Yes, we went to Russia! If just for a day, and only a few miles beyond the border, it’s an unexpected achievement on our journeys. It’s not easy to get into Russia without going through a lot of legal hoops or buying a package holidays; so when we heard you can hop over to Vyborg from Lappeenranta in a day without a visa, we jumped on the opportunity.
The stately old cruise ship leaves Lappeenranta before 8am on what may be one of the slowest modes of mechanized transport; it takes over 5 hours one-way along the 40km-long canal, built in the days of Russian Empire to link Lake Saimaa with the Baltic. It is now partly leased by Finland, and there are a number of tall locks to pass, which partly explains the slowness of passage. Luckily, there are just enough curious things to look out for along the way to make at least the first five hours not a total bore, from “floating islands”, through Mika Waaltari’s summer house, to “passport ladies” whose photos we were strictly forbidden to take. And then there’s of course the border itself, a line of white poles running across the water. This is the first time we cross EU’s border not on the plane.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of this trip. Vyborg is a very old Finnish city (and the country’s second largest after Helsinki), but a very young Russian one, having only been occupied by Russia since the war. It was once prosperous, then ruined, then rebuilt again; I knew it had some precious historical buildings, both medieval and pre-war, and was hoping to see most of them. But mostly, I was just thrilled at visiting a completely new country, almost a new civilization.
It took us less than two hours to walk around Vyborg’s centre, past all the important buildings mentioned in the tourist guide – from the harbour to the Red Square (and the first Lenin monument we see since 1989), the Library and back; what we saw, once we ventured beyond the freshly painted Potemkin facades of the few tenements that can be seen from the harbour, was nothing short of devastating: literally. The historic Old Town looks as if the war had ended not 70 but 7 years ago; entire blocks are razed, and what’s left, has not seen a lick of paint in decades.
Other than the Vyborg Castle, which is still impressive and a worthy symbol of the city, the only other two buildings that are not in complete ruin are the two dazzling-white stalwarts of the 1930’s functionalism: Aalto’s Library and Ullberg’s Panzerlax Museum (now a branch of the Ermitage). They have been just recently brought back to their full glory, and, at least for the moment, make the entire journey easily worth the effort.
Alvar Aalto was, in the days of paper encyclopedias, probably the best known of all Finns, purely because of his surname, ensuring he was always the first biographical entry. He’s also Finland’s best known architect and designer, and the Vyborg Library was acclaimed as his best work. It is, indeed, a truly superb building, a cathedral of modernism and a temple of reading; too bad making photos inside is forbidden (“nye l’zya!”) unless you pay the hefty fee for a guided tour. Still, it’s great that it’s finally restored, as the state of the building until recently was one of Russia’s (and Putin’s) enduring shames.
The city park is vast, and for the most part well-kept, baring a few broken-down fountains. There’s a curious bronze statue of an elk, whose legs are rubbed to a shine. As we stop to make the photo, at least three groups of passing students pause to touch them: a curious display of lingering superstition in a post-communist country, similar to what we were witnessing in China’s taoist temples…
The rest of the city was not so lucky. The ruined quarters, we have learned, have been demolished just as the Library was being renovated, only a few years ago, by greedy developers. The surviving wall towers are devastated, as are all but one orthodox churches – turned into storehouses in Soviet times, and never again reopened. There is a massive complex of ruined buildings right in the very centre of Vyborg that’s surrounded by a tall fence, and has unknown name and purpose – judging by the shape, I’m guessing these are old tsarist military barracks, but I can’t be sure.
There is life, and commerce, within ruins, and glimpses of what this place could be – we stop at a surprisingly nice and cozy cafe to sip some local beer; but it feels as if this is how life was in Warsaw just after the war, with cafes and restaurants returning to a vanquished city. The market hall – built on the familiar 19th century red-brick pattern – offers a hint at Russia’s would-be might: its food stands offer produce from all over the world: watermelons from Caucasus, honey from Siberia, canned fish from the Baikal… the pickle stand, given a little make-over, could fit easily in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, and the cold gherkins – though grossly overpriced – are some of the best we’ve ever tasted, comparable with kyuri from Ohara – and just as good for the heat. But that makes the overall image even more sad: so much wasted potential…
Vyborg is supposedly changing for the better – the renovation of the Library and the new developing yacht harbour are the first signs – but it’s really hard to tell at a glance. With somewhat heavy heart, and our enthusiasm for visiting Russia again sadly diminished, we embark the cruise ship for the long trip back to Europe.