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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Sordavala (Sortavala) is a run-down industrial town in the northeast of Ladoga Karelia. It is god-forsaken country, forlorn, forgotten and foreboding. Visitors pass through but do not stay. They come here mainly to take the ferry to the famous monastery on the island of Valamo. There is not much to see even though the town’s population of about 21,000 makes it the second largest in Karelia. The railway line west to Viborg (Viipuri) was opened in 1893 and extended east to Joensuu (in Finland) the following year. The railway contributed to rapid industrialisation of the town. The train station was built in the mid 1890s close to the harbor, where the ferry departs to Valamo.
A jewel of a railway station

Like the visitor, time too passes this city by. However, in passing it has left behind some architectural pearls, which poverty, poor maintenance and decades of disregard cannot completely hide. So we wandered despondently through this grim town with eyes wide-open.

Little has changed since the 1930s. Some factories still run, others stand idle and we saw few new ones. A new, clean restaurant next to the train station and ferry caters with its relative elegance to the passer-by but was always empty – except for us. The railway station appears abandoned but is not: old trains still run but infrequently. Few people are in the streets. The young leave the periphery to get closer to Russia’s centre. Those who remain are old and often request alms. In a large open-air market place, pensioners conduct a slow commerce in odds and ends.

The many wooden houses built in the town during the late 18th and the 19th centuries are characterised by simple elegance, an elegance that has fared badly due to poor maintenance. Many houses, once jewels of late nineteenth century architecture, have collapsed. Others appear ready to do so soon if measures are not taken. Cast an eye on the former Teachers’ Seminar on Socialistkaya Street (formerly Seminar Street) in Sordavala, built in 1864. It was in use as a high school until about 2006 and then abandoned.
Soon lost forever

For about five years now the homeless have found shelter in it from the elements. But the roof is caving in, so even these unfortunates will soon have no use for the building. The inability of Communism to maintain real estate combined with the disregard of militant revolutionaries for cultural values are putting an unmerciful end to the simple elegance of this house.
The homeless now sleep where classes once were held

But things can get worse!  Consider the wooden building below: it lies in the very centre of Sordavala, apparently not worth either repairing or tearing down. Does the realtors’ slogan that ‘location is all’ apply here? Yes, indeed! The house is in the centre of town, but the town is in the centre of nowhere!
A central location in nowhere

The Municipality has kept some wood buildings in use and maintained them reasonably well. An example is the old Town Hall (Stadshuset, Kaupungintalo) in Sordavala.
The Town Hall in Sordavala has kept up appearances

Designed by the architect F. A. Sjöström, this graceful house was built in 1885. It serves today as the municipal library and its modern IT room is in sharp contrast to the building’s fading neoclassical elegance. But at least it is still in use (although we were the only ones there checking our e-mail) and has been reasonably well maintained.
... with a librarian hard at work

Another wood building that has survived the Soviet era is the office of the Forestry Services in Sordavala, designed by Alvar Åkerman and built in 1900 as a private home. Eventually it served as a travelers’ hostel (Resandehem Päivölä). For some reason the Forestry Services were able to restore and maintain the house. As Mother would say: Where there is a will, there is always a way! 
A carpenter's delight saved by the Forestry Services

The municipal authorities are currently renovating the Winter House (Winterin talo) in Sordavala to house a museum for the area. This commendable but modest endeavour is not yet successfully completed. The Town Doctor of Sordavala (stadsläkare, kaupunginlääkari) Gustaf Johannes Winter (1886-1929) lived in this graceful home. The house was designed by the Architect of Viborg County Karl Waldemar Allan Schulman (1863-1937) and built in 1900. Winter was a man of taste and wealth and latter commissioned Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) to design his summer house on Lake Ladoga some 20 km down the road. We plan to find it, so keep posted!
The Winter house in summer

The fire station (Paloasema) in Sordavala was built a few years before, in 1888. The building with a characteristic look-out tower was designed by the architect Ivar Aminoff (1843-1926) and was restored to its original use in 1995. This architectural style was characteristic of the last years of the Grand Duchy.
The fire station keeps a look-out

Wandering in the heart of Sordavala we came upon an early example of a completely different style: Finnish Modernism. Built in 1926, the Wegelius House (Wegeliuksen talo) was designed by the architect Kaarlo Borg (1888-1939), the father of the famous opera singer Kim Borg. It now serves as a restaurant where a young cliental clad with incongruous elegance sweeps in and out.
Modernism in Sordavala

