HELSINGIN SANOMAT international

Arska, entering his third century and NOT “growing old gracefully”


By Anu Seppälä
Photo: Sirpa Räihä / HS
When Arska Arvonen was born in 1897, Finland was still very much a part of the Russian Empire, ruled by Nikolai II. Since then, Finland has been led by 10 presidents, from Ståhlberg to Ahtisaari. Very soon Arska will see the 11th, and his bets are on Riitta Uosukainen.
Arska's specs disappeared in Holland on an interrail trip, but his wits are
very much intact.
Arska's specs disappeared in Holland on an interrail trip, but his wits are very much intact.
   His choice is perhaps less influenced by opinion polls and more by the fact that the Speaker of Parliament, whom he has met, is “a handsome woman”. The 102 year-old Arska is still quite a ladies' man. Not very long ago he had a love affair with a woman quite a few years his junior. For his 100th birthday he wanted the entertainment to be scantily-clad rumba and samba dancers with all the trimmings. Instead he got the red carpet and a ride in a Rolls-Royce. The press and TV were present, and later Arska was sent to London to check out the local pub culture. Arska managed to charm even the Londoners, particularly Susan, a red-haired barmaid at the Mayflower pub. The hundred-year-old Finn also received a lot of attention from the British press.
   No doubt about it, Arska lives life to the full. His millennium bash includes an arsenal of fireworks and several cases of booze. The new millennium also marks Arska's third century, and is therefore worth a decent celebration.
   A few years ago Arska still cycled the 3-kilometre journey from his home to his local, the Sir Winston in central Järvenpää. Since he lost his glasses while interrailing through Holland (!), he now walks to the pub and takes a taxi home. His table at Sir Winston is next to the poker machine, where he sometimes plays for an hour or two. Arska is even known to play poker at the nearby youth disco, which is open until 4 a.m. He also plays chess, but only if his opponent is worthwhile. He has even had a match via computer with Gary Kasparov, though he admits that on that occasion he was given a bit of a head-start.
   Arska is an active member of several organisations, he is a mathematician, a linguist, and a world traveller. He has had his fair share of ups and downs in life, but he has no complaints.
   Arska is originally from Helsinki's working-class district of Kallio, but both his parents were from the country. His family history is quite colourful on his father's side. His great-grandmother was a descendant of the Jews who came to Spain from Babylon, and who were banished to Holland in 1491. She married a German and gave birth to Arska's grandfather, August Heinrich Hilbert, who was registered as a Christian.
   Wanting to escape the Schleswig-Holstein war in 1864, Hilbert went to sea. In 1868, a year of famine in Finland, he was on a cargo ship bearing grain to Pori, in south-western Finland. There he met the 17-year-old Maria Josefina, and it was love at first sight. The two married and Hilbert stayed in Finland.
   Arska's father gave his children traditional Finnish names - Aarne Armas, Toini Rauha, and Eino Ilmari - but Arska's heritage is clearly reflected in his features.
   Arska's mother died when he was 14. His father took on a housekeeper who did not like Arska, and made him leave the household. He survived on the streets by begging and stealing. When Russia went to war in 1914, he had to dig trenches, but life was hard and he ran away. He went to Minsk with a friend to build fortifications in Russia.
   Arska came to Minsk during the Revolution, and while the city was suffering from a smallpox epidemic. His friend died, but Arska made it back to Finland, only to fall into the hands of the Red Guard who sent him to the front at Joutseno. His company had to retreat to Viipuri where they were captured and sent to the prison camp at Tammisaari. He survived six months and a dysentery epidemic. By the way, we've still only got as far as 1918 and the Finnish Civil War by now. The country has only been independent barely a year...
   When he was released he could not find a job, and fell in with a gang of burglars. He got caught and was given a three-year sentence. In prison he learnt a trade as a carpenter and joiner and he began to study, as the prison had a good library. When he was released, he continued to study at the Helsinki Workers' Institute.
   Soon after he was released from prison, Arska met a girl called Sylvi. Two daughters and several years later they were married, but only so that they could apply for social benefits. His wife died in 1938, a year before war broke out again. This time Arska was not sent to the front, and he moved to Järvenpää with his two daughters. He never re-married, probably chastened by his own childhood experiences when a new woman entered the household.
   After the war, Arska felt the urge to travel. His girls were grown, so off he went. He has travelled throughout Scandinavia and Europe. He wanted to learn languages, and speaks Swedish, English, and Spanish well, and gets by with French, German, and Italian. When he turned 85, he went interrailing for a month. He went interrailing again, but lost his glasses in Holland. The inability to bike to the pub is a nuisance, but he can't be bothered to buy a new pair.
   After hearing Arska's story one could be forgiven for feeling a trifle exhausted, but Arska has no time for that sort of wussy nonsense. He's off to play poker to the thud of heavy metal at the youth disco.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.12.1999