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ETHNONYM: Karjalaiset


Identification. The Karelians belong to the Baltic-Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugrian peoples. The Karelians are not nor have they ever been a unified ethnos. They presently live in Finland and the former Soviet Union and have been partially assimilated into the Finn and Russian populations, but many consider themselves Karelian even though they cannot speak the Karelian language. They are not officially counted in Finland, but the Karelians in Russia are included in the census as a separate people. Since the Middle Ages the Karelians have formed a portion of the Finnish nationality, and the Finnish and Karelian folk traditions have a great deal in common. The Karelians, however, differ from both the Russians and the Finns in language and from the Finns also in religion.

Location. Prior to World War II, the Finnish Karelians lived chiefly in Border Karelia, in eight districts along the northeastern shore of Lake Ladoga. After the war, the area was ceded to the USSR and the population was resettled in Finland. Soviet Karelians live primarily in the Karelian Republic, which is flanked by Finland in the west, by Murmansk in the north, by Arkhangel'sk in the east, and by Leningrad in the south. The capital of the republic is Petrozavodsk.

The surface area of the republic is 172,400 square kilometers and includes many eskers, lakes (at least 61,000), and rivers, which are glacial formations. Onega and Ladoga are the largest lakes. Water covers 20,000 square kilometers, and 49 percent of the republic's area is forest; there is also a great deal of marshland. Northern Karelia is a part of the Eurasian zone of conifers; in southern Karelia there are leafy trees (birches, rowans, alders) besides conifers. Forestland has plentiful berries (blue-, cow-, and cloudberries) and mushrooms. The fauna includes big animals such as deer, bears, wild boars (in the south), and wolves and small ones such as beavers, squirrels, rabbits, badgers, and marten; on Lake Ladoga there are marble seals.

On average, agricultural land of the republic is 1.3 percent (in some parts of the south 4-13 percent and in the extensive north 0.5 percent) of the total land area. Because of the sea, the climate is relatively warm compared with other northern areas east of Karelia. The annual average temperature is 0.5° C in the north and 2.6° C in the south.

Demography. After World War II, 400,000 Finns and Karelians moved to other parts of Finland from Border Karelia and the Karelian Isthmus, which had been ceded to the USSR; 35,000 of them were ethnic Karelians (i.e., they spoke Karelian) of the Russian Orthodox religion. The remainder were Finnish-speaking people, mainly Lutherans. These migrants came for the most part from rural areas and were resettled in the countryside of Finland. Urbanization in Soviet Karelia increased after the war: in 1987, 81.4 percent of the population lived in towns. In 1989 the total population was 795,000, with 77,200 registered as Karelians. The total number of Karelians in the USSR was 138,000 in 1979. Most of the Karelians currently live in the Olonec and Prääsä regional units in the south and in the Kalevala District in the north.

Linguistic Affiliation. Karelian is one of the Baltic-Finnic languages and is divided into three main dialects: North Karelian, spoken in the northern area of former Soviet Karelia, and the Livonian and Lydian dialects of the south. Each dialect is still quite different from the others, which makes it difficult to develop a single written Karelian language. Some Finnish Karelians in Border Karelia spoke the Livonian and some the North Karelian dialect. There is no official written Karelian language, though it has been written to some extent in both Finland and the USSR. Today Karelians in Finland generally speak Finnish; in Russia, primarily Russian. Through 1945 the Karelian Isthmus, which was regionally called "Karelia" and whose Finnish-speaking population referred to themselves as "Karelians," was also a part of Finland. On the basis of language and origin they can be considered Finnish. No examination of this group will be made in the following discussion.

