Karelian Mythology in Finnish-Swedish Literature

There is a clear connection between a poet and her/his landscape. This often means that a writer’s childhood environment and other environments she/he has experienced appear again as literary environments. Literary landscapes are formed both by real impressions as well as dreams and fictive visions. The Finnish-Swedish psychoanalyst and author Mikael Enckell calls the literary landscape “an embrace in which the poem and the poet rest, see and discover.” I would like to take this as a motto for this paper.

A landscape that has a distinctly mythic dimension for Finnish art and culture is Karelia. The early 19th century already saw a growing interest in the cultural content of the Karelian landscape as part of the search for national identity, a search occurring in many parts of Europe at this time. In Finland this search lead to the discovery of a distinctive mythological world in Karelia in the form of the Karelian runes, the earliest evidence of Finnish culture. In the 1830s, the physician and scientist Elias Lönnrot travelled thousands of kilometres, in summer on foot and in winter on skis, throughout the vast Karelian region in order to collect the oral poems about Väinämöinen and other ancient Finnish heroes into what would become Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. Both the heroes and the Kalevala-Karelian milieu were rendered in visual form around the beginning the 20th century by the renowned Finnish artist Axel Gallén-Kallela during the epoch of national romanticism in Finnish art. In his paintings and frescoes we encounter the artist’s vision of the primeval Karelian and by natural extension the primeval Finn.

But can Kalevala also be seen as the foundation of Finnish-Swedish culture? One would probably have to answer in the negative. Initially, during most of the 19th century, the Kalevala was read in Finnish only by the educated class in Finland, which only spoke Swedish. The large popular Finnish editions did not appear until the 1880s, more than fifty years after the book was first published. Moreover, the concept of Finnish-Swedish identity did not emerge until the 1910s, when the language question in Finland was increasingly debated. Up until this time, the academic stratum for the most part spoke Swedish, although its members saw themselves as Finnish in terms of nationality, a legacy of the so-called Swedish period before 1809, when Finland was a part of Sweden.

Why then is Karelia so important for Finnish-Swedish literature, when this literature seems devoid of actual traces of Kalevala romanticism? The answer must be sought in another place and time and in a different literary tradition: in the 1920s, when emergent literary modernism began to exercise a pronounced influence on authors with roots in Karelia. Karelia as landscape is to be understood here as a border region with all such a region’s distinctive characteristics deriving from the confluence and interaction of languages and cultures.

Pedagogical thoroughness requires that I begin by describing where Karelia is located geographically. For Finns today the concept of Karelia is not unambiguous or even easy to define in geographical terms. For many Finns, Karelia is the province of Karelia in north-eastern Finland, where the country is at its widest. Many, especially younger generations have forgotten that Karelia is a great deal more than this: a vast region that stretches from the Gulf of Finland in the south-west, beyond Lake Ladoga to the White Sea in the north-east. In fact, in cultural-historical terms the original Karelia is a region covering an area as big as the whole of Finland.

The border between Finland and Russia has shifted over the centuries, but as a rule it has stretched directly through Karelia. Karelian history and culture are today still influenced by the fact that it is a border region with the distinctive characteristics that this entails. Karelian culture is not at all homogenous, but consists of many different cultural and linguistic elements, which have in many cases fused together or influenced each other in other ways. Today there are many different views of Karelia and what it constitutes. The definition depends on who you ask. From the Finnish point of view, it is especially White Sea Karelia and the Karelian Isthmus that represent important landscapes for our cultural specificity. White Sea Karelia or Northeast Karelia (Fjärrkarelen) is regarded as the land of the Kalevala folk, and as important for Finnish culture in literary, ethnographic and language-historical terms. After the Peace of Moscow was signed in 1940, East Karelia remained a Russian Soviet region and the Karelian Isthmus, which had long been part of Finland, now became part of the Soviet Union. The Karelian Isthmus in particular was a cultural cradle for many Finnish-Swedish and Finnish writers and artists. At the same time, it was also the home of many famous Russian writers and artists. Among others, Ilja Repin, Leonid Andreyev and Anna Akhmatova lived and worked there for long periods.

