What should Finland do about Karelia? (Part I)

by , under All categories, Enrique

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.

  1. Paddy

    It will definitely get attention if the new cold war (which has already begun) gets even colder, and do you know who will give it the attention? You never know, a few pipe lines or defence systems or……..

  2. suburbanlife

    An area like Karelia which has the unfortunate geographic placement in a region, where competing economic and political forces (which have historically depended on Karelia’s natural geographic features to access trade routes and have secured these for themselves through a series of wars) will continue to press their interests. However, the rich cultural Finnish history deserves to be preserved. Is the language in the now-Russian part of the isthmus both officially Finnish and Russian? If Karelia becomes engulfed in a homogenized culture, it willl have lost irretrievable richness. But I fear, that is happening, far too much, all over the world!

  3. nemoo

    Hi Suburbanlife, you bring an interesting point: what is happening to Finnish culture in Karelia is a pretty sad story. After the war, there was an exodus of over 400,000 Finnish refugees from Karelia, leaving a near-void for the Russians to fill. I’m extremely surprised sometimes by some Finns who say that they don’t want to have anything to do with Karelia because there are so many Russians. If Karelia were like Canada or some other multicultural society that protected in earnest the rights of smaller cultures, the Karelian question wouldn’t be such a difficult issue to tackle. Possibly then Russia and Finland could rule and protect Karelia like a national park.

  4. savannah

    reading backwards and here i find you grew up in los angeles? that’s where i’m from.. a few stops since then and now in the south..savannah, georgia to be specific…but i digress…i know so little about finland…but i do know that nothing is ever as simple as we might beleive…geo-politics seem to no longer have real national boundries, but monetary ones…

  5. Jaakko

    How could an area with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants be turned into a national park? Usually national parks are in their natural state with no signs of humans. And what Finnish culture in Karelia? Nowadays most of the people living there are Russian or Ukrainian descent. It’s just a piece of soil, nothing more. They took it, they ruined it (ryssiä in Finnish), they’d better take care of it.

    • Enrique

      –How could an area with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants be turned into a national park?

      Hi Jaakko, thank you for your comment. The answer to turn Karelia into a national park was made in the end of the 1990s by Eeva Kilpi in a story that appeared in Apu magazine. This was her response at a time when the cold war was thawing and the Soviet Union on the verge of demise. Karelia is a land that still holds symbolic significance to us.

  6. Tiwaz

    No it actually does not. Young generations have given up on Karelia. Old ones who do not let wishful thinking to interfere with realism likewise.

    Only thing Karelia would offer to Finland is bottomless black hole for money. And yet another troublesome minority demanding things, and specially money, from already overburdened Finnish society.

  7. Ana

    I am writing a paper on the Karelian Question and I would like to know who is the author of this blog??? I need some good resources, with different perspectives, noted historians and primary sources. Does anyone know where I can find such resources?

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