Friday, January 6, 2012


 An Alopaeus family tombstone in the Lutheran Cemetery in Sordavala
Cemeteries harbor many memories. A tombstone can summon up memories of a person, a family, a community and sometimes even of an historical era. In the Lutheran Cemetery in Sordavala (Sortavala), the name Alopaeus stands on the foundation of what was once an impressive tombstone. It tells the curious passerby a story.

The known founder of the Alopaeus family was Tomas Kettunen, a farmer in Savolax (A region in what is now called Eastern Finland) in the 16th century. His descendants, having received an education and learnt Latin, enjoyed the social mobility characteristic of the times. They served the church, as priests and bishops, and also three regents, of Sweden, Russia and Finland, without having to move between these countries.

As was the custom, the family Latinized its name to Kettunius and eventually, since kettu means fox in Finnish, Hellenized it to Alopaeus (fox is alopex in Greek). Some members of this Viborg-based family wound up on the Russian side of the border when it was redrawn in 1721. Two brothers, Magnus (1748-1821) and Frans David (1769-1831), served the Russian Czar as diplomats. Frans’ life tells a story of duty and diversity.

As a Swedish-speaking Russian diplomat from Old Finland, Frans David Alopaeus served in the Russian Embassy in Stockholm from 1796 to 1809. He supplied the Czar with information on Sweden’s military capacity, which proved useful when Russia attacked Sweden in 1808 during the Napoleonic wars. The next year Alopaeus was a signatory of the peace treaty in Fredrikshamn (Hamina) which transformed Finland from forming a Realm with Sweden to being a Grand Duchy under the Russian Czar. In 1812 Russia’s border moved east and the Grand Duchy now included Frans’ hometown. By a stroke of the pen, Frans resided in Finland instead of Russia. 132 years later the border moved west again and the Alopaeus tombstone now stands in Russia, in a silent wilderness.

Many of the fallen and broken tombstones here could tell similar stories. What is the story of, for instance, merchant Petter Berg and his wife Aleksandra, born Invenius?  
 A fallen tombstone in Sordavala’s Lutheran Cemetery    
In a land of ever-shifting borders, the terms East and West lose their meaning. For centuries Finland was the easternmost part of Western Europe but in 1809 it became the westernmost part of an Asian Empire. In borderland Karelia the diversity of languages, religions and nationalities created a rich culture, which flowered until 1939. The expulsion of those who embodied this meeting of east and west created more than 400,000 personal tragedies. In addition, it destroyed a culture.

When the living left, their dead stayed behind. Who cares for the dead? Slowly but surely nature is taking over the abandoned cemeteries and graves. Trees – mostly coniferous – grow among the graves and cast ever longer shadows. Weeds fill the free spaces. Moss slowly covers the toppled tombstones.
Tombstones fading slowly into oblivion 
We wandered through rows of orphaned tombstones. The Lutheran stones had stood in straight lines and preached salvation by doing good deeds in a short life rather than by faith alone. The Orthodox graveyards had hosted meetings of the quick and the dead to celebrate the joy and eternity of the good life. Now the tombstones in the former lie broken and the plastic flowers of the latter fade in the silence of the cemeteries. Both share with the Jewish Cemetery in Prague the despair of abandonment.

The Russian government allows occasional bus loads of volunteers from Finland to tend to some Finnish cemeteries. Practical considerations limit their stay to a few days allowing them only to restore the most damaged graves and to remove the worst underbrush.

After fifty five years of official atheism, the Russian government now allows the Greek Orthodox parts of the cemeteries to maintain graves and new names to be inscribed on tombstones. Here and there, old people tend to graves and “bear bread to the dead”. In Karelia it is customary for the living to sit at a small table by the tombstone and eat with the dead as though visiting in a small garden plot. Once again, it is possible for the living to converse with the dead in the graveyards.
An Orthodox graveyard in Tulema visited by the living
The overgrown cemetery in Tulema outside Salmi, not far from the border established in 1617, contains the graves of about twenty of the 400 who died in the Aunus voluntary expedition in 1919. Today the memorial commemorating their failed expedition stands forsaken in the wilderness.

