Many sides of Vyborg

UEF Bulletin 2017

A new study provides fresh insight into the formation of Vyborg’s urban space from the Middle Ages to the present. It also reveals how differently Finns and Russians view the city.

Text Sari Eskelinen Photos Kimmo Katajala, Varpu Heiskanen

The city of Vyborg has left its imprint on Finnish popular culture. Clichéd images of the city, which was ceded to the Soviet Union after the Continuation War, dominate the collective memory of Finns. These memories were entrapped in the few weeks of summer heat in 1939, before the start of the Winter War.

“Finns remember Vyborg by its castle, the Round Tower and Mon Repos park. For people with roots in Vyborg, places previously belonging to their families are also important,” says Professor Kimmo Katajala.

Together with his research group, Katajala has studied the history of Vyborg’s urban space in an Academy of Finland-funded project focusing on the formation of the city’s urban space, both as a historical process and through intentionally produced meanings.

“Finns and Russians have explained the history of Vyborg very differently, from their own perspectives. For instance, Soviet newspapers in the 1940s published articles about how the city was Russian, even though it didn’t look like it.”

Russians who moved to the city were told that the Soviet Union had returned to Russia a city that was situated in a place conquered by Swedes from Russian or Karelian people living in the area before the time Vyborg Castle was established. Peter the Great had already once before returned the city from Sweden to the Russians in the Great Northern War in the 1700s.

Tourists, too, learnt different versions of the city’s history. To Finns, it was presented as a Finnish city, and to Russians as a Medieval European one. Indeed, the mystique of the Middle Ages attracts Russian tourists to the city, which started to develop in the 1200s around the newly built castle.

“The relationship of Finns to Vyborg is emotionally very strong, but historically pale. Human memory doesn’t work chronologically; instead, it is attached to places, people and things. From the viewpoint of research, it is interesting to see how history gets simplified in people’s memories,” Katajala says.

Historians have long known the details of Vyborg’s history and how the city developed.

“However, these haven’t been described from the viewpoint of urban history research before. In addition, there are some errors in earlier research relating to the city’s formation,” Katajala says.  

Katajala’s research has uncovered new things about the city’s development, including details relating to the establishment of the town hall square and how fires have shaped the city’s current urban space.

Factors that significantly shape the structure and appearance of cities are among the key issues analysed in urban history research around the world. Now Vyborg’s urban space and its development have been analysed from this perspective, all the way from the Middle Ages to the present.

“Soviet urban planning, for example, hasn’t been studied before. Despite the plans made during the Soviet era, the city often underwent development on the basis of urgent need. When new apartments were needed after the war, old, war-ridden buildings were renovated.”

This explains, in part, why the historical layers of urban development are still so visible in Vyborg.

Right now, however, the development of Vyborg’s urban space is at a major turning point. During the Soviet era, old buildings survived because there were people living in them. Now, many historically significant buildings are empty and rapidly decaying.

“If they are let to fall into ruin, a large part of not only Finnish but also Russian cultural history will disappear.”

Thanks to the research project, the future development of Vyborg’s urban space can also be viewed digitally. The Digital Atlas of Vyborg showcases the history of individual buildings, among other things.

“This is only the first step in a line of research known as digital humanities. If we can make details relating to changes in the urban structure visible, we’ll also be able to answer questions about their significance. Even now, we can create mental maps that describe interactions and the sense of closeness between people.”

“In a mental map, physical distances can be converted into mental ones, allowing novel analyses of the city from the viewpoint of inhabitants and visitors alike.” For example, medieval maps were often mental maps, as they were not based on measurements. In a map drawn by Olaus Magnus in 1539, Finland is depicted as a long peninsula reaching towards Stockholm.

“The connections between Turku in Finland and Stockholm in Sweden were close, and they were also mentally close to one another. From the viewpoint of Stockholm, however, Vyborg was far away.”

Research addressing the urban space of Vyborg continues. The Historical Atlas of Vyborg project uses thematic and old city maps to create an overview of the city’s development. Katajala is also preparing an international book project that focuses on European border cities that have moved from one country to another due to changes in borders. Vyborg is one of the cities researched in this project.

Urban space of Vyborg, past and present

  • A three-year research project (2014–2016) looked at Vyborg as an urban space of both historical processes and intentionally produced meanings.
  • The partners were the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies at UEF and the Department of History at St Petersburg State University.
  • The leaders were Professor Kimmo Katajala in Finland and Professor Sergey G. Kashchenko in Russia.
  • It was funded by the Human Mind Programme of the Academy of Finland.
  • A book, Meanings of an Urban Space. Understanding the historical layers of Vyborg, was published in autumn 2016.

Digital atlas of Vyborg