Helsinki has had its share of statue controversies
Most recent Lenin statue project put on hold
By Hanna Kaarto
"There are so many old statues covered with a patina brought on by time, that it is unlikely that we would notice them, unless something quite exceptional had happened - for instance, if an entire statue had been moved to a different location during the night", pondered film director Veikko Itkonen in his film on the statues of Helsinki already in 1959.
At that time, the Bronze Warrior was up, and would continue to stay up for nearly 50 years in the centre of Tallinn.
Contrary to what is the case in Tallinn, no statues in Helsinki have been moved at night, but they have raised disagreements here as well. Especially the World Peace sculpture at Hakaniemi Square has been a focus of controversy.
"It is a passionate, clear, and concrete appeal on behalf of peace and friendship", declared Mayor Raimo Ilaskivi as he unveiled the statue in 1990, when two months had passed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as the Soviet Union was coming to an end. Later Ilaskivi said that the City of Moscow had offered Helsinki a statue of Lenin; in that respect, World Peace was a "defensive victory".
There have been plans for a Lenin statue as recently as this spring. Päivi Hartzell and her partners have been trying to get such a sculpture set up in Lenin Park in the Alppila neighbourhood. However, the project is not moving anywhere, which Hartzell blames on the riots in Tallinn. The times are simply too intense for Lenin.
Supporters of a Lenin statue plan to ask the city's permission to put up the statue, possibly in the autumn. A bust of Lenin, brought in from Kaliningrad, is already in storage.
"Lenin had an impact on Finland becoming independent", Hartzell explains.
In October 1992 the "feather warriors" - YLE's current CEO Mikael Jungner and two other students, Sara Hirvelä and Jari Kajas tarred the World Peace sculpture and covered it with feathers.
Another statue dedicated to peace has raised rancour in Helsinki's South Harbour. "This peace statue was erected by the Finnish People as a symbol of peaceful coexistence and friendship between Finland and the Soviet Union on April 6th, 1968", reads the inscription on a plaque on the statue in Finnish, Swedish, and Russian. It is said that the late Professor Birger Kaipainen once threw a sewing machine at the sculpture - but he missed.
Historian Jari Sedergren, who likes to ponder the politics linked with statues, says that as a general rule, Finns have tolerated various kinds of monuments without any great passions. There are monuments dedicated to both the reds and the whites - the opposing sides of the Finnish Civil War - scattered around the city, without attracting any acts of vandalism. The operation of the feather warriors was an exception.
However, German soldiers who visited Helsinki in 1933 marched past the grave of Germans who took part in Finland's civil wars, with their arms raised in a Nazi salute. That would not be possible today, but Sedergren feels that calling for the removal of statues is not a part of Western culture.
History, including the period of Finlandisation, needs to be looked in the eye, in his view.
"We need to have a long history, and not a sanitised one", Sedergren says.
At the end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th, sculptures were a much bigger issue in Helsinki than they are today.
An estimated 30,000 people took part in the unveiling of the statue of Tsar Alexander II - more people than were at the same spot on the night of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Alexander II was an emperor that the Finns could trust. When the February Manifesto narrowed the autonomous status enjoyed by Finland, a sea of flowers bloomed at the feet of the statue.
Many statues that would seem at first glance to be monuments to cultural history, were strictly political when they were first erected.
The statue of Elias Lönnrot was unveiled in October 1902 in the middle of the night, because it was feared that such an event in the daytime might be seen as an excessively provocative act of patriotism.
The statue of J.L. Runeberg in Esplanade Park, has no text. One reason offered for this was that those putting it up could not agree on whether or not the inscription should be in both Finnish and Swedish, or if Finnish would be enough.
"At that time the elite was building a myth about a nation, and statues were said to be gifts from the nation, even though it was the elite that made the decisions", Sedergren says.
In his view, statues have originally created nationalist male history.
"There are no statues of key women in central locations. They can mainly be found in parks, in the midst of animals", Sedergren points out.
In addition to the memorial dedicated to German soldiers, there is a monument to the Jews, and in addition to great men, there is a statue of a working-class woman. In Siltamäki there is a monument to the common man.
As time passes, and points of view change, the mythical nature of the statues fades away, Sedergren says.
"They do not diminish in value. Instead, they become genuine. They tell the story of their own age."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 20.5.2007
Previously in HS International Edition:
Tallinn memorial: Vanhanen emphasises non-interference, Kanerva calls for EU solidarity (30.4.2007)
Soviet memorial in Tallinn moved after night of rioting (27.4.2007)
HANNA KAARTO / Helsingin Sanomat