A scene from Kaukola in Karelia, P.A.Kruskopf.
From the book "Finland framstäldt i teckningar",
Under two sceptres
European history provides several examples
of border areas which have been a constant bone of contention
between neighbours on opposite sides of the border, and whose
ownership has fluctuated back and forth from one side to the
other. One such area is Karelia, a territory which straddles
the present-day border between Finland and Russia.
By the beginning of the 9th century there
was already permanent settlement in Karelia, and the Karelians
themselves had become established as one of the tribes of Finland.
The golden age of the as yet undivided Karelia and its people
lasted through to the early 14th century. At that time the Karelians
lived scattered across a broad area stretching from the southeast
corner of present-day Finland eastwards to the Karelian isthmus,
and in the north from the northern edge of Lake Ladoga to Lake
Onega and on to the shores of the White Sea.
In the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century, Sweden prevented
the westward expansion of Novgorod Russia. Detail from Olaus
Magnus's Carta marina, printed in Venice in 1539.
Karelia had become a battlefield between
Eastern and Western Christendom by the 12th century at the latest.
Its people officially became the subjects of their competing
neighbours for the first time in 1323, when their homeland was
divided between Sweden and Novgorod. Over the succeeding centuries,
the political border dividing Karelia has shifted this way and
that a total of nine times. The border between the newly independent
Finland and Soviet Russia was confirmed for the first time in
the Peace of Tartu in 1920. The border agreed at Tartu was the
same as that which had run between the Russia and its autonomous
Grand Duchy of Finland between 1809 and 1917, except that Finland
now gained new territory in the north at Petsamo, on the shores
of the Barents Sea. The last change to date was confirmed in
the Treaty of Paris in 1947, which gave the official international
seal of approval to the new frontier drawn up between Finland
and the Soviet Union at the end of the Continuation War in autumn
The coat of arms
of Finnish Karelia
Understandably, the border has always loomed large in discussions
of Karelia, a territory which it has split in two. Indeed, it
is reasonable to speak in terms of a Finnish Karelia and a Russian
Karelia. Under the competing influences of East and West, the
people of Karelia began centuries ago to split as it were into
two distinct peoples. This bifurcation has been visible across
the areas of language, culture and religion — Orthodox
in the east and Lutheran in the west.
During the period of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland,
the economic life of Finnish Karelia was largely oriented towards
St Petersburg, the economy of the isthmus in particular being
effectively dependent on the Russian capital. Finland's main
exports to St Petersburg were foodstuffs and firewood, although
all imaginable fruits of nature which Finland had to offer also
found there way across the border. Actually, Finnish exports
met only a small fraction of the demand in the Russian metropolis.
The population of the isthmus were also able to get extra work
and supplement their income from the Russians who came to spend
their summer holidays in the area. At their height during the
First World War there were around 100,000 such visitors on the
isthmus. Approximately 30-40 per cent of Finnish industrial
output in the 19th century was destined for the Russian market;
towards the end of the century exports of paper went almost
entirely to Russia.
Karelia holds an important place in Finnish
cultural history. The material for the Finnish national epic,
the Kalevala, and numerous other collections of folk poetry
were gathered mainly in the northern parts of Finnish and Russian
Karelia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Karelia provided the inspiration for many of Finland's leading artists, composers
and writers and played an important role in the 19th century
national awakening and the development of a Finnish national
identity. On the isthmus, the port city of Viipuri grew in the
19th century to become a notable educational centre and a cradle
of culture and the arts.
from the ceded parts of Finnish Karelia.
The loss of Karelia and the problem
of the evacuees
The Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation
War (1941-44) were both followed by the loss in 1940 and 1944
of large parts of Karelia to the Soviet Union. The ceded areas
included the Karelian isthmus, Ladoga Karelia and Border Karelia,
and in the north the areas of Kuolajärvi and Petsamo.
