I first became familiar with Karelia in the early 1990s when I had to choose an area of the world to study for a course. Since my wife is from Finland I chose this region of the country. The area is the source of Finnish folklore, poetry and the national epic, the Kalevala. The people have their own distinct dialect of Finnish. Little did I know that more than a decade later I would move there.
In World War II as part of a settlement with the Soviet Union, Finland lost a large chunk of the region. Karelian refugees moved to remaining regions in Finland and their countrymen sacrificed and assimilated them. Occasionally a story will pop up in the news about Finland some day gaining the region back, so it came as no surprise that the Sanomat, Helsinki’s newspaper, published an article late last week which described how a group of Finnish businessmen want the Russians to open negotations on the issue. In return, they are offering to withdraw their application for a mine in the Baltic Sea which will block a German-Russian gas pipeline.
As a foreigner it’s intriguing to observe how Finns view Karelia. Modern organizations in the country lobby for its return. There is a shop here that sells all kinds of Karelia-related items. Some Finns say, “It’s ours!” Yet, a public opinion poll this decade revealed that a majority of Finns don’t want it back. They cite the cost. And as the years pass the Karelians are losing their identity as a culture. When I did my study in the early 1990s, only about 70,ooo ethnic Karelians remained. There are less now due to continued Russification. And the region itself seems very underdeveloped despite its potential, something which doesn’t endear the Russians to Karelian advocates.
Despite globalization there are similar movements around the world. This one will be interesting to watch.