Meanings and memories of a 'lost' borderland city: the case of Vyborg
Updated: Sep 14
Chloe Wells Located on the Gulf of Finland 140km north-west from St. Petersburg and about 40km from Russia's border with Finland, the fortress town of Vyborg has 'changed sides' several times due to territorial and border shifts since its castle was founded by Swedish forces in 1293. Up until the Great Northern War (1700-1721) Vyborg was part of the Swedish realm. Until 1812 it was part of Russia, and from 1812-1917 part of the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire created in 1809 after Russia annexed the Finnish provinces from Sweden. After Finland declared independence in late 1917 Vyborg (Fin. Viipuri) rose to become the young nation-state's 'second city' in terms of cultural importance. As a consequence of World War II (WWII), the border between the Republic of Finland and the Soviet Union was re-drawn with Vyborg on the Soviet side. Vyborg's Finnish inhabitants were evacuated at the close of the Fenno-Russian 'Continuation War' in summer 1944 and resettled within Finland. Vyborg was repopulated by labourers from Leningrad who could help rebuild the war damaged city and with rural peasants from central Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and was quickly transformed into a Soviet town in Leningrad Oblast.[i] In Post-Soviet times, Vyborg has been a tourist destination both for Finns engaged in nostalgic roots tourism and shopping and leisure trips, and for Russians lured by the 'medieval Western European' feel of Vyborg's old centre and its presentation as an 'historical Disneyland.'[ii]
Vyborg's location in relation to St. Petersburg and the Finnish-Russian border. Image: Google Maps with author's additions.
Vyborg castle as seen from a tourist boat arriving from Finland, July 2018. Photo: Chloe Wells / Instagram.
Vyborg Round Tower, built in the 16th Century when Vyborg was part of the Swedish realm and now in use as a medieval-themed restaurant, May 2019. Photo: Chloe Wells.
Vyborg is distinct but not unique amongst European borderland cities which changed their geo-political affiliation and were repopulated post-WWII after long histories of mixed populations and changing 'ownership.' Similar cases to Vyborg include Kaliningrad, Russia (between World War I and WWII Königsberg, East Prussia)[iii] and Lviv, Ukraine (in the interwar period Lwów, the main centre of the Polish Kresy or borderlands). In terms of how Vyborg's Finnish-era is remembered in Finland, there are similarities with the Polish memory of Lviv/Lwów[iv] and also with the Jewish memory of the Austro-Hungarian cultural centre of Chernowitz (in the interwar period Cernăuți, Romania, now Chernivtsi, Ukraine).[v] Vyborg is a place which is positioned as peripheral or 'on the edge' in terms of its geographic and geopolitical location. Both as part of Sweden and Finland, and as part of the Soviet Union and Russia, Vyborg has been understood as an 'outpost' located where 'the East' meets (and clashes) with 'the West.'[vi] In Finland, this framing is enhanced by Vyborg being understood as the main centre of Karelia, a trans-border territory spanning the Finnish-Russian border and a “national periphery with a utopic character” which is regarded as the 'cradle' of Finnish culture.[vii] As a result of WWII Finland lost a substantial part of Karelia and c. 400,000 displaced Finns were resettled within Finland, c. 75,000 of whom were from Vyborg. Finnish Vyborg, a place which ceased to exist 76 years ago, is now on the periphery of living memory. Despite this, certain memories of Finnish Vyborg retain a central place in Finnish media.
Finnish media presentations of Vyborg usually follow a pattern of comparing a 'perfect Finnish before' to a 'ruined Soviet / Russian after.' This narrative is part of a wider phenomenon of collective memory. According to Eviatar Zerubavel, author of Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past, groups often organise their collective memory around “nostalgic visions of some mythical golden age after which things have essentially been going 'downhill.'”[viii] This narrative of 'decline' is subjective: the same period of history could be imagined as one of 'progress' by another mnemonic group.[ix] The 'decline narrative' aptly describes the dominant narrative about Vyborg circulating in Finland. This narrative is subjective as, whilst there are some ruins and buildings in poor condition in the centre of Vyborg, which Finnish newspaper articles often focus on[x], Russian visitors experience Vyborg as “a peaceful and friendly provincial town which is a little run down, but full of medieval romance and old culture.”[xi] Even when Finnish tabloid newspaper articles seem to present Vyborg in a more positive light, they still have to make mention of Vyborg's condition from a Finnish perspective: “Romance and ruins side by side. Vyborg is a town of sharp contrasts.”[xii] In such articles, as in other Finnish discourses, Vyborg's Finnish-era buildings, or buildings at the centre of Finnish histories of the town are foregrounded[xiii] and Vyborg is regarded with a backwards-looking 'Finnish gaze': “a trip to Vyborg is a nostalgic journey for many. The town has a very important place in Finnish history, and [this] history can be seen Vyborg.”[xiv]
The 'decline' narrative about Vyborg may persist in Finnish discourses because the idea of a 'perfect past' demands a 'ruined' present with which it can contrasted. One cannot exist without the other. A subjectively remembered 'better time' also creates and supports the idea of a 'better place' i.e. that Vyborg was 'better' when it was part of Finland, and validates the feelings of loss and longing felt by some Finns in relation to Vyborg. The idea circulating in Finnish media discourses that Vyborg is 'ruined' may also be an echo of past impressions from early eras. For Soviet-era visitors from Finland “everything was grey and sad...the town is grimy, gloomy and depressing” and in the early Post-Soviet period Vyborg was seen as a “a dismal, dirty town full of criminals...a 'miseryville'.”[xv]
