Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Monument in Pyhäjärvi (in the late thirties) celebrating the abolition of serfdom 
Passing Pyhäjärvi, we saw a lone monument standing in a field. We stopped the car, jumped out and approached it on foot to satisfy our curiosity. The monument’s plaque indicated that it was erected in 1936 (design by Aarno Karimo) to celebrate the centennial of the abolition of serfdom in this formerly Russian – but then Finnish – part of Karelia. It looked rather forlorn. Having recently lost its ‘crown’, it had a slightly decapitated appearance and, over the years, grass had crept up its once impressive steps.
The monument before the war ...                    ... and nowadays
Why was there serfdom in Karelia when it did not exist in the Finnish-Swedish Realm? Russia introduced serfdom in Estonia, Livonia, Ingria and East Karelia (Kexholm/Käkisalmi county) when it took these Baltic provinces in 1721. But already as Swedish possessions they were not fully integrated into the Common Realm. They were not represented in the Realm’s Parliament, nor subject to all its laws. Farmers in the Common Realm owned land, were free citizens and were represented in a fourth estate of Parliament. In the ‘provinces’ society was more feudal and the German-Baltic nobility had large landholdings. To increase his control, the Czar awarded the serf-owning Russian nobility landholdings (so-called donation manors) in his new possessions. When Kexholm county reverted (with the rest of ‘Old Finland’) to the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812, serfdom continued there.

Why did it take until 1836 for the autonomous Finnish Government to abolish serfdom? The donation manors were dependent on cheap labour provided by serfs. The owners of the manors demanded, and received, compensation from the Grand Duchy for the ‘economic losses’ due to abolition. Sweden had a similar problem. It abolished trade in slaves on its Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy in 1813 but abolished slavery there only in 1847 after negotiations to determine compensation for slave owners. Not until 1861 did Alexander II abolish serfdom in Russia.

The memory of serfdom, as well as Karelia’s proximity to the cradle of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg, made the civil war (leading to Finland’s independence) especially fierce in Karelia in 1918. About five hundred meters from the monument in Pyhäjärvi celebrating the abolition of serfdom lies a cemetery where the victorious white side raised a monument in 1919 to the unknown soldier of the civil war, a war characterized by summary executions of prisoners and by internment camps.
Unknown Soldier Monument at entrance to Pyhäjärvi Cemetery
Our curiosity aroused by these two related monuments in Pyhäjärvi, we set out to find donation manors on the Karelian Isthmus. While the institution of serfdom was long gone, manors could still exist. What shape would they be in now? Would anyone live there?

This search would eventually bring us back to Pyhäjärvi. But we headed first for the Stubb manor located outside Viborg (Viipuri), which, as rumor had it, was once the ancestral home of Finland’s current Minister for European Affairs, Alexander Stubb. The house was in relatively good shape since it had served as a camp for Young Pioneers until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Although currently empty, it had recently harboured a tenant. The large green-painted manor house was surrounded by an untended garden and numerous outhouses.
The presumed Stubb Family Manor
Statues of young pioneers, one with his broken arm raised in an incomplete salute, graced the park in front of the manor - a disheveled Sleeping Beauty awaiting an awakening kiss. No prince was in sight. Though its run-down condition was sad to observe, we were to discover that the Stubb manor was exceptional among the donation manors in that it was still standing. In failed empires the large manors and estates of the governing classes tend to stand empty until either the nouveaux riches move in or the buildings are destroyed. Karelia was no exception.

