Everyday life in the capital: 19th century Helsinki, in pics

Helsinki experienced massive growth after it became Finland’s capital in 1812. As the new economic and cultural center, its population exploded, architecture grew quickly, and technology flourished. But what did it look like? Let’s take a stroll through 19th century Helsinki, courtesy of the Helsinki City Museum’s vast database of photos from the late 1800s.

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Very Finnish Problems Episode 4: When your winter stroll is ruined by an arriving icebreaker

What’s the weirdest place Finnish president Urho Kekkonen went fishing? Author Joel Willans is joined by maritime historian Aaro Sahari. The two discuss icebreaker ships and their impact on Finnish 20th century industrialization. Aaro explains how conquering nature with year-round open waterways affected Finnish national pride.


Produced by Thomas Nybergh / Ink Tank Media



Old footage with fearless strolling next to speeding icebreaker

Aaro’s academic record

Sahari & Matala: Small nation, big ships winter navigation and technological nationalism in a peripheral country, 1878–1978 (paywall)

Aaro’s popularized article on icebreakers (in Finnish)

Finnish Funding Agency TEKES makes video campaign with self-mutilating daredevils group Dudesons

Joel Willans with maritime historian Aaro Sahari

Joel Willans with maritime historian Aaro Sahari


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About the show

What’s so weird and wonderful about Finland? British born Joel Willans, creator of Very Finnish Problems, discusses, with a variety of fascinating guests, what he’s learnt after 15 years living in his much-loved, adopted country.
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Ihana kesä! The history of hot Helsinki summers, in pics

Finnish summers are short and sweet, but they sure can be spectacular! It’s important to enjoy every single second of them before the long dark winter comes once again. In Finland, summer appreciation has been turned into an art form — nobody soaks up the sun like the Finns do.

Need some proof? Just take a look at these historical photos of Finns loving the Helsinki summer. Take notes, because you just might learn a thing or two.

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Disruptive Decades: Technologies that revolutionised the 1920s


In 1928, Otto Frederick Rohwedder gave the world the invention that all future inventions would be cheekily compared to: sliced bread. His revolutionary bread-slicing machine made such an impact that it inspired the popular idiom “the best thing since sliced bread”, which we still use even today. Despite the idiom, we aren’t quite as impressed these days by sliced bread — however, it’s still an apt example of the many inventions that not only defined one of the 20th century’s most dynamic decades but revolutionised the world.

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Finnish Independence day celebrations at Tamperetalo, 2013.

Strange freedom: 6 weird Independence Day traditions from around the world

Finnish Independence day celebrations at Tamperetalo, 2013.
Independence. Isn’t that word sweet? Here in Finland, we celebrate independence for the 99th time in 2016, so we thought it would be fitting to compare independence day traditions in Finland to other countries.

In our defence, as you read on, remember what the weather is like in Finland in early December.
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Go go snow! The incredible stories of the world’s coolest snowmobiles


Living in the 21st century, it’s easy to forget that until relatively recently populations in cold-weather areas were practically stranded by snowy winters. That all changed with the invention of engine-powered snowmobiles. While we’re all familiar with the modern version it turns out the snowmobile has a long and colourful history, spanning more than a century. To celebrate this we’re taken a trip down a memory lane, and unearthed the coolest snow transports of all time. Wrap up warm and enjoy the ride!

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More kahvi, sir? How Finns became the world’s greatest coffee drinkers


Think of great coffee drinking nations and you’ll probably think of Italians sipping their cappuccinos or the Spanish enjoying cortados. One nation unlikely to even make your top ten, however, is Finland. You’ll be surprised to hear then that Finns are, in fact, the world’s number one coffee drinkers. Incredibly, your average Finn drinks 12 kilos of the black stuff per year, far ahead of Italy (5.7 kilos per year) and Spain (4.5 kilos per year). So, how did this obsession begin?

