Touching the picture opens another vision

Images 17 Kb Kuopio
City of majestic visions

Kuopio lies in the most typical of Finnish scenery, surrounded by a mosaic of evergreen forests and blue lakes. Yet the city, the biggest in eastern Finland, is different in one key respect. Despite the forests all around it, it does not depend on the wood-processing industry for its livelihood. Instead, it is a business and administrative centre, where services - especially educational and cultural - have the principal role. As the mayor sums it up, Kuopio's strategy is to be: "A good city to live in, a place with an active business policy and a high standard of know-how."

One of the assets of which Kuopio is most proud is its "Science Valley", where the policy is to concentrate on features that are considered most relevant to the life of Finland: the health of its people and environment. In this skill centre that has grown up around the university, researchers and industry collaborate closely in intensive work that they believe will yield rich rewards in the future. "Futurologists see the development of biotechnology as having the potential to power an even greater industrial revolution than what we have seen in electronics," says Mayor Kauko Heuru.

Right at the beginning of the interview, he mentions his city's strong cultural tradition. Kuopio has indeed played an important part in reinforcing the Finnish sense of national identity on a foundation of Western democratic traditions. One of the figures instrumental in giving shape to that identity was J.W. Snellman, who launched the first Finnish newspaper with a clear programme - in Kuopio. "First the intelligentsia must be nationalised, then the people," he wrote. Like the other leading figures, such as Lönnrot, Runeberg and Topelius, who shaped a national identity founded on Finnish folklore - and largely the Finnish language - Snellman was a native Swedish speaker and a professor at the University of Helsinki.

"Besides Snellman, a very significant group of figures who helped shape our culture are associated with Kuopio," says Kauko Heuru. "That combined with our present cultural profile gives us a foundation that influences the development of the city in many ways and can be seen as positive ripple effects in our economic life."

University the engine of development

Heuru emphasises the university's central role in Kuopio's development as a centre of culture, science and education. "Just how strongly university cities profile themselves as engines of development has been taken note of in Finland," he says. He points out that Kuopio is driving development throughout a large surrounding region. "Our strategy is for the Kuopio region to strengthen its position both nationally and internationally as a competitive eastern Finnish growth centre."

On the subject of cultural influences, Heuru does not forget to stress Kuopio's position as a bridge linking the Eastern and Western cultural spheres. Here he quotes a famous Finnish radio reporter, who said in one programme that Kuopio was Finland's "most Byzantine" city, in contrast to the Medieval centre Rauma on the west coast, which he considered the "most Roman".

Eastern influences leave their mark

The ancestors of Kuopio's present inhabitants came largely from an area to the north-west of St. Petersburg where the Russian influence is strong. When Finland's status changed from that of a province of Sweden to autonomous grand duchy of Russia in 1809, trade with the St. Petersburg region became very lively and remained so until Finland became independent in 1917. Kuopio's growth into an important business centre was helped by the Saimaa Canal, which was officially opened on Czar Alexander II's coronation day in 1856. The canal linked the huge eastern lake system with the Baltic, giving Kuopio excellent sea channels to the rest of the world.

"The opening of the canal can be regarded as the first big push forward thanks to the Russian influence," says Heuru. "The next boost came after the second world war, when south-west Karelia and its main centre Viipuri (Vyborg) had to be ceded to the Soviet Union. Important administrative bodies were relocated in Kuopio and thousands of enterprising people from the lost areas moved here. The effect of that impulse was further strengthened by the reconstruction of the Saimaa Canal in the 1960s. Trade with the Soviet Union developed even more favourably in the 1970s."

Kauko Heuru holds both a law degree and a Ph.D. in social science. Having worked as a researcher and a university lecturer, he also has a good grasp of the theory of local government. A background like that gives him a broad perspective in running the city as well as in assessing societal development in general. His time at the helm of the city has been a period of powerful development.

Heuru admits that it is difficult to forecast what way things will develop in Russia, but says: "We are confident that development will be positive and know that it is a good thing for both Kuopio and the whole of Finland. Since Kuopio is well connected to the so-called St. Petersburg Channel, which runs a little to the south of here, we don't need anything more. Alone, the westernising St. Petersburg economic region, with its eight million inhabitants, is an economic space with a truly enormous purchasing potential from a Finnish perspective."

Heuru is not at all concerned that Kuopio is somewhat aside from the three so-called East-West Gateway channels.

"Even if Finland were not to develop into a so-called gateway country, but instead the main flows of East-West traffic were via Central Europe, we shall still have an excellent position as a neighbour of Russia. Finland has always done well when our eastern neighbour has been able to wield purchasing power." When the Soviet Union kept the frontier closed in the inter-war period, eastern Finland was an isolated neck of the woods.

Returning to the subject of Finland's so-called growth centre cities, Heuru explains that the Government defines them as being "capable of internationalising and possessing sufficiently comprehensive services and economic structures".

If Kuopio is measured against the criteria for eligibility for EU subsidies, it does not fit into the scale. "That is, of course, a pity from our point of view, because it means we have to get by on our own resources," smiles Heuru. On a more serious note, however, he adds that the city's employment pattern is too heavily weighted towards the commercial and service sectors, which together account for 75% of jobs. "The proportion of industrial jobs must be increased," he says. "And I believe it will be."

Heuru likes to take visitors to the Puijo panoramic tower on a ridge in the city. It commands a view of some of the most splendid scenery in Finland. "This is a majestic vision," he says.