On our way to the next manor, Niemelänhovi, we approached a village that a road sign (in Cyrillic letters) identified as Mejeri. This was an unlikely place-name since “mejeri” is the Swedish word for dairy.
A village called Dairy (Mejeri) ... due to many dairy buildings
The explanation for this place name became apparent as soon as we arrived at the manor house Niemelänhovi. It had once included several barns and other outhouses. During the interwar period, the Finnish government had taken over the manor and converted it into a regional dairy school. As a large institution in a small community the dairy had given its name to the village.
In the nick of time Niemelänhovi manor house is being transformed - into a luxurious vacation resort?
Niemelänhovi was empty and in bad shape. However, it stood on a small height commanding a fine view of the adjacent lake, giving the manor commercial potential. The unknown owner aimed to realise this potential by renovating the manor and adding on a semi-circle of modern villas. Behind a tall fence to keep out trespassers, construction workers were starting to transform it into what we guessed would be an exclusive resort. We were kindly allowed to take a look around. Such a commercial venture requires considerable financial backing. Prospects for success struck us as uncertain given the distance to St Petersburg. Maybe the owner hoped to attract tourists also from across the nearby Finnish border. Was this creation of luxury in the midst of poverty an old Russian tradition?

We headed next for Herttuala Manor outside Viborg, a graceful building with a lakefront view, once the home of Captain E. von Hertzen. We imagined that in this pastoral and idyllic environment a von Hertzen, perhaps the one mentioned by Runeberg in his patriotic poems of the war of 1808/1809, had once enjoyed brandy and good conversation on the veranda overlooking the lake. The graceful manor deserved no less!
However, our search for the manor appeared to be in vain. We were about to turn back when, driving down a desolate country road, we saw a cluster of trees in the middle of an abandoned field. Having come this far, we decided to take a closer look. We found no manor behind the trees, but we discovered foundation stones and metal works concealed in the midst of them by the underbrush. With so little remaining of the manor, our dream of enjoying a brandy on the veranda came to naught!
This is what remains of Herttuala Manor today
Driving a few hundred meters further on we turned a corner on this lonely country road and were surprised to discover a row of dachas under construction. Each dacha, the one more ostentatious than the other, had a waterfront view and an impenetrable fence around it. Here was a gated community in an abandoned landscape. This incongruous collection of different types of houses, each competing to be larger than its neighbour, was hardly the commercial venture of a well-heeled oligarch. It was more likely to be the result of individual speculation in real estate by those rich, clever and lucky enough to have obtained title to a lot here. We saw no signs of life.

We fled this conspicuous investment in the former Socialist paradise and set off to Kuusaa on the Isthmus to find the manor of the parents of Alexandra Kollontay (1872-1952). As Soviet ambassador in Stockholm 1930-1945, Madame Kollontay helped bring about the peace negotiations between Finland and the USSR that ended the Winter War. She had a personal interest in the Karelian Isthmus, having spent her summer vacations as a child in Kuusaa, then part of Finland but very close to St Petersburg. When she retired she planned to return to Kuusaa, then part of the USSR. She spent the last years of a remarkable life writing her memoirs in 10 volumes. An individualist, a radical feminist, an advocate of free thinking and free love and a compassionate soul, Mme Kollontay was not exactly Stalin’s type of girl. She would hardly have survived his purges had she remained in the USSR. She could not publish her memoirs at the time and deposited the ten volumes in a vault. They are now said to be in the closed archives of the Communist Party in Moscow. They are likely to be a treasure-trove of information about the period.
Looting accelerating at Kollontay Manor in Kuusaa; year 2000 (top), 2001 (left) and 2002 (right)
Source: Markus Lehtipuu                                                                                                                         
After the war, the manor was converted into a Pioneer Camp and new Soviet-style buildings were constructed around it. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, twenty years after her death, the houses stood empty. The manor burned down in May 2005 for unknown reasons. Today only the foundation remains. The buildings built during the soviet era were looted for their roofs and windows.
Kollontay Manor in Kuusaa; year 2011
We returned to Pyhäjärvi to close the circle. Anyone whose palate has relished the sweets served in the Fazer konditori on Glogatan (Klokatu) in Helsingfors (Helsinki) - or elsewhere - cannot resist the temptation to visit Taubila manor at Pyhäjärvi, last owned by Kommerserådet (Kauppaneuvos) Berta Fazer. (The translation ‘Commercial Councilor’ is but a pale shadow of this ancient and honorific title.) This was perhaps the most elegant of the donation manors built during the Russian period.
Taubila was previously also an example of the evils of serfdom, notorious for its “whipping pines” where corporal punishment of serfs was meted out. It was perhaps not a coincidence that the monument celebrating the abolition of serfdom was raised here in Pyhäjärvi.
Taubila Manor; year 2011 – Sic transit gloria mundi!
The Finnish civil war occurred only two generations after the abolition of serfdom and its evils were still remembered. It is fitting that the last monument to show on this post was one raised during Soviet times to honour the dead on the red side in the civil war.
Soviet Monument outside Viborg honouring the red fighters in the Finnish Civil War
The Manor houses in Old Finland were architectural pearls and their destruction a cultural loss. But they represented a social system, which cast a long shadow in Finland, both as an autonomous and as a sovereign state. Serfdom aroused strong feelings. Serfdom and civil war was a bitter legacy that Russia left behind in Finland. Was it the only legacy? Destruction of these magnificent manors on the Isthmus continues to this day. Soon they will be no more. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


