Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Kexholm (Käkisalmi) fort stands guard on the Vuoksen (Vuoksi) River 
We drove from a borderless European Union through a time-consuming and meticulous Russian border control into a region criss-crossed by multiple layers of historical borders. For almost a millennium, Karelia has been a borderland and a battleground between East and West, as evidenced by its coat of arms. 
Source: Wikipedia
Karelia consists, somewhat simplified, of three parts. Since about 1200 one part has always belonged to Finland-Sweden or to Finland (North Karelia and South Karelia) and another part to Russia/USSR (White Karelia and Olonets Karelia). The core third part, the Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia, has been disputed since then, belonging alternately to its Western or to its Eastern neighbour. Core Karelia has long stood guard at Western Europe’s Northeastern border; and for centuries Russia has claimed core Karelia to gain access to the Baltic Sea and thereafter to guard its Northwestern border.
Source: Wikipedia
The dispute over core Karelia started over trade, continued over religion and most recently concerned military security. The Isthmus is rife with rivers that provide outlets both to the Baltic Sea and to Lake Ladoga.Vikings entered Lake Ladoga through the Neva River (passing through what a millennium later was to become St Petersburg). From Ladoga they followed Russian rivers leading to Novgorod, to the Black Sea and to the Caspian Sea. The River Vuoksen (Vuoksi) led North via land bridges to the Saima (Saimaa) Lake district in Finland’s interior and to Lake Ladoga. Karelian seafarers sailed out from the Isthmus to the Baltic Sea’s coasts and Viking expeditions entered it from the Baltic. Already by the end of the year 1000, the Isthmus was filled with trading stations and reloading posts for pelts, grain, wood and tar going west.
Wood carving by Kronid Gogolev (1926-), Sordavala (Sortavala) 
When the Vikings were baptized the traders became crusaders. Around 1150 Swedish kings, at the request of Rome, started to send missions and armies east to convert ‘pagans’ to Catholicism. At the same time Byzantium started sending its priests west from the Bishopric in Olonets (Aunus). Many were to die as the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches fought for the salvation of souls, each eventually claiming about half of the surviving population. This was one of the last regions of Europe to be Christianized.

In 1293 Marshal Torkel Knutsson, responding to a Novgorod attack, founded a fortress where a branch of the Vuoksen entered the Bay of Finland. This was to become the trading city of Viborg (Viipuri), a close partner to, but never a member of, the Hanseatic League. In 1295 Novgorod countered and founded a fortress on an island where Vuoksen entered Lake Ladoga. This was to become Kexholm (Käkisalmi), a major fortification. Today part of this fort houses a small museum illustrating the long history of conflict over the region. The other part is being turned into a private restaurant to celebrate special occasions such as weddings and graduations.
The well-fortified entrance to Kexholm fort
Oddly, privatization is now a common means on the Isthmus to preserve historic buildings. Perhaps the public purse is empty or interest in the region’s history is limited. Kexholm proved to be a small town with a pleasant resort atmosphere. A statue of Lenin still graced the main square. Buildings are relatively well maintained. The population, 9 000 in 1939, is now about 21 000.

A long war between the Common Realm and Novgorod concluded in 1323 with a peace treaty in Nöteborg (Päkinäsaari, in German Schlüsselburg), a small fortification guarding entrance to the Neva on the shore of Lake Ladoga. The border between the two countries now split the Karelian Isthmus in half vertically, with Viborg lying on one side of the border and Kexholm on the other. The Isthmus served as a two-lane highway on which Novgorod sent raiding expeditions north to Finland and the Common Realm sent troops south to exclude Novgorod from the Baltic. Thus, the peace treaty of Nöteborg ordered the traffic but did not put an end to the conflict.