History and Cultural Relations

Contemporary Karelia, located on both sides of the Finnish-Russian border, has been inhabited by some group speaking a Baltic-Finnish language for at least 1,000 years. The Karelians were first mentioned in the Scandinavian sagas (Egil-saga) in 874 and later on in the so-called Novgorodian Chronicle in 1143, when they took part in a military invasion against the Western Finnish tribes. In the thirteenth century the Karelians inhabited large areas around Lake Ladoga, some areas of eastern Finland, the Karelian Isthmus, and areas around the White Sea and Lake Onega. This area became a battlefield between Novgorod (later Muscovy) and Sweden and was divided. The same division has been maintained in varying forms in the twentieth century. With Finnish independence in 1917, Border Karelia remained part of Finland. The Karelian Autonomous Republic was established in 1923 in the new socialist state out of the old Russian Karelia, succeeding the Karelian Labor Commune (Karel'skaja Trudovaja Kommuna) formed in 1920. In 1940 the area of the autonomous republic and the areas ceded by Finland to the USSR after the Russo-Finnish War formed the Karelian-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic (Karelo-Finskaja SSR), which was again changed in 1956 to an autonomous republic. During World War II Soviet Karelia was occupied by German and Finnish forces.

Following World War II, Border Karelia and the Karelian Isthmus were ceded to the USSR. Thus the Finnish Karelians were displaced from their old Karelian location.


Karelian settlements were generally located by a river or body of water. Village types can be classified as follows: irregular villages, sparsely populated, the houses scattered and distant from one anotherespecially prevalent in the north; ordered-row villages, in which the houses are arranged along the shore of a river or lake; and street villages, in which the houses are oriented with the gables toward the street (more recent than the other two, this type was initiated by administrative decree). The latter two types appear in the south among Finnish Karelians. After World War II rural settlement was centralized and the old villages were deserted.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Karelian economy, prior to the changes of 1917 to 1918, combined small-scale agriculture and modest stock raising with hunting (especially of furbearing animals) and fishing. Fur pelts were sold, as were salted and dried fish. In the early twentieth century, burned-over woodland was still farmed in addition to arable land. Livestock included cows, sheep, and goats; pigs were also kept in the southern areas and reindeer in the northern. Ironworks began to develop in the eighteenth century and sawmills in the nineteenth; trade, too, expanded. Some Finnish Karelians began working in Olonec, others in St. Petersburg, and northern Karelians traded in Finland and went to fish in Norway. After the Revolution, the economy of Russian Karelia changed radically: state and collective farms were established and agriculture was mechanized. The forest, mining, and foundry industries were enlarged. Border Karelia, as a section of independent Finland, had to orient itself to Finland rather than to St. Petersburg and Olonec. The lumber industry developed in the region. New arable land was cleared for agriculture.

Industrial Arts. Folk art in some form (weaving, birchbark- and woodwork, ceramics) has today developed into professionally based industrial art. Compared with Finnish folk art, Karelian folk art is more colorful: decorated wood and birch-bark articles (e.g., the archaic wooden spinning seat, kuosali ) and very rich embroidery (traditional pearl-embroidered women's headdressessorokk, lakkipaikka, cäpci and ceremonial towels, käzipaikka ). The influence of Russian folk art on Karelian art is obvious.

Trade. In the nineteenth century Karelians in the Arkhangelsk District of northern Russia traveled around Finland as peddlers (koroboinik ) selling cloth, textile products, and consumer goods. At the end of the century many Karelian merchants opened shops in Finland. Before 1917 Border Karelian trade was directed toward St. Petersburg. Trade in Soviet Karelia was in state hands; to some extent, however, private enterprise did exist.

Division of Labor. Women performed the household and child-care tasks. Outdoor work included certain agricultural work (e.g., haying and harvesting, threshing), caring for the livestock, and fishing. Women grew and processed flax and wool for spinning, and they spun and wove cloth. While the men were at work or peddling, the younger women often handled the farming and fishing, too. They did not engage in hunting. The older women took care of the household tasks and child raising. In addition to their gainful employment and farming, the men were also skilled carpenters and did their own building. Men were involved in handicrafts such as wood-, straw-, and birch-bark work, smithing, and ceramics, but never those involving textiles. Children first helped with the household chores and looked after their siblings, then gradually became involved in tending the stock and other outdoor tasks. In addition to a division of labor by gender, one can also note a division by generation.

