Timo Vihavainen turns over some pages
in the history of Finnish-Russian relations
It was in the first half of the 19th century that learned society
first began to cherish the instinctive wisdom of the common people.
For the romantic nationalists, it was now no longer only the noble
savage who had access to true wisdom. Rather, it was advisable to
search for the hidden treasures of the human mind in the collective
wisdom of each nation. It was no longer believed that reason, good
laws and rational conduct were all that was needed in order to build
a happy society.
In fact, the Enlightenment – all
its arrogance notwithstanding – has never been able to offer
humanity much more than decades of slaughter, ruins and tears. Even
if one did not, like Thomas Carlyle, ask why one should be happy at
all, this loss of faith in progress deprived the great European nations
much of their self-satisfaction. At the same time it offered entirely
new possibilities to ethnic groups that could not boast of a glorious
history, advanced learning or polished manners.
The Finns, like many other 'young' nations
in Europe, did not have a developed literature in their own language
– although they had had a literary language since the 16th century.
Neither did they have a national history of their own, as distinct
from the history of Sweden. From the point of view of the 18th-century
Enlightenment, the case of the Finns was rather discouraging. It was
possible to maintain that this people had, during the course of history,
produced nothing remarkable. There was room for the suspicion –
presented in a quasi-scientific guise – that history itself
had proved that the Finns were incapable of producing treasures of
culture, or of creating a state. The Kalevala, appearing in
the heyday of romantic thinking, changed everything at a single blow.
In creating the Kalevala –
first published in 1835-36 – its compiler, Elias Lönnrot,
gave to the nation a history, great literature and even a new variety
of literary language, as distinct from the existing religious and
juridical versions. There was no more room for doubting the Finns'
inborn abilities – at least, this was what the proponents of
Finnish nationalism thought. In fact, creating national eposes was
much more remarkable than adopting and pursuing rational ideas, which
had neither deeper wisdom nor personal nature and were therefore quite
uninteresting. With the Kalevala, the Finns were elevated to
the same level as the other nations, which had created their national
eposes: the Sumerians and the ancient Greeks, to mention just two.
The Russians had also begun collecting bylinas, Russian-language
folk poems – which, coincidentally, were found in the same territory
as the poetry of Kalevala – but it was questionable whether
a cohesive Russian national epos existed.
The idea of the Kalevala as a
cohesive epic product of the Finnish nation attained great popularity
in the 19th century. Various scholars who practised comparative research
founded their judgment of the Finns on the poetry of Kalevala,
which soon became available in many languages. The character of the
Finns, as reflected in Kalevala, was considered by most observers
to be remarkably peace-loving. There was very little armed battle
in the Kalevala; people preferred to compete in singing and
witchcraft rather to resorting to violence.
Nineteenth-century Russian scholars
rather unanimously considered that the Kalevala reflected a
very primitive state of society, where larger administrative and military
units were absent. It did not, in their opinion, witness to an ability
to create a state in the future either. For such Slavophiles as A.F.
Hilferding and Nikolai Danilevsky, the conclusion was clear: the Finns
were doomed to remain under Russian domination because they were not
able to form a state. They also believed that the Finns were constitutionally
unable to create a great culture of their own, but – this they
benevolently granted – they could well be used as 'ethnographic
material' for the Russian empire and thus contribute usefully to world
Finnish nationalist scholars, especially
in the first decades of the 20th century, began to find in Kalevala
heroic themes, vestiges of catholicism and other 'Western' influences.
This led them to induce that the runes of Kalevala had been
born not in eastern Karelia, where they were collected, but in western
Finland. This theory of an 'eastern refrigerator', whose primitive
surroundings had preserved the ancient treasures of the more developed
western Finland, was quite widely adopted. In the Soviet Union this
theory was used for quite distinct political purposes.
In general, the issue of the origins
of Kalevala became highly political in Soviet Russia. This happened
especially during the 'great turn' of 1929-30, when apolitical scholars
were ousted from the Soviet scholarly institutes and everything began
to be seen and explained in terms of class-struggle. A champion of
class-based ideas, the academician Nikolai Marr, reigned supreme in
Soviet linguistics. He explained that every language had a class nature.
This implied that it was not relevant to consider that cognate languages
somehow belonged together. In fact, he inferred, languages attracted
and repelled each other in terms of class.
At this time, the Autonomous Socialist
Soviet Republic of Karelia (the area also known as Russian or eastern
Karelia) was ruled by Finnish communists who had fled from Finland
during the abortive Finnish revolution of 1918. The Finns had introduced
the literary Finnish language in Karelia, and now they faced a dilemma:
should they submit to the linguistic norms of bourgeois Finland, or
should they follow a class-based orientation and begin to adopt the
linguistic innovations of their class brethren, the Russians? The
foremost researcher of the Finno-Ugric languages in the Soviet Union,
D.V. Bubrich, considered that the solution was evident and unavoidable:
the Finnish language – a bourgeois one – should be rejected
in Karelia and replaced by the heavily Russified Karelian dialect
which was spoken by the local population. The non-bourgeois nature
of the Karelian language (as Bubrich preferred to call it) was above
all suspicion and readily adopted elements of Russian – the
truly proletarian dominant language of Soviet Union, the Fatherland
of the toilers of the world!
For Bubrich, who wanted to liquidate
the Finnish language in Karelia, the theory about the origins of Kalevala
became a weighty argument. If Kalevala was not created by the
Karelians, but just preserved there like fish in a refrigerator, then
there was one argument less for those who advocated the use of Finnish
in eastern Karelia. The Kalevala was Finnish, and that was
that. Apart from class, there was nothing that really united or divided
the Finns and the Karelians. The dominant Finnish minority in eastern
Karelia fought back and stressed Kalevala's Karelian, as well
as Finnish, nature. At the end they were defeated, even though they
tried to Russify their Finnish as much as possible, in a desperate
effort to survive.
From the beginning of 1938, the Finnish
language was liquidated in the Soviet Union altogether. It was replaced
by a Karelian literary language created under the guidance of Professor
Bubrich. Some contemporaries quipped that he created a new language
in three months, which was a world record not approached since the
well-known history of the tower of Babel. Bubrich's heroic effort
was not crowned with success, however, and no wonder. Nobody could
really speak the new language, and Bubrich himself was arrested, accused
Bubrich's fall from grace did not, however,
mean that the Finnish language was reintroduced. And his theory about
the origins of the Kalevala was rejected. In 1939 – with
the Soviet Union was in a very belligerent mood – the anniversary
of the Kalevala was celebrated in Russian and in a heavily
Russified Karelian language. It was boldly stated that the Kalevala
belonged completely to the Karelians and that the Finns – a
totally alien people – had no share in it. Interestingly, the
topics of the Kalevala now seemed heroic and warlike for the observers.
In 1940, after the Soviet-Finnish Winter
war, the Karelian language was abruptly abandoned in Soviet Karelia.
It was once more replaced by the ordinary Finnish literary language,
which had been rejected as bourgeois just some years ago. Now it was
explained that eastern Karelia – which attained the status of
a Soviet republic – was inhabited by a Karelian-Finnish people.
The reasons for this unique linguistic revolution or series of linguistic
upheavals were, of course political, but there were also unavoidable
scholarly consequences. If there was a united Karelian-Finnish people,
then it was unavoidable that the Kