Lost in the Baltic - the island of Hogland

1200px SuursaariHogland, Hochland, Suursaari in Finnish, is an island today almost forgotten in the inner part of the Gulf of Finland, 11 km long, 3 km at its widest and 1,5 at its narrowest. The most spectacular is its height, a small boy fishing off the coast of Finland, called it “a whale with three humps”. The humps are all more than 100 m above sea level, one as much as 176 m high. Its landscape differs much from other Baltic islands.

A very early description of Hogland is given by Adam Olearius, secretary of a diplomatic embassy from the Duke of Holstein to the Great Duke of Muscovy in 1635. The embassy embarks at Travemünde on October 27, which is quite late of the year for travelling by ship in the Baltic. Two weeks later, having passed by Bornholm, Öland, Kalmar and Gotland they leave Reval on November 8. But a terrible storm breaks out when they are at high sea. “the weather became so foul, that it seem’d rather an Earth-quake, and should turn the World upside down… one of the Sea-men, having got up into the scuttle of the sprit-sail, told us, he discover’d Hogland.” The ship manages to cast anchor on shallow water close to the island in the evening. The next day the ambassadors go ashore “to observe the situation of the country and refresh themselves”. Having thanked God for their deliverance and prayed, a discussion starts whether to go to Narva or return to Reval. Before anything is decided the ship’s master comes and announces that the wind being East, the ship is in danger to be thrown on the rocks and should as soon as possible take to the sea for Reval.

But as soon as the embassy was on board and the anchor lifted the wind became so strong that it was impossible to take the course intended. There was just time to let down the boat and set the ambassadors ashore, before the ship was struck against the rocks, split and sunk. Fortunately the shipwreck happened so close to the shore that all the men were saved, a good part of the goods and 7 horses, of which 2 died on the second day. Now followed 9 days of forced living in fishermen’s huts on Hogland. The observant Olearius thus became the first to describe the island. “Hogland hath its name from the height of its situation, it being seen a great way into the Sea… You see nothing but Rocks, Firr-trees, and Thorns. We indeed saw some few Hares, which in winter turn white, as they do all over Livonia;” Olearius also call the fishermen “Livonians” and recognizes that they “could speak nothing but the jargon of the Country.” Apparently his experience of people from Estonia/Latvia (“Livland”) accounts for this comment. Much is saved from the shipwreck, although a valuable clock is broken to pieces (apparently a gift to Muscovy) by horses trying to get loose. Of great concern is how they all are to be fed, especially if they have to stay longer. “We had but little Bread left and the Bisket was so soak’d in Salt-water, that we were forc’d to boil it in fresh, with a little Cummin or Fennel, and so made a Pottage of it for our Servants. One day, we took, in a Brook which falls from the Mountains, as many small Fishes as found… two good meales.” Olearius is afraid that they might be “reduc’d to… feeding on the barks of the trees, as some that had been cast away there [on the island] some years before, were contrain’d to do.” On November 17 the weather is better and the Ambassadors with some of the retinue embark themselves (10 people) in two fishing boats. But even now they have to stop overnight on an island not far away (with two ruined huts, as Olearius noted). By now they are at the end of provisions, feeding on a piece of “Milan Cheese”, sitting by the bonfire. With great difficulty they talk the fishermen into rowing them south. Only by promising “a three-pint Flagon of strong-water” do the fishermen agree to such slavery.

The rest of the Embassy joined “with the horses and baggage” on November 24, having found a transport on two other ships forced to Hogland by foul weather. They all went to the village of Kunda, east of Reval, where they stayed for three weeks “to refresh ourselves after so much hardship at Sea”.

What can we conclude about Hogland from Olearius’ description? The island is in no way unknown to skippers, sailors and fishermen. On maps from the Middle Ages the sea around Hogland is even called Mare Hochlandiae. Olearius does not speak about any other people than fishermen, but we know that already in 1547 13 homesteads paid taxes to the parish of Viborg, to which it belonged. Taxes were paid in Baltic herring, the main produce of the island. Hogland was part of the kingdom of Sweden at this time and remained so until 1721 when it was ceded to Russia after several years of warfare between tsar Peter and king Charles XII. However, in 1811 it became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland, when intelligent Finnish diplomats managed to talk tsar Alexander into giving the Viborg province (the Karelian isthmus) back to Finland.

