The train from Helsinki, Finland to St Petersburg, Russia has a high chance of saving money if travelling to the latter from Western Europe. It also provides contrasts in how the region could have developed differently had the border between the two frontier states formed differently under several dictators conflicting whims.
Disembarking at Finlandyia train station at the north end of town gives quite an evocative arrival point with the glorious sounding Lenin square giving way to the arsenal and then a long bridge walk over the expanse of the Neva river. The Aurora Cruiser ship, which fired the action shot of the 1917 revolution, is on your right crossing the bridge, all of which provides a good historical and visual representation of St Petersburg within the first ten minutes.
After 12 minutes walk things change rapidly with the FSB building a reminder of Vladimir Putin’s power base and rise to power. This was nicely illustrated for me with a rable of pustular, uniformed trainees having a snowball fight while their Brezhnev-era boss quizzed me where I was going (on the way back I barged shoulders with a sweaty t-shirt clad drunk. In -5C). This is pretty much it for the contemporary and spooky though, carry on walking southwest and comparisons with Venice start to accumulate.
Venice of the North and Paris of the East are two lazy monikers attached to St Petersburg, though I’m more minded to pair it with Vienna. Canals, frozen solid in February, are everywhere, true, but so are palaces and seats of power of the late Tsars. The Hermitage museum, a three-hours-required combination of global art and history leading up to the 1917 revolution seems like a relic of a past empire, evocation it shares with Vienna. The Admiralty building, golden mast rising from the centre, strikes a similar mental image of naval influential times gone by.
As the Habsburgs influence waned and the Austrian-Hungarian empire started to give way to the twentieth century, it seems a similar exercise was under way in St Petersburg under the equally as dramatic trigger of the 1917 revolution. It’s been reasonably well noted that contemporary Russians didn’t seem to know what to do with the anniversary of the Bolshevik uprising, but seems happy enough with the prior 19th century opulence. Either way, a trip to Russia would seem to involve 19th century grandeur in St Petersburg to go with Moscow’s glorious 20th Century Brutalism.
Why train not plane?
The trip was partially a miles run and partially the legacy of a twice-botched lads’ weekend to Moscow, a destination victim to indecision and misunderstanding. It’s been a long time since I last went north, so this made sense as an alternative. What I failed to factor in was how few flights go to the Tsarist capital from London. There are eight flights daily from London to Moscow and only one, seriously busy, to St Petersburg, already illustrating quite how little business activity goes on here.
Helsinki on the other hand has quite a lot more flights per day, despite being the same size and having a similar location in all but one crucial respect: being in the EU. The distance and this linkage to other states make it a very decent miles run and also a very good stop-over to the Far East. Indeed, you see a lot of Asians on work and vacation passing through, though Finnair don’t seem to be on the scale of the Middle Eastern connector hubs of Emirates, Qatar and Etihad just yet.
Having always preferred rail travel though, a fast rail connection to the city centre provides both a quick dinner eaten off the bonnet of a tractor and the rail connection to Russia, a rare Russo-EU venture in the Allegro train for a three hour journey. This was on the whole an easy journey, though with a hard border quite interesting and many things to be processed. An armed customs check precipitated multiple head counts and cupboard scours while passengers were confined to seats for visa checks.
All in all, this was probably less effort than either the passport checks in an airport, or the equivalent on the Eurostar – though it seemed quite traumatic for some Russian passengers who were given quite an interrogation. You wouldn’t want to make a border this complicated: we underestimate quite how easy intra-EU travel is and it’s hard to not to draw the conclusion that Helsinki and Finland’s better connectivity to the world has helped it speed forward in the last 100 years.