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This amazing Instagram photographer will teach you about Helsinki’s walls


Anyone who’s into Helsinki should take note of this Instagram profile, Helsinkifacades. The account has one goal: documenting the facades of Helsinki, in glorious detail.

The idea isn’t new: the Ihaveathingforwalls Instagram is a must-see for any friends of architecture, but this hyper-localized account documents Helsinki, one wall at a time.

We warmly recommend reading the captions too. The unnamed photographer gives well-researched detail about the origin of the buildings, including architects and years built. The same photographer has a general repository of more Helsinki goodness in a separate account: @somewhereinhelsinki_.

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We’re not done yet: LGBT rights in Finland aren’t perfect


For the entirety of last week, Helsinki was flooded with diverse expressions of sexuality and gender thanks to Helsinki Pride. Arranged annually by HeSeta and partners, Helsinki Pride is easily Finland’s largest event for sexual and gender minorities and takes place the week after Midsummer, with an attendance of tens of thousands.

For an onlooker observing the culmination of the week, the parade through Helsinki on Saturday, it’s easy to feel joy and solidarity over how far Finland and many other countries have come in respecting basic individual rights. After an exceptional tear gas attack on the Helsinki Pride parade in 2010 by perpetrators with ties to neo-Nazi groups, the popularity of the event has only increased.

Major urban areas in Finland appear to be pretty good places to openly live as an LGBT person. History is far from rosy in this regard, though.  We could do worse than to remember that Pride parades enjoy a very recent past as demonstrations for basic human rights, rather than leaning towards a smiley-faced opportunity for institutions to remind us of their open-mindedness.

As we will learn, the present is also far from perfection for LGBT people in Finland. The situation remains deeply flawed for transgender and intersex individuals in particular.

But first, read on for a selection of milestones in Finnish legislation relevant to LGBT issues. We’ve sourced these from Seta, Finland’s main LGBT rights organization.

Demonstrators in Helsinki on Kansalaistori near the Parliamane on 28 November 2014, before and right after the passing vote of the Tahdon 2013 marriage equality bill, based on a citizen initiative.

Demonstrators in Helsinki on Kansalaistori near the Parliament on November 2014, before and right after the passing vote of the Tahdon 2013 marriage equality bill, based on a citizen initiative. Photos by Thomas Nybergh (1 & 2) .


Stockholm was the gay utopia

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1971, with “promotion of homosexuality or homosexual acts” (similar to the British ‘Section 28’) remaining illegal. The classification of homosexuality as a medical condition was abolished a decade later.

Many older people remember the post-war years of an era when Stockholm was a promised land. Indeed, Finnish tabloids cultivated the idea that all Swedes must be gay, ever since homosexuality was decriminalized in Sweden in 1944.

In Finland, discrimination based on sexuality was prohibited in 1995 and discrimination based on gender identity or expression thereof in 2005.

In legal recognition of life partnership, civil unions, or “registered partnerships”, were introduced in 2002, granting access to limited rights similar to marriage. Rights were amended to include adoption of the other partner’s children (to ensure legal custodianship) in 2009.

The debate over gender-neutral marriage dragged on seemingly forever after the 2011 parliamentary election, with one disappointingly downvoted bill. The new system of citizen initiatives was put into play, resulting in 167.000 citizens signing a petition which resulted in approval of the bill in November 2014.

So, what are the problems then? We’ll explore a couple of them in broad strokes, but we acknowledge that this is merely scraping the surface of systemic discrimination inherent in a binary view of gender.

Tove Jansson and Touko Laaksonen

Two 20th century icons of Finnish culture, Moomin author Tove Jansson and Touko Laaksonen (Tom of Finland) managed to pull through as apparently non-heterosexual people long before it was cool, let alone legal. (Images: Wikipedia (1 & 2)).


The confusion over sexuality vs gender vs anatomy

In itself, the term “gay rights” isn’t a very inclusive affair. While mainstream culture around the western world seems to be increasingly accepting of the presence of homosexual behavior as a fact of life, many issues related to gender minorities are still clouded by ignorance.

