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Sentinel between East and West

Most people who visit the sea fortress of Suomenlinna just off Helsinki use the ferries that leave from the quay beside the Market Square. It takes only fifteen minutes to make the transition from the bustle of the colourful market and the screaming seagulls there to the tranquillity of the group of islands on which the old fortress stands. The 250th anniversary of the fortress was celebrated last year.

Images 10 Kb Suomenlinna has only around 900 permanent residents, but hundreds of thousands of visitors are drawn there each summer by a combination of natural beauty and history, museums and handicrafts. Suomenlinna itself is a unique monument to military architecture. There are also restaurants, cafés, a guide centre and - not least - a brewery.

Work began on the fortress in the 18th century, when Sweden - of which Finland was then a part - felt it needed protection against Russia. The man in charge of the project was Lieutenant-Colonel Augustin Ehrensvärd, a skilful politician, organiser and fortifications designer. When he arrived in Finland in early January 1748, he had only one set of drawings with him. Thousands of conscripts built the walls, bastions, houses and a large dry dock. The liveliest period of construction lasted 40 years.

Sveaborg (Viapori), as the fortress was then called, was the biggest construction project that Sweden had ever undertaken. The fortress eventually grew into a community with a population of 4,800 - more than Helsinki itself. It became an outpost of culture, and a trailblazer. Most of the new trends coming from Europe made their first landing on Sveaborg before being adopted by the rest of Finland. With a large body of officers to support them, the visual arts, music and theatre flourished. Home libraries were of a high standard and the many receptions and balls that took place meant good times for musicians. Even the parks and gardens were laid out with entertainment in mind. Secret societies had an important role in social life on the islands.

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A turning point in the history of the fortress came in 1808 when the Russians laid siege to it. Although the Swedes enjoyed clear military superiority, the fortress surrendered with minimal resistance. Just how that happened is still a mystery. Thus a fortress built to guard an eastern frontier now became another realm's westernmost bulwark. The Russians would be the masters of Viapori for the next 110 years.

The fortress suffered the worst bombardment in its history during the Crimean War in 1855; an Anglo-French fleet subjected it to a barrage that continued without interruption for two days and during which more than a thousand tonnes of projectiles rained down on it.

After Finland had become independent in 1917, the fortress was renamed Suomenlinna ("Fortress of Finland"). Image size 2 Kb A gloomy period in its history followed, because a prison camp for soldiers from the "Red" side that had been defeated in the post-independence civil war was established there. Suomenlinna remained a garrison until 1973, when it was transferred to civilian administration. It was placed on the Unesco World Heritage List, in 1991.

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