To the traveller from the West, crossing through Finland or Estonia towards Russia, the intermittent appearance in the landscape of an onion-shaped dome topped by an unfamiliar form of the cross is a reminder of just how far east one has come. The prime building material has become wood or large stone rather than brick, and public signs start to appear in both Cyrillic and the local variant of Finno-Ugrian. It is quite possible to understand neither one of them. A fragment of Swedish may be overheard, and suddenly, even to the nonspeaker, there are familiar sounds in the air whose meanings can be comfortingly half-guessed at. One notices also a style of architecture and painting which might call to mind the Art Nouveau movement, but seems in these regions to have tapped into deeper Nationalist roots and so to have acquired a more lasting significance than its counterparts further west.
Visit the cathedral of St. John in Tampere, for example, or see the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela and his museum-house of Tarvaspää on the outskirts of Helsinki. The same impulse flowered also in Russia, where the re-imagining of folk art and medievalism stimulated a renewal of ecclesiastical art, and this in turn impressed itself upon the avant-garde of Malevich and Goncharova.
Because of its size and supposed cultural autonomy, it comes as almost a surprise to realise that Russia is a Baltic state too. Peter the Great confirmed this when he built St. Petersburg in the 18th century as his ‘window onto the West,’ and although her foothold on the Baltic may appear slight, when a country as vast as Russia wiggles its toe, it creates ripples which spread out into the whole region in many surprising ways—apart from the obvious militaristic one.