A bar that trusts in Lenin alone
Kafe Moskova in Helsinki is a tribute to Soviet-era bars as well as owner Aki Kaurismki's quirky sense of humour
It’s easy to miss Kafe Moskova on downtown Helsinki’s Eerikinkatu if you’re not extra vigilant. Or unless you know that it is right next to the Corona Baari ja Biljardi, a big neon-lit bar with pool tables and lots of bustle. Because besides the name written on a tiny piece of paper stuck on the wooden entry door, there’s not much in terms of signage to proclaim the existence of the place. I push open the door and find myself in a modest-sized room. The walls are painted red; the lights are fluorescent and harsh; the upholstery on the sparse furniture is worn and shabby; and thick curtains obstruct any view of the street outside. I’m at the small bar counter and there’s no one on the other side. It’s 9pm and it’s Wednesday (Finns call it the “little weekend" as an excuse for going out to drink midweek) but the room is empty except for a couple sitting at a table on one end of the room.
The bartender appears from behind a curtain after a few minutes and with a curt, smile-less greeting looks at me with a hint of irritation. I ask for a beer. There’s only one kind on tap, Koff, which she pours a pint of. I pay and carry the glass to a table and look around. Kafe Moskova is a replica of old Soviet-era bars in Russia. On one of the walls is an old poster that says (in Russian): “We trust Lenin, others pay cash". A framed photocopy of Finland’s declaration of independence from Russia in 1917 hangs near it. On another, an Impressionist painting is crookedly fixed. Behind the bar, there’s a vintage record player inside a wooden box playing old Russian songs scratchily at a low volume. Atop the box are a few bottles of liquor, vodka mainly, and some old statuettes. I’ve heard that the vodka shots they serve here are warm and that ice is usually not offered.
There are subtle signs that provide clues to the provenance of Kafe Moskova, such as the black-and-white framed portrait of the late Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää who, before he died in 1995, acted in 18 of Finland’s best-known auteur Aki Kaurismäki’s films. Or some other signs if you look carefully, like Kaurismäki’s own signature at the bottom of the declaration of independence photocopy, scrawled in ballpoint pen next to the signatures of the members of the then Finnish senate.
It finally becomes clear that Aki owns Kafe Moskova, along with his brother, Mika (also a film-maker), and a couple of partners. They also happen to own Corona, the bright and busy billiards bar next door.
The (not apocryphal) story is that Aki first thought of opening a billiards bar in 1992 when he was shooting his film, Boheemielämä (Bohemian Life), a tragicomedy shot in his trademark deadpan style, set in Paris, about three artists—a writer, a painter, and a musician—who despite being impoverished try to eke out an urbane life, sharing things among each other. Corona was soon set up and became hugely popular, crowded, noisy and a big draw among Helsinki’s locals. Any other bar owner would have exulted. Not the Kaurismäkis. Known for his idiosyncratic films steeped in dark humour and stripped-down, often monosyllabic, dialogues, Aki felt it might be too noisy for him and his friends when they popped by for a drink. It was decided then that they would open a new bar, Moskova, next door and make it as inhospitable as Corona was hospitable!
Kafe Moskova is a curiosity that draws the occasional “in-the-know" tourist but it is mainly for locals who need a quiet, if peculiar, place to drop by for a drink. Drinking is a popular pastime in Finland, particularly in the colder months (if you’re as high up north as Finland is, that means much of the year) and everyone has his or her favourite bar in town. In Helsinki, the hipsterish Kalliö district, a little to the north of the downtown area, has always been the bohemian, artsy neighbourhood. Locals say there was a time when Kalliö used to be dodgy but, as in most big cities in the West, gentrification has changed all that. Some of that older vibe has, consequently, spilled over to central or downtown Helsinki.
It’s worth catching a bit of that vibe in Helsinki after dark, once you’ve browsed the art exhibitions at the Ateneum or at the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM); spent some time relaxing at a sauna; grazed at the food stalls in the seaside Old Market Hall and shopped at the boutiques in the fashion district of Kamppi. You might want to head to some watering holes and try drinking Finnish style. Helsinki can spoil you for choice. Bars are usually open late and the choice of drinks, particularly beer, is staggering. At the multiple Nordic-themed beer halls called Ølhus, you can get exotic brews from all over northern Europe. On my last visit, the amiable bartender at one of them recommended YOLOmælk’s Imperial Salty Milk Stout, a dark Danish beer brewed with caviar and champagne-yeast. It was yummy but what she didn’t mention (and I discovered later) was that it had a staggering alcohol content of 14%.
Helsinki can offer you a range of places to pick from: pubs such as Molly Malone’s where all the bartenders are Irish and speak in brogue and where Celtic rock bands perform upstairs; sprawling basement dens where fiercely indie Finnish punk rockers gig daily; sports and pool bars such as Corona; and dark and dingy dive bars where old regulars quietly drink through the night. But before you set out for a bar crawl in the seaside capital of Finland, do Google Kafe Moskova and put it on your night’s itinerary. A trip inside a time warp cannot be missed.