Accessibility links

Finland: Soviet Annexation Of Karelia Still A Taboo Subject

  • Charles Carlson

In 1940, following its defeat in the so-called Winter War with the Soviet Union, Finland was forced to cede its eastern province of Karelia to Moscow, and the region's Finnish population was summarily deported. Sixty years later, those Karelians still maintain an attachment to their native land, even if there is little hope that it will ever again become part of Finland.

Prague, 1 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Many are familiar with the melody of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius's "Karelia Suite," composed in response to a request from students in the Karelian city of Viipuri in 1893. Far fewer know the turbulent history of Karelia itself.

The original inhabitants of Karelia were a Finnic people. Beginning in the late 13th century, Russia and Sweden constantly fought over the region. Russia won Finland from Sweden in the war of 1808-09. Finland was granted the status of an autonomous grand duchy, with its own government and parliament.

In 1812, western Karelia -- or "Old Finland," as it was called then -- was joined to the rest of Finland. Finland declared its independence on 17 December 1917 and proclaimed its neutrality.

The Tartu peace treaty with Soviet Russia in 1920 confirmed the borders of Finland -- in other words, Finnish rule over western or Finnish Karelia. In 1932, Finland and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact guaranteeing the border set down in the Tartu treaty.

But under the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Finland was allocated to the Soviet sphere of influence. Later that year, the USSR invaded Finland with the aim of annexing part of its territory. Finland lost nearly 23,000 men in that so-called Winter War of 1939-40.

As a result of the treaty signed at the end of the Winter War, Finland had to cede parts of Karelia, Salla, and Kuusamo provinces to the Soviet Union, as well as islands in the Gulf of Finland. The total area, some 40,000 square kilometers, was three times larger than the areas captured by the Soviet Union during the Winter War itself.

The entire population of the ceded territory -- 420,000 men, women, and children -- was forcibly resettled to other parts of Finland. That former Finnish territory now constitutes part of Russia's Republic of Karelia.

In 1999, the deported Karelians and their descendants founded an informal movement in Helsinki named ProKarelia. The organization has drafted a "Karelian Reform Plan," the central objective of which is to raise public awareness of the circumstances of the Soviet annexation of Karelia. Its members "expect political leaders to have the courage to right past wrongs," and would like the ceded territories returned peacefully to Finland as a result of negotiations.

Heikki A. Reenpaeae is a ProKarelia spokesman and head of the Otava Publishing Company in Helsinki. Reenpaeae said it is unjust that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which were also affected by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, are now independent states, while Karelia remains part of Russia. Reenpaeae told RFE/RL, "Though the Baltic countries are free now, which were also affected by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Finnish and the Karelian question has been left outside that, and the ProKarelian movement tries to raise the question and the discussion about this -- not to give orders or advice to anybody but to put forward the facts."

Reenpaeae also deplores the fact that the once-fertile region of Karelia has degenerated into a wasteland during the past six decades. "Russia and the Soviet Union has achieved nothing during the 60 years they have had Finnish Karelia. The former Finnish Karelia is now a wasteland, and without people, without any activities," he said.

The claim that Karelia is sparsely populated is not true, however. After the Finnish population was deported, the Soviet leadership resettled some 200,000 people from Belarus and Central Asia to the region. But there has been an outflow of population from the region in recent years, possibly because the economy is predominantly agricultural.

According to a Finnish Foreign Ministry official, the fact that there are no Finns left in Karelia is one of the reasons why Helsinki has not officially raised the possibility of Karelia being returned.

Aapo Poelhoe is deputy director-general of the Political Department at the Finnish Foreign Ministry. He told RFE/RL: "The population there has been, after the war, transferred from other parts of the Soviet Union to those territories. They are, as far as we are concerned, total foreigners to us. That's one point why the Finnish taxpayers are not extremely keen, or at all keen, to get those territories back because what should be done to that population?"

Poelhoe said the return of Karelia "is not an issue" for the Finnish government or in Finnish-Russian relations. ProKarelia says Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned his Finnish counterpart Martti Ahtisaari in 1997 that Moscow opposed any public discussion of the Karelia issue.

During Finnish President Tarja Halonen's visit to St. Petersburg in June 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there were no outstanding territorial disputes between Finland and Russia, noting that the question of the status of Karelia "is closed and finally decided." Halonen responded that Russian-Finnish relations have improved to the point where even such contentious issues can be discussed publicly.

Although Russian authorities have made it clear they will not tolerate demands for the return of Karelia to Finland, they have not put obstacles in the way of elderly Karelians who seek to visit their ancestral homes.

Poelhoe said: "Since the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union, there has been very lively traffic going back and forth. There are tens, if not hundreds, of buses, busloads of old Finns who lived there, or their relatives, who go and have a look at their old places. It's very lively. And also, on an official level, there are, under the Ministry of Education, there is a lot of research and, how should I say, fieldwork being done to find the [remains] of the Finnish soldiers who died in those territories and who could not be retrieved at the time. There are regular funerals of the [remains] of those soldiers being now, after so many years, being returned either to their home villages if they can be identified, or to a special cemetery in Joensuu if they cannot be identified."

Some Finns, including many of the descendants of the deported Karelians, consider the Finnish government's position on Karelia shameful and would like to see Helsinki raise the issue more forcefully with Moscow.

In July 1998, Brigadier General Kari Hietanen made a speech calling unequivocally for the return of Karelia, a call that earned him a reprimand from the Finnish Defense Staff. In November 1998, a Finnish businessman offered Yeltsin $500 million to buy Karelia back. Yeltsin never responded.

Finnish freelance journalist Markus Lehtipuu told RFE/RL that he believes as many as 90 percent of the deportees want to see Karelia returned, but that Karelia remains a "taboo subject" in Finnish foreign policy.

"I would say that 90 percent of those people who had to leave their homes, they do want to return. And usually the problem is that there is not much discussion, and people are not aware of the country's history, so [they] are not able to discuss this issue in a correct way because they don't know the history," Lehtipuu said.

Lehtipuu noted that at an annual rally of deportees and their descendants in the Finnish city of Jyvaeskylae last month, one man carried a placard demanding the return of Karelia. He said the man was detained by police, and the organizers of the rally were told not to publicize his demand or the fact that he had been detained.