Sunday, May 1, 2011


The first time I saw Helsinki, the city I've ended up spending half my life in, wasn’t from a plane overhead or from one of the ferries from Sweden that dock at South Harbor.  Instead, my first glimpse of the Finnish capital was inside a movie theater in Athens, Georgia.  On the big screen, as it were.  It was at a showing of the newly released movie Reds, which my Finnish girlfriend had been especially eager to see. 

This epic film from 1981 chronicles the career of journalist and devoted communist, John Reed, apparently the only American to be entombed in the Kremlin in Moscow.  Directed by and starring Warren Beatty, along with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, Reds is based on the book “Ten Days that Shook the World”, Reed’s firsthand account of the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

"V.I. Lenin lived in this house in 1917", plaque in Hakaniemi.
To report on the happenings in Russia, Reed traveled through Finland, which was still part of the Russian Empire, on his way to Petrograd, the former St. Petersburg, arriving just in time to witness the tumultuous events that led to the takeover by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.  The title of the book Reed wrote about his time in Petrograd is no exaggeration.  The course of history was indeed radically changed in those few weeks, though in this post-Soviet era it all begins to feel like ancient history. 

(By the way, it’s funny how in the States the color red – the “brand” of socialists and communists throughout the world – has recently come to symbolize the conservative Republican Party.  A small example of American exceptionalism, if you will.  If you think about it, it gives a whole new meaning to the “Red Scare” of the 1950s and Republican Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts.) 

At the time Reds was made, almost a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union, filming behind the Iron Curtain was apparently no easy matter to arrange.  Beatty’s film was just one of several Hollywood productions over the years that used Helsinki as a more accessible stand-in for St. Petersburg, Moscow or some other place in the USSR. 

Helsinki doesn’t make its appearance until about halfway through the three-hour movie, as Beatty and Keaton, in the roles of Reed and his companion Louise Bryant, finally make it to Petrograd and are driven through its magnificent Palace Square (played here by Helsinki’s Senate Square).  With an Empire Style architecture that mimics the look of its Russian counterpart, Senate Square does a well enough as a cinematic substitute for St. Petersburg. 

On his way to the real Petrograd, Reed followed in the footsteps of Lenin who had passed through Helsinki a few months earlier on his return from exile in Switzerland.  When the revolutionary government in Russia cracked down on the Bolsheviks, Lenin retreated to Helsinki to lay low for a few months.  There is a plaque on the corner of Hakaniemi Square marking the building where he stayed as a covert guest of the Helsinki chief of police, a fellow Bolshevik. 

The "capping" of Havis Amanda, May Day Eve.
Hakaniemi has long enjoyed a reputation as a leftist stronghold.  It has been the traditional home of Finland’s Social Democratic and Communist parties, as well as all the major trade unions.  I recall when I first came here, even the large advertisements on the buildings overlooking the square added to the leftist atmosphere.  There were the corporate logos of Interflug (the state airline of a former country called East Germany), Intourist (a travel agency founded by Joseph Stalin), and Pepsi (the cola of choice in the Warsaw pact, not that there was really any choice about it.).  Of these, only the Pepsi logo remains high above the cobblestones of Hakaniemi.    

Despite those changes, Hakaniemi Square is still the traditional site for leftist rallies and gatherings, especially at May Day, the international workers’ day.  (In the US, May Day is ignored entirely, in favor of the all-American non-socialistic Labor Day in September – another bit of expectionalism.)  Hakaniemi serves as the starting point for the May Day Parade, where supporters of labor unions, leftist organizations, and assorted socialist and communists parties march a couple of kilometers to Senate Square to listen to speeches made from the steps of the Cathedral.  Nowadays, the number of marchers has been greatly diminished from the early 80s when almost a quarter of the Finnish electorate voted communist. 

Today, the worker-related celebration of May Day is more like a minor sideshow to the real focus of the holiday, namely huge crowds of students – past, present and future – having a good time.  May Day Eve is the closest thing to Carnival in Finland.  While you won’t see as much samba dancing as in Rio (in fact, none), the sea of revelers in their white student hats, still generate plenty of gaiety with the help of lots balloon, streamers, noisemakers and, of course, alcohol.  For first-time visitors, it can be alarming to see such crowds of normally reserved and restrained Finns filling the streets and publicly losing all their inhibitions.  The evening’s main event takes place at the Havis Amanda Fountain near South Harbor.  To roaring encouragement from the crowd, university students – often suspended from a construction crane – place a large white student’s hat on the bronze statue of a nude mermaid at the center of the fountain. 

In recent years, we’ve chosen to skip the chaos at Havis Amanda and instead celebrate May Day at home.  And we seldom ever watched the May Day Parade, most recently in 1989 when my very pregnant wife and I decided to follow along as the ranks of leftists decked out in red and carrying red flags and banners marched earnestly to Senate Square.  Though the route of the march isn’t strenuous by any means, the act of walking that far was for my wife physical enough to kick off a labor movement of an entirely different type.  The next morning our first child was born.  Six months later the Berlin Wall came down.  As far as I’m concerned, they were both equally world-changing events.  

A curious American at the May Day rally, Senate Square 1983.

1 comment:

  1. I love that photo of you! You blend right in! I'd cast you as a 1930s-era Anarchist in a second!

    I've always loved the movie REDS. Saw it when it first came out in a theater in Brunswick, GA, as I recall. My dad had Reed's book about the Bolshevik Revolution--a book he quite admired. So I'd grown up knowing who Reed was.

    Interesting to see all of the leftists are still active in Europe. Only in the USA and a few of our puppet states south of the border are leftist political groups not considered mainstream and acceptable.