This perception of Vyborg is now rather out-dated compared to the present-day reality. In the Vyborg of the 2010s Finnish visitors with either personal or family memories of Finnish Vyborg are pleased by the now 'mint condition' of the Alvar Aalto City Library, which first opened in 1935, and was re-opened, fully restored in 2013 (see Fig. 5 below).[xvi] Other Finnish tourists regard today's Vyborg as a “fairytale place.”[xvii] From my own visits to Vyborg between 2013-2019 I have seen restorations of Vyborg Castle tower and clock tower be completed. A new restaurant was modelled and named after one which existed in Finnish Vyborg .[xviii] On my most recent visit in May 2019 I was struck by the amount of renovation work underway – many buildings were framed by scaffolding (see Fig 5 below).[xix]
It is hard to reconcile these different, subjective experiences of the cityscape: “Vyborg the reality as it exists is quite different for the locals than it is for those Finns who search for their own imagined city”.[xx]. There is also a third group: visitors (both Russian and Finnish) to Vyborg, who experience it positively without any sense of loss of longing as 'an historical Disneyland' and a leisure destination.
A collage of photos of the Domus House in central Vyborg. Built in 1904 it is now a ruin. Photos from April 2014. Photos: Chloe Wells.
Vyborg under construction. Red Square, complete with a statue of Lenin, in central Vyborg framed by buildings clad in scaffolding, July 2018. The renovation of these buildings is now completed. Photo: Chloe Wells.
The Alvar Aalto City Library in central Vyborg, which first opened in 1935, has been restored to 'how it was' in the 1930s thanks to a joint Finnish-Russian project which concluded in 2013; the library is now back in use serving the residents of Vyborg. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, used under creative commons license: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alvar_Aalto_Library_Vyborg2.jpg
In my research I look at what meanings and memories young people in Finland today, who are the 'third generation' after the city's loss, associate with Vyborg. By researching this group, I bring the voices of young people into an academic conversation which has centred on the meanings and memories attached to Vyborg by the Finnish Vyborgian diaspora. In 2017 I conducted 38 focus groups with 325 high school students (aged 16-19) from 11 different cities across Finland to find out what meanings and memories they associate with Vyborg. My research participants (born 1998-2001) are distinct from the 'second generation', the children of those Finns evacuated from Vyborg and ceded Karelia, and other Finns born after WWII, as they have no personal memories of the Soviet Union's existence, a political situation which deeply marks the meanings and memories of the first and second generations. My participants are inheriting meanings and memories which do not 'fit' their own experiences of growing up in Finland. This means they may feel distanced and distinct from “all those old people, who have experienced [Vyborg and who] want it to be in Finland.”[xxi] The second generation, by contrast, may feel themselves to be closer to the first generation who personally experienced Vyborg's loss.[xxii]
In my focus group data I found that participants used the 'perfect Finnish before, ruined Russian after' narrative as a justification for ideas about Finnish 'ownership' of Vyborg: “[Vyborg should be part of Finland because] before it was much more beautiful than it is now”[xxiii], “Well it should [be part of Finland] I guess, because for me it feels that Finns would have taken better care of it.”[xxiv] In contrast to participants and groups who thought Vyborg 'should be' part of Finland (whether or not this was seen as being possible) there were others who completely rejected this idea: “Vyborg belongs to Russia nowadays and it doesn't matter anymore.”[xxv] Some participants used the Finnish media narrative about present-day Vyborg as a part of their justification for why the city should not be part of Finland: “with Vyborg, definitely there are no longer emotional ties for many people anymore, and secondly the city's in really bad condition so I think let it be part of Russia”[xxvi], “[Vyborg shouldn't be part of Finland], 'cus it's now in such bad condition […] it's not sensible to fight over it anymore. Because it's lost, it's gone.”[xxvii]
Overall, my research highlights a 'generation gap' with young people in Finland today separating themselves from the often emotionally-charged meanings and memories attached to Vyborg by 'older people.' The young people in my study did, however, also repeat the established narrative in Finland of Vyborg's post-WWII history being one of 'decline.' My research shows how the meanings and memories associated with cities 'lost' as a consequence of WWII are transmitted and received by different generations and how popular media representations play a role in this process. Chloe Wells is an Early Stage Researcher in the department of Geographical and Historical Studies at the University of Eastern Finland, working towards a PhD in Human Geography. Chloe's research crosses the fields of Human Geography, Border Studies and Memory Studies and she is most interested in the postmemories of borderland places and in how young people today remember World War II-era events and their aftermath. She is currently finalizing her PhD thesis monograph, which will be titled 'Vyborg is y/ours': postmemories of a borderland city amongst young people in Finland. For more, see her Researchgate page.
