The Vyborg student nation flag – dangerous symbol of liberty?

On the table lies a fragile silk flag. It is the first flag of the Wiipurilainen Osakunta, the student association, or ‘nation’, representing the Vyborg region, and it is full of symbolism. So full in fact that the flag had been banned before work on it had even begun, resulting in the postponement of its completion by several years.

A light beige silk flag with various emblems embroidered in its centre. At the top is a star embroidered with golden thread and its long beams made of lines of sequins. Below the star is a purple crown ornamented with gold and silver thread. Below the crown there are two coats of arms. The one on the right has a beige and grey embroidered castle on a blue silk background. The letter W is embroidered in silver beneath the castle. The top half of the left coat of arms is pink, and the bottom half is light blue. On the light blue fabric, there is the letter W embroidered with silver thread, and on the pink fabric there are three crowns. The coats of arms are enveloped from below by two embroidered crossed branches tied at the stems in a light blue bow. The one on the right portrays an oak branch and the left one a laurel branch. On the left edge of the flag is a blue and white braided silk cord with a large tassel at the end.
The first flag of the Wiipurilainen Osakunta. Next to the Vyborg coat of arms of the time is its predecessor, the three crowns coat of arms. Above is a crown which could have been understood to symbolize the power of the Russian emperor or the King of Sweden, the former motherland of Finland. The flag was photographed in 2021. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Anni Tuominen.

Flag fever

The student nations of the Imperial Alexander University (the present-day University of Helsinki) were disbanded in 1852. The mid-century was a turbulent time in Europe, with revolutions breaking out in several countries. It was feared that the spirit of rebellion would spread to Finland through the students and in particular their nations. Despite being shut down, many nations continued their activities unofficially until they were legalized again on 26 March 1868. At the time there were six nations, among them Wiipurilainen Osakunta (the Student Nation of Vyborg).

After the student nations were legalized, there was enthusiasm among the students to design flags for their nations. The flags were made by women from each province. There was even talk of “flag fever”. Natalia Indrenius was the leader of the flag sewing for Vyborg. Her husband, Bernhard Indrenius, was the deputy chancellor of the university between 1866 and 1869. Somewhat ironically, Indrenius had previously been depicted in a cartoon that was published in the nation’s magazine. In the cartoon, Indrenius is shown tearing the students’ flag to shreds with the help of the university’s rector, Adolf Edvard Arppe.

This flag fervour was not viewed favourably in Saint Petersburg. The use of flags was banned in the spring of 1869, evidently before this flag could even be finished. The student nation had to wait years for their flag, but eventually it was completed in 1876. Again, the women of Vyborg were on the case, and this time the work was led by Ida Zilliacus, whose spouse Henrik Wilhelm Zilliacus was the nation’s inspehtori  (‘inspector’). Thus, the student nation finally got its flag.

A young woman in a tightly buttoned velvet dress. The woman's hair is tied in a bun and her fringe has been curled.
Ida Zilliacus’s carte-de-visite. Alma Söderhjelm, the first female professor in Finland and Zilliacus’s niece, described her aunt as open-minded but resolute. Photo: The Finnish Heritage Agency, Historical picture collection / Charles Riis & C:o. CC BY 4.0.

The use of flags

Student nations’ flags have been used from the very beginning at important events, be it a demonstration, an honorary visit, a celebration by the student nation or a degree ceremony. During Finland’s period of independence, student association flags have been a familiar sight, when celebrating Independence Day, for example. Students organised the very first Independence Day torchlight procession in 1951, following the death of Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, Marshal of Finland. On that occasion, student unions from all the Helsinki institutions of higher education joined the procession. There were some 2,000 participants along with thousands of spectators. After placing a wreath on Mannerheim’s grave at the Hietaniemi cemetery, the procession continued to the Senate Square where speeches and song recitals followed.

Rows of torches light up the darkness in the Senate Square. Some flags can also be spotted among them. Behind the crowd, on the right side of the picture, Helsinki Cathedral is clearly visible.
The first torchlight procession was arranged by students on Independence Day on 6 December 1951. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Yrjö Lintunen.

Damage to the flag tells its story

The flag is made of cream-coloured silk which, over the course of 145 years, has changed into a light brownish colour, partly due to the ageing of the fabric and the accumulation of surface dirt, and partly due to discolouration from nicotine. The flag still smells of tobacco; smoking was a part of everyday life in the nations up until recent decades.

