by Dr. Denise R. Ames
Helsinki, Finland stood in stark contrast to St. Petersburg, Russia. I had just arrived in Helsinki via the Nautica cruise ship from our last docking port in St. Petersburg. While St. Petersburg was big and flashy, full of intrigue and ostentatious show, Helsinki was plain, unpretentious, and quiet. St. Petersburg symbolized hierarchy, patriarchal attitudes, and brute authority, while Helsinki seemed egalitarian, emitted a feminine vibe, and emanated peaceful attitudes. On first glance, Helsinki was actually dull compared to St. Petersburg, but I knew this was not true and I would just have to look beneath the austere surface to see what really made the city tick.
My first stop on a tour of the city was at Senate Square in the heart of Helsinki. It was modest by St. Petersburg standards, but its three main buildings told me a lot about what the Finnish people value most: a university building, a protestant cathedral, and the Senate building—education, faith, and egalitarian governance. All spoke to the fact that it was the Finnish individual who made their own decisions, not the tsar, landowner, or church authority. These buildings emoted an air of egalitarianism, democracy, and individual responsibility. The people were not oppressed but free individuals to make their own way.
I glanced around the square and noted the number of bicycles darting back and forth across the brick-laid grounds. They were not just ridden by back-packing youth out to get some exercise, but many middle aged and gray-haired seniors intently guided their bicycles to their planned destination. They knew what they were doing, no frills. The public transportation was also efficient-looking, clean, and even painted green, sustainability the obvious goal.
We made our way up the steep steps to the cathedral perched on a hill overlooking the square. It obviously took the center stage of the square, directing the operations of the government and university. Built 1830-1852, it is called the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral. It was built as a tribute to Tsar Nicolas I of Russia, but its name was changed in 1917 when Finland won independence from Russia during their Bolshevik revolution.
Its spartan but elegant interior spoke of Finland’s egalitarian and practical roots. According to our guide, the Finnish people have largely shunned religion and feel they are able to continue to have the proper values without the imposition of the church and clergy. I wondered if his words would ring true when those humanitarian values would be challenged at some time in the future. Or, if perhaps not constantly reinforced by the church these values would fade away with time.
The last point of interest on the Senate Square was a statue of the Russian tsar Alexander II. Yes, it is the same Russian tsar who initiated reforms in Russia during his long reign from 1855 until his assassination in 1881. (I wrote a blog about the Church of Spilled Blood in memory of his death in St. Petersburg a few weeks ago.) I found it rather a strange juxtaposition of an autocratic Russian ruler being commemorated in the egalitarian Senate Square, but as our guide explained it was to remember the Finns close ties with Russia through their long history of strife and friendship.
I wanted to learn more about the Finnish educational system, since it is ranked as the world’s best. But that will have to wait until next Tuesday’s blog.
About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames
Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.
Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.
Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books