Monday, October 17, 2011


Fact fades into fiction (Mural in the heart of Viborg)
Between 1914 and 1941 a remarkable literary flowering occurred on the Karelian Isthmus: modernism erupted in both Finnish and Swedish literature. Architecture underwent a similar rebirth, as we were to discover in our travels. How could this occur in a provincial dead-end, an isolated outpost facing a closed border? One answer is that these authors were formed in their youth by the cosmopolitan environment that multilingual communities and open borders created on the Isthmus.

This was a very different Karelia than the vast green forests further east where one hundred years earlier Carl Axel (Kaarle Aksel) Gottlund (1796-1875) and Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) wandered and wrote down the epic songs that the local population passed orally from generation to generation. Gottlund published his Finnish folk epics in 1818 as a student in Uppsala where a Union of Finnish Students was active. Lönnrot published his first edition of Kalevala in 1835. Inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) to see folk-poetry as expressions of the Volksseele, they opened the era of national romanticism.

The Karelian Isthmus was different. For almost 200 years before 1917 it lay in a magnetic field between two cultural capitals. Established on occupied territory of the Common Realm in 1703, St Petersburg, the political and cultural capital of Russia, exerted a strong attraction and influence on the Isthmus. So did Viborg (Viipuri), the cultural capital of Karelia as part of Russia (1721-1809) and of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland (1809-1917), to which it was joined.
Cosmopolitan influences complement ancient myths
The distance between these two capitals was only 130 km and travel time was dramatically shortened after 1870 when the Viborg-St Petersburg railway was built. This allowed Russian speakers in St Petersburg to ‘commute’ further north on the Isthmus and Finnish and Swedish speakers in the Viborg area to ‘commute’ further south. Merchants in Viborg and St Petersburg as well as the Baltic-German nobility residing in manors on the Isthmus spoke German.

Viborg prospered after the opening of the Saima canal (Saimaa Kanava) in 1856 connecting it with the lake district in the interior. The canal was designed by Nils Ericson (1802-1870), a Swedish entrepreneur known for finishing projects below cost and ahead of schedule – a model for today. After finishing the Saima canal he was knighted and made responsible for building the Swedish railway system. (Our American readers will recall his brother John Ericsson (1803-1889) who designed the propeller allowing the steamship Princeton to outperform the steam wheeler Great Western in 1843 and constructed the USS Monitor in 1861 for the Union in the US civil war.)
The site of Eliel Saarinen's railway station in Viborg built in 1913. Destroyed by retreating Soviet troups, the red granite facade may be part of the original building
With borders gone and transportation improved, the Isthmus became an integrated economic region characterized by a rich cultural diversity. So many languages and cultures on such a small area made the Isthmus a remarkable hothouse of ideas, cultures and fashions. So we set off to see what remained of this cosmopolitan legacy. Would the homes of authors such as Tito Colliander, Willy Kyrklund, Hagar Olsson, the brothers Oscar and Henry Parland, Edith Södergran and Emil Zilliacus reveal some of their secrets for us? Largely unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world, they might still be remembered in their birthplace. If not, at least we travellers from afar could pay homage to them.

Our first stop was the small town of Raivola, where Edith Södergran (1892-1923), the catalyst of modernism, lived until tuberculosis ended her life at the age of 29. Her father had died in 1907 of the same disease. She was born in St Petersburg and attended Die Deutsche Hauptschule zu S:t Petri there. She wrote her first poems in German, even if the bulk of her production was in Swedish. After the Russian revolution and Finland’s independence, she returned to the family home in Raivola 30 kilometres away. Except for spells at sanatoriums in Finland and Switzerland, she lived there with her mother until her death. The Södergran house and its neighbour, the Orthodox Church, were destroyed during the Wars. The church was rebuilt recently and now shines in blue and gold.
The restored Orthodox church in Raivola 
In contrast, the Södergran house has not been restored. Only a few of its foundation stones and its view overlooking the Onkamojoki (Rozlivo) river remain. 0n the site where it once stood, The Swedish Language Authors Society in Finland raised a stone monument in 1960. A photograph of Edith on it has disappeared since then but a quotation (in Swedish with Russian translation) from one of her poems remains, hewn in stone as it is.