© The Karelian Association
Finland's eastern border 1323 - 1947
The lost areas of Karelia amounted to almost seven per cent
of the total territory of Finland in 1939. Including bodies
of water, the surface area of the country was reduced by around
27,000 square kilometres. The loss also constituted a considerable
body blow to Finland's economy, as Karelia had experienced rapid
industrialization since Finnish independence in 1917. Almost
17 per cent of the country's hydroelectric capacity and a tenth
of the arable land was lost. The further loss of a quarter of
the country's cellulose output and 20 per cent of sawn timber
production illustrates the extent of the blow to the nation's
The loss of Karelia to the Soviet Union marked the end of over
a thousand years of Finnish settlement in the area, as the inhabitants
of the ceded areas — approximately 407,000 souls —
were evacuated further west during the fighting in the Winter
War. Although around 70 per cent subsequently returned to their
homes after the recovery of the lost territory and the Finnish
occupation of parts of Soviet Karelia further to the east during
the Continuation War, they had to be evacuated all over again
in the summer of 1944. The resettlement and compensation of
the Karelian evacuees after the war required a considerable
effort on a national scale.
The events of the war years gave birth to the concepts of lost
Karelia and its displaced population, the Karelian evacuees.
These concepts are common currency in Finland and refer to the
ceded portions of Karelia and the population evacuated from
there to other parts of the country. Thus, viewed historically,
they are very recent coinages.
Finnish Karelia today
On the return of peace, Finland was left in possession of the
western fringes of Karelia lying along over 400 kilometres of
the country's eastern and southeastern border with the Soviet
Union. This present-day Finnish Karelia encompasses the administrative
regions of South Karelia and North Karelia. In terms of economic
catchment areas one could also speak of the regions of Lappeenranta-Imatra
in the south and Joensuu in the north.
Photo: Matti Tirri
North Karelia belonged to the province of Kuopio until the
creation of a separate province of North Karelia in 1960. In
the provincial reform of 1997 it was reconstituted as a region
of the new larger province of Eastern Finland. The predominantly
agricultural and forestry-based economy of North Karelia went
through dramatic restructuring in the 1960s and 1970s in particular,
and the region suffered a considerable drain of population to
the urban centres in the south of the country and across the
Gulf of Bothnia in Sweden. Despite growing industrialization
and the development of the service sector, North Karelia was
in the 1990s still one of the poorest parts of the country.
South Karelia comprises that part of the old province of Viipuri
which remained on the Finnish side of the border in 1944; unlike
its northern neighbour it has never formed a province of its
own. It was incorporated into the new province of Kymi which
was created in 1945 and in its turn incorporated in the province
of Southern Finland in the reform of 1997. South Karelia has
long been home to one of the most important concentrations of
heavy industry in the whole of Finland.
Both North and South Karelia have found it difficult to develop
a sense of regional identity and what it actually means in practice
to be a Karelian. This is entirely understandable considering
that both regions are situated on the western fringes of the
historical area of Karelian settlement, in a zone which has
served as the meeting place for many different population groups.
Over the centuries there has been a major influx of settlers
from more westerly parts of Finland, and particularly from the
historical province of Savo to the north. The original Karelian
population has with time become intermixed with these incomers.
There has certainly been no lack of will to raise the profile
of the Karelian regions, and their current position on the eastern
border of the European Union has given increased incentive to
stress their distinctive features. North Karelian attempts to
strengthen the sense of a Karelian identity have drawn on the
Orthodox faith and the traditions of Border Karelia just across
the border to the east, while South Karelia has seen itself
as heir to the economic and cultural heritage of Viipuri and
Karelian settlement in pre-revolutionary Russian Karelia was
divided between the provinces of Archangel in the north and
Olonets in the south.
It was clearly difficult for the Karelians in Czarist Russia
to conceive of themselves as a coherent and distinct people.
Their language comprised three main dialects which differed
greatly from each other on their outer fringes. The influence
of Russia and the Russians could be seen in both the language
and all other areas of life the more strongly the further south
Apart from the very early post-revolutionary years, the Soviet
political structures in Russian Karelia extended beyond the
traditional area of Karelian settlement. In both the north and
the east, the Soviet Republic of Karelia encompassed areas of
purely Russian population. Its most important territorial acquisition
came in 1944 with the incorporation of the northern parts of
the Karelian territory ceded by Finland.
