Karelian Religion

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KARELIAN RELIGION . The term Karelia (Finnish, Karjala ) has had different meanings throughout history. Historically, it was the borderland between Finland and Russia where most Karelians (Finnish, karjalaiset ) lived. At present, it typically refers to specific areas in contemporary Russia and Finland.

Recent Russian-Finnish researcharound Lake Ladoga and on the Karelian Isthmus, on the Elk and Guri Islands, in Bes Nos and other places on the shores of Lake Onega, around Uiku River, and in territories near the Kola Peninsulahas uncovered abundant archaeological evidence dating back to around 8000 bce that indicates migrations by several indigenous peoples with an ethnic makeup different from today. Elk, snake, bear, swan, goose, and sturgeon motifs found on objects from graves and petroglyphs dating back to 5500 bce provide hints of sacred histories, animal ceremonialism, and mythological pairings of man and animals.

The experience of living in a spatial and temporal borderland, and of being compelled to cross back and forth over various borders as the countries, cultures, and peoples around them change, has deeply affected Karelians. It has shaped their lifestyle, their worldview, and their religious history.

The Karelian language belongs to the Baltic Finnish group, and is closest to Finnish, with its "Karelian dialects" being spoken in the two eastern Finnish provinces of South Karelia (Etelä-Karjala) and North Karelia (Pohjois-Karjala). People living in the Autonomous Republic of Karelia in Russia speak five Baltic Finnish languages: Veps, Lude, and three forms of KarelianLivvi or Onega, South, and Viena (Dvina) or White Sea Karelian. The Izhor (inkeroiset) population (consisting of around 1,000 people living in Ingria on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland) speaks a Karelian-related language.

Tver, Novgorod, and Pihkova Karelians are descendants of Orthodox refugees who escaped from Karelian and Ingrian territories around Lake Ladoga to remote settlements throughout Russia after the signing of the Stolbova Treaty of 1617, which allowed Sweden to annex the province of Ingria. This exodus left space for Lutheran settlers entering from Savo (savakot) and Karelia (äyrämöiset). Lutheran identity became one of the main features of Ingrians, who endured Siberian exile after World War II, then relocated to Karelia, Estonia, and the district of St. Petersburg, and since 1990 to Finland, where around 25,000 Ingrians have entered as returnees. Today, their total population numbers around 100,000.

Throughout the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, violent religiously based transfers, Russian colonization, and Soviet deportation policies kept the Karelian portion of the population small wherever Karelians lived. Karelian speakers in the Autonomous Republic of Karelia number less than 60,000, under 10 percent of the total population. A group of around 30,000 Tver Karelians are the strongest Karelian ethnic group in Russia, both demographically and culturally.

Karelian history has been shaped by both political and religious struggles between Eastern and Western power blocs within Northern Europe. Along with other territories occupied by indigenous peoples, such as Livonia, Vatja (Votes), Ingria, Estonia, Bjarmia, Scridfinnia, and so on, Karelia was divided between East and Westfor the first time by the Pähkinänsaari Treaty of 1323, which split it between Sweden and Novgorod (Russia). Religiously, Karelia was a battleground between Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Byzantine Greek Orthodox) churches. Wars won by the kingdom of Sweden brought the Lutheran faith to Karelia, and the religious border between East and West was accordingly moved eastward. As Finland remained Lutheran, Karelians with different faiths moved across the Russian-Finnish border repeatedly until 1809, when Finland was annexed by Czarist Russia.

The October 1917 Revolution both led to Finland's independence and brought new divisions into Karelian history. Some Karelian-speaking territories became part of Finland in the north (villages in Kuusamo, Suomussalmi, Kuhmo, Ilomantsi) and south (Border and Ladoga Karelia). Within the Karelian-speaking territory not ceded to Finland, there was disagreement about whether Karelians should attempt to form an independent nation, should integrate themselves into the Soviet system, or should seek integration with Finland. After the pro-Soviet side won out, pro-independence Karelians staged the Karelian Rebellion of 19211922; when this was crushed around 33,500 refugees fled to Finland. The largest wave of refugees in Finnish history crossed the newly established Soviet-Finnish border, culminating in February 1922 with thousands of refugees who came from White Sea (Dvina) Karelia to northern Finland. Accounts of this exodus, consisting of the oral and written narratives of refugees and eyewitnesses (detailed in Pentikäinen, 1978, and Hyry, 1994), show that interaction between the inhabitants of northern Finland and White Sea Karelia continued in spite of the border. Refugees crossed back and forth over the border publicly and then secretly, using the routes they already knew and engaging in traditional cultural practices, such as singing poems, together with people from the other side. Soon, however, the border was totally closed, and Dvina Karelians living on both sides became divided from one another.

