Could Vyborg’s run-down quarters open up for new tourists?
Neglected city dreams about its own Hermitage Museum and business visitors
By Janne Toivonen
At the Hotel Druzhba nothing much has changed since former Soviet times.
In the lobby of the ugly concrete edifice that the Finns built in Vyborg in the 1980s, some travellers, rather the worse for drink, are sprawling on the worn heavy leather armchairs.
The same three young women as on the previous night are on duty next to the men. They are trying to get into the Finns’ rooms by flashing their eyelashes and lifting the hems of their skirts.
The Finnish tourists show a mobile phone video with people saluting the statue of Lenin that is still standing on the Red Fountain Square in Vyborg.
The receptionist behind the desk looks like he would like nothing more than to end his days.
However, with the exception of some Soviet relics, Vyborg is changing at a brisk pace.
”Just two years ago we saw an awful lot of peddlers here, and small boys selling pirated goods”, note Tuija Oikarinen and Vesa Kalevo from Helsinki, standing in the Market Square.
”Today it is OK to walk everywhere without being hassled”, they say.
For the first time in seven years, it has been possible to travel to Vyborg without a visa.
The relaxation of visa requirements has brought thousands of new and amazed visitors to the beautiful - albeit rather decayed and shabby - centre of this historic city. Vyborg, or Viipuri to the Finns, was once Finland's second-largest town and a thriving and cosmopolitan place.
Only previous experiences and prejudices are holding back a real tourist boom.
”We were warned so effectively about petty theft in Vyborg before our trip that we deliberately left the video camera at home”, Oikarinen says with a shrug.
The warnings may have been a bit overdone. The beggars, pickpockets, and peddlers who previously plied their trade on Vyborg’s Market Square were last year chased away to more remote locations.
The operation was a major one, and both the hard-bitten special purpose police swat troops (OMON) and the Russian security service (FSB) were involved.
Some of the shady types have moved to the Talikkala market square some kilometres away, while the others were convinced by the threat of fines amounting to RUB 4,500 or EUR 100.
The sum is roughly equal to one-fifth of the average monthly earnings of local people.
However, a few brave peddlers can still be seen pushing their wares on the square. An elderly woman is diffidently offering a brush for a couple of euros.
On the stairs of Vyborg’s Market Hall, a young man is flogging cartons of cigarettes from a plastic shopping bag: ”Buy cheap tobacco!”
A few blocks away, on the former Vahtitorninkatu, Tulikki Järvinen gets excited.
”This is the street on which I played as a child! And during the Continuation War [1941-44] my friends and I used to sort out war-booty books here”, Järvinen recalls.
Actually the city’s Finnish roots are now more visible in Vyborg than previously.
This summer a statue of 16th century Finnish clergyman and founder of the written language Mikael Agricola was set up in a prime location in the centre of the city, and an exhibition depicting the city’s Finnish era has been opened in the castle.
The refurbishment of Vyborg’s public library designed by Alvar Aalto continues, and some renovations have also been promised for Linnankatu, once called the most beautiful street in Finland.
In the Soviet era, nobody ever mentioned the background of the city.
”I had no idea why Finnish tourists would burst into tears when they got off the bus on Vyborg streets”, says Tatjana Shumilina, who started working as a guide in Vyborg some 20 years ago.
”We had not been taught anything about the city’s Finnish history”, she recalls.
Vyborg was the largest community in the area of Karelia that was ceded to the Soviet Union after the Winter War, and though it was recaptured and briefly annexed once more by Finland in the next conflict, it returned to Soviet hands with the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, when Finland relinquished all claims on the place.
Deputy Mayor Svetlana Nerushai is smiling in her office.
”The future? It is limitless”, she says.
Nerushai represents the city’s new, rejuvenated management. She has announced publicly that no progress is likely as long as the statue of Lenin is standing in the centre of the city.
The exemption from visa requirements and increasing tourist flows are vital for the city's development, but the fact that St. Petersburg is becoming more and more affluent has definitely had the most significant impact on Vyborg.
In 2009, an automobile museum, a tourist bureau, and a brand-new international business centre accommodating the Hotel Victoria, some offices, and conference space, have all been opened in the historical centre of Vyborg.
Vyborg would clearly like a slice of the business travel market.
St. Petersburg also intends to give the city of Vyborg a real jewel that could draw in the tourists.
If the funding can be finalised, a Hermitage-Vyborg Centre will be established in the building of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Vyborg Painting School at the end of 2009.
The ship back towards Lappeenranta is ready to depart, and Finnish tourists are coming on board carrying bags full of sparkling wine, crystal glass, and chocolate.
His travelling companions are trying to wake up a Finnish man who has passed out in a bush in the Vyborg Harbour.
The man, shoeless, hobbles and wobbles to the passport control, lisping into the ear of his escort: ”Help me on board, pleesh”.
So not quite everything has changed.
FACTFILE: Visa exemption caused rush of tourists
Since the beginning of 2009 all cruise passengers to Vyborg have been allowed to stay on the territory of the Russian Federation without a visa for up to 72 hours.
In 2008, a total of 11,000 overnight stays were recorded in Vyborg. In 2009, the corresponding figure was exceeded already at the turn of June and July.
Visa-free cruises from Lappeenranta along the Saimaa Canal to Vyborg are organised by Matkaverkko, which has sold a total of some 18,000 trips this summer. In previous summers the corresponding figure was about 10,000.
Most cruise passengers are Finnish. Only a few hundred travellers are other than Finnish or Russian citizens.
About half of the cruise passengers stay overnight in Vyborg. Some passengers go on instead to St. Petersburg for one or two nights.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.8.2009
Note: Vyborg has had a colourful history of ownership. Historically the city has belonged to: Sweden (along with present-day Finland) as the capital of Swedish Karelia from 1293 until 1721; Imperial Russia until 1812; the Grand Duchy of Finland (under Russian sovereignty) until 1917; the Republic of Finland from 1917- March 1940 and the end of the Winter War, after which the advancing Finns took it back from the Soviet Union in the Continuation War between August 1941 and June 1944; the Soviet Union until 1991, and since then the Russian Federation. Between the World Wars, Vyborg or Viipuri was a thriving city, and was arguably the most cosmopolitan town in Finland.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Dispute over Vyborg property to go before European Court of Human Rights (22.4.2008)
Elderly Finnish man seeks return of family property in Vyborg (25.9.2007)
Beautiful old buildings from Vyborg being remodelled in Tampere (18.12.2007)
Vyborg tourism site
Alvar Aalto Library in Vyborg
Small Towns of Russia -Vyborg
JANNE TOIVONEN / Helsingin Sanomat