French. When Napolean concluded his peace treaty with Alexander I of Russia in 1808, Russia was finally able to move against Finland, unhindered by the other great powers of Europe. The Finnish frontier fell quickly, as did Helsinki. Seeing the situation as hopeless, the Swedes surrender the fortress in 1809. Finland remained a Russian territory for the next century, despite the fact that Russia changed sides in 1812 and became a nominal ally of Sweden. Suomenlinna and Helsinki were briefly threatened by the British and French during the Crimean War, but were ultimately held by the Russians.
In 1917 the Russian monarchy collapsed as a result of the country’s disastrous participation in the First World War. Finland was quick to seize the opportunity to regain its independence. Suomenlinna was returned to the Finns and restored as a major naval installation. During the siege of Leningrad in 1942, Finnish forces from Suomenlinna were instrumental in aiding the Nazi blockade of the city. After World War II, Finland managed to establish a separate peace with the Allies, became a neutral state, and Suomenlinna was decommissioned. The fort has since been restored and is now home to hundreds of permanent residents as well as the Finnish Naval Academy.
Suomelinna occupies an extensive site, and is more like a small fortified city somewhat akin to America’s West Point, complete with military academy. The main citadel is located on Vargskar/Vargo Island and includes the main fortifications including the bulk of the seaward ramparts, the naval base, the customs house and the king’s gate. Most of the town and residents, along with several museums, are located on Oster Island. The two smallest island, East and West Svarto, are home to the Naval Academy and are generally off-limits to visitors. All of the islands are connected by bridges and causeways.
It is difficult to walk around the islands without tripping over some part or other of the fortifications. Among the highlights are the massive seaward rampart walls that run most of the length of the western islands; the King’s Gate, which is used as the traditional entryway when Finnish royalty comes to visit; and the Jetty Barracks, which date from the Russian period. Suomenlinna Fortress may also hold a world record as being home to the most museums. There are seven on the site, including the Suomenlinna and Ehrensvard Museums with exhibits on the history of the fortress; a Toy Museum; the Manege Military Museum and Coast Artillery Museum; the Customs Museum; and the Vesikko Submarine, a restored German U-boat.
Suomenlinna Fortress occupies four small islands just off the coast of Finland near Helsinki. It is accessible by regular ferry service which makes numerous runs daily from 6:00am-2:00am. The fortress is open year-round except January 1, April 14, May 1 and December 6, 24 & 25. From May through September the fortress is open from 10:00am-6:00pm; and from October through April from 10:00am-4:00pm. Admission is E6.50 for adults and E3.00 for children. Web: www.suomenlinna.fi (official website)
Because Finland was historically far from most of Europe’s wars, and also because it spent most of its history as a province of foreign powers, Finland has relatively few major castles compared to its neighbors. However, there are a few important and impressive ones that largely date from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. These include Hame Castle in Hameenlinna and St. Olaf’s Castle in Savonlinna. St. Olaf’s bears the distinction of being the world’s northernmost surviving medieval fortress. Also in Finland are Olavinlinna Castle and Turku Castle.