In Helsinki, trams and bicycles put cars in their place (Tapio Haaja/Unsplash).

I arrive in Helsinki on June 18 for a six-week stay. I’m close to the end of a book I’ve been working on for more than a year, and I want a bolt-hole where I can complete a draft. I choose Helsinki because I’ve not been there before, because I know no one there, and because I don’t know any Finnish. I’ll be able, I think, to write for half of each day and explore the city for the other half. I hope, too, for light. Helsinki at the summer solstice has only a few hours between sunset and sunrise, and even those are reputed to be radiant, tinged with indigo. For the rest of the day, the light should be clear and intense. For reasons I can’t quite formulate, these seem like good conditions for bringing a book to completion.

Less than a week after I move into the apartment I’ve rented in Helsinki’s Kallio neighborhood, it appears that Russia might be about to collapse into civil war. Mercenary troops under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who have been fighting for Russia in Ukraine, are on the road to Moscow. The threat to the Putin regime seems real enough that heavy machinery is deployed to break up Moscow’s perimeter roads so as to make the entry of armored vehicles into that city more difficult. Some Russian panjandrums, perhaps including Putin himself, appear to leave the city.

This would have been exciting enough had I been at home in America, but in Helsinki it’s especially interesting because the city is only a little more than one hundred miles from the Russian border, and because Russia has been a large and mostly malign presence in Finland’s past. The territory we now call Finland was, from 1809 to 1917, a Grand Duchy of Imperial Russia. Finnish independence in 1917 was accompanied by violence and intertwined with the conflict between Reds and Whites following the Russian revolution. There was a bloody war between independent Finland and Soviet Russia between 1939 and 1940; and although Finland succeeded in maintaining independence from Soviet Russia then and after, doing so required compromises. The territorial expansions of Putin’s Russia, most recently the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, have intensified the sense of threat and uncertainty on the part of those countries that border Russia—and Finland has the longest land border with Russia of any European country.

I am exercised, then, by the events of June 23 and 24. The Finnish authorities make reassuring noises: there is, they say, no sign of threat to Finnish territorial integrity, and Finland has no stake in whatever is going on in Russia. Events play out, puzzlingly: Prigozhin’s troops retreat; some deal is done; the Putin regime stands. Late on June 23, I ask the clerk (thirtyish, much tattooed) in the store where I’ve been buying my groceries what he thinks of events in Russia that day. He replies, “I have no care for Russia; Russians can go fuck themselves.” It’s hard for me to know how representative his view is. But certainly the city is behaving as usual: the midsummer festival is that same weekend, and the internal uncertainties of Putin’s Russia do not, so far as I can tell, affect the celebrations at all.


The disturbance in Russia happens as the war in Ukraine continues, a war begun by Russian aggression and sustained in large part by American dollars and equipment. This war seems to have been the principal reason why Finland finally sought full membership in NATO in 2022 and received it in April 2023. For decades before that Finns had been ambivalent about NATO, and sometimes strongly opposed to joining it. That ambivalence belongs to a strong Finnish commitment to a heavily armed neutrality during the Cold War. But that began to change following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the invasion of Ukraine has completed the change: Finns now support full membership in NATO by a significant majority.

The U.S. government’s delight at Finland’s joining NATO is publicly signaled at the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, and then sealed by President Biden’s visit to Helsinki on July 12 and 13, immediately following that summit. This is during the fourth week of my time in Helsinki. I catch, by accident, the tail of the presidential motorcade into the city late on the twelfth, and then seek out a prime spot for viewing the motorcade back out to the airport the following day. The route is lined with police and squads of unbearably young Finnish soldiers; a helicopter tracks it above; near the central railway station, where I’m watching, hundreds of locals and tourists raise their cell phones in a quasi-liturgical gesture of commemoration. We are silent before the spectacle of the fifty-two-vehicle motorcade (I counted). I think I see Biden himself, waving from inside the heavily armored limousine they call “the beast,” but it’s difficult to be sure, and perhaps my imagination is working overtime.

I think I see Biden himself, waving from inside the heavily armored limousine they call “the beast,” but it’s difficult to be sure, and perhaps my imagination is working overtime.

I feel a surge of sentiment. This corner of a foreign land is for a moment transfigured by an American real presence, and I am moved by that. But I also feel regret and shame. This visit, with its trappings of the imperium, closes down large parts of central Helsinki for eighteen hours. It is a display of unrivaled power and importance, which the Caesars of Rome would have understood and appreciated. It also marks the increasingly militarized division of Europe into “Russia” and “the rest,” which makes effectively impossible any third position of the kind that Finland and Sweden (still not a full member of NATO, but about to be) once occupied. No space is now allowed between America and its enemies—you’re with us or against us. Hence my regret. But still: there is my president on a bright early afternoon in high summer in Helsinki, and here, just a few dozen yards away, am I, surrounded by Finns for whom this event is probably just an annoying, if exotic, visitation—a manifestation of the power of this present age, which comes, whether they know it or not, bearing arms and the high gloss of a universalist ideology.


Happily, Helsinki is not all geopolitical excitement. It is also lumberingly omnipresent trams, for which I quickly come to feel something close to love; a clean, fast, and efficient metro; many buses; and separated bicycle lanes almost everywhere, which are hospitable not just to bikes, pedaled and electric, but to electric scooters and various one-wheeled conveyances. There is a large and inexpensive fleet of city bicycles, which I take advantage of. The city is also excellent for walking, and I find it easy and interesting to get everywhere I want to go without a car. This is impossible in all but a few American towns and cities, and none, not even New York, comes close to Helsinki’s efficiency in this matter. I live in a small city on the eastern seaboard of the United States where almost everyone drives almost everywhere almost all the time, and where, therefore, the car entirely dominates the cityscape. In Helsinki, cars are put in their place.

