Let me take you away to the white taiga of the north of Europe today. Where lakes cover the land, and the tundra approaches on the horizon. Okay, it may not be Lapland with all its mythos, but this border region has been a very contested area of influence up in Scandinavia. Swedes, Finns and Russians, all want to possess the beautiful and wild Karelia. You would then think, what have I got lost all that way to the east, being this a different type of Scandinavian territory? Well, Karelia and I have a different type of bond. Karelia is where all the cool quirky things come from – folk music and symphonic metal delivered by the great Varttina and Nightwish…Karelia is also Tolkien land, for the Kalevala tells its story and that of all Finland.
So what or where is Karelia, you will be thinking? And so the problem begins. Karelia has been traditionally referred to the territory comprised between the White Sea and south-eastern Finland colliding with the Russian border. The area passes through the Lake Onega, Lake Ladoga and finally down to the Gulf of Finland. However, for the Russians Karelian has always been the eastern side of the region, the piece of the puzzle they got after the Winter War (1939-1940). The called it the Republic of Karelia, becoming then a Russian federal subject. Nowadays, for the Finnish, Karelia is majorly the territory still within their borders – north and south Karelia, traditionally speaking, although sometimes they also include the area of Kymenlaakso and southern Savonia. In essence…Too many ideas of one Karelia. And this is part of the problem currently. The Karelian identity is so lost in the tensions of nationalism and geopolitics that it is difficult to understand what there is left of its people and its culture.
Just so you get an idea, the entire history of Karelia – or the known big history – is all about how this provide changed hands and master over and over. We begin with the early Finno-Ugrian tribes, attracted to this land due to the abundance of cooper mines and the natural geological formations of the relief that constituted viable refuges for the people inhabiting the area after the Ice Age. Mining became the main resource for these people from the year 1 AD up until the year 1000. This agglomeration of hunter/gatherers was composed by Korela, Sum, Ves and a few Saami people at the north (otherwise referred as Pol). After the year 1000 AD, groups of Slavs started to come into the territory from and through the areas surrounding the White Sea. Karelia became part of the Kievan Rus around the 9th century. With the decline of Kievan power, the Novgorod Republic took over in the 13th century. Nevertheless, Karelia remained fairly independent. its main town and administrative center was the town of Korela (currently known as Priosersk). However, the crusading campaign of the German and Scandinavian states of the end of the 13th century would bring more changes to the puzzle. Here commences the conflict known as the Swedish-Novgorodian Wars. The ever-growing tension between the Swedes and the inhabitants of the Rus had been apparent since the Viking Age. As Sweden grew stronger, their desire to control the Gulf of Finland increased as this would improve their commerce by seizing trading routes from the Rus to Byzantium. However, this was the economic-political niche of the Novgorod Republic. And thus the quarrel begun. After a series of fights, everything resumed with the Treaty of Noteborg (1323). The result? Karelia is split in 2. The Swedes established their capital in Viborg.
Swedish control was not something the Karelians appreciated much. So little by little the exodus begun. By 1617 Sweden acquired more territories in what then was Russian Karelia. The culture clash and discomfort of the inhabitants meant that a great portion of the population fled to the East, into Russia’s territory. However, the Russians were not to be undermined, for the prowess of the Swedish Military Revolution eventually had to come to an end. Therefore, some 100 years later, in 1721, in a sudden turn of events, the Swedes found themselves on the losing side of the argument, resulting in the Russians taking for themselves most of Karelia, thanks to the Treaty of Nystad. This opened the door to the never-stopping imperial power of Russia: with nothing and no one stopping them, the intruded into Finland. By 1809 Suomi was effectively yet another Russian Province.
Despite Russian rule would only last another 100 years, Karelia did not return to its Finnish mother. After the rise of Bolshevism, Karelia became an ASSR (Autonomous republic of the Soviet Union) in 1923. The few pieces of Karelia still left in Finland became Russian in 1940, after the events of the Winter War and thanks to the Moscow Peace Treaty. Further commotion spread across the region, with thousands inhabitants having to be relocated. Bitterness grew in the hearts of the Finns as their land was taken away alongside with its second biggest city: Viipuri, the old Swedish Viborg, which was then a center for Finnish industry. Moreover, Karelia became the only SRR to be degraded to an ASSR within the Soviet Union. It is assumed this is due to the increasing minority of Russian population by the 1940s in the area, which lead to believe this could result in secession – and this was not in the plans of Mother Russia. Therefore, by demoting Karelia to a merely administrative republic, with no rights of its own, the Russians were saving face in case their most feared outcome turned into reality.
And of course, these are just the political consequences and tensions over the area…But, have I mentioned the religious issue? Well, you see this is the problem when you find yourself in a contested border: different nations can equal different religions. Since the Reformation, Scandinavia became primarily of Lutheran or Protestant affiliation. Nevertheless, we all know that on the other side of the border, the Orthodox Church was an important pillar of Russian prowess…And this is without to mention the pre-Christian, pagan roots and vestiges of native cults in the area, predominantly now represented by the Saami minority…Karelia, oh broken Karjala…Ah, of course I was forgetting…Language, another diverging point. Of course, at heart Karelia’s native tongue is of Finnish ascendency. But what is Karelian language? Depends on who you ask. For some linguists Karelian is just a dialect of Finnish, but for others it is a linguistic entity of its own with strong ties to Suomi. Just to make things more complicated, and assuming that Karelian is a language on its own, I must inform you know that there is no standardisation of the lingo. Therefore each author would speak and write Karelian according to their own local accent and dialect…However three main trends have been established. There is the Latin based alphabet, and used in the territories of the north as well as the territories of the Lakes Onega and Ladoga (Olonets Karelian). And then, we have the Tver Karelian, for the Russian sympathisers, which uses the Cyrillic script…And let’s not forget about that time during the 1940s that due to the centralisation of the USSR, the Republic of Karelia spoke Karelian but written in Cyrillic…
As you can see the situation is quite complicated, and particularly mesmerising to get your head around, so I shall not go into this much further. I think the message is clear: the only Karelia that remains one piece is the ecologic region. Now, I thought after the dissolution of the USSR, perhaps the cultural identity of Karelia had been restored somehow somewhat…It will appear that some attempts have been done through history. The Fennoman movement in Finland during the 19th century, which emerged from the nationalisms and romanticisms of this time, vouched for the incorporation of Karelia as a Finnish territory, and inspired many of the reconciliation attempts with Eastern Karelia in the 20th century. Of course, one cannot forget Karelianism – the movement inspired by the Kalevala, Finnish national epic, mostly composed of traditional Karelian poems.
However, the complications are many, and Karelia is always in the nationalistic political agenda of Finland. Perhaps it would not be so bad it the collapse of the Soviet Union would not have been so brutal for the region. This effectively supposed a huge economic recession in the area, to such an extreme that the inhabitants of diverse Karelian territories even abandoned their homeland and relocated in Finland; a few going East as well. The urban decay of this territory has only contributed to the disappearance of a unique culture, as all the refugees mingle with Finns or Russians…and this leaves me no choice but to conclude my update of today. What is Karelia? I am still uncertain. Only time can tell if the once wild and independent Karjala will rise again.