The “Cross of Sorrow” at Koirinoja
Only a few memorials remind the traveler that Karelia’s silent green landscape is one huge war cemetery. About 83,000 Finns and 333,000 Russians (including civilians) died in the Winter War and the War of Continuation alone. About twice those numbers were wounded. In both wars Karelia was a battlefield where the dug-in Finnish army faced massive onslaughts. The largest pitched battle in the Nordic theatre took place in the Continuation War at Tali Ihantala (June-July 1944), just north of Viborg after its fall, and was decisive for Finland’s survival as a sovereign state. Only a laconic inscription, in Finnish and Russian, on a simple stone overlooks a strategic part of the vast battlefield. Finnish volunteers still search there for traces of the missing dead.
Memorial Stone at Tali Ihantala overlooking part of the battlefield
A more notable and impressive memorial is the Cross of Sorrow in Koirinoja (title picture), just north of Pitkäranta on the east coast of Lake Ladoga, commemorating one of the bloodiest battles of the Winter War. About 6,000 Finnish and 36,000 Russian soldiers were killed there in January-February 1940 as several Russian armored divisions headed towards Sordavala (Sortavala) from Petrozavodsk. Using their famous ‘motti’ tactic, the outnumbered Finns destroyed the Russian divisions by allowing them to advance along forest roads well into Finnish held territory before breaking the long columns into small, immobilized segments by simultaneous attacks from the side. (Motti is a Finnish word used for chopped fire wood.)
A “motti” attack left miles and miles of wreckage
After the fall of the USSR, the Russian and Finnish governments agreed in 1992 to honour the dead of both countries on both sides of the new border. Leo Lankinen, of Petrozavodsk, won the competition for the Koirinoja memorial which was raised among the trenches of the war.
Remains of war trenches at Koirinoja
Both sides agreed on the memorial’s form and text and funded its construction. Raised in 2002, it is still in good shape, which is more than can be said about the surrounding infrastructure. The near-by washroom facility did not survive the first winter. When spring came, local interests had removed the door and the sanitary equipment. A decade later the facility is still not restored and garbage accumulates in a large pile outside – an indication of the local authority’s priorities.
Modern conveniences are much sought after
More Finnish than Russian visitors appear to stop at the memorial. At our visit, a boisterous group of Russian school children played on the grounds, while their portable radio, placed on the memorial’s base, blared western music. We took the liberty to turn it off. Thereafter, we joined a group of Finnish visitors attentively listening to its guide’s lecture about the bloody battles on these fields.
The Finnish guide explains the battle of Koirinoja
Most of the members of the group were too young to have participated in these battles. We guessed that their parents had participated or were refugees from the area. They kindly offered us a cup of coffee from their portable canteen and cheered us on our way by singing the Marching Song (Marssilaulu) written during the Winter War by the Nobel Laureate in literature of 1939 Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1888-1964) and set to music by Aimo Mustonen. Click on the word “VIDEO" to see and hear them sing the song.
Nordic bonding at the Cross of Sorrow
We saw few memorials of the battles in the Winter War and the War of Continuation. However, we kept stumbling across reminders of the many battles in previous centuries. This was not surprising since today’s border is close to the border that prevailed between 1721 and 1812. Consider but two monuments that we saw!

The first commemorates the battle at Ruskeala on 17 May 1789. Presumably the monument was raised only after 1812 when Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy (although war memorials still had to be approved by the Czar). It was destroyed by the USSR after 1944, perhaps because it stood in the playground of the village’s nursery school and could have disturbed the minds of young children.
The Ruskeala Memorial in the thirties (possibly at the 150th anniversary) … and today
Seizing the opportunity given by the outbreak of war between Russia and Turkey in 1787, Gustav III attacked Russia in 1788 in the hope of recovering territorial losses of 1721. Incompetently prepared and unconstitutionally declared, the king’s war was doomed when his navy failed to gain mastery of the Bay of Finland at the outset. On land, Russian troops quickly dispersed an army led by an officer corps that was ill-trained and ill-motivated and unable to stop the Russians.

Openly opposed by the army’s Finnish officers in Finland, always the theater of wars with Russia, the war proved a series of disasters. Saved at last by a naval victory at the second battle of Svensksund (Ruotsinsalmi), Gustav III accepted an outcome of status quo ante bellum. Circles in the nobility, which formed the officers’ corps, exacted revenge by assassinating the king in 1792. The assassination provided the original plot for Verdi’s opera The Masked Ball.

The second memorial at near-by Pälkijärvi honoured heroes of the Finnish wars of 1789 and 1808-09. Among those involved was Fredric Vilhelm Malm (1772-1826), of Kuopio, who participated in both wars as an officer in the famous Savolax Brigade. In the first, he was promoted for bravery in battle. The second war started when Alexander I attacked Sweden, a year after meeting Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807, to force it to join the Continental Blockade against the United Kingdom.
Pälkijärvi Memorial
Who was Captain Malm, honoured by this lonely memorial at the intersection of two country roads in a desolate country?  We turned to Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877), Finland’s poet laureate of the Finnish war of 1808-1809, to find out. Runeberg mentions Malm in the very first poem of his war epic Fänriks Ståls sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål, Vänrikki Stoolin Tarinat), published in 1848 and 1860, where an inquisitive school boy asks a wizened veteran to tell him about the war.

Jag satte mig på sängens halm,                       I took my seat upon his cot,
Han började berätta                                         charmed by the tales he told
Om Dunkers eld, om Kapten Malm,              of Dunkers’ fire and Captain Malm
Om mången bragd för detta;                           and many a hero bold;

On 9-10 August 1808 Captain Malm had chosen to attack rather than to retreat. With a small band of soldiers and armed peasants, he pursued and routed a twice as large Russian troop at Pälkijärvi on the Finnish side of the border. Thereafter he crossed the border to occupy temporarily the village of Pirttipoja - the only Russian territory taken in that war. Dunker, a legendary figure himself, promoted Malm to Major.

Malm’s exploit had greater impact on morale than on the outcome of the war. This war was lost by incompetence and treason at higher levels. Gustav IV’s strategy was to fall back in the face of advancing Russian troops, converting all Finland, and ultimately Sweden proper, into battlefields. Runeberg captures popular dissatisfaction with the military leadership in his denunciation of the incompetent commander-in-chief, Gustaf Mauritz Klingspor (1744-1814).

”Den som sagt att Klingspor stannat,              “You say that Klingspor dares to face
Han har talt förbannat galet.                             The enemy? You’r sore mistaken!
Adlercruetz det var och Hertzen,                     Adlercreutz it was and Hertzen
Som slog knut uppå vår nesa.”                        Who put an end to our disgrace.”

Wherever we went, we were reminded that Karelia had been a battlefield between East and West for over one thousand years. From the Vikings to the crusaders, from the centuries’ long struggle with Russia for mastery of the coasts of the Baltic Sea to the expansion of Stalin’s USSR, Karelia was always the first battlefield. Now a wasteland, it is an example of a policy characterised already two thousand years ago by Tacitus: ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. 

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.