Not that Helsinki is an urban paradise. At least in the summer, there is some rough sleeping, though much less than in most U.S. cities these days. There’s a noticeable amount of public drunkenness, together with the usual accompanying behaviors. And there’s a lot of graffiti on buildings, mailboxes, and so on—though, oddly, almost none on trams, buses, or metro cars. Some parts of the city are evidently poorer than others, and in mixed or transitional neighborhoods like the one where my apartment is there are the normal territorial frictions. But for the most part, Helsinki seems easy to live and move about in, lovely to look at, and generally a delight.

I often go to the city’s central library, Oodi, to write. It’s a fine, swooping, high-modernist building, opened in 2018. Like most modern libraries on a large scale, it is dedicated as much to non-books as to books. There are coffee shops, virtual-reality rooms where I see people wearing large headsets and making surprising gestures, pointless in my world but no doubt full of purpose in the one they’re inhabiting, a play area for children, a lounging area largely inhabited by teenagers, and so on. But it also has quiet rooms for reading and writing, and I work in one of these most days I’m there.

On my second or third visit I stop at the chess area on my way out and watch a game in progress. It’s between two scowling teenagers who both seem heavily invested in victory. Ten minutes of watching them convinces me that I’d lose to either in short order. I turn away, looking to watch another game, and see a man sitting alone at one of the chess tables. He smiles and gestures interrogatively at the empty chair across from him—would I like to play? I would. He, I gather, is from Korea and long resident in Finland. He has no English, and I have neither Korean nor Finnish, and so we exchange pleasantries in bad French. He wins the game, and we shake hands. I repeat this several times during the following weeks, winning some games, losing others, and talking with Finns, mostly young, whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Unlike my first opponent they all have fluent and idiomatic English, and most of them are interested in the United States, though none has been there. They are uniformly negative about Russia (I always ask): their eyes are turned West, not East. Several of them are surprised that an old American can play chess, and they want to know what I think of Finland, about whose political and economic and educational problems they are happy to tell me.

In Helsinki, cars are put in their place.


On the twenty-third of July, the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I’m at St. Henry’s Cathedral for the 9:30 English Mass. I’ve been there several times before for Masses in Finnish, which reminded me both how well the liturgy can communicate without being understood and what a relief it is not to have to attend to the substance of what is said in the homily. The English Mass this morning prompts different thoughts. St. Henry’s is a lovely church, consecrated in 1904 and dedicated to a twelfth-century bishop who is Finland’s patron. It seats about two hundred and fifty, and today it is packed: extra chairs have been set out, and there are fifty or so people standing at the back and in the aisles by the time I arrive, just as the rosary is ending, ten minutes or so before Mass begins.

I pray briefly but spend most of those minutes listening to snatches of conversation around me. I hear Finnish of course, English, Italian, and Arabic; something that may be Farsi; and at least one African language I can’t identify. All this is as it should be in a Catholic church. Hearing this linguistic variety makes me think about what a liturgy in English means for such a congregation. Probably more people here will understand English than any other living language, including Finnish. That is, I suppose, an argument in favor of English. But English is an imperial language, once of the British and now of the Americans. Can the Church not do better in a Babel-cursed world than speak the language of empire?

Perhaps she can. There is Latin, the language of a long-gone empire, it is true, but not of any living one; vernaculars divide and exclude, inevitably; English rules, also inevitably (I think again of the long presidential motorcade). Latin, by contrast, could unite, even if in incomprehension, and I’m back to the liturgy’s capacity to communicate without being understood. Still, this liturgy—on a sun-flooded summer’s morning in Helsinki, with the corvids cawing outside and a woman begging on the steps, and the Russian Embassy, shuttered and dark, still strangely adorned with hammer and sickle a few hundred yards away—is done decently and in good order. Tears prick my eyes as I watch this multi-lingual crowd take Christ’s body in hand and on tongue.

The Catholic Church is not much of a presence in Finland. Less than 1 percent of the population is Catholic. The whole country is a single diocese, and there are just two parishes in Helsinki, the capital city. The great churches of the city are Orthodox and Lutheran, as one would expect. I have no way of knowing how many of this morning’s Mass-goers live here and how many are, like me, visitors. But even if it’s only half, perhaps the future of the Catholic Church in Finland lies with those most at home in languages other than Finnish or English. That would be a blessing, probably, both for Finland and for the Catholics who live there. Catholics, like all Christians, should not feel too at home where they are, and linguistic difference is one way to foster the essential Catholic sense of longing for somewhere that isn’t here.

I leave Helsinki on the thirtieth of July, a complete draft of the book in my carry-on. As I sit in the airport train, I think of what the city might be like in winter, of what the cold and dark—only four or five hours of light at the winter solstice—might show. I find myself surprisingly eager to find out. I also think again of geopolitics and Finland’s edgy place in the conflicts of our time, and I hope that the country finds a way to compromise with Americanization in such a way as to preserve its idiosyncrasies, as it once managed to preserve them from the Sovietization of Eastern Europe.

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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Published in the September 2023 issue: View Contents
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