As a complicated topic worth exploring further, it’s necessary to point out that the appearance of someone’s body isn’t always very indicative of their gender; especially when many cultures insist on a binary where gender corresponds to, and is determined by, one of two “acceptable” sets of reproductive organs.

But this is simply not the case. Put briefly: each day, intersex babies are born all over the world with visible or invisible ambiguity in their gendered anatomy: reproductive organs, hormones, chromosomes, etc.

Each day, doctors make random choices and, to put it bluntly, mutilate many of these children. The intention is to produce genitalia that conform to the prevailing norms of what boys and girls look like. Oftentimes, these alterations to infants’ bodies cram them into a set of expectations of gender that may end up being wrong at some later point in their life.

Oftentimes, such mutilation is performed in utmost secrecy; in recent history, parents and doctors have kept this information hidden even from the child well into adulthood, denying them the opportunity to explore the actual reality of their gender.

This is by no means a strictly Finnish problem, but some doctors defend this practice. Yet, such a level of guesswork seems amazingly lax for the scientific standards we otherwise expect from the medical profession.

Helsinki Pride 2014 post-parade Park Fest in Sinebrychoff Park.

Helsinki Pride 2014 post-parade Park Fest in Sinebrychoff Park. Photo by Tuomas Puikkonen



Finnish transgender rights are dented by punitive bureaucracy

One alarming omission in Finnish human rights can be found in the treatment of transgender or non-binary persons; individuals who identify as the opposite of the gender they’re assigned at birth, or who find neither of the available categories correct. This also includes intersex individuals whose gender has been misassigned at infancy, often through surgical mutilation.

Some individuals who wish to reassign their legal gender to the other of the two available categories feel comfortable with their options; for others, the other position of the gender binary can be just inoffensive enough to be the less mismatched one. Again: two genders based on reproductive anatomy is far from adequate. (And gender isn’t tied to sexual preference either.)

Here comes the nonsensical part of the Finnish system: the process of reassigning one’s legal gender requires a doctor’s diagnosis. This is more hair-raising than it may sound, because people expressing too much gender non-conformity, or with comorbid conditions such as depression (itself often just a symptom of untreated gender dysphoria), are routinely denied diagnosis and care.

After this diagnosis, the person can apply for a differently gendered name and receive new ID papers. Only, the ID papers are prescribed to the same gender as before. One consequence of this is that people are legally forced to carry ID papers that may involuntarily expose them as transgender for at least an entire year before they may have their gender marker changed; information which may be exposed in countless systems that needlessly file people by gender, causing endless everyday inconvenience, and worse.

Shots from the Helsinki Pride 2016 parade and Park Fest at Kansalaistori.  Photos by Thomas Nybergh.

Shots from the Helsinki Pride 2016 parade and Park Fest at Kansalaistori. Photos by Thomas Nybergh.


How would you feel about being sterilized to get a new passport?

For a transgender person in Finland to be a candidate for the final, actual legal gender reassignment, a second doctor must confirm their ‘diagnosis’. Before 2015 people with one of the two possible diagnoses (which roughly correspond to ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’) were even completely ineligible for legal gender reassignment, but recent activism has made it possible, albeit difficult, to choose the “less incorrect” option even with the ‘non-binary’ diagnosis.

Only, that’s not all: the individual must also be proven to be infertile. This usually achieved as a byproduct of hormone replacement therapy, which many transgender people choose to alter their bodies – and brains.

However, not everyone who needs to change their legal gender wants hormonal therapy or is able to access it due to medical concerns. So, in effect, Finland is practicing forced, or coerced sterilization of transgender individuals and other gender minorities. The price of not conforming to certain expectations about fitting into a gender binary is to be bereft of reproductive ability.

Trasek, Transtukipiste and Amnesty International provide more information on transgender and intersex rights in Finland, in Finnish.

Title images (1 and 2) by Alejandro Lorenzo

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