Land Tenure. Conditions of landownership have varied throughout the course of history. In the early nineteenth century Finnish Karelia was still dominated by the so-called system of land grants, which had developed in the previous century, in which the land was in the hands of a few noblemen, the peasants having the right to use it. In the late nineteenth century the peasants were given the right to purchase land for themselves; the state took over some of the land and some peasants became tenant farmers; after 1917 these tenants gained the right to purchase their farms. In nineteenth-century Russian Karelia the peasants were chiefly the czar's peasants but also served the gentry and the monasteries. At that time, there were mirsvillage communities that had a collective right to use village land. The reforms of 1861 and 1906-1914 gave the peasants the right to purchase land shares for their own use. An even greater part of the formerly communal land shifted to private ownership. Following the Revolution all land reverted to common ownership, either as cooperative or state farms, in conjunction with the collectivization begun in 1929.


Kin Groups and Descent. There were three categories of relatives (sugulaiset, omaizet ): first-degree relatives (blood relatives), determined by descent through the male line; second-degree relatives (relations through marriage); and third-degree relatives (religious, or so-called spiritual relations). The importance of lineage of the first type is a factor in all decisions concerning the members of the lineage (e.g., in land use); this is evident in life rituals. Second-degree lineage is more formal.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology varies with degree of relationship. Most terms for blood relatives are common to other Baltic-Finnish languagesand thus are very old: namely, emä (mother), izä (father), poiga (son), tytär (daughter), sisar (sister), and velli (brother). Exceptions are the terms of the third-degree relatives, which are included in this blood-relative category: namely, rist'izä (godfather) and rist'emä (godmother), reflecting the important role of godfather and godmother. In case of the parents' death, they are obliged to take care of the child. Most kinship terms based on marriage are of Russian origin: svajakka (wife's sister's husband or wife's brother), svuat (son-in-law's/daughter-in-law's father), n'evesk (bride), zeniha (bridegroom), surd'ak (wife's brother). Some terms for blood relatives are of Russian origin, too: namely, d'ädä (uncle) and t'ötä (aunt).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is a union of two lineages. Traditional weddings lasted several days, with plenty to eat and drink, magical occurrences, poems, and lamentations. The percentage of church weddings was not large. Small-scale weddings, in which the bride moved to the groom's home, with the ceremony performed only thereafter, began to develop in the late nineteenth century.

Domestic Unit. In the early twentieth century, and still to some degree until World War II, extended families of three or four generations did exist, although the common domestic unit was the nuclear family. The family can be categorized as patriarchal, patrilinear, and patrilocal. If a family had no sons, the daughter's husband could come to live in the house as a kodavävy (live-in son-in-law). The izändä (head of the household) was the father or oldest son, who directed the outdoor work and made financial decisions. The emändä (mistress of the house), generally the wife of the izändä or oldest woman, supervised stock raising and indoor tasks. Gender division was also expressed by the names for the wife: if her first child were a boy, she was called mucoi, akka if the child were a girl.

Inheritance. Land inheritance could be either in the form of actual ownership or land use. Although different laws were enacted in Finnish and Russian Karelia, there were many common features regarding inheritance. Men and women had equal legal rights. Widows, too, have been able to inherit the farm and run it. In practice, however, a son generally inherited the farm because women moved to their husbands' homes. According to customary law, the girls received some personal effect from the household (e.g., a cow, goat, textiles, spinning wheel). If the household had no son, the kodavävy or even some outsider's son might become head of the household and in this way inherit it. Currently, Finnish law mandates that the widow and children inherit. In Soviet Karelia individuals could inherit houses and other personal effects, but not land.

Socialization. Previously the Karelians socialized primarily within the family and village. Traditions were strong; the guiding influence of living and dead relatives was great. Tradition had been adapted to the doctrines of the Orthodox church, which represented the official socializing force. In the twentieth century the school, various hobby groups, and mass media have become increasingly important factors in socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Prior to the twentieth century, the majority of Karelians on both sides of the border were either independent landowning peasants, tenant farmers, or landless. Representatives of the first two groups earned their living in part from their own farm and in part from wage labor. A commercial bourgeoisie gradually began to develop in the nineteenth century. There was a small Karelian intelligentsia. After the Revolution, the means of production as well as the land were nationalized in Russian Karelia. Private ownership prevails in Finland.

