Helsinki rises from the ashes as Finland’s capital

Four years after the catastrophic fire, Helsinki became the country’s capital. This scarcely believable achievement required strong will, a propitious political climate, first-rate negotiation skills, and clever exploitation of public opinion.

imageAlthough Turku had been Finland’s largest city until the 1840s, since the preceding century important military leaders had preferred to live within the fortifications of Sveaborg in Helsinki. But when Russia took control of occupied Finland in 1809, it still seemed obvious that Turku would become the capital of the Grand Duchy.

Ideas become official reality

The county governor of the provinces of Uusimaa and Häme, the perpetually inventive Gustaf Fredrik Stjernvall, presents the idea that Helsinki should become the capital. On 25 October 1810 Stjernvall duly wrote to State Secretary Mihail Speranski, in which he outlined his idea:

 “Helsinki’s location between the new and old Finnish towns turns out to be favourable. The city also has an excellent harbour. Helsinki is ideally suited not only to be the capital of the Grand Duchy, but also a flourishing centre of foreign trade”, Stjernvall wrote in his letter, which he headed “A Most Humble Memorandum”.

image-The problem, however, was that Helsinki’s centre had been destroyed by the great fire of November 1808. Nonetheless, reconstruction brought with it new opportunities:

- “In order to have the appearance that befits its status, the city must be rebuilt in stone”, Stjernvall continued.

Stjernvall’s proposal found a supporter in Emperor Alexander I’s Swedish-born Finnish advisor Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, who became the chairman of St. Petersburg’s influential Committee for Finnish Affairs in November 1811. Stjernvall pondered the matter of the Finnish capital with Armfelt, and the two met twice to discuss it.

The town plan shapes the capital

The timing proved to be ideal, since the Government Council, later renamed the Imperial Senate of Finland, had been located in Turku only up until 1812. For this reason, the location of the Government Council had to be reconsidered.

Armfelt presented the idea to the Emperor at dinner. “I received the impression that the Emperor understood the matter clearly”, he later reported of the meeting.

Counter-proposals had already been presented. The head of the Senate’s Office Commission, Carl Erik Mannerheim – the great-grandfather of the future Marshal and President of Finland – considered the possible negative effects of a prosperous Helsinki:

- “Might not excessively wide-ranging commerce be detrimental to Finland?”

Another important consideration was defence: the Governor-General had to be stationed close to a defensible border. Turku was close to the enemy, Sweden. Stjernvall responded sharply:

- “The citizens of Turku are in no position to take the status of their city for granted, since the administrative bureaus have been located there more by chance rather than necessity”.

Resistance becomes defence

The turning point was Stjernvall’s and Governmental Counsellor Johan Albrecht Ehrenström’s advisory meeting in January 1812. Ehrenström began work on a proposal for the reconstruction of Helsinki, and with the city’s future capital status in mind included in the plan a site for an “imperial residence”. This was to be located at the northern end of the Large Market, where Helsinki Cathedral now stands. Stjernvall, for his part, set to work on writing a letter to the Governor-General Fabian Steinheil, in which the matter of the future location of the Finnish capital took pride of place.

Governor-General Steinheil responded with a long letter, which he concluded by expressing his doubts that the Crown could afford to participate in the expenses involved in moving the capital to Helsinki. The Committee for Finnish Affairs in St. Petersburg interpreted Steinheil’s letter as being generally well disposed to Stjernvall’s plan, although it can also be reasonably interpreted the other way. Steinheil’s fears about the costs were allayed with the assurance that it was not the State that would incur the costs of the change.

Opponents of transferring the capital from Turku to Helsinki were increasingly seen to be fighting a losing battle. “Neither You nor I are likely to live so long as to see everything being in order for the transferral of the Government Council”, a friend reassured the Turku-born Mannerheim.

The Emperor gives his approval

The proposal to transfer the capital to Helsinki was brought before Emperor Alexander I on 24 March (i.e. 12 March according to the Julian calendar) 1812. He approved the plan, and considered the fact that the proposal came from Finns as evidence of their subjection.

The matter was not settled yet however, as the proposal had yet to be signed by the Emperor. Stjernvall had arrived in St. Petersburg to lend his support to Armfelt, bringing with him the new town plan for Helsinki that had been drawn up by Ehrenström. Stjernvall had attempted to bring with him commercial counsellor Carl Magnus Lindholm also, who supported the initiative.

On 8 April (27 March on the Julian calendar), the Emperor signed the edict according to which Helsinki would become the Finnish capital.

Although Alexander I’s orders were followed, the decision provoked intense resentment in Turku. Mannerheim announced his resignation from the Government Council, and Turku and Pori County Governor Knut von Troil, along with Bishop Jakob Tengström, set about making plans to foil the move.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Alexander I’s edict remains in force to this day.

Marko Mannila

Source: Yrjö Blomstedt, Helsingin korottaminen pääkaupungiksi (“Helsinki’s Elevation to Capital City”, in the collection Entisaikain Helsinki (Bygone Helsinki) Vol. VII, Helsinki, 1963.