These Finnish volunteers set out in 1919 to assist the white guards in Olonets Karelia to fight the red guards, some of them Finns who, defeated in the Finnish civil war, had fled independent Finland. The main objective of the expedition was to make the river Svir (Syväri in Finnish) between lakes Ladoga and Onega the new State’s border, thus incorporating Aunus Karalja (Olonets Karelia in Finnish) in Finland. This would be easier to defend than the 1617 border and would, incidentally, also incorporate a significant Finnish speaking population into Finland even though Olonets Karelia had never been part of Finland.
The Aunus Memorial Stone in 1938 and 2011 
The Finnish expeditionary force of 2000 volunteers set out in April 1919 from the border town of Salmi, venturing further east than Gustavus Adolphus had ever dared send his troops. One branch led by Paavo Talvela attempted unsuccessfully to take Petrozavodsk, the capital of the region. Another led by Gunnar Emil von Hertzen soon reached the city of Aunus and the river Svir (Syväri). However, the red forces outflanked Paavo Talvela by a surprise landing behind Finnish lines at Vitele on the coast of Lake Ladoga and the Finnish expeditionary force withdrew to Salmi. About 15,000 Karelians from Russian Karelia followed them to Finland. This ended the expedition but not the dream in Finland of annexing Aunus Karjala.
Map of Aunus Expedition. The dashed black line shows the 1617 border. The magenta lines show the two expedition branches’ advances in April-June 1919

During the War of Continuation (1941-1944) Finland retook Finnish Karelia and occupied all of Olonets Karelia, this time staying there for three years. Paavo Talvela was back, only to be outflanked once again by the Red Army landing at Vitele. And a younger von Hertzen was killed at the Svir (Syväri). Once again Olonets Karelia was lost, along with Finnish Karelia. Today few Karelians live there, too few to keep the dream of Aunus Karalja alive.
Aunus Stone. Inscription and coat of arms of Russian Karelia    
Those who lived in Karelia experienced how the border changed every other generation or so. Many rose to high positions and served their new masters faithfully and honourably. Their tragedy was that in this greater game they and their peers became the pawns of history, their heads and their hearts being on different sides of the border.


  1. The Country That Is No More has become one of my favorite blogs to follow. This installment, as usual, is fascinating & the accompanying photos are thought-provoking, melancholy and beautiful.

  2. Thank you for this reminder again, of how Karelia was raped and damaged and shamed by the occupying Russia. My mother's family are from Valkjarvi, and we have cried for Karelia's plight, the trauma of losing the home and the land - everything - for decades.

  3. Insatt med Lars Werins tillstånd:

    Hej Emil och Per Magnus,
    Jag har läst alla krönikor från Karelen och beundrat fotografierna men inte kommit mig för att kommentera då jag inte haft mycket specifikt att säga.
    Nu kan jag dock nämna att det finns en fin finlandssvensk författare som heter Marianne Alopaeus. Kanske är hon välkänd för er. Hon har som mellannamn namnet på en annan känd karelsk familj, Rosenbröijer, där en förfader var borgmästare i Viborg någon gång på 16-1700-talen. Jag har läst ett par böcker av Marianne Alopaeus, bl.a. en utmärkt roman med titeln Mörkrets kärna. Men framför allt en samling uppsatser med titeln Betraktelser kring en gräns, utkom nog på 70- eller 80-talet. Den handlar om Europa under järnridåns tid och gjorde ett djupt intryck på mig. Jag minns inte om det fanns något om gränsen i Karelen. Jag hade Marianne till bordet på en middag i Stockholm för mycket länge sedan. Hon var en intressant och charmerade bordsdam. Hon skulle nog gilla att läsa era resebrev.

    Lars Werin

  4. Thanks for all the interesting information about the tomb stones which are indeed able to tell a fascinating story! Karelia really has an extraordinary history that is now disclosed to us readers of this blog in such an impressive way!