hidden europe 34

The past is another country

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The principal church at New Valamo Orthodox Monastery in Finland (photo © hidden europe).


To accompany our feature on Karelia in this issue of hidden europe magazine, we look at how Finland’s ceded eastern territories, now part of the Russian Federation, remain a potent symbol in the Finnish imagination.

Few residents of Finnish Karelia had much chance to visit those old Karelian territories of the Kalevala which lay east of the Soviet border during the Cold War period. But change came in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of the new Republic of Karelia within the Russian Federation. This new entity covers much of the Karelian heartland, extending north just beyond the Arctic Circle to the western fringes of the White Sea, and including parts of Karelia’s two great lakes: Ladoga and Onega (which are Europe’s two largest lakes).

The Karelian Isthmus, the neck of land separating Lake Ladoga from the Gulf of Finland, which includes the historic Finnish city of Viipuri (now Vyborg), is not part of the Republic of Karelia, but part of Leningrad Oblast. Yes, Leningrad changed its name to St Petersburg in 1991, but the surrounding oblast (effectively a county) continues to affirm its traditional loyalty to Lenin. Finns certainly visited Vyborg in the Cold War, there to gaze on relics of the city’s Finnish past. One celebrated example is the municipal library, a daring piece of modernist design by Alvar Aalto built in the mid nineteen-thirties.

But beyond the shadows of old Viipuri, many Finns knew little of Soviet life in the villages and forests that lay immediately over their eastern border. They could see the pollution from the ore plant at Kostomuksha. They saw the smoke from the pulp mills at the place they still called Enso but which the Soviet Union renamed Svetogorsk.

Under the new post-Soviet order in the 1990s, Finns started tentatively to explore their ceded territories. They went uncertain as to what might await them. Some had developed an overly-romanticised view of ‘heritage Karelia’, expecting to find scenes redolent of Into Inha’s early photography of the Kalevala villages. What they found was a territory shorn of its Karelian identity. The decorative timber houses-cum-barns (combined in a single very large two-storey building), judged by many Finns to be so distinctive a feature of prewar Karelia, had largely disappeared. The few that remained were in an abject state of decay. There was little trace of the Karelian life which had fuelled Finnish music, song, art and literature in the nineteenth century.

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