We had heard that the border agreed at Nöteborg was marked at the time by border stones. So we set off in search of one. Without road signs pointing to sites of “historic interest”, this was no easy task. By chance we stumbled upon an obscure footpath leading off the road between Lintula and Lampaala into the forest and through a swamp. We followed it. Negotiating this path required a good sense of balance, which we did not always maintain. Somewhat wet, we arrived at the border stones (gränssten, rajakivi) of 1323, known as Ristikivi (Cross Stone), which awaited us in the forest at the end of the path as a reward for our efforts. The first stone was a substantial boulder that nature rather than man had placed in the terrain a long time ago. In front of it, the inscription on a smaller stone announced to the haphazard passer-by that this was the 1323 border. The text was in Finnish and Russian and probably installed in the last few decades to complement older stones with illegible inscriptions.
  The border stone of 1323 
The battle for mastery of the Isthmus continued. Viborg castle became the lynchpin for the Common Realm to rule the region, protect trade routes and the surrounding Roman Catholic communities from Russian attacks, in particular in the turbulent second half of the 15th century. A Russian siege of Viborg ended on 30 November 1495 when Marshal Knut Jönsson Posse is said to have exploded a warehouse with gunpowder in the midst of the attacking Russians. This event lacks support in contemporary records but has become legendary as the ‘big bang of Viborg’ (Viborgska smällen, Viipurin räjähdys) and attributed diabolic powers to the Marshal of Viborg. Yet another war with Russia, concluded after twenty five years with the peace treaty in Teusina (Täyssinä) 1595, expanded the border of the Common Realm further eastward.
The statue of Marshal Torkel Knutsson was raised in 1908 in Viborg but placed in a closet in 1944. He came out in 1993 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of his founding of Viborg.
After the Reformation, the Kings of the Common Realm were protestant and the religious conflict now was between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy, with many Orthodox fleeing to the Russian side of the border due to severe religious intolerance in Sweden. Thanks to his commander, Jakob De la Gardie, King Gustav II Adolf could after 15 years of war redraw the border on the Isthmus in the Peace Treaty with Russia signed in Stolbova 1617. This extended Sweden’s border to include all of the Isthmus and Ingria (Ingermanland, Inkari) to its South, which connected with Estonia, a Swedish province since 1561. Russia had lost its opening to the Baltic.

A new peace called for new border stones. As a school boy I had read in my history books that a stone near Salmi, on the Eastern shore of Lake Ladoga, bore the inscription “Huc Regni posuit fines, Gustavus Adolphus, Rex Svecorum; fausto numine duret opus.”  (Here Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, marked the outermost border of his Kingdom. May God’s benevolence preserve his work.) So when in Salmi we set off in search of this stone (see on the map, where the former Russian border cuts into the northeastern Ladoga shore). The pursuit was no easy task. We drove along a narrow country road and arrived at the shore of Lake Ladoga. The numerous discarded bottles of hard liquor indicated that locals used the small beach for an assortment of summer activities.  In stormy weather we could far off glimpse the border stone called Crow’s Stone (Kråksten, Visikivi) close to the shore.
Viewing the distant Crow’s Stone in stormy weather
We dared not following the coastal road which was narrow, muddy and dirty for fear of getting our car stuck in the wilderness. So we wandered afoot in the rainy weather hoping to meet someone who could point us to the access route. But in this depopulated countryside we were on our own and gave up. Had we had sufficient perseverance to negotiate an additional four or five kilometers on foot we could have seen the huge boulder in Lake Ladoga called the Crow’s Stone at close range. Here it is mounted by an adventurous Finnish soldier in a photo from the 1930s.
Still on guard on Crow's Stone (Visikivi), 325 years after Stolbova
In those days borders were determined by easily visible fixed natural landmarks rather than by a line drawn on a map by negotiators. Rivers – such as Systerbäck (Rajajoki) - were ideal markers making the negotiators’ work easy. But in this difficult terrain man had to lay out smaller stones at convenient intervals between natural landmarks to mark the border. In our walks we kept stumbling over them.
Two sides of a border stone
But Visikivi was not the inscribed border stone that we were looking for. Thanks to the careful documentation carried out in the Grand Duchy and in independent Finland, these border stones were all numbered. Intensive research on Internet revealed that Gustavus Adolphus’ stone was located in Virtälä, a small village near Salmi. Virtälä proved to be a virtual village; we could find no trace of it either on current maps or in situ. After trekking through fields and following long-forgotten and seldom-tread country roads, we discovered a group of trees in a field that suggested that a village might once have been there. No houses remained, having been either burned or moved to nearby towns where the Russian immigrants in 1944 preferred to live. After much trekking, we gave up our search. But like knights errant of old we determined to continue our quest. Did Gustavus Adolphus’ border stone lie here in the underbrush waiting to be discovered? Had the withdrawing Finnish Army moved it to a museum in Finland? Or had it been destroyed by the invading Russian Army as many other historical monuments were? We trust our readers will let us know.
The lost Gustavus Adolphus stone in Virtälä
As a result of Charles XII’s disastrous campaigns in the Great Nordic War (1700-1721), core Karelia reverted to Russia (together with Sweden’s Baltic provinces) and Peter the Great established his new capital St Petersburg on the Neva, where the Swedish town of Landskrona once stood. The southern coast of the Bay of Finland was now in Russian hands. Sweden attempted twice (in 1741 and 1788) to retake these territories. The first attempt resulted in the loss of more territory (Fredrikshamn, Hamina) to Russia. In the second attempt, Gustaf III, after first allowing his naval fleet to be trapped in the Bay of Viborg, broke out at great cost in one of the largest naval battles of the time known as the Viborg Gauntlet (Viborgska gatloppet, Viipurin kujanjuoksu). The cousins Gustaf III and Catherine of Russia agreed on peace with status quo ante.

