Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cry Me A War

Back in the mid 1980s, my wife and I took a bicycling tour around a very scenic and isolated group of islands that sits between the Finnish mainland and Sweden, an amazing spot at the crossroads of the Baltic Sea.

On the map, the Åland Islands (Ahvenanmaa, in Finnish) appear like a galaxy of thousands and thousands of islands, skerries (rocky islets), and reefs that are collectively bulging outward from Finland, straining toward Sweden.

Åland is, in fact, closer to Finland’s western neighbor than to mainland Finland itself, with only 17 miles of completely open water separating the archipelago from Sweden, though geologically speaking it is still much more firmly connected to Finland.

I even daydreamed some years ago about attempting to kayak to Sweden, island hopping through the Åland archipelago before making the longer, final crossing westward until I hit the Scandinavian peninsula. Maybe it’s just as well that this particular adventure never got off the drawing broad. 

The remains of Bomarsund.
Photo by Tomisti.
The bike trip we took in 1986 was a much less ambitious and no doubt more pleasant affair. (And I was lucky enough to sell a travel piece about it to The San Francisco Examiner.)

With our camping gear, we arrived at Mariehamn, Åland’s capital, on one of the giant ferries that makes a port call there on its way from Turku to Stockholm. We rented two bikes the next day and headed out on the mostly deserted two-lane roads. After some twenty miles of pedaling, somehow always against the wind, we stopped for the night near the site of a ruined Russian fort on the eastern edge of the Åland “mainland”.

Here, overlooking a narrow strait, Finnish history and the recent troubling events on the Black Sea intersect. At least, that’s one way to look at it.

Not much is left now of the fortress of Bomarsund; the stone walls that still stand there overlooking grassy fields are massive, which speaks to the amount of firepower that must have been needed to demolish this lonely outpost of the Russian Empire.

Positioned as it is, the Åland archipelago almost blocks the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, guarding access to that major arm of the Baltic Sea (the other arm being the Gulf of Finland that ends at St. Petersburg). In the early 1800s, it was an obviously strategic spot for Imperial Russia to defend its newly acquired province of Finland.

Though started 22 years earlier, the Bomarsund fortress, was far from completed in September of 1854, when Russia’s competition with France over which country should be the protector of Christians in the Turkish Ottoman Empire led to French and British allies invading Russia’s Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea.

Just before that campaign, which gave its name to the Crimean War (in English-speaking countries at least), Bomarsund had been already been attacked and defeated by another British-French expeditionary force, leaving the ruins that you can still see today. (The following summer, the western allies bombarded Sveaborg – now called Suomenlinna – in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Russian stronghold guarding the entrance to Helsinki’s harbor.) One of the allies' demands after Russia lost the war was that Åland would remain demilitarized, which it has except for a brief incursion by Sweden a hundred years ago.

Playing a role in the previous Crimean conflict isn’t the only feature Åland shares with the Russian-speaking enclave on the Ukrainian coast.

The bombardment of Bomarsund during the Crimea War.
Like Crimea today, Åland is an autonomous province. The archipelago has its own tiny parliament, flies its own flag, and issues its own postage stamps. I use to joke with my wife about whether we needed passports to visit there.

It is also inhabited by speakers of a minority language. Ninety-five percent of Ålanders are Swedish speakers, compared to only some 5% for the Finnish population as a whole, and Swedish is the only official language in the archipelago. (By comparison, it seems that Russian speakers make up nearly 80% of Crimeans, compared to 25% for all of Ukraine).  

Also, like the present-day Crimea, Åland has sometimes been a bit of a gray-area in international affairs. The archipelago, along with the rest of Finland, was ceded by Sweden to Imperial Russia in 1809. With Åland’s close linguistic and cultural ties to Sweden, this was surely an even less happy arrangement for the islanders than for the Finns.

When Finland saw its chance to achieve independence during the Russian Revolution, Åland likewise saw the opportunity to ask to be annexed by Sweden, partly out of a fear of discrimination by Finnish-speakers.

It seems that Sweden never seriously considered absorbing its fellow svenska talare from across the water, but did send a naval force to Åland for possible evacuation of the Swedish-speaking inhabitants, despite the archipelago’s status as a demilitarized zone. This sounds a bit similar to Russia's incursion into Crimea that now dominates news around the world.

One of the concrete legacies that remain from the mostly forgotten League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, was a decision in 1921 that Åland should remain part of Finland and that its status as a DMZ should continue. Today, there is no military presence in the islands, and Ålanders are even exempted from compulsory service in the Finnish Army.

That makes Åland quite different, of course, from the heavily militarized Crimea, and makes the archipelago an even more peaceful corner of Finland for bike touring. After Bomarsund, my wife and I continued cycling through the farmland and scattered villages of the islands for three more sunny days, though always against the wind no matter which direction we were headed. 

I guess that’s to be expected when you’re on a remote stretch of sea at the crossroads of empires. 

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