Karelia is not only difficult to define geographically; it is also a mythic landscape in the mind of the people. The Karelia that was definitively ceded to the Soviet Union in 1944 survives as a childhood memory of a forever ravaged landscape in the minds of those who were evacuated to Finland. Over several generations, many Finns have attempted to come to terms with the trauma connected with the conclusion of peace, when large parts of Karelia, with all its cultural and economic importance, were ceded to the Soviet Union. The war meant that a large part of the population of this region (above all those who spoke Finnish and Swedish) had to surrender their homeland forever and flee to Finland – some 400,000 people in total. Today, the population of these Karelian areas is made up to a great extent by people who stayed there or who were more or less forcibly settled there during the Stalinist period. Approximately 100,000 collective-farm families were moved to Karelia from different parts of the Soviet Union.

Prior to 1940, the Karelian Isthmus, that is the area between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, was Finland’s most cosmopolitan province and Wiborg the country’s most cosmopolitan town, above all because it was a lively trading centre. The population included Finns, Swedes, Russians, Germans and Baltic peoples. During the 19th century, the Russian upper and middle classes had summer villas built there, particularly along the coast of the Gulf of Finland but also by the lakes on the isthmus, which today still lend the isthmus its special character. However, up until 1940, the largest part of the population on the Karelian isthmus consisted of Finnish-speaking and in some cases Russian-speaking rural folk.

It can be said then that the Karelian Isthmus was the cradle of emergent modernist tendencies, particularly in Finnish-Swedish literature but also in its Finnish counterpart. Although the writer Hagar Olsson spent her initial years in Åbo, she spent her youth and summers as a young adult up until 1939 in Räisälä on the Karelian Isthmus, where her father was a pastor. The writer brothers Henry, Ralf and Oscar Parland spent their childhood and youth on the Tikkala estate outside Wiborg. In the 1930s, the Villa Golicke in the village of Kuokkala in Kivinebb on the coast of the Gulf of Finland became a centre for several important artists. The villa was owned by the painter Sven Grönvall and his cousin, the graphic artist Ina Behrsen, who had married Tito Colliander. The artist couple Ina and Tito Colliander lived in the villa for some years, and in the summer they often received both Finnish-Swedish and Swedish writers and artists as guests, who were curious about and thrilled by the strangely dreamlike environment in this Karelian backwater, which still bore witness to the glories of the imperial period. From here on a clear day one could look across the water and make out the intimidating Kronstadt fortress, which had been the site of so many uprisings. The Finnish-Swedish writers Ralf and Oscar Parland and Elmer Diktonius and the Swedish writers Gunnar Ekelöf, Erik Lindegren and Ebbe Linde were regular guests at Villa Golicke. It was not seldom that an excursion was organised to the village of Raivola situated some ten kilometres away in order to visit the writer Edith Södergran’s mother Helena, who was glad to show visitors her daughter’s favourite places and her grave.

Several literary works by writers with roots in pre-war Karelia can be described as confrontations with the idyllic and myth-spun landscape of their childhood and youth; several works by Tito Colliander, who fled from Petrograd to Finland in 1918, describe one of his favourite places, the villa settlement in the Terijoki district on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, including the novel The House Where They Drank (Huset där det dracks,1932) which deals with Terijoki in the 1920s and 1930s and features Russian emigrants, sporadic summer guests and other rootless existences. In the thirties, Terijoki was still one of Finland’s liveliest bathing resorts. The novel Taina (1935) is set in Kuokkala in Terijoki and deals with a Russian girl who has fled from the island of Kronstadt, where the Russian fleet has its base. In Colliander’s series of memoirs he describes very clearly the concrete rootlessness, the anxiety and fear that comes from losing one’s home and landscape. The experience of standing hungry in bread queues and living the life of a refugee leads the writer to profile himself as a socially engaged outsider.

