For over a century Finland was a part of the Russian Empire. It seems that overall Finland was significantly richer than Russia proper in the early XX century (look at these estimates). Was Helsinki in specific more developed that Saint-Petersburg? If so why didn't the Russian elites move to Helsinki? Also were there other instances when a colony was more developed that the metropole?

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    Your link does not compare Finland vs Saint Petersburg, but Finland vs the whole Russian empire, which would have included large swathes of very undeveloped land (e.g. Siberia). And of course I guess that getting the GDP data from historical times is subject to lots of uncertainties.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 2, 2020 at 14:10
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    Well, average worker had better living in Helsinki, but St Petersburg always had more splendor (palaces and all) . Also it was a center of the empire, much better prospect for ambitious noble with funds.
    – rs.29
    Aug 2, 2020 at 18:36
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    I am guessing you could make the same comparison between Philadelphia and London in 1770. More splendor in London, but much more comfortable living for the average Joe in Philly.
    – C Monsour
    Aug 3, 2020 at 0:08
  • FWIW, Helsinki had 79,000 inhabitants in 1900. Saint Petersburg had 1,280,000. Even with (probably) a better standard of living in Helsinki, there was an argument for elites and administrations to stay in the capital city.
    – Evargalo
    Aug 11, 2020 at 15:19

1 Answer 1


Firstly, this greatly depends on how the GDP was back-calculated for those times. This is a difficult task as I've described elsewhere here.

For reference, I've copied in the table for a quick comparison between "Finland" and "Russia" between 1830 and 1913 as given on the OP's link under "Europe 1830–1938 (Bairoch)":

enter image description here

I quickly graphed the above for a more illustrative version:

enter image description here

If we look at this alone, it does look as if the people of Finland would have experienced a 'better' lifestyle (let's leave defining this out of the scope of this answer).

The 1897 census is useful in thinking through the above:

The total population of the Russian Empire was recorded to be 125,640,021 people (50.2% female, 49.8% male; urban 16,828,395, median age of 21.16 years).

Finnish population is not counted per se as the census did not take place there (to which we will return later), but it's population for 1897 is given as 2,610,300 people by Statistics Finland. Meanwhile, Helsinki had 66,734 people in 1894 which makes it approx. the 31st city by population in the Russian Empire.

With regards to Finland's development and economy, though Wikipedia laments its agrarian outlook, 'The Finnish economy 1860-1985 : Growth and structural change' is more illustrative:

Significant legislative reforms were carried out in Finland during the 1860s: a prohibitive order on the establishment of steam-powered sawmills was repealed (1857), Parliament was reconvened after an extended adjournment (1863), Finland gained its own monetary unit (1860-1865), trade guilds were abolished (1859, 1868), and so on. These reforms are regarded as being so important that many researchers have even dubbed the 1860s as the decade of Finland's Industrial Revolution, and the legislative reforms as the starting motor of growth.
—Hjerppe, 'The Finnish economy 1860-1985 : Growth and structural change'

The result of these reforms is the growth in prosperity that the above GNP chart displayed in pretty good detail. Meanwhile, Russia proper really was rather agrarian in its outlook—or, well, to be precise, it had more industrialization which was ongoing but this was centralized around the European Russian hub towns (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Riga, etc...) while large areas of the country remained agricultural.

However, this hasn't really got us much closer with respect to "Helsinki & St. Petersburg" as opposed to "Finland & Russia". I tried some specific searches, but came up quite empty so I'll go without numbers and only expand on my logic:

  • Most importantly, Imperial Russian government could not have moved to an autonomous duchy;
  • St. Petersburg (and Moscow) were 'Russian' cities and not 'Swedo-Finnish' ones as Helsingfors/Helsinki;
  • That Finland was an autonomous grand duchy also meant that Finland had its own nobility who was generally loyal to the Emperor, so suggesting that the Russian nobility move into its 'territory' would have caused unrest amongst the locals;
  • Skilled labourers in both cities would have been better off than unskilled ones;
  • No matter where the nobility was, their income (from property, etc...) would have been sufficient to afford them whatever they wanted so they would not have had any interest in whether generic housing was affordable or what a skilled labourer would make;
  • Food and housing in cities and towns would have been higher than in rural areas, but this effect would have been similar between Helsinki & surrounding areas and St. Petersburg & its surrounding areas;
  • The smaller population of (the Swedish- & Finnish-speaking) Helsinki would have made it an unattractive residence for a primarily Russian-speaking nobility (who were obviously conversant in French, but...) who would not have found entertainment as easy;
  • Family residences and townhouses were already established in St. Petersburg and the nobility would have required a very good reason to move, en masse, to Finland because of the large investments involved (but note that many had some residences in rural Finland, incl. the Emperor who had a summer fishing house near modern Kotka);
  • St. Petersburg, a far larger city, would have had much more allure for the Russian nobility, as a place of residence for those same reasons;
  • Wanderers and seasonal workers were likely to arrive in larger numbers in the bigger of the two cities (St. Petersburg) as there was more work for them there, but this is also likely to skew the numbers slightly downwards (more in St. Petersburg; less in Helsinki).
  • Sweden did a number of changes in value of coins in the 1700s and early 1800 so it is fairly hard trying to say things about GDP development (the war against Russia in the 1780 were paid by the note printing presses.) Aug 11, 2020 at 18:22
  • The agricultural land around Helsingfors were part of the swedish speaking part of Finland. According to the swedish language wiki for Helsingi's history, Helsinki inhabitants were until the 1890s majority swedish language. Aug 11, 2020 at 18:30
  • But this also means that a fair number in both groups were completely fluent in the other language, but also that a fair number of inhabitants only speaked swedish or finnish. Aug 11, 2020 at 18:34
  • They are ok. Part of the finnish nobility is believed to have conspired together against Gustav IV with an intent of turning Finnland into a autonomous grandduchy with the tsar as regent but with them as his government. Aug 11, 2020 at 20:45
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    The 'country' comparison is actively misleading, if the city comparison part itself doesn't feature at all. But the logic part needs mainly this: the elites in St Petersburg really didn't have to worry about anything in their good life. The elite's superstandard of living just doesn't compare at all to any GDP numbers. Who cares if 2 Million people live in hunger in slums without running water if your own palace is well guarded to protect its golden roof, plumbing and cutlery. The system was so rigged that those who mattered enforced their standards easily. Aug 12, 2020 at 7:45

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