Se här är                                       Here you face
evighetens strand,                          eternity’s coast,
här brusar strömmen förbi,             here rapids rush by roaring
och döden                                     while death lurks
spelar i buskarna                           in the bushes playing
sin samma                                     his same old
entoniga melodi.                            monotonous melody.

The view of eternity from Edith's home          
Empty vodka bottles and beer cans were strewn around the memorial suggesting that this was now a gathering place for the unemployed and unfortunate. Recognizing that ours was a labour of Sisyphus, we nevertheless removed this litter as a matter of principle. At least for a few hours we, and perhaps also Edith, might have a clearer view of eternity. By nightfall, the seminar of unfortunates would reconvene and confusion would reign once again.

Few traces remain of Edith Södergran’s “personal universe” in Raivola. Her nearby grave with the above inscription was destroyed in the wars. Olof Ruin tells in his book of 2009 Hans Ruin – en gränsöverskridare (Hans Ruin – a border-crosser) how his father and Elmer Diktonius attempted to locate her grave after the war. The current memorial is largely due to their efforts.
Honouring Edith Södergran ... and her cat!
A Finnish group raised a statue in 1992 honouring her cat Tottie, which her neighbour the businessman Kommerserådet Ilja Galkin had shot, thereby earning everlasting notoriety in the literary world. These memorials somewhat pathetically evoke a past long since destroyed and now forgotten by most inhabitants in Raivola. The name of the town has been changed to Rosjtsjino and it is rapidly filling up with expensive dachas for the newly rich from nearby St Petersburg. The village receives a large influx of summer residents, tripling its permanent population, which in the early 1990s was about 9,000 people.

The southernmost county, Kivenebb (Kivennapa), was one of the most heavily destroyed during the wars. But already in 1938 a contemporary writer regretted the passing of the cosmopolitan Isthmus. The war and the Russian revolution had impoverished the well-to-do who owned the summer villas on the Isthmus and then closed the border. Their villas were abandoned or moved. The writer mourned:  “But that time has come and gone. The Russian revolution put an end to this glorious idyll. Now all we have is memories. We tell stories of the past and watch how time levels to the ground the ruins of our manors and summer villas.” (Kaj Wahlbeck, Karelen - med Kärlek (1994), s. 39). Little did the writer realize that worse was to come.

Despondently, we consoled ourselves that Södergran’s poems are a monument stronger than copper. Youngsters in each generation still quote from memory the concluding lines of one of her most famous poems The Day Cools to Night (Dagen svalnar mot natt):

Du sökte en blomma             You sought a flower
och fann en frukt.                  and found a fruit.
Du sökte en källa                  You sought a source
och fann ett hav.                    and found a sea.
du sökte en kvinna                You sought a woman
och fann en själ -                   and found a soul -
du är besviken.                      you're disappointed.

We set off on our next task: to find the vicar’s house in Räisälä where Hagar Olsson (1893- 1978), a friend of Edith Södergran, grew up. Her father was the Lutheran priest in Räisälä, where the church designed by Josef Stenbäck and built in 1911-1912 remains in good condition since it was used as an assembly hall for civic events throughout the Soviet era. Little has changed. A pity that other churches have not been looked after equally well!
Räisälä church, 2011 and 1939 
Source: Emil Ems and “Karelen – Landet som var” (1941)
Hagar attended the Swedish-language school in Viborg. She was the theoretician and advocate of the modernist school of which Edith was the foremost practitioner. As an author, she is remembered best today for her novel published in 1940, Träsnidaren och döden (The Wood Carver and Death), a terse story of faith, art and work in Karelia.

Finding the vicarage in this small town proved an unexpected challenge. Russian names of villages have replaced Finnish names on current maps; new roads have replaced old ones and suburbs have replaced the small rural communities of yore. Much that was on the old maps has disappeared. This world has been changed! Where the vicarage was supposed to be we found a well-kept house resembling a private club equipped with an outdoor bar. It was closed, in spite of the pleasant summer weather.
The rediscovered vicarage in Räisälä
The house differed strikingly from the photograph of the vicarage in our guidebook Karelen: Landet som var (1941), bearing instead an uncanny resemblance to the photo of the municipal retirement home in that book. After initial confusion, we concluded that the captions on the two photos in our guidebook had been reversed. A visit to the municipal retirement home confirmed this printing error.