The writer and later professor of literature Olaf Enckell made his debut with the novel A Monastery Adventure (Ett klosteräventyr, 1930) in which he describes how a young man bored to death with his life in Helsinki visits Valamo monastery to find peace but instead finds a foreign orthodox world which he finds both interesting and discomforting. In later books he is more socially engaged when he describes the partly Russian milieu in the northern part of the Karelian Isthmus and around Lake Ladoga. Hagar Olsson also describes the Karelian landscape of her childhood in The Woodcarver and Death (Träsnidaren och döden, 1940) a document of her reaction to peace of 1940 and the ceding of the Karelian Isthmus to the Soviet Union. The characters in her novel search for peace in the Valamo, Konevitsa and Lintula monasteries.

It is hardly realistic to expect my audience here to listen to a long list of different Finnish-Swedish writers who have contributed to the mythologisation of Karelia. I have therefore selected two writers who have been important for me personally, but who also have a very specific relationship with the physical landscape of Karelia, namely Edith Södergran and Oscar Parland.

The motto I chose for this paper of the literary landscape as “an embrace in which the poem and the poet rest, see and discover” is very relevant to the interpretation of Edith Södergran’s writing. Edith Södergran has often – in a somewhat stereotyped and superficial fashion – been associated with her home village of Raivola in Karelia. Her poems describe and take as their point of departure the author’s own micro-milieu in the garden around her home, and the intense myth-making around Södergran and her writing has led many to go so far as to even try to identify the trees and slopes referred to in her poems. Edith Södergran’s writing has been subject more than that of most other authors to the disadvantages of biographical interpretation. The myth around Södergran as a writer is difficult to negotiate: she was a woman, unmarried, a pioneer, partly misunderstood, ill, isolated and still young when she died – all the ingredients for the myth of the artist to revel in. The interpretation and understanding of her poems have also been influenced by the fact that her physical landscape was part of the area which was ceded to the Soviet Union, although this happened almost 20 years after her death. Also notable is the fact that she and her poems are seen as deriving from a Karelian exoticism, although she hardly identified herself as Karelian or mentioned the word Karelia in her poems.

Edith Södergran and Olga Fabritius from St. Petersburg. © Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland

Edith Södergran was born in St. Petersburg in 1892, grew up in a middle-class Finnish-Swedish family, attended a German girls’ school in St. Petersburg and spent the greater part of her life in the mostly Finnish-speaking village of Raivola, a village with a railway station between Viborg and St. Petersburg. Today her writings are seen as constituting a paradigm shift, and her first collection of poetry, Poems 1916 (Dikter 1916) represents the breakthrough of literary modernism in Scandinavia.

There has been much discussion about Edith Södergran’s isolation on the Karelian Isthmus, but up until the Russian Revolution of 1917 it would seem that all the prerequisites were present for her to have access to the latest avant-garde literature in St Petersburg and Viborg. It was more the case that the literary establishment in Helsinki was isolated from the rest of Europe. Since it was difficult there to gain information about the latest developments in Europe, it is perhaps not so surprising that literary modernism was introduced to Finland and Scandinavia by a seemingly unusual and isolated poet in Raivola, who nevertheless had access to the latest literary works by Russian futurists and German Expressionists. Södergran drew her influences from a variety of linguistic regions. She was able to read the very latest literature in the original language; she read Severyanin and Balmont in Russian, Nietzsche, Maximilian Dauthendey, Else Lasker Schüler and Mombert in German, Rimbaud and Maeterlinck in French, Walt Whitman in English, and she attempted to read Eino Leino and Frans Eemil Sillanpää in Finnish. Her stays at Nummela sanatorium in central Finland and the some two years she spent in a sanatorium in Davos in Switzerland certainly also provided a cultural springboard for her literary development.

