A few days before the summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the mayor of Helsinki stood in front of a large oil painting in a City Hall conference room and pondered the images.
The artist’s delicate depiction of the Finnish capital’s central market square in 1877 captured Finland’s unique geopolitical position, Jan Vapaavuori said.
“On the left in the painting, you see the white Lutheran church, which represents our history with the West,” the mayor said. “To the east, you see the Russian Orthodox church, representing our history with the East. We are in the middle, with the two sides influencing us.”
When Trump and Putin meet here on Monday for their first official sit-down summit, it will be the fourth time that Helsinki has hosted a meeting between leaders from Moscow and Washington, acting as a fulcrum between East and West.
It comes, of course, at a time of especially fraught relations between the two nuclear powers.
The first two summits were between the United States and the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. The first was in 1975, when President Ford met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev before and after a European-wide conference that resulted in the signing of the Helsinki Accords. The agreements were an attempt to improve relations between the communist East and the West.
“At the conference in 1975, heads of states from 35 countries in Europe and North America suddenly appeared in Helsinki; it was a grand spectacle,” said Heikki Hakala, a Finnish journalist specializing in foreign and security policy. Hakala was 7 at the time and remembers waiting outside the Finnish parliament to wave at the VIP guests. “I was wearing a U.S.A. 1776 T-shirt with stars and stripes on it.”
At one point in 1985, it appeared likely that President Reagan would meet Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki, but their first summit was ultimately held in Geneva. Gorbachev did meet a U.S. leader, President George H. W. Bush, in Helsinki in 1990, just a year before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Seven years later, President Clinton met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to negotiate START III, a nuclear disarmament treaty, although it was never signed.
Finland has a long and complicated history with Russia. The Nordic country became part of the Russian Empire after it was wrestled from Sweden in 1808.
Helsinki might never have become the Finnish capital had it not been for the Russian Empire. The capital had been Turku, to the west, until Russian Czar Alexander I moved it to Helsinki in 1812, away from the Swedes and closer to St. Petersburg.
Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, but remained keenly aware of the military threat from the neighboring Soviet Union. The two countries fought a brief war in 1939 at the start of World War II when Moscow tried a land grab. Finland prevailed, but Helsinki realized that as a small country with a powerful neighbor, pursuing ties with the West meant maintaining a delicate dialogue with its giant eastern neighbor.
“I think that with the careful balancing act there was a lot of dialogue,” said Hanna Smith, a specialist on Russia at the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, a nonprofit research group in Helsinki. “That is seen as beneficial to small countries.”
Now Vapaavuori hopes that the Trump-Putin summit will be the start of the world seeing Finland as more than just a balancing act between East and West.
“I’m more interested in the 2,000 journalists and other people coming for the summit than I am in Mr. Putin or Mr. Trump,” said Vapaavuori, who was elected in 2017.
Finns describe themselves as practical, pragmatic and sensible.
When the mayor’s office released a strategic plan this year to develop Helsinki into a leading international conference hub, it called the plan “Helsinki: The Most Functional City in the World.” A 60-page booklet promotes, among other things, the city’s rankings in safety (second in the world, 2017), public transportation (first in the world, 2017) and happiness (first out of 156 countries surveyed, 2018).
“We place very well in different rankings, but still, we are not that well known yet,” Vapaavuori said. “One of our challenges is that the capitals of Sweden and Denmark have more or less the same strengths that we have, but they are much better known.”
Eager to take advantage of the influx of the global mass media coming for the summit, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the mayor’s office joined forces to set up a media center at the Finlandia House in downtown Helsinki.
They called it “Probably the Happiest Media Center in the World.”
Finns are known also for being modest and humble; hence, the “probably.”
In addition to assisting journalists covering the summit, the media center said in a news release that it will feature “quality services, Finnish food specialties, a shipping container converted into a sauna and a cozy Helsinki Lounge furnished with Finnish design, where you can watch the FIFA World Cup Final.”
Not everyone is happy about the summit taking place in Helsinki. Helsinki for Human Rights, a coalition of nonpartisan groups in Finland, said thousands would march through the city center Sunday to “raise issues which the presidents of the United States and Russia usually do not address,” including threats to human rights and democracy, freedom of speech and the press, international security, and the environment.
If some Helsinki residents aren’t as enthusiastic about hosting the Trump-Putin summit, it may be more about timing than politics. With the country’s long, cold winters and months of mostly dark days, practically all of Finland goes on holiday for most of July. Many head to lake cottages outside the city to take advantage of the warm weather and long days of sunlight.
But fewer people means less traffic in the city center on the day of the event, the mayor said.
“I take a very pragmatic approach to what happens next: No one knows if the summit will end as a success or a failure,” he said. “But on the other hand, no one will praise the host city if it’s a success, and no one will blame us if it’s a failure. For a small city, which is really good but has an awareness problem in the rest of the world, we know this is of course a big opportunity for us.”
Ayres is a special correspondent.