Elated by having solved this mystery, we believed for a fleeting instance that we were the first to have discovered this mistake. Many before us must have made the same discovery but kept it a secret for the initiated few. We realized then that this was a semi-clandestine world, where for decades people spoke of core Karelia in whispers on one side of the border so as not to annoy those on the other side, where no one spoke of it at all so that they could sleep better at night. After all, we were looking at the result of an ethnic expulsion that occurred 70 years ago. Karelia is one of the few regions that is perhaps more closed and less developed today than it was 100 years ago.

When built in 1932, the municipal retirement home was a nice example of Finnish modernism. The building was now so run down that we would have concluded that it was abandoned, had we not learnt earlier that anything with a roof still on it houses make-shift living quarters. Soon an elderly gentleman emerged briskly from the building and offered or requested services of an unclear nature.
The communal retirement home built in 1932
Thanking the gentleman for his offer or rebuffing his request as the case may be, we returned to the vicarage gratified that we had clarified the mystery of Hagar Olsson’s childhood home but disappointed that we could see no trace of her association with it. We rang the church bell at the vicarage to remind those in the vicinity, if any, of the house’s original purpose. While nice to see the vicarage so well maintained, it was sad that it could not be put to more appropriate use. After all, there is something to be said for not suppressing knowledge of the past. Sooner or later truth will out.
The church bell now calls to evening drinks instead of to divine service
Two authors’ homes remained for us to see. The Parland family manor Tikila lies in Teerilä about ten kilometres east of Viborg. Oscar Parland describes his childhood there in three magical books, successfully recreated by Finnish Television. (Förvandlingar (1945), Metamorfosis, Den förtrollade vägen (1953), The Enchanted Road, Tjurens år (1962), Year of the Bull). Oscar and his brother Henry, descendants of early Scottish immigrants McFarland, started school in St Petersburg, continued in a German School in Viborg and transferred to the Swedish language school there. Rumour had it that the manor house in Teerilä, where the family settled after the Russian revolution, was destroyed during the wars. 

Nevertheless, we drove past Teerilä and parked the car on a high spot to view the valley and the lake. We rested and from a distance a lost world rose in our imagination. Elderly couples strolled with parasols in the large park. The ladies wore long gowns and the men bore elegant military uniforms. A black bull stomped threateningly and paced back and forth in the meadow. Several boisterous youngsters rowed a boat across the lake to make social calls on neighbours. A parrot sat in the bow, swearing in Russian. Rejuvenated by this vision, we drove off just as an elegant peacock strutted by our car and nodded as if to bid us farewell.
The magic lake in Terrilä?
The second house was the Zilliacus family home on the island Hapenensaari outside Viborg in a border zone we could not enter. It is legendary in Finland for its country house and unique apple orchard. Heavy fighting during the Wars destroyed both. The poet Emil Zilliacus (1878-1961) translated the Latin and Greek classics into Swedish here. He was part of the strong classical tradition in Finland, which incidentally gave rise to today’s weekly emissions in Latin on Finland’s Radio. His son Benedict Zilliacus (1921-) has written movingly about the family home in Båten i vassen (1990), The Boat in the Rushes. As a child he would hide in his boat in the rushes during warm summer days. During the war, a wounded Russian soldier survived for fifty days with two dead comrades in a boat hidden in the same rushes while fierce fighting raged on the island in which Benedict was also engaged.

Hapenensaari was the fixed point in Emil Zilliacus life and he lived to see its destruction. He could not have foreseen this in the poem he wrote in 1925. Fifteen years later, the fixed point was no more.

Då borras klacken djupt i strandens jord.                I dig my heel deep in the coastal earth.
Min fot får fäste. Känslan finner ord:                        My foot rests firm. A feeling soon takes form.

Välsignad torvan som ger foten stöd                        This blessed turf, which lends my foot support
-mitt hem, mitt hägn, min egen värld i världen-          - my home, my fort, my own world in this world -
som skänker källklar dryck och frukt och bröd,       a source of sparkling water, fruit and bread
och kärnfriskt virke till min eld på härden.                and hardwood for the fire in my hearth.
Det är min fasta grund. Här höll mitt ankar.              It is my solid ground, my anchor firm.
Kom an novemberstorm, november tankar!             So come November thoughts, November storms!