The stone buildings built during the Finnish era in the centre of Sordavala have fared better than the wooden houses. Consider the building constructed in 1915 for the Bank of Finland. Designed by the Viborg architect Uno Ullberg (1879-1944), its national romanticism recalls Ferdinand Boberg’s (1860-1946) imposing buildings in Stockholm. We felt right at home. Ullberg was later to become, as we shall see, a pioneering modernist.
Once the Bank of Finland in Sordavala

The Bank of Finland was established five decades before Finland’s independence. The Grand Duchy of Finland had established its own Central Bank and introduced its own currency in the 1860s (having continued to use Swedish currency after the separation in 1809). Note that the initials on each gatepost in front of the building - FB (Finlands Bank) and SP (Suomen Pankki) – represent the Bank’s name in Finland’s two administrative languages at the time. The building now serves as an office for The Russian National Bank (Bank Rossija).

Two magnificent schools were built in Sordavala in 1894. Designed by the architect Johan Jacob Ahrenberg (1847-1914), the lyceum for girls remains an impressive institution. That Ahrenberg studied architecture in Stockholm is apparent to any Stockholmer of my generation, who studied in similar structures. Also the lyceum for boys is well maintained and still in use as an educational facility. They reflect the importance that the Finnish authorities attached to education already at that time.
Lyceum for girls in Sordavala - a fountain of learning!

Leaving Sordavala we passed through Pitkäranta on our way to Salmi, on the old border to Russia. Pitkäranta was another grim industrial town on the Northeastern coast of Lake Ladoga but one with few hidden pearls. The Public School (Folkskola, Kansakoulu) in Uusikylää, just outside Pitkäranta, was one. It was built in the modernist style of the interwar period. During the Soviet era it was converted into a Camp for Young Pioneers and maintained in reasonably good shape for five decades.
Finnish modernism still stands

However, after 1991 the Pioneer Camp was abandoned and the building is now subject to the elements of nature and the vandalism of man. Remains of statues of the communist system’s Young Pioneers lie scattered in the park.
Fallen idols

It is difficult to have much sympathy for this kitschy art, but nevertheless sad to observe the lack of concern by the general public and by the authorities. The pace of destruction quickens each year. Does no one care about the public space? Do the generations born here have no feeling for what it should consider as its home? Or do they feel alienated even though born here? An elderly gentleman, scavenging wood from the site, explained to us that all the problems started with Perestroika. Such oversimplifications do not help.
Can I find something useful here?

While the Finnish era's buildings had stood up well to the test of time, we were stunned to see how rapidly buildings built during the Soviet era had deteriorated. Many industrial buildings in Pitkäranta stand empty. On the outskirts of town, an industrial compound had been built in the 1980s. Among other buildings it contained a chemistry factory finished just in time for the Soviet Union’s collapse. It has stood unused and empty since then. Now, twenty years later, it is rapidly on its way to becoming yet another ruin.
No sooner built, than unused!

As we paused in Pitkäranta, we reflected over these planning mishaps of the communist system. What a wonderful illustration, we thought, of the importance of institutions! Imagine for an instance that this region were under another institutional regime – say one characterised by a market economy, democratic government and membership in the EU. I wager that this once key-ready building would be a hive of profitable activity in no time!

Pitkäranta, a symbol of the fate of all Finnish Karelia, haunted us. A run-down town where statues of socialism’s heroes standing in front of empty factories, where old men loiter in the streets which the young have abandoned, where residents lack both a past and a future. No wonder that few care that litter is everywhere. The basic principle of waste disposal seems to be:  dispose anything, anywhere, anyhow. Beer cans and vodka bottles are strewn about the streets and in the parks. There is no deposit-return system. Man and wind scatter scrap paper everywhere. Though forbidden, livestock and poultry farms outside St. Petersburg dump animal manure and corpses on the Isthmus where they soon leach into the Bay of Finland. Few seem to care about the well-being or appearance of common places. Therefore, the municipal dump outside Pitkäranta amazed but did not surprise us as we drove by.
Garbage collection in Pitkäranta

Seventy years of Soviet and Russian administration has turned a pastoral paradise into an industrial wasteland: abandoned factories, fallow land and run-down towns. Can a paradise lost be regained?  Perhaps, but at a huge cost! Is there an institutional capacity and political will to do this?  Not currently. Will the current regime ever change? Next, we turn to history to see if it can help us answer this question.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