[i] Yury Shikalov, “Russian, Lost, Fairytale: Images of Vyborg from the 1940s to the 2010s,” in Meanings of an Urban Space: Understanding the Historical Layers of Vyborg ed. Kimmo Katajala, (Zürich: Lit. Verlag, 2016), 228-9. See also Kimmo Katajala and Jury Shikalov, “From Soviet Town to Medieval Tourist Town,” in Viipuri – Vyborg. Historiallinen kaupunkikartasto. Historic Towns Atlas, eds. K. Katajala, M. Hietala, M. Niemi, P. Uino, M. Helminen, A. Härkönen and H. Hirvonen (Helsinki: Atlas Art, 2020), 237 - 244. [ii] Katajala and Shikalov, “From Soviet Town to Medieval Tourist Town,” 245 - 248. See also Figs. 2 and 3. [iii] Freeman, Jamie, “Kaliningrad: Becoming ‘European as well as Russian’ at Russia’s Westernmost Frontier,” Peripheral Histories?, April 8, Updated June 26, 2020, https://www.peripheralhistories.co.uk/post/kaliningrad-becoming-european-as-well-as-russian-at-russia-s-westernmost-frontier [iv] Chloe Wells and Małgorzata Łukianow, “Post-memories of Cartographic Violence: The Cases of Karelia and Kresy,” European Network Remembrance and Solidarity December 18, 2019, https://enrs.eu/article/post-memories-of-cartographic-violence-the-cases-of-karelia-and-kresy [v] Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). [vi] See Jani Karhu and Chloe Wells, “Vyborg Castle as a Symbol of Power Institutions: Imagined and Remembered Borders Between Generations in Finland,” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies 18 (2017), http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4339. For the Soviet / Russian perspective see Shikalov, “Russian, Lost, Fairytale”, 228-9. [vii] Maunu Häyrynen, “A Periphery Lost: The Representation of Karelia in Finnish National Landscape Imagery,” Fennia - International Journal of Geography 182 no.1 (2004), 24, https://fennia.journal.fi/article/view/3745. See also Wells and Łukianow “Post-memories of Cartographic Violence.” [viii] Eviatar Zerubavel, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 16 -17. [ix] Zerubavel, Time Maps, 16-18. [x] See for example Outi Salovaara, “Suomen hienoimpiin kuulunut Domuksen talo romahdus vaarassa Viipurissa – julki sivun osia sortunut kadulle [The Domus Building, Which Used to be One of Finland's Finest, in Danger of Collapse in Vyborg – Part of the Facade has Fallen onto the Street]” Ilta Sanomat, April 27 2020, https://www.is.fi/ulkomaat/art-2000006489039.html See also Fig 4. [xi] Katajala and Shikalov, “From Soviet Town to Medieval Tourist Town,” 246. [xii] Marianne Zitting, “Viipuri on kovien kontrastien kaupunki – romantiikkaa ja rappiota rinta rinnan,” Iltalehti, May 11, 2019, https://www.iltalehti.fi/matkajutut/a/5c00a182-3fe1-443b-9a81-8e42c4da05a6 [xiii] See Karhu “Memorialised and Imagined.” [xiv] Zitting “Viipuri on kovien kontrastien kaupunki.” [xv] Shikalov, “Russian, Lost, Fairytale” 234-6. [xvi] Karhu “Memorialised and Imagined”, 154. [xvii] Shikalov, “Russian, Lost, Fairytale”, 237. [xviii] Kalle Schönberg, “Suomalaisajan suosikkiravintola Espilä avattiin uudelleen Viipuriin [Espilä, a favourite restaurant of the Finnish-era, opens again in Vyborg]” YLE, December 21, 2016, https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9363327 [xix] The renovations of these buildings are now complete see Zitting “Viipuri on kovien kontrastien kaupunki.” [xx] Karhu “Memorialised and Imagined”, 156. [xxi] Female focus group participant, city of Imatra, Finnish Eastern border. [xxii] See Karhu “Memorialised and Imagined” and Karhu and Wells “Vyborg Castle” for similarities in the meanings and memories ascribed to Vyborg by the first and second generations – the main similarity being how they relate to Vyborg's built environment. [xxiii] Female focus group participant, city of Imatra. [xxiv] Female focus group participant, city of Turku, South Western coast of Finland. [xxv] Written comment from a focus group participant in the city of Turku. [xxvi] Male focus group participant, city of Joensuu. [xxvii] Female focus group participant, city of Vaasa, West coast of Finland.