What do cities and towns like Viirpuri, Käkisalmi, Hiitola, Kivennapa, Sortavala and Terijoki have in common? They were all once a part of Finland, before the Karelian Isthmus was ceded to the former Soviet Union after the end of what Finnish historians call the Continuation War (1941-44).
Even though my knowledge of Finnish geography was pretty rudimentary in the 1960s, when I was growing up in Los Angeles, the name Karelia had a special ring to it. It sounded like a mysterious land that wasn’t on any modern maps but was out there refusing to accept what it has become.
People like my grandfather, who fought in the Winter and Continuation War, never forgot the names of those former Finnish cities that once dotted the Karelian Isthmus. The hope of visiting those places one day expressed themselves in lachrymose songs and tales such as Karjalan Kunnaillan.
Even in the Jaeger March (Jääkärinmarssi) there is special mention of that part of Finland: …Häme, Karelia, land and beaches of Viena… Viena is the northern half of ceded Karelia.
My grandfather was originally from the eastern Finnish town of Savonlinna, which is about 65 miles from the shores of Lake Ladoga. He lived for a short while as a young man in Viipuri, one of Finland’s most important cities at the time.
Those that were forced to witness war and were quickly humbled by its brutality rarely gave details about those gruesome times. The war, the loss of Karelia and near-interminable suffering always followed them as ghosts, even if hostilities had ended decades ago.
There was something unique about the tales and songs they sang about from those times. Now I understand that they were purposely inconclusive so that new generations could give the stories and songs a better ending. They did this in order not to smother hope.
What did they hope for? They secretly wished with all their hearts and mights that one day Karelia would be rejoined.
I asked a Finnish writer called Eeva Kilpi in the late-1980s what should the government’s stance be on Karelia. Of all the proposals I’ve heard throughout the years, Kilpi’s was the most sensible. She proposed turning the Karelian Isthmus into a (bi)national park administrated by Finland and Russia.
Taking into account Finland’s careful official foreign policy line that continues to this date despite the demise of the Soviet Union, it’s doubtful that the present or any near-future government will throw a lifesaver to the region.
Karelia will unfortunately continue to decay from lack of Finnish attention. But that is now — tomorrow may be a totally different story.
See Part II posted June 28.