The silk fabric has deteriorated and has torn, especially around the stitching. The emblems have been partly embroidered with metal thread and there are several layers of cardboard between the backing fabric and the fabric forming the emblems. As a result, the embroidery and the emblems in the flag are much heavier than the ground fabric, hence the tears around the embroidery.  At the end of the 19th century, it was customary to add metallic salts to silk to increase the weight of the fabric, because the price of silk was determined by weight. Silk’s tensile strength decreases with age and weighted silk is more brittle than unweighted silk. It is possible that the silk used by the Wiipurilainen Osakunta in their flag is weighted, but probably to a relatively small extent or with substances that have not completely shattered the silk.

On the upper hoist side, i.e. where the flag would have been attached, there are dark streaks suggesting that the flag had been on display for lengthy periods of time. When the flag hung from a pole, the creases were not exposed to sunlight and the silk in those places has not darkened. The silk in the upper corner of the flag has been subjected to the greatest stress in use, and this is evidenced by the tearing.

The top corner of a cream-coloured silk flag. There are tears in the corner. The photo also shows light and dark stripes radiating from the corner of the flag towards the centre.
The top corner of the flag (detail). Photo: Helsinki University Museum/ Anni Tuominen.

The flag also shows discolouration caused by moisture, the “bleeding” of textile dyes, together with water stains. The materials used for the flag were doubtless originally selected to withstand light drizzle in outdoor use, but the lowered pH of the ageing textile material may have caused the dyes to become water-soluble. Of course, a more entertaining thought is that the stains were caused by a celebratory drink spilled on the flag in the heat of a student party, but humidity seems the more likely culprit.

The photo shows damage to the lower corner of the flag: there are yellow stains next to the leaves embroidered with green thread. There are tears above the leaves and at the bottom there are moisture streaks, i.e. light brown wavy patterns of dirt accumulated by moisture.
Damage to the lower corner of the flag: the yellow colour has started to “bleed” from the embroidered threads of the green leaves. Above the leaves, there are tears due to the weight of the embroidery. At the bottom there are moisture streaks, darkened patterns due to dirt which has accumulated with damp conditions.

The flag is fragile now and, with its stains and tears, looks in poor condition. But if the flag is to be conserved in the future, it is important that these valuable indications of use are not removed.

How the flag ended up in the University Museum’s collections

As museum artefacts, the flags are treated with the utmost care, but for the student nations they were objects to be used. This shows – as indeed it should. Naturally this also means that the flags have a finite lifespan. The Wiipurilainen Osakunta has had various flags. In the first Independence Day torchlight procession, the nation apparently used their second oldest flag. Both flags were donated to the collections of the University of Helsinki Museum in the 1980s. Today, the flags are considered to be the crown jewels of the Museum’s collections’.

A cream-coloured cloth flag, in the centre of which are different emblems. For the most part the emblems are the same as in the first flag, but there is no crown above the coat of arms. The stitching did not make use of metal thread or sequins; rather the emblems are sewn with embroidery thread.
The second oldest flag of the Wiipurilainen Osakunta, where the large crown emblem has been left off. The flag was photographed in 2021. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Anni Tuominen.

Susanna Hakkarainen, project planning officer

Anni Tuominen, conservator

Translated by Jonna Alahautala, Diana Belozjorova, Anna Hakala, Miia Hankonen, Joona Juselius, Miro Jääskeläinen, Elisa Kari, Elli Kähkönen, Okko Länsikunnas, Sebastian Sihvola, Kaung Thein and Henni Veikkonen under the supervision of John Calton, lecturer in English.



Kaukomieli XVII. Ylioppilaselämää – Wiipurilainen Osakunta 1653-2003.

Helsinki 2003. [‘Kaukomieli vol 17 Student life. Wiipurilainen Osakunta 1653-2003’]

Klinge, Matti 1978: Kansalaismielen synty. Ylioppilaskunnan historia 1853-1871. Vaasa. [‘The national awakening. A history of the student organisation, 1853-1871’]

Kolbe, Laura 1993: Sivistyneistön rooli. Helsingin yliopiston ylioppilaskunta 1944-1959. Keuruu. [‘The role of the educators. The University of Helsinki’s student organisation, 1944-1959’

Teperi, Jouko 1988: Henkinen taistelu Karjalasta autonomian ajan lopulla. Viipurilainen osakunta 1868-1917. Lappeenranta.  [‘The struggle for Karelia at the end of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. Viipurilainen Osakunta, 1868-1917’]

TIMÁR-BALÁZSY, A., & EASTOP, D. (2002). Chemical principles of textile conservation. Oxford, Butterworth-Heinemann.

MAREI HACKE (2008) Weighted silk: history, analysis and conservation, Studies in Conservation, 53: sup2, 3-15, DOI: 10.1179/sic.2008.53.Supplement-2.3




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *