hidden europe 34

Songlands: a Karelian journey

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Bright sun over a lake in Karelia (photo © hidden europe).


Karelia is the land of the Kalevala, the great epic poem that so powerfully influenced the development of the Finnish national movement in the nineteenth century. We travel through the songlands of the Kalevala and look in particular at the role of Orthodox religion in Karelia and more widely in Finland.

There are a thousand villages buried away in the forest. In Kimovaara, on the Russian side of the border, three white goats scavenge for food around logs stacked high by the side of a dirt road. The forests of Karelia have always been productive. Wood for winter fuel is piled with geometric precision around neat homesteads. Villagers work hard to grow a little rye and potatoes in forest clearings, but it is backbreaking work and the growing season is short. “We must take whatever opportunities God gives us,” says an elderly man in Kuivajärvi, a remote village in eastern Finland just a few hundred metres short of the frontier with Russia. His house is a wooden structure in the Karelian style, by the door a badly worn copy of an icon well known throughout Karelia as The Mother of God of Konevitsa.

“Yes, she’s worked a few miracles for me,” says the man, nodding in the direction of the icon and crossing himself in the Orthodox manner. It is a rare moment of spiritual testimony that reveals the enduring touch of the East in a modern European country that is generally regarded as very secular and western-orientated. As a Finnish icon, the Nokia mobile is nowadays more famous than the Konevitsa Madonna and Child. Karelians in Finland all have their Nokias to be sure, but icons of a more religious demeanour often figure in their lives too. For Finnish Karelia has a vibrant Orthodox culture.

“Life hasn’t always been easy here,” says the man in Kuivajärvi. He describes how in difficult years, when the rye crop was poor, his parents would strip the bark from pine trees to obtain the phloem which was dried and milled to make pettu (flour) for bread. “But I shouldn’t grouse,” says the man as he puts down his hoe and points over the border to Russia. “They have had it much tougher over there.”

A plume of smoke curls up into the blue Karelian sky on the Russian side of the international frontier. “Sulphur dioxide and who knows what else,” says the man with a grimace. The culprit is the huge Soviet-era ore-enrichment plant at Kostomuksha. It was developed from the late 1970s and Kostomuksha, until then no more than an obscure Karelian village, quickly grew into a busy industrial town. Workers were brought in from other parts of the Soviet Union. “Those incomers knew nothing of Karelian life and culture,” explains the man in Kuivajärvi.

Give almost any Finnish Karelian the chance, and you’ll get a quick tutorial on the history of Karelia. It is not a happy tale, one punctuated by wars, shifting borders and the systematic eradication of Karelian villages on the Soviet side of the frontier. The issue is that there is something of the Finnish soul bound up in the whole idea of Karelia, and the Finnish gaze on its ceded eastern Karelian territories is laced with huge nostalgia.

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