In 1809, Napoleon meeting Alexander I at Tilsit granted Russia Finland as fair game, the new king Gustav IV being obsessed by hatred of Napoleon. Russia attacked Finland a few months later and after yet another disastrous war for the Common Realm, Finland became a Grand Duchy with Alexander I as Grand Duke and with home rule based on the Swedish constitution of 1772. Core Karelia was reunited with the Grand Duchy of Finland and remained part of Finland upon the country’s declaration of independence in December 1917. However as the clouds of World War II gathered, Ribbentrop and Molotov recalled the meeting at Tilsit. Russia attacked Finland on 30 November 1939 (as it did the Baltic States) claiming the need to secure St Petersburg’s flanks.

Russian invasions of Finland have thus occurred in every century since the 1100s, often with large parts of Finland being occupied and ravished by Russian troops. This on-going battle between east and west is a defining theme in the country’s history. The poet Emil Zilliacus, whose home and heart was in Karelia, captures this in his poem Borderland, published in 1943, after the Winter War and before the end of the War of Continuation. A few, freely selected and translated lines brings to an end this sad review.

    Så har då ånyo den tunga vält                           So once again war calls us border men.
... gått dånande over de gårdar och fält              ... Our lot it is to live here and defend
    vi fått på vår del att bebo och bevaka.            our farms, our fields from what harsh fate may send.
... Men ömka oss icke, vårt uppdrag är stort:     ... So do not pity us, our task is great:
    att stå som vaktpost vid rikes port.                      to stand on guard before our country’s gate.
... Vi kräva ej tack för att åter en gång               ... We ask no thanks to carry once again
    vi beseglat vår urgamla gränsmarksära.              the guardian’s ancient honour – and his pain.

Once again Core Karelia was transferred in 1944 to its large Eastern neighbor, which is now busy guarding its new border. We felt this strangely anachronistic. In Europe we live in an increasingly larger Union, borderless and with many historical animosities reconciled. We have learnt that borders provide little security in an age of inter-continental missiles. And that borders in the heart and soul of humankind are a burden. This is not the end of history.


  1. How interesting and challenging your trips are! Congratulations for your writing style and pictures!
    Best regards,

  2. Thanks Emil and Per! Always good to refresh history that still to a certain extent governs our policy.

  3. 1. As usual, Emil's keen sensitive eye furnishes the photos with a soul.

    2. Not as usual, this fourth instalment is mainly informative, as objective as can be I gather. I assume though that a Russian would have written it with a different music between the lines.

    3. The last few lines with the romantic naive notion about borders are, regretfully, a wishful thinking for days to come. Meanwhile, again regretfully "borders in the heart and soul of humankind" are a fact of life, and Per himself ends his writing with; "This is not the end of history." Indeed it is not!

    Who translated the part of the patriotic poem by Emil Zilliacus?

    Eagerly awaiting the continuation....


  4. Thank you for your comments Avri. Unless otherwise indicated in this blog the translations into English are my own. You can look forward to more poems by Emil Zilliacus in future instalments.

  5. Dear Avri,
    I have noted your recurring compliments about my humble photos. Thank you kindly for those! Your comments will keep me on my toes when working on the pictures for the forthcoming blog instalments.

  6. Hej,
    Stort tack för de rapporter från er resa i Karelen som du sänder mig per min universitetsadress. Jag har läst dem med iver och behållning. Särskilt berörd blev jag över den senaste som gällde Kexholm. Ni besökte den stad där det åtminstone från och med 1600-talet bodde personer med namnet Ruin. I mitten av 1700-talet fanns där en borgare som hette Olof Ruin. Hans son Hans blev far till Anders Ruin som var kronofogde i Jääskis och ägde en gård kallad Kiviniemi. Denne Anders är min farfars farfar. Själv hann jag som pojke aldrig besöka Karelska Näset men minnet av Näset har alltid varit mycket närvarande i min familj och några av oss har också skrivit nostalgiskt om det. Så du förstår att jag med speciell inlevelse följt er resa. Tack!
    Många hälsningar

  7. Thanks a lot for the history lesson about this fairly unknown part of the world with its tremendously interesting background. It was a good repetition of (for me unfortunately much forgotten)Viking raids, wars, antagonisms between the various countries! Like others who have commented on this text I do enjoy the lovely pictures showing the very soul of this area!