Does Helsinki’s Sanomat make Helsinki’s Public?

People I know boycott Helsingin Sanomat for all sorts of reasons. But it’s been the mouthpiece of the mainstream for 120 years, even back when Uusi Suomi came out in print and other papers were still going strong. Because it’s big it’s bound to be in the firing line, but its current editorial don’t mind. The flak comes indiscriminately from all directions. But HS certainly has power and one has to approach it with due caution (not least its infuriating habit of gratuitous if apparently well-meaning racial and ethnic stereotyping) but the writing is quality stuff.

Now, the anthropological point: it’s created a public, a Finnish public, or a Finnish-reading public. Benedict Anderson launched this idea in a book published in 1983, The Imagined Community. The argument is more or less that newspapers and novels (literacy) brought people together from widely dispersed areas and made them feel part of a larger whole than had ever previously been possible. By reading, people participated in an imagined or virtual community that went far beyond their village and even beyond the regional baron who taxed them. Writing also standardised the way people spoke and fostered homogeneity across space. Gradually this product of imagination, the nation, became hugely important even though individuals would never, ever be able to meet most of their compatriots. Of course, nations were also made concrete in things like Parliament buildings or National Banks (above right).

But who could deny that HS helped create Finland’s “imagined community” as it still does? Today this (right) popped onto our doormats, with invented headlines such as “Electric Light”, “Narinkka Square’s outlaws: do civic rights extend to Jews?” and other thoughts pertinent to 2009’s readership.

Back then to Helsinki. A homogenous town? Not in 1870 when 1/5 of its population spoke something other than Finnish as their first language.

So who Helsinki’s public might be has changed over the decades. In the 19th century it included people who spoke Russian, Swedish, German and Yiddish, Roma and Tatar etc. Under Russification policies (late 19th century) Helsinki started to notice language more, and speaking Finnish, and to some extent Swedish, became a way to make a political point. Before and after independence, it seems Helsinki’s residents were comfortable with what today we’d call multiple identities. Speaking one language at work, another in bed, or praising God on a Friday, a Saturday or a Sunday. To be able to continue to do that in Finland, Jewish Finns fought alongside (and in command of) German soldiers in the second world war.

One can’t help thinking that a city’s cemeteries say something about its cosmpolitanism. Here, Russian orthodox graves in Hietaniemi.

But after the war cultural difference gradually became less apparent and less tolerated. Some say Finland became the most ethnically homogenous country in Europe after Albania. And yet, as singer and author M.A. Numminen has written, in the 1960s it went without saying in some Finnish circles that one spoke at least Swedish, English and German. Maybe French and Spanish too.

But undeniably sameness became a virtue in the post-war decades. With the IT revolution, publics fragmented again, geographic and virtual communities regrouped and Helsinki’s 2 Chinese restaurants became hundreds of “ethnic” eateries. Not everyone liked this. By the end of the twentieth century there were those, especially in rural areas, who felt that Helsinki had gone off on its own route, leaving the rest of the country behind. Some people even talked as if Helsinki were literally moving “into Europe”. As this week’s pilot strike demonstrated, it’s still up here on its old co-ordinates.

What could be changing is that tolerance will have to go back on the menu. Cultural difference and racism are routinely debated on the pages of HS. Another change is that the bulk of Helsinki’s population feels thoroughly at home here. In 1900 the city was cosmopolitan but it was tiny, and the group of people whose families went back generations was even tinier. In 2009 “barefoot” (born and raised here) Helsinkians are a bigger proportion of its residents and, I hope, for that more at home with strangers.

1 Comment

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One response to “Does Helsinki’s Sanomat make Helsinki’s Public?

  1. anonymous

    I’m pretty sure no Finns fought under German command during WWII. (Except, of course, those in the service of German military.)

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