June is the coolest month. Cuckoo birds sing in the light nights and blooming lilacs fill the air with their fragrance. Yellow meadows and green forests blend with blue lakes. Enchanted, we drove in silence through magical scenery. Not until we passed an abandoned cottage on Lake Ladoga did we realize that something was wrong: we were alone.
Lonely on Lake Ladoga
No other cars were on the road. No farmers were working the fields. No boats were on the lakes. This rural landscape was deserted. We passed through empty villages. We stopped by a meadow, which at a distance had appeared covered by the yellow bloom of rape plants (canola), only to discover that it was a field of dandelions. Their extensive root systems had taken over fields left uncultivated for decades. Never before had we seen such huge dandelions! In a remarkable role reversal, nature was now taming culture. Wherever we looked, wild desolation met the eye.

Dandelions take over the fields
The peace treaty concluded with the Soviet Union after 1944 created a desert. More than 400 000 Finns had been forced by the two wars to leave Karelia. Mostly farmers, they lived in rural areas. Almost as many moved in from the Soviet Union but they settled mainly in the towns, leaving the rural areas empty. Farmers who left for Finland burned their modest farmhouses upon leaving. Some houses remained, slowly ravaged by time, such as this one in Pitkäranta. For a short time it had been used by a collective farm for honey processing but was now abandoned. A lone lady harvested some roadside nettles, perhaps to make soup for that evening.
Waste not, want not!
The Soviets established a few collective farms (Kolkhozes) in the countryside, with characteristic white brick apartment houses and barns for livestock and poultry. These farms were abandoned after the Soviet Union self-destructed in 1991 and most of the buildings are already in ruins.

A Kolkhoz self-destructs

When the USSR annexed this prosperous territory, it introduced centralised planning and re-introduced serfdom. When the Soviet system collapsed people grabbed what they could. Useful building material in the kolkhozes was quickly pilfered by the former farm workers and live cattle slaughtered and consumed.
An empty stable in a once rich farmland
The Government built a number of military bases in Karelia. After the break-up of the USSR many of these bases were abandoned. The local population removed windows and roofs for private use, exposing the buildings to rapid deterioration. We passed one base close to Kurkijoki and admired a mural depicting army life, wondering for a moment whether it was graffiti or propaganda. Exposed to the elements, it is unlikely to last long.
Social realism or graffiti?
We drove through a maze of abandoned barracks in various stages of disarray. A pile of debris signaled to passers-by that this was a free-for-all where first-come was first-served. If you don’t pilfer it, someone else will. This was the basic rule of Soviet socialism: what’s yours is ours and what is ours is mine.
End-game for a baracks
In the rural wilderness we stumbled upon a Public School (Folkskola, Kansakoulu) built in 1938 during the Finnish era, a typical example of functionalism in public buildings. It once served a thriving farming community. Now it was the only building standing in a radius of several miles. Although probably empty since 1944, it appeared to be in sufficiently good shape to merit renovation and be put back into use today. But no pupils live in the vicinity any longer.
Finnish functionalism stands firm

Only a few buildings from the Finnish era were still in use in rural areas. One of them was a large stone house on the Northeastern shore of Lake Ladoga, built in 1938 by the prominent pharmacist Jääskeläinen. During the Soviet era it was the rest home of the Moscow composers’ union. Thereafter, it was put to other uses. When we passed, it was up for sale and will probably soon be converted into a hotel. Its guest book could probably fetch a higher price than the building itself!
A harmonious rest home?
Rural Karelia was not only an occupied country but also an abandoned country. For anyone with some historical knowledge, seeing the current desolation of Karelia is a freightening revelation. An economist can dismally note that the systemic change (from market to planned economy) in 1944 has acted as a time machine, transporting Karelia back about 100 years in time. Living standards today are little better than then, as is industrial capital and technology. The buildings that had survived from Finnish times and were still standing in 1944 had, if cared for, stood up well. While buildings built after 1944 and ‘maintained’ with Soviet technology were often in worse shape.

The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rational thinking, gave us the optimistic expectation that human existence gets better with time. A trip to Karelia provides a more pessimistic view, revealing as it does the devastating power of irrational thinking. Here, the golden age lies many decades in the past, indeed before we were born. Everything was better then. Overwhelmed by the nostalgia of old men, mixing memory with desire, we left the countryside behind us and headed for the towns. Would things be any better there?