In the early years of Soviet rule, Russian Karelia was highly
undeveloped economically; there was little industry, and agriculture
was a worthwhile undertaking only in the most southerly parts
of Olonets. The Soviet era ushered in a vigorous programme of
industrialization particularly in the wood-processing sector,
and Soviet Karelia was in the end to make a considerable contribution
to the overall Soviet economy, especially as a producer of paper.
However, the industrial transformation undermined traditional
means of livelihood and led after the Second World War to the
relentless depopulation of the countryside.
Soviet Karelia experienced considerable population growth beginning
in the 1930s. This was due mainly to the movement of industrial
labour into the area from other parts of the Soviet Union, a
process which was to gather momentum once again after the Second
World War. As a result, the Karelians themselves ended up a
minority in their own country, trampled underfoot by this massive
influx of Russians and other nationalities. In the population
census of 1989, the approximately 79,000 Karelians accounted
for a mere tenth of the population of Soviet Karelia. After
the war, the Russification of the remaining Karelians accelerated,
especially among the young.
On the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Soviet Republic
of Karelia remained part of the Russian Federation, now as simply
the Republic of Karelia. The collapse of the Communist empire
gave the Karelians an opportunity to revive and preserve their
language and cultural heritage. There were a considerable number
of initiatives in this area, but the severe economic problems
in Russia, internecine disputes and ethnic tensions have made
it difficult to achieve anything.
There have also been pockets of Karelian settlement in other
parts of northwest Russia: in and around Novgorod, Tikhvin,
Valday and Tver. These settlements date back mainly to the 17th
century when thousands of Orthodox Karelian refugees fled to
Russia to escape the incessant wars and Swedish attempts at
enforced conversion to Lutheranism in their home areas, mainly
in what is nowadays the Finnish region of North Karelia.
Historically the most significant of these more far-flung pockets
of Karelian settlement lies in the present-day Tver Oblast around
200 kilometres northwest of Moscow. The others have long since
been totally assimilated into the surrounding Russian population.
At their height in the early 1930s there were almost 155,000
Karelians in Tver, but this peak was soon followed by a rapid
process of Russification in the midst of the subsequent upheavals
and tribulations of the Soviet Union. By the 1989 census there
were only 23,000 people in Tver officially registered as Karelians,
although in reality there were probably at least 85,000 Karelians
in the region. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a
new period of national awakening for the Karelians of Tver,
although they find themselves facing the same sorts of difficulties
as their northern cousins in the Republic of Karelia.
The ceded areas after the Second
The areas of Finnish Karelia ceded to the Soviet Union were
allocated to two different administrative areas. The southern
part was incorporated into the Leningrad Oblast, while the northern
parts, from the latitude of the most westerly corner of Lake
Ladoga, were attached to the Soviet Republic of Karelia.
The industrial and hydroelectric plants of the ceded territory
were quickly harnessed to serve the Soviet economy. However,
large areas were left unoccupied for military reasons, especially
along the border. The factories in the ceded areas made a major
contribution to the industrial output of Soviet Karelia, while
the hydroelectric plants made a similar contribution to the
energy needs of Leningrad. Starting in the 1950s, agriculture
was progressively collectivized to serve the needs of Leningrad.
In the parts of Finnish Karelia incorporated into the Leningrad
Oblast the historical links with the recent past were almost
completely obliterated even at the level of local place names.
The existing Finnish names were replaced with new Russian ones
in the late 1940s, while a new history was created for Viipuri,
which was now claimed to have been a Russian town since early
times. Further north, in the areas included within Soviet Karelia,
the old place names were retained.
Map of the different Karelias (click on the colored map).
The ceded areas were repopulated with a mixture of people from
different parts of the Soviet Union. There was also a transfer
of population into Border and Ladoga Karelia from other parts
of Soviet Karelia, some moving on their own and some being moved
as a result of official policy. By 1989 the population of the
ceded areas consisted of some 383,000 civilians, in addition
to which there were an unspecified number of military personnel.
