I spent a dreary half-week in Helsinki a few years ago. It was mid-March. Short days, empty streets, damp snow blowing off the harbor. The Finns I met said: “Come back in July. There’s nothing like a Scandinavian summer.”
This summer I went back with my wife. It was warm and breezy. The sun stayed out till 11. But the Finns themselves were nowhere to be found. They were probably at the lakeside summer houses they pine for eight months out of the year.
What were we supposed to do? A hundred yards up the street a gaggle of Americans had just got off a tour bus. They seemed to have found the last Finn left in town. She was smiling and gesturing cooperatively as they left. We approached her for advice.
She suggested three things.
The first thing was to go to the 19th-century Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral that dominates the harbor from a rocky hilltop.
We did it. It was great. The Orthodox service, with its opening and closing of doors, its lifting of holy objects, its processions that disappear behind walls before reemerging, was moving, as it is meant to be. In one respect the cathedral was different from the churches you see in, say, Venice, and more like the Orthodox churches in St. Petersburg and Moscow: It was actually still a house of worship, not an admission-charging concert-hall-cum-gift-shop where you go to use the toilet and put on bug-repellent. If you were a tourist, there was a rope behind which you were supposed to stand. Any time anyone pulled out a phone, a dyspeptic crewcut Finn would walk over and wave a laminated “No Photographs” placard.
A question that will occur to many readers who remember the last years of the Cold War is, what is an Eastern Orthodox church doing in downtown Helsinki? Is this the “Finlandization” that was so much talked about at the time? Finlandization was the prospect that, caught in the magnetic field of the Soviet Union, Helsinki might come to resemble St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was then called). There were always two forms that Finlandization could take: Communization and Russification. The Communization never happened. The Russification already had. Eastern Orthodoxy is one of Finland’s two state religions, the other being Lutheranism, and has been for a long time. The cathedral was built in 1868.
The lady’s second recommendation was that we eat in the Vanha Kauppahalli, the old market that specializes in various marinated, smoked, and fermented fish. If you like that kind of thing, she said, it will be paradise on earth for you. I do. It was. The Finnish herring—considerably smaller than the ones you’ll get in Amsterdam and other North Sea ports or in a jar at your supermarket—is highly recommended, although there is nothing to match a Swedish-prepared surströmming.
Finally, she suggested we visit the house, now a museum, of Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867-1951). Few tourists go there, perhaps because the museum is open only on weekend afternoons, perhaps because not many people anymore have heard of Mannerheim. He is the father of modern Finland and an object of enduring fascination for Finns. The Mannerheim shelf in a Finnish bookstore is as full as the Lincoln shelf in one of ours.
Descended from German grandees, Mannerheim was brought up near Swedish-speaking Turku, at a time when Finland was under Russian control. He became a Polish cavalryman, an “uhlan,” for the czar. There are photos of him, in fact, marching as one of Nicholas II’s guards during the coronation of 1896. Finnish was not his first language. He spoke French, German, Russian, and some Polish and English, as well as his native Swedish. Between 1906 and 1908, just after the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War, he crossed Asia on horseback. It was an 8,000-mile spying expedition. Russia was drawing up plans to invade China from the west—but failed to. Mannerheim was drawing up plans to make a kind of a long shopping trip—and succeeded somewhat better.
Mannerheim was the kind of person 20th-century biographers called a “complex character.” At every stage of his military career, which included prizes for marksmanship and dressage and conspicuous instances of valor and resolve, he left the impression that he would much rather be running a little shop selling antique furniture. He loved buying art and dickering over knick-knacks in foreign markets. Mannerheim never owned the Mannerheim House, which had been divided into a half-dozen apartments before he began renting it from the chocolate and licorice baron Karl Fazer. Mannerheim left his mark on the place by furnishing it. So from the China trek there are 80 rare and delicate Central Asian Buddhist temple tapestries. Such tapestries are rare (and valuable) because they were usually burnt after services. There is also a mammoth ancient lacquered-wood Chinese writing desk, which he acquired after a lengthy negotiation with a merchant; its restoration was one of the great endeavors of Mannerheim’s adult life. In Italy he made a deal for a weird and pointless-looking gate-like contraption that he just had to have to cover his central stairway. This purchase, too, involved haggling and measuring. To tour the Mannerheim museum requires a lot of patience for stories that end “. . . and imagine the auctioneer’s face when he said, throw in the guéridon and the hunting prints and we have a deal.”
The tours are all led by docents. One was about to begin when we arrived, and people were already milling about. Most of them were Germans, with an Australian couple along for the ride. The pair would dominate the afternoon. They seemed to be using the mansion tour to live out a fantasy. They were here not as tourists looking around but as houseguests with a duty to keep the conversation rolling. At one point they interrupted the docent to sing the praises of the Mannerheim bathroom.
“Byeetiful,” the wife said. “Such lahge sinks.”
“Toilet’s nothing to sneeze at, neither!” her husband added.