Political Organization. Before the Revolution the Russian Karelians lived in the districts of Arkhangelsk and Olonec. Afterwards, the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Republic, divided into fifteen districts (raions ), was established. The republic was governed by the president, Supreme Soviet, and higher party officials. Beneath them were the local soviets (area, village, and town councils). Throughout history, Finnish Border Karelia has sometimes been under Russian, sometimes under Swedish-Finnish rule. In the nineteenth century the region was a part of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland and thus a part of the Russian Empire. After the 1917 Revolution, the portion of Border Karelia that was part of independent Finland began to develop local political organizations.

Social Control. Public opinion and tradition coupled with the national judiciary form the social-control system.

Conflict. Conflicts were national, political, or social. National conflicts were wars or other wrangles, first with Sweden, then with Finland, Novgorod, and Muscovy (later Russia and the USSR). In these wars Karelia had continuously been a battlefield and site of border adjustments. One part of Karelia has always belonged to an eastern state and another to a western one. Social conflicts mainly concerned landownership. Swedish government attempts to assimilate Finnish Karelians to the Finnish people (propagation of Lutheranism, the Finnish language, and the Swedish-Finnish life-style) sometimes involved violence (especially in the seventeenth century). The consequence of this was the mass escape of Karelians to Russia, mostly to Kalinin District (formerly Tver District) near Moscow, where there still are Karelian people.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. By the Middle Ages the Karelians had been converted to Orthodox Christianity. Today there are also Lutheran Karelians, especially in Finland, and Karelians who profess no religion. Alongside Christianity and blended with it, however, persisting into the twentieth century, a pre-Christian religion with mythological features still existed (animal ceremonialism, cult worship of the dead, and guardian spirits). There is a great deal of mythological material in the folk poetry of the Kalevala. The haldii were the guardian spirits of nature, animals, and certain cultural places. Until the end of the nineteenth century a sect of Old Believers (Starovera, also Raskolniki), who had been excommunicated from the Orthodox church in the late seventeenth century, was widespread in Russian Karelia. The Old Believer religion played a role in hindering the advance of institutionalized Christianity.

Religious Practitioners. The Orthodox religion was instituted by the church and its leaders, the traditional religion by family or village representatives. The many forms of guardian spirits and death-cult worship were assimilated into the Christian church's worship of saints. Traditional religious specialists have included the seer or wise man (Karelian: tiedäjä; Finnish: tiedoiniekku [both derived from the word tietää, "to see or know"]; Russian: patvashka ).

Ceremonies. In addition to Christian ceremonies (and partially assimilated into them), there are ceremonies pertaining to the death cult and the worship of guardian spirits. The funeral ceremonies, muistajaiset, were held at specified times (see "Death and Afterlife"). Mourners lamented beside the grave and brought food to the deceased. In the twentieth century animal sacrifice (mainly bulls and rams) was still made for the blessing of livestock. The sacrifice was combined with the pruazniekka, the festival held in honor of the village's Christian patron saint.

Arts. The Karelians are known for their old epic and lyric folk poetry, which the Finnish scientist Elias Lönnrot collected (both in Finnish and in Russian Karelia) and published in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Kalevala, which is called the Finnish national epic or the Finnish-Karelian epic. The Karelians are also known for their spells and lamentations, wooden architecture since the eighteenth century (e.g., the Kiz Church and monumental peasant houses), and the ancient petroglyphs on the shore of Lake Onega.

Medicine. Popular folk medicine, practiced by seers (tiedäjä) possessing a knowledge of rational healing methods as well as spells and magic, has long coexisted with official medicine. The seers previously employed shamanism. The great ones were usually men. Lesser seers used homeopathy and other rational methods.

Death and Afterlife. The Karelian concept of death and afterlife is multilayered: Christian notions have been superimposed on animism and the age-old Eurasian shamanic view of a tripartite world. It was believed that the pokoinikk (deceased) lived among the living for forty days following death, after which he or she moved into the land of the dead. In the muistajaiset (generally the ninth, twelfth, and fortieth days after the funeral), the deceased was invoked and remembered as a family member, informed of events, and asked for his or her blessing. Communication with the dead occurred through ritualistic lamentations, which are still performed by women today.

See also Saami


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