Time Out

travel feature

I MET MY FIRST Karelian on a flight between London and Helsinki. Occupying the seat next to mine, she fidgeted noisily with her seatbelt and it fast became clear that her real desire was to enrich the three-hour journey by singing and dancing in the aisle. Thwarted by an able flight attendant she contented herself with much arm-flailing and general bonhomie.

Leaning my way as if to whisper, she declared in a LOUD VOICE that she was Karelian. This at the time meant little to me, but seemed to explain everything to the surrounding Finns who promptly lost interest in the simmering commotion and slid back behind their Helsingin Sanomats.

Later I found out the admission did explain everything. Karelians are commonly considered the most vivacious people in a Finnish nation whose other inhabitants are generally (and rightly) regarded as taciturn.

Karelia is barely known in the West, probably because it no longer exists as a country but is a region split almost equally between Finland and the Soviet Union. It's a long-disputed territory and the border has been shifted westwards on several occasions since the era when Finland belonged to Sweden and Karelian peasants found their homelands the main battleground in the Swedish/Russian conflicts.

The most recent change, after World War II (Russian presence in Karelia was a prime cause of non-Nazi Finland entering the war on the German side), saw the entire eastern section of Karelia being ceded to the Soviet Union and its population fleeing almost en masse behind the new Finnish border.

Enforced by holiday brochure pics, the appeal of Finnish Karelia to the casual tourist is nature. It has loads of nature. In the south are vast lakes ringed by equally vast forests which become swooping gorges, dashing rivers and eventually sparse uncompromising fells further north. Save for a few bona-fide towns, the Finnish side has innumerable but widely scattered villages; people are often outnumbered by the wandering herds of those reindeer who've yet to die from Chernobyl fallout.

During a calm period, my flight companion recalled being carried as a babe-in-arms during the last evacuation and went on to unfurl a cultural history of the place which was remarkable – not least because it came from someone who, by her own admission, came to London twice a year just to go dancing at Hammersmith Palais.

Around the turn of the century (when Finland, as a Russian Grand Duchy, was suffering under the Tsar) the preservation of Karelian culture became a crucial aspect of the Finnish nationalist movement. 'Karelianism' featured prominently in the arts of the time, the rural landscape and 'honest' peasant life of the Karelian people being elevated to mystical levels.

A doctor, Elias Lönnrot, had earlier travelled through Karelia collecting the folktales which became the Kalevala and formed the literary backbone of Finnish culture, and composer Sibelius penned one of the world's more instantly recognisable pieces of music in his 'Karelian Overture'.

The architects who shaped modem Finland and became influential throughout the world, among them Eliel Saarinen and later Alvar Aalto, took inspiration from Karelian buildings in which everything, including the furniture and decorations, was made of wood with nothing as vulgar as a nail holding it all together.

Not a bad track record for a place I'd never heard of before. The everyday legacy of Karelianism in Finland is more downbeat but still obvious. For a start(er), there are the ubiquitous karjalan piirakka, ,oval-shaped Karelian pastries containing a gluey mix of rice and potato (delicious hot, disgusting cold), a moreish joy amid a national cuisine which, loosely summarised, is beef stew and cabbage with everything.

And then there are the excitingly weird 'dance restaurants' found in every Finnish town and for many decades the chief meeting point for strangers of opposite sex. The oddest aspect of these places – apart from the heroic length of the sideburns found on the men – is the gloomy nature of the house music. Live bands crank out melancholic Karelian waltzes, often fronted by a singer wailing woefully of the great lost lands in the east, Finland's minor place in the world, and the general sadness of life. It's great stuff, but an odd soundtrack to romance.

A primary difference between thoroughly Finnish Finns and those of Karelian stock is religion. Characteristically, Karelian Orthodoxy is an altogether more glittering affair than the austere Lutheranism to which 90 per cent of Finns subscribe.

During the summer it's quite possible to find Orthodox festivals being celebrated in the open air, while dropping into any Orthodox church will leave you smitten by the rich paraphernalia of the creed.

Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki even has tapes of soft-voiced Slavonic choirs mingling with the incense whilst the Orthodox Church Museum in Kuopio is a gathering of treasures of the faith; centuries-old gold-embossed bibles, elaborate icons, and much more. The exhibits were rushed out of eastern Karelia ahead of the advancing Soviet troops in I944, stuffed into tanks and armoured cars.

Soviet Karelia is not off-limits to Westemers but often seems like it, being infuriatingly difficult to reach despite its proximity. The administrative centre of Petrozavodsk can only be reached with an Intourist trip from Leningrad.

When Leningrad was still St Petersburg its inhabitants referred to Petrozavodsk as 'Siberia-near-the-capital', on account of its use as a place of exile for minor criminals. Even today Petrozavodsk's pleasures aren't very obvious. A manufacturing city of grim modem structures, its old wooden buildings were destroyed during the war.

But just over an hour from Petrozavodsk, by hydrofoil across Lake Onega, is the island of Kizhi. The old stuff is all here and caringly preserved. A feast (at least, twelve examples) of Karelian buildings, from threshing barns and a watermill to the near-hypnotic ascending curvy domes of the Preobrazhenskaya Church. It makes St Basil's in Moscow – so one informed opinion went – look like an over-sized pissoir.

Crossing directly into Soviet Karelia from Finland is likely to become possible this year, largely through the efforts of Kuhmon Kulttuurikornitsa (roughly, a Karelian culture centre) which is based in Kuhmo, in Finland, and intent on promoting the notion of Karelia as a region regardless of the national and ideological boundaries imposed upon it.

Their modest office, tagged on to back of the local fire station, is lined multi-language editons of the Kalevala and in it I was treated to an eyeful of drawings of an all-wood Karelian Village which is under construction nearby. intention is to stage Karelian-flavoured art events in the village and develop an exchange programme with a similar place being built in the Soviet portion of the region, close to the new Soviet city Kostamus. One effect of the scheme been to ease restrictions on the local border crossing at Vartius.

If the idea of modern people as Karelian peasants, prancing around fields and reciting ancient poetry, strikes you as somewhat twee, feel free to the matter up with a foreign-looking middle-aged blonde who might be found high-kicking at Hammersmith Palais.



© mick sinclair

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