Helsinki’s History

Our February 2016 speaker was Professor Laura Kolbe, a Finnish historian who is active in city politics. She is extremely knowledgeable about the various layers of history in Helsinki and her talk revealed how the city has been shaped by its geography. In her 2007 book, Helsinki – Daughter of the Baltic, she wrote: “Helsinki’s whole existence and prosperity has derived from its position between two centers of power, Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. The whole 450-year span of its history reflects proximity to the sea, changes in world politics, and Finland’s position as neighbor to two powerful nations.” At our meeting she explained that, since its founding in 1550, Helsinki has gone through three main periods: royal (Swedish control), imperial (Russian control), and national (independence). The city’s main architectural landmarks represent each of these periods, as well as the core pillars of Finnish society: education, culture (the church), and administration. Today, the city continues to thrive, with new areas such as the “Citizens’ Park” next to the music center. And many of the urban areas under construction today, such as Pasila and Töölönlahti, are fulfilling plans that were first proposed in the mid-1900s. As Kolbe noted, 100 years is nothing in terms of urban development.