Apparently life on Hogland did not change much during several centuries. Fishing was the main livelihood and the herring was generally shipped south to Estonia, to Toolse (Tolsburg) and Kunda where it was exchanged for cloth, salt, potato, seed. Like on other out-lying islands piracy was practiced sometimes and anything “floating ashore” from shipwrecks was picked up by the villagers who even had the shores divided by themselves. In the 19th century visitors could find pieces of ebony and mahogany in the houses, while the forest of Hogland was mainly pine, spruce and birch. Seal hunting would be practiced by villagers and hunters in late winter on the ice and by time a special seal dog appeared, a shaggy “hoglander”. The breed did not survive the war, when the islanders were hastily evacuated before the Soviet bombing on November 30, 1939.

The island became more populated in the 18th century (there is a general increase in population in the Finnish archipelago), two villages grew up, Suurkylä and Kiiskinkylä, 5 km apart. In 1768 a small church was built, but the island still belonged to the parish of Viborg. However, in 1841 Suursaari and the smaller Tytärsaari got their own parishes, a local police was set up, together with primary schools. The economy of the island was still based on fishing and in years of scarcity men would leave for weeks or months to work in Estonia, as boat-builders and carpenters.

It could have continued so, but something unexpected happened. The island was discovered by artists! The landscape of Hogland was unique in Finland, with the high rocky mountains (Pohjoiskorkia (106 m.a.s.l.), Lounatkorkia (176 m) and Haukkavuori (142 m), small lakes inside the island, narrow steep-sided valleys and interesting formations, created at an early age by ice and water – grottoes and conglomerations of round stones (so called “devil’s fields”, “pirunpelto”). The round stones were even sold as cobblestones to Petersburg and Reval in the 19th century. But in order to enter the world of artists, more was needed than spectacular landscape. First: artists in Europe had moved out of their ateliers and started painting outside (plein air). The importance of natural light was discovered, and on an island surrounded by masses of water, light gets a special reflective quality. Second: Hogland entered into the movement of national romanticism, the nation of Finland was to be built in pictures - attractive landscapes, sturdy peasants at work in the fields or sunburnt fishermen with glittering nets. A woman painter, Victoria Åberg, wrote in a letter from Hogland (21 August 1860): “People here are sturdy, strong and clever, because they have always been fighting with the elements.” Many of the Finnish artists of the time had been studying in Düsseldorf where landscape painting was developed and by coming back to Finland they looked for captivating views. The painter Thorsten Waenerberg came to the island every year from the 1870s on and won the state price for his “Mountains in Hogland” in 1894. Waenerberg soon became the director of Ateneum, art school and museum in Helsinki.

Parallel to the artists’ interest in Hogland something else happened. In 1896 a pioneer for tourism, August Ramsay, came to the island. He had been active in the foundation of the Tourist Society of Finland (1887), Suomen Matkailijayhdistys. Finns should learn to know their own country, travel to beautiful places, and what could be more enticing than spectacular Hogland. Ramsay was soon joined by the island’s school teacher Emil Elenius in propagating the beauty of the island. Elenius was a practical man and started organizing “the living” for the tourists, he talked the villagers into renting rooms and worked to create places to eat. He wrote extensively in Finnish papers. He was soon joined by the lawyer Eino Havas in praise of the island. Havas put out a guide to Hogland in 1920 (a second enlarged edition appeared in 1927).

By then much had happened: Since 1914 there were transports twice a week from Kotka by boat, and from 1918 a post boat was regularly coming not only to Hogland but to other smaller islands as well. By this time 800-900 people were living on Hogland to take care of the increasing number of visitors. Soon the close-by Tytärsaari (with 550 people) was included into the tourist net. Since the villagers still kept to their fishing, the Finnish Tourist Society built a “maja”, ready in 1920, where food was served, concerts were given, evening programs offered. Kiosks and pavilions for coffee, soft drinks and pastries sprang up. In 1923 a very active woman, Eva Lilius, built a dancing restaurant, called “kasino”, on a cape (Kappelniemi) close to the main village. Visiting orchestras played jazz and swing, creating a continental flair to the island.