Our guide was explaining the military intelligence Mannerheim had gathered in central Asia and the art he had acquired in Nepal, when Mrs. Aussie piped in, “You say Nepal? We bin thih!”
“Yih!” said her husband, turning to the rest of us. “Chitwan Neshional Pahk! Byeetiful. At least the walled-life. Wouldn’t recommend the food. ’Course, that’s beck a few yiz.”
We were beginning to see what a protean figure Mannerheim was. Having almost reached the pinnacle of the Russian military command, he awoke in 1917 to discover the Romanovs imprisoned and the Reds in power. He returned to Finland. One month later, having been absent from the country for 30 years, he launched a nationalist uprising with the equally un-Finnish-sounding Finnish general Claes Charpentier. It succeeded. Mannerheim then held off the Red Army when Stalin invaded with a vastly superior force in late 1939.
Mannerheim allied with Hitler against Stalin until 1944. Finns call this period “the Continuation War.” Apparently there is something ineffable about it that the term “World War II” fails to capture. Our guide insisted the Finns were not exactly allies of Hitler during this period . . . it is just that “our guns were pointed in the same direction.”
By a cruel archival accident, the only surviving audio recording of Hitler in casual conversation surfaced a few years ago, and it is a conversation with Mannerheim, on a trip Hitler made to congratulate the Finnish leader on his 75th birthday, in 1942. It is an extraordinary recording for two reasons. First, Hitler and Mannerheim, great strategists though they both were, seem to have been caught utterly by surprise by the strategic problem of Russia’s vastness and military power. Second is Hitler’s chatty tone, unique to this recording.
Hitler: We ourselves didn’t really know how enormously well armed this country [the USSR] was.
Mannerheim: We would have never suspected it in the Winter War. Of course we had the impression that they were well armed but . . .
Hitler: They have the most enormous armament anyone could conceive of. I mean, if someone had said to me that a country could bring 35,000 tanks into the field, I’d have said, “You’ve gone mad!”
Hitler: 35,000 Panzers. . . . If a general had explained to me that a country owned 35,000 Panzers, I’d have said, “You, good sir, are seeing double or tenfold. You’re mad. You’re seeing things.” I wouldn’t have thought it possible.
So was it here, one wondered, in this house, that the two met? No—Mannerheim was too canny for that. Finland’s Waffenbrüderschaft with Germany was already paying diminishing returns by mid-1942, and Mannerheim preferred that the meeting be held in his private train-carriage, in secret, near the Soviet border. (The carriage now sits in the parking lot of a Shell station in the rural town of Sastamala.) Two years later, Mannerheim would abandon Hitler altogether, allying with Stalin to drive the Germans out of Lapland. We don’t often think of Finland as a place stuck, the way Poland is, between Russia’s sphere and Germany’s—but the Finns themselves do.
Our guide was elegant, polite, and passionately well informed about Mannerheim and his circle. What thrilled him most were the places Mannerheim’s life crossed that of the Finnish modernist painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a friend of Strindberg who exhibited with Edvard Munch. Gallen-Kallela painted his dear friend Maxim Gorky as well as Mannerheim. He painted Finland’s mountains and lakes, and lots of naked men climbing in and out of boats. He illustrated the Finnish epic the Kalevala and was into Nordic mythology. If you have an illustrated history of elves, sprites, trolls, fairies, or gnomes in your house, it probably has a few of his paintings in it. He lived in Africa at the turn of the century. The Mannerheim museum has a bizarre Gallen-Kallela self-portrait from the time, most of which is taken up by some kind of sleeping (or perhaps dead) jungle cat sprawled out on the African dust. Late in his life, Gallen-Kallela moved to Taos, New Mexico, where D. H. Lawrence was his neighbor and friend.
Mannerheim, impressed with Gallen-Kallela’s art, his intellect, and his Finnish nationalism, made him the chief of the national printing press and manager of the mint. The thing about having a new country is that you need all sorts of new symbols: flags, coins, stamps, seals, military uniforms and decorations. This became Gallen-Kallela’s job. Gallen-Kallela designed—or tried to design—everything we associate with modern Finland outside of the packages for Finn Crisp multigrain crackers and one or two Marimekko pillowcase patterns. He was an all-rounder. In this he was rather like Mannerheim himself, a 19th-century cavalryman of the kind you find in the pages of War and Peace, who lived into the decade of “Jailhouse Rock.”
Occasionally, our guide would make a mistake that occasioned snickering, as when he described a china set that Mannerheim had acquired in Peking as a “porcelain system.” (You order the next round—I’m gonna visit the porcelain system.) More often, though, he cautiously sought the right word in English, something the Australians didn’t have the patience for or see the charm in. Thus he began: “While in Tashkent, Mannerheim was on his . . . on his . . . ”
And they started shouting out guesses:
“. . . own!”
“. . . horse!”
“. . . larst ligs!”
“. . . bist behyviah!”
That put a certain upper limit on our learning about Mannerheim. Perhaps we’ll have to come back in the winter.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard