Thursday. 20.06.2024

Karelia, a wound in the hearts of Finns

The return to Finland of the city of Viborg (Viipuri) and its surroundings -today a part of the Russian Federation- is a matter of public debate from time to time. A few weeks ago, Finnish Media published that a Russian top official during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin revealed that Moscow considered seriously the possibility to sell this territory.
A view of Viipuri, the former capital city of Finnish Karelia, in summertime. Photo: ©

Anyone who has lived in Finland for a while has heard about Karelia (in Finnish Karjala) and the sufferings of the Karelians.

Both concepts -Karelia and the Karelians- encompass the last great national tragedy of Finns: the last mutilation of their country and the loss of their second most populated city at the time (Viipuri) and its surrounding area to the Soviet Union as a result of the Second World War. Today, the region is a part of the Russian Federation.

It took two wars for the Finns to lose this province by mid 20th century. However, the Soviets had long wanted it. They were obsessed with security and determined to 'move away' their land border far from the overpopulated Leningrad (later Saint Petersburg).

Viipuri as a foreigner

Today it is almost impossible to find one single Finn who does not wish the return of the part of Karelia they lost during the war. And for a foreigner it is difficult to travel to Viipuri (or Viborg, in Russian) on any of the excursions offered by bus or by boat on the Saimaa Canal, without a Finn coming to explain how the land was "robbed" together the with possessions of its inhabitants.  Russians, who also suffered greatly during the war due to Hitler's attempt to conquer them, of course have a different story to tell.

Karelia-emblemBut even if no Finnish travel companion approaches the foreigner to tell the story of Karelia's 'robbery', the bus will make a stop right at the place where the old land border was located and the tourist guide at the ship will make passengers notice the exact point which the Finnish waters reached, in an attempt to demonstrate the former grandeur of their country.

For Finns Karelia is a wound in the heart of their nation. An issue that from time to time arises in media and in the public debate.

The last time it happened was a few days ago, in July 21, when the Finnish broadcasting company (Yle) published that Andrei Fyodorov, a senior Russian official in the Russian Government during the administration of president Boris Yeltsin, revealed that in 1991 Moscow considered seriously the possibility to sell this territory to the Finns. However, the matter was never discussed.

Even today, the issue of the territories taken from Finland is at debate in Finnish newspapers, which alarmingly reported that Russia has decided to establish a permanent base of transport and combat military helicopters in the Gulf of Finland on the island of Suursaari (Gogland), situated only 50 kilometers away from the Finnish coast and which belonged to the Finns until 1944.

Strong cultural identity

But there is more than one Karelia. A part of this historical region is still Finland and its inhabitants are famous for their strong cultural identity, that is manifested for instance in traditional music, food and dress. Finnish folklore says Karelians -originally a tribe that lived in Lake Ladoga- are more talkative, more cheerful and more likely to celebrate and to enjoy social life than other Finns. True or not, Karelia and the Karelians are a matter that involves both ethnicity and identity and have inspired a movement in arts, music and literature called 'Karelianism'.

An article published by Hannes Sihvo, Professor of Literature at the University of Joensuu and included in the book 'Finland, a cultural encyclopedia' published by the Finnish Literature society, explains which are the different existing 'Karelias'. Nowadays, in the collective imagination of the Finns, "Karelia is the general name for the area whose westernmost part is still in Finland, the greatest part of which was ceded to the Soviet Union as a result of the Peace Treaty of Paris in 1947", he says.

Karelia-Russia-by-Pavel-BolotovskiiA traditional construction in Russian Karelia, in winter time. Photo: Pavel Bolotovskii, from Pixabay.

However, what is known as the eastern Karelia, or Russian Karelia, had already become one of the Soviet republics in 1920, as a result of the Peace Treaty of Tartu, and in 1991 became a part of the Russian Federation. "Confusion in contemporary Finnish has often been caused by the fact that the Karelians evacuated from their homes during the Second World War use the term 'Karelia' to refer to the ceded areas in which their homes were located, while the media now use the same term to refer to the Republic of Karelia or the historical Russian Karelia, which has never belonged to Finland", Professor Hannes Sihvo wrote.

A national debate in the 1990s

The author of the article says that the national debate about Karelia that arouse during the 1990s -after the collapse of the Soviet Union- "concerned (only) the former province of Viipuri, which was ceded to the Soviet Union and whose return to Finland could be justified in historical and moral terms". But, as Professor Sihvo points out just below, "officially, Finland has not adopted the return of Karelia as a subject for intergovernmental discussion.

Like all of Finland, the Karelia that pivots around Viipuri Castle was once part of Sweden and lived great days in the late medieval and in the early modern period. After, it somehow fell behind the rest of Finland. But after 1809 (the year Finland became part of Russia as a Grand Duchy), the province of Viipuri gradually closed that gap.


A view of the city of Viipuri in 1941, during the Continuation War. Photo: SA-kuva / Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive. 

By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the importance of Finnish Karelia gradually increased, particularly in the sphere of influence of Saint Petersburg. The inhabitants of this area made their way to the imperial capital as both traders and workers. Meanwhile, the villas that had spread from Saint Petersburg to the Karelian isthmus offered increasing earning opportunities to Karelians.

Karelia after the Finnish independence

In 1918-1919, after Finland gained its independence from Russia, "attempts were made to join also eastern Karelia to Finland". "In the Peace Treaty of Tartu in 1920, the newly formed Soviet Karelia was promised many rights, but the liquidation of the Finnish and Karelian minority during the Stalinist period and after ended the national development in the area", explains Professor Sihvo.

As a part of the independent Finland, Viipuri province developed strongly in economical and cultural terms and became an essential actor in the increasing prosperity of the young country. For this reason, it was tragic for the whole nation when Karelia became a theater of war and destruction. As Hannes Sihvo wrote, "the Winter War of 1939 was begun by a Soviet attack, while the Continuation War of 1941 was instigated by Finland in an attempt to recover its lost territories".


Finnish soliders in Viipuri i in 1941, during the Continuation War. Photo: SA-kuva / Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive. 

Finns did not succeed and Karelia remained in the hands of Russia. And as a result of the two wars, 450,000 inhabitants were forced to leave the region. Their resettlement in other parts of Finland demanded an enormous effort from the nation, which was also forced to pay war reparations to the Soviet Union.

Despite the distance, Karelian émigrés never lost their identity and their links with their lost homeland. Connections continued in the form of family and clan traditions. Since that time, the amount of literature, memoirs, folk, tradition and other documents concerning Karelia produced by the Finns is impressive compared with other 'lost' areas, even in world terms. Finnish music is also rich in nostalgic songs about Karelia, a sort of lost paradise for so many Finns.

Karelia, a wound in the hearts of Finns