The most assiduous visitors were still the artists. One could even speak of an artist colony, where the artists did not only paint and draw but also discussed the newest trends in art. A boy from the village, Juhana Mattila, discovered the world of art through the painters, and became eventually an artist himself. Mattila was the one who organized a “memorial” exhibition of Hogland paintings in Helsinki, in 1940, after the island was occupied by Soviet military forces.

By the 1920s plein air painting had changed considerably. Gone was the naturalism of the Düsseldorfers, expressionism and pointillism had taken the floor. A totally new picture of Hogland is given by Magnus Enckell who spent his summers on the island from 1901 till 1912. Now the canvases explode of colours - the worship of the sun, naked bodies, and the glittering water becomes the object. Together with his friend Verner Thomé, Enckell’s paintings convey an atmosphere of joyous life, leisure and free time. For the yearly Paris exhibition in 1912, 14 paintings were sent from Finland and 6 of them had been painted on Hogland. Raging world war, revolution and civil war did not affect the island much. Even in 1916 200 visitors found their way to Hogland, followed by 400 in 1917. The island appeared to have been a sacred haven. But the heyday of the island occurred in the twenties and the thirties when artists and writers would practically make pilgrimages to Hogland. An art historian lists about 100 Finnish artists who painted on the island, including a later celebrity like Eliel Saarinen. The writer Olavi Paavolainen spoke of the island as a “Hyperborean Tahiti”.

In 1919 a law forbidding alcoholic beverages was passed in Finland (it existed until 1932), which to some degree affected the island since it lay halfway across the Gulf from Estonia where no such law existed. Contacts between Estonians and Finns through Hogland had always been part of Baltic communication. A cultural contact was established by the Estonian writer Friedebert Tuglas who came to Hogland in 1911. He had been imprisoned by the tsarist police in 1905 and was constantly persecuted for his writings. On Hogland he made contacts with a Finnish family and could later live in their house in Helsinki for several years. He even travelled incognito in Europe on the passport of a member of the family. One could say that Hogland was an open place, not only for Baltic winds blowing from every direction, bringing about shipwrecks on its rocky shores, it was a cultural meeting point of artists, musicians, writers and general people looking for natural beauty, sundrenched beaches and good company. It all came to a brutal end in 1939, when the island was attacked by Soviet bombers and invaded by Russian military forces. After 1941 the island passed from Russians to Finns and back to Russians again. Since March 1942 the Finns again held the island. With the cease-fire between Soviet and Finland in September 1944 it was demanded by the Soviets that the island should be included in the areas ceded to Russia. And the Finns were commanded to hinder a German invasion of the island, ordered by Berlin. When the German landing started on September 15 1944, it was met by fierce shooting from the coast. Ships were sunk, men were killed on both sides, and finally it all ended with over 1000 Germans being taken prisoner (and eventually sent to Siberia). The Finnish “Lapland war” (German soldiers being driven north into Norway) started in fact on Hogland.

From 1944 Hogland has been Soviet territory (officially 1947), transformed into Russian territory in 1991. It was sealed off from the start, turned into a military area, and the only sign of life to the outside world were the blinking lighthouses. For a short time in the end of the 1990s the island “opened up” to visitors. Most of them were Finns who had Hogland ancestry (including memories like pictures, photographs of the island). To their amazement the harbor of the village Suurkylä had not yet been cleared of all the sunken ships, boats and military equipment from the German landing in September 1944. Of the villages nothing was left, the new casino-restaurant built in brick in 1937 was a ruin. Soviet barracks were also in deplorable shape. The beautiful summer resort of Hogland had been turned into a wasteland.


1. The Voyages & Travels of the Ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy, and the King of Persia. By Adam Olearius, Secretary of the Embassy. Rendered into English by John Davies, of Kidwelly, London M.DC.LXII

2. Eino Havas: Suursaari ja Kymenlaakso. Matkailijaopas. Helsinki: Otava 1927 (Otava)

3. Paratiisisaari. Menetetty Suursaari taiteilijoiden kuvaamana. Etelä-Karjalan taidemuseo 25.5. – 1.9. 2002. ISBN 951-785-062-X (© South Karelian Art museum and photographers)

4. Kauko Röykä & Juha Metso: Suursaari. Helsinki: Like 2016. ISBN 978-952-01-1389-6