At the beginning of 20th century, Raivola was a lively holiday spot, with many luxury villas situated along the steep shore of the long Onkamo Lake; most of these belonged to the Russian upper class. The village had many shops, a photographic studio, two large sawmills and two factories which produced tobacco tins. The population of Raivola, like many other places on the Karelian Isthmus, represented a mixture of language groups. The buildings and the cultural milieu in general were characterised by a combination of Russian, Baltic, German, Finnish and Swedish influences, although the majority of the population was made up of Finnish-speaking rural folk.

Already here we find a key to what many today see as Södergran’s Karelian exoticism: the fact that she had direct contact with so many languages and cultures. Her Karelian exoticsim is thus not specifically Karelian as such but rather a result of her living as apart of a linguistic and social minority in a border region. Finnish-Swedish writers who met her in 1917 in Helsinki commented on her “Russian appearance” and her archaic Swedish, cultural peculiarities stemming from her background as a Finnish-Swede “abroad.”

Edith Södergran’s own experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequent incidents associated with the civil war in Finland, and the flood of refugees during the First World War also indirectly influenced her poetry. After 1917, she more or less remained at home in Raivola; the wealth she had once had disappeared as a result of the revolution. Her literary landscape was ultimately reduced to her own garden, which, in spite of its small size, played a role in her poetry that ranged from microcosm to macrocosm. From her garden she could loudly proclaim famous sentences such as “I am not a woman, I am a neuter.” – “ It is not for me to make me less than I am”. The fact that from her garden in Karelia Edith Södergran formulated concepts of the “New Woman” is thus not a sign of an isolated new Karelian vision of womanhood but the result of occurrences of the time, cultural confluence and literary currents generally moving around Europe.

Edith Södergran died in midsummer 1923 and was buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery which lay on the other side of her garden fence. Raivola was evacuated in autumn 1939, and Edith Södergran’s mother moved to eastern Finland, where she died one month later. Raivola today remains a place of pilgrimage for tenacious Södergran admirers, although the objects of her immediate world – her home, her garden, the nearby church and the cemetery – are no longer there. Parts of Raivola were devastated during the war, and the village rebuilt as Rotschjino is a new and very different place. In the 1960s, a monument was constructed on the place where it is thought that Södergran’s house once stood, bearing a text that is oddly enough only in Swedish. The pilgrimages to Raivola of course fulfil their function, providing a sense of the former idyll, allowing visitors breathe the same air as Edith Södergran, and enabling one in some way to be part of what was once referred to as “Karelian exoticism”.

My other example of the Karelian mythologisation in Finnish-Swedish literature is that of Oscar Parland’s autobiographical works The Enchanted Path (Den förtrollade vägen,1953), The Year of the Bull (Tjuren’s år, 1962) and the novel The Mirror Lad (Spegelgossen) published posthumously in 2001. These works are based on the author’s own experiences and represent a confrontation with the landscape of his childhood. Oscar Parland can be regarded as the most cosmopolitan of all Finnish-Swedish writers (together his brothers Ralf and Henry.) He referred to himself as an Englishman, although he was born in Russia, spoke German as his mother-tongue, attended a Swedish school and had Finnish citizenship. His description of himself as English was an expression of his sense of homelessness and disorientation within Finland’s cultural sphere. His parents grew up in St Petersburg and had a cultural background which included Baltic, German, English, Finnish and Russian influences. The fact that he chose to write in Swedish may seem odd, but for many so-called emigrant Russians who moved to Finland in connection with the Russian Revolution Swedish was a natural choice as a language of education and everyday life since they found it easier to assimilate into the minority constituted by the Finnish Swedes. Although the Parland family were not emigrant Russians in a strict sense but rather Finnish citizens who had lived in Russia for long periods, both parents had little knowledge of Finnish and Swedish, and they communicated in German and Russian. Between the years 1914 and 1919, the Parland family lived on the Tikkala family estate near Wiborg, which also became the primary literary landscape in Oscar Parland’s writings. The three more or less autobiographical books feature numerous Baltic German and Russian aunts and uncles – who in fact numbered 37 – who invaded the estate to escape from the revolution. The relatives are described as more or less eccentric Chekhovian characters, some of them quite frightening with obvious mental problems. The quarrels and envy among the relatives were accentuated by the serious food shortages and poverty. Contact between Oscar Parland’s father and his family was periodically interrupted since the former was working in St Petersburg in a white-collar job with the state railways and remained there when the border between Finland and Russia was closed. In 1922, the whole family managed to move to Grankulla outside Helsinki. However, they still spent the summers in Karelia up until the end of the 1930s.