The narratives of the refugees indicate the strong influence of the Dvina Karelian tradition. The refugees who told and sang their history to Finnish scholars (Samuli Paulaharju, Martti Haavio, Pertti Virtaranta, Juha Pentikäinen, Katja Hyry, etc.) expressed themselves in the language of oral narrative and epical poetry, using Karelian genres such as the rune and the lament and calling on legends of the saints and folk tales. In the descriptions of the eyewitnesses to their flight, however, the refugees are considered as a kind of crowd or mass. They are seen either as part of "Us"that is, as relatives of the Finnsor as the "Other": a poor, helpless people who need our (Finns') help. The attitude of these eyewitnessesshared by some Finnish scholars at the timewas somewhat Social Darwinist: Dvina Karelians are thought of as a vanishing people whose traditions should be recorded for posterity's sake, but whose language should be replaced by Finnish as soon as possible. The problem of Karelian-language instruction remained unsolved today, due to this attitude, and because of the fact that for a number of Karelian languages no textbooks have been written and no writing systems have been devised.

Karelian literature is largely comprised of long narratives written by peasant authors, such as Antti Timonen. Exceptional length is also characteristic of Karelian oral expression, such as the epic cycles of White Sea Karelian male singers, which served as the basis for Elias Lönnrot's celebrated Kalevala (1835; rev. 1849). The folklore repertoire of refugees such as Marina Takalo (studied by Juha Pentikäinen, 1971, 1978) included all the basic genres of Karelian oral narrative and poetry. With their conservative Old Believer mentality and deep roots in folk culture, refugees favored those narratives and poems with the highest testimonial value concerning their orally transmitted folk and religious beliefs.

Self-identification as Old Believers, together with strong female leadership and emphasis on oral memory, has continued to characterize Russian- and Karelian-based Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Finland, in spite of official ties to the Byzantine Orthodox Church in Istanbul. The first contacts between Baltic Finnish people and Russian Old Believers took place as early as 800 ce in Novgorod in the heart of Finnish-speaking Russia. Vocabulary related to various aspects of Christianity (risti, cross; kirkko, church; pappi, priest: raamattu, the Bible) was taken into Finnish from Russian via these encounters. It was through Karelia that Finland absorbed the first traces of Christianity in its Russian Pre-Orthodox form, before the 1651 schism that led to the division of Russian Eastern Christianity into the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church and the conservative Old Faith (staraya verh). Karelia, with its location far from the centers of the Czarist empire, became the favored locale for Old Believer monasteries and a place to which Old Believers could escape. The majority of Karelians throughout Russia were Old Believers, to such an extent that the terms Karelian and Old Believer became synonymous.

The Kalevala, Finland's national epic, has its own importance for Karelians, as a sacred history rather than as a recording of oral mythology. Lönnrot, the author of the Kalevala and also a collector of runes, became the mythographer of the Finns. His research led him to identify the ancient basis of Finnish religion in the worship of Ukko, the Finnish deity of thunder.

Michael (Mikael) Agricola, the Lutheran reformer of Finland, was the first to recognize the cultural divide between East and West. The preface to his translation of the Psalter includes two lists of gods, one set worshiped by Tavastians in the west, the other by Karelians in the east. Uno Harva's Suomalaisten muinaisusko (The ancient religion of the Finns, 1948), and Martti Haavio's Karjalan jumalat (Karelian gods; 1959) both owe a debt to this early document on the most important border inside Finlandthat between East and West. Finnish religion has Western (Finnish), Karelian, and Northern nuances.

See Also

Finnish Religions; Finno-Ugric Religions.


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