The ceded territories formed a peripheral area within the Soviet
Union, and little effort was devoted to its development. The
decline has escalated further since the collapse of the Soviet
The debate in Finland over the
return of Karelia
In the aftermath of the Continuation War, the resettled Karelians
in Finland longed for home and hoped that Karelia would not
be lost for ever. Finnish leaders also hoped it would be possible
to review the new borders. Repeated overtures were made to the
Soviet leadership proposing the return of the ceded areas, and
the question was also raised at the peace conference in Paris
in 1946. However, the Soviet Union rejected the proposal, and
the new border remained unchanged.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the question of even a partial
return of Karelia was an unofficial topic of conversation at
meetings between President Urho Kekkonen and the Soviet leaders.
The issue was raised for the last time in 1972. No progress
was made, and during the period of Soviet stagnation under Brezhnev
the whole question was buried. Public debate on the matter,
frowned on by Moscow, also died out in Finland in the 1970s.
However, on the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early
1990s Karelia once again returned to the newspaper headlines
and public debate in Finland. Those hoping for the return of
the ceded areas expressed the view that Finland had a moral
right to the return of parts of the country which had after
all been taken by force, and that Russia no longer really needed
these areas. Opinion surveys in 1998 suggested that a good one
third of Finns would like to see the return of Karelia, while
over half are opposed. The most common reason given by opponents
of a return was the inordinate cost of restoring the fabric
of the ceded areas were they to be returned.
In the 1990s, the leaders of Finland and Russia have repeatedly
stated that there are no outstanding border disputes or territorial
claims between the two countries. Russian President Boris Yeltsin
nevertheless commented at a meeting with Finnish President Martti
Ahtisaari in Moscow in 1994 that the seizure of these areas
of Finnish territory was an example of Stalin’s totalitarian
and aggressive politics, and as such was unacceptable. At this
point President Ahtisaari cautiously suggested that it would
perhaps be an appropriate moment to open discussions on the
possible return of Karelia, if the Russians were genuinely interested
in the issue. However, at the end of 1997 Yeltsin indicated
that as far as Russia was concerned the matter was now closed,
and he advised the Finnish media to end their consideration
of the issue. Yeltsin was apparently reacting to Russian press
coverage quoting comments made by President Ahtisaari during
an interview on the bitter experience the cession of territory
had been for Finland, and in general to the unprecedented openness
with which the Russian press was now discussing the whole question.
Following Yeltsin's statement, Ahtisaari indicated that Karelia
could not be allowed to become an obstacle to relations between
Finland and Russia, but that it was unrealistic to expect an
end to discussion of the question in Finland so long as people
born in the ceded territories were still alive. Indeed, after
a quieter interlude of a few years, debate on the issue picked
up again in Finland in 1998.
At government level there has been no progress on the possible
return of Karelia, and no preparatory work has been carried
out. Public discussion of the question has nevertheless become
possible in both countries, and there are no longer any official
attempts to dampen it down.
The many faces of Karelia
Viewed from a Finnish perspective the question
of Karelia and the Karelians can be summed up in five points:
||Part of the historical territory of Finnish Karelia still
lies in Finland in the regions of South and North Karelia.
In the late 1990s there were around 315,000 people living
in these two regions.
||The ceded areas under Russian control comprise the Karelian
isthmus, Ladoga Karelia and Border Karelia.
||Karelian evacuees and their descendants live in different
communities in various parts of Finland. In 1997, there
were still around 140,500 people living in Finland who were
born in the ceded areas of Karelia.
||Russian Karelia, also known as Eastern Karelia.
||The Karelians in other parts of Russia, mainly in and
around Tver. In the 1989 Soviet population census, a total
of 131,400 persons described themselves as Karelian.
History has been hard on Karelia and the Karelians. They have
had to follow many divergent paths which have finally ended
in disintegration and dispersal. There exist many different
conceptions of Karelia, while the experience of being Karelian
and the strands of Karelian identity are also open to a number
Published November 2001 / Updated July 2008