  1. Hallo Emil,
    vielen Dank für Eure Blogs zu Karelien, sehr lehrhafte Lektüre über eine historisch sehr interessante, wenn auch nicht sehr glückliche, Gegend. Werde gern weiterlesen.

  2. Per Magnus WijkmanOctober 18, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    Hej Nils,
    Tack för dina inlägg. De väcker många trevliga minnen till livs. Jag minns mycket väl vårt första samtal i källarrummet på Odengatan 61 i gamla Stockholms Högskolan. Jag kände redan till ditt namn från institutionens anslagstavla som den student som alltid hade VG på tentorna. Jag minns också en varm höstdag när vi satt på Finlandsbåtens soliga däck på väg till Helsingfors. Året var 1968 och du berättade målande som om du varit med själv hur trettio år tidigare krigsmolnen hopade sig över Europa. Under åren har jag både vänta och överraskats av din encyklopediska kunskap! Vi var på väg till en minnesvärd nordisk kurs i utrikeshandelsteori i Tusby som gavs av Erling Olsen och Bo Södersten där vi skulle presentera ett papper om factor intensity reversals. Efter den obligatoriska kvällsbastun hoppade du och jag i Tusby sjön - en minnesvärd ekologisk upplevelse.
    I Helsingfors satt vi inför återfärden på en uteservering på Esplanaden nära Salutorget och åt piroger och glass med hjortron. Vi kände historiens vingslag men i motsats till gamle vise Väinämöinen visste vi inte vart vingarna och vindarna bar oss.

    Vägen går längs Väinös sveder, Kalevalas karga moar;
    hästen travar, vägen viker, hemmet har han långt bakom sig,
    rider redan ut på havet, färdas på den öppna fjärden;
    hästens hovar vättes icke, vattnet nådde ej dess hovskägg.
    (Kalevala 6:e sången; svensk tolkning Björn Collinder)

    Än är resan inte slut!


  3. Underbart! Låt mig tillägga att Benedict Zilliacus, morbror till min väninna Birgitta Mattson, i sin självbiografiska bok Bergets skugga ägnar andra kapitlet, Aplarnas ö, till att skildra Hapenensaari. Kapitlet börjar med att Benedict och hans bror Viktor, Birgittas pappa, står och betar hallon i ”vår fädernegårds solstekta trädgård”. Men det är juli 1944 under fortsättningskrigets sista dagar. Av drygt ett tjog hus på gården återstår bara lekstugan i björkallén. Huvudbyggnaden hade bränts ner av ryska trupper under vinterkrigets slutdagar och nu hade nya ryska trupper dagen innan satt eld på resten med brandgranater.
    Och Benedicts och Viktors pappa Emil har berättat i sin bok Karelare från 1934, hur han och gårdsfolket en mörk septembernatt 1917 hamnar i eldstrid med rysk soldatesk från Trångsund som försöker ta sig in i trädgården. Tio, tolv militärgevär mot gårdsfolkets korta vapen och hagelbössor, men konstigt nog gav sig ryssarna av. Benedict konstaterar att det sannolikt var den första reguljära skottlossningen mellan finländare och ryssar sedan 1809 och inträffade fyra månader före utbrottet av frihetskriget. Familjen var livrädd nästa dag för att de ryska soldaterna skulle komma tillbaka, men den dagen inleddes officersmorden på de ryska garnisonerna och soldaterna fick annat att tänka på.
    Hapenensaari , barndomsidyll och krigsskådeplats.
    Nils Lundgren

  4. Äsch då! Man skall inte bara skriva direkt så där. Jag menar naturligtvis Henrik Zilliacus, inte Viktor, vilket jag inser när jag stimulerad av allt detta tar fram hans superba bok Klassiska källsprång för att påminna mig vad han skrev om boktitlar och deras antika ursprung. Förlåt!
    Nils Lundgren

  5. Ja Nils, inte är det lätt att hålla reda på alla dessa Zilliaci! Jag trodde först du syftade på Ville (inte Victor) Zilliacus, en legend på Finlands TV, som skrivit flera blöcker, bl a den läsvärda I samma båt; essäer om grannskap och vänskap, Schildts, 1995. En för Aplarnas ö betecknande formulering.

    Nu skumpar vi fram mot Terijoki...