Podium: Let us dare to be Karelians

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The Independent Culture


From a speech given

by the President of Finland at the Karelian Summer festival

in Vaasa, Finland

LATER THIS year it will be six decades since the first time that the Karelians were forced, in autumn 1939, to leave the districts that had been their home for thousands of years.

Like many others, I have often wondered what might be the source of the enormous sense of affinity that gets the entire Karelian tribe on the move to gather in large numbers year after year. There can probably be only one answer: the loss of homeland and home in the wake of the Second World War has been such an onerous shared experience for the Karelians that it keeps this tribe united from generation to generation.

I have said in many contexts, and also in Russia, that being forced to become evacuees was a traumatic experience for the Karelians. Many Finns regard the loss of Karelia as a major injustice. Consciousness of a historical wrong does not disappear by itself, but lives on in one way or another irrespective of whether it is talked about in public or not.

That the Yugoslavian crisis, which has lasted several years, can go so far shows once again what ethnic disputes generated by efforts to redress historical wrongs can, at their worst, lead to.

Although we lost our home districts, our native country was preserved. The road that the evacuees had to follow was hard , but the resettlement of the Karelian population was a success.

As a nation we have much to give to European cooperation - as Ostrobothnians, Karelians, Savonians and representatives of other Finnish tribes and regional identities. We can be proud of our own tribal roots. They are the foundation on which, from childhood on, we have been able to build our own world view, the importance of which as a philosophical and ethical anchor in an increasingly supranational world is constantly growing.

Here it is good to remember that Karelia's location as a borderland, in a setting of interaction with many cultures, has given the Karelians an attitude to life that accepts, tolerates and is receptive to other cultures.

A small nation is recognised by its language and culture. A strong identity is a good starting point. A sense of local identity and an international outlook are not mutually exclusive, but rather form the solid foundation of the future on which our children can build their Karelian heritage.

Karelian culture has become a central part of the essence of Finnishness. Therefore it and Karelia itself must be seen as a matter that concerns the whole of Finland and all Finns rather than just us Karelians.

The strongest roots of Finnish culture are in the Kalevalan and Kanteletar tradition. That tradition has significantly contributed to the birth of our national awareness, to the shaping of an entire nation. Therefore within every Finn is a bit of Karelian culture, an old and stately pine, a landmark in a shifting landscape.

We cannot overlook Jean Sibelius, our most internationally-renowned composer, whose musical world view was strongly influenced by Karelia and Europe. As he himself said: "It was in Karelia that the Finnish tone of compositions was found."

A century ago, the cultural trend called Karelianism was a powerful source of inspiration for many of our internationally famous artists, such as Louis Sparre, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Emil Wikstrom, Eero Jarnefelt and Juhani Aho, to mention but a few great names. For many of these artists, Karelianism meant defending Finnishness at a turning point in history, in a period when the ascent of the nation was under threat.

Thus it is no wonder that the scenery and character of Karelia are reflected so strongly in Finnish art, in music, literature and the visual arts. World music grows from folk music, as we can note from the success of the group Varttina, which comes from Karelia. Our task is to put in place the conditions that are essential for the preservation of a Karelian tone in cultural life and in the Finnish lifestyle.

To us Karelians the loss of our native districts has been concrete. Precisely for that reason, the poet Eino Leino's words: "Home is not just a valley, a village, a lake or a shoreline, but rather part of our deepest being" touch us especially deeply.

Many a mother has sent her children out into the world with the words: "Don't forget where you come from." The meaning of these words becomes clear sooner or later, I can personally assure you.

Let us dare to be Karelians and show it. The stronger and clearer our own image of ourselves is, the better we shall be.