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Until 1917, Finland was under the domination of its nearest neighbors, Sweden and Russia—a power struggle that lasted centuries. The influence of more than 600 years under Swedish rule and another century under Russian tsars has left its mark, including a small but influential Swedish-speaking population and a scattering of Russian Orthodox churches. But the Finns themselves are neither Scandinavian nor Slavic. All that is known of their origins is that they are descended from wandering groups of people who probably came from west of the Ural Mountains before the Christian era and settled on the shores of the Gulf of Finland.
Helsinki, the capital city, was originally founded in 1550 on orders of Swedish King Gustavus Vasa. Located halfway between Stockholm and St. Petersburg, Helsinki is still known to the Swedes as Helsingfors. Surrounded by water on three sides and fringed by islands, Helsinki grew up around a natural harbor overlooking the Gulf of Finland. A city of wide streets, squares, and parks, it was one of the world’s first planned municipalities and is noted for its 19th-century Neoclassical architecture. Because the city is relatively compact, most of it can be explored on foot.
With more than 25% of Finland’s people living in Helsinki, the city is not only the center of the country’s government, but also the hub of its entertainment and culture. The city’s opportune location in the Baltic has opened the gates to a strong eastern trade, and many goods pass through it en route to Russia and the rest of Asia. As a result, Helsinki is fast becoming the major crossroad between Western and Eastern Europe.