Oscar Parland was born in Kiev in 1912 and died in Helsinki in 1997. He worked as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and, in addition, he wrote music reviews and novels. He is among the few writers who have very clearly described the connection between the poetic world and the real one – in the essay collection Knowledge and Insight [Kunskap och inlevelse, 1991] In this book he puts forward an interesting theory of why expressionism had such an early and powerful influence on Finnish literature. He argues that The Finnish-Swedes as a minority culture were subject to a greater degree of linguistic insecurity and multilingualism, elements typical of expressionist texts of the time. He further suggests that “Modernism’s syntactic emancipation and associative richness perhaps have something to do with the need [of the Finnish-Swedes] to rejuvenate a form of expression that is threatened by the poverty of vocabulary and an increasing superficiality,” something that often happens in the case of a minority language. I cannot judge whether this reasoning is correct, but it does seem to apply to the examples of Parland and Södergran: both lacked a fixed relationship to their mother-tongue, were atypical representatives of Finnish-Swedishness and had a multilingual upbringing.

And what of the Karelian aspect in the case of Parland? In Parland’s autobiographical works, everything is described from the perspective of a child; in the first novel the boy is 4 to 5 years old, and in the last between 7 and 9. The novels are written from a level of consciousness between reality and fantasy, and they lack chronological structure. The child’s experiences are described with an apparent psychological and scientific sharp-sightedness, for which literature, art and music have a central meaning. As a result Parland’s texts seem fragmentary, and rather than a concrete reality the action takes place in a world of the mind. The Karelian element is evident in the choice of motif; the stories take place within a childhood environment characterised by a chaotic mixture of languages and cultural peculiarities which share the space on the Tikkala estate. Life here stands in obvious contrast to the surrounding Finnish rural environment. Another notable feature is that Parland started writing his trilogy in 1941, when the childhood landscape had been lost forever through the war. The last book, The Mirror Lad, begins with an episode in which Oscar Parland himself returns to Tikkala as a soldier during the war.

On a general cultural level, then, Finland lost the region that in many ways can be seen as the cradle of many important literary and artistic currents. Everything from the Kalevala tradition to emergent Modernist tendencies within Finnish and Finnish-Swedish literature was nourished by the Karelian landscape and culture. However, Karelian mythology in Finnish-Swedish literature is not a result of some genuine Karelian tradition but rather a result of the historical upheavals which occurred and the cultural confluence that is often manifested in border regions.

Seen from a historical and cultural point of view, the Karelian Isthmus constitutes something distinct from the rest of the region. As a theatre of war, the whole of Karelia has been subjected to large political and social upheavals, and the resultant changes have been particularly stark on the Karelian Isthmus. In the 19th century, the isthmus was an idyllic spot, especially for wealthy residents of Petersburg, who went there in search of the beautiful natural environment which still attracts people today. 1917 was a fateful year for many people; the First World War and the revolution in Russia had far-reaching consequences for Finland, which became an independent nation separated from Russia by a well-guarded border. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Karelian Isthmus became a refuge for many Russian emigrants and a summer paradise for many Finnish families. The revolutions and the wars transformed everything. Refugees flooded into the region, internment camps were set up, and starvation and poverty became widespread. For many Finns the bleeding wound of the Karelian Isthmus left at the end of the war has still not healed. There are many who have seen their idyllic childhood landscape devastated and transformed. And now new generations are coming with their own point of view. To whom does Karelia belong? World history and political ideologies can have fateful consequences for individual journeys through life. And what remains then? Scents, feelings, sensations, or the words and the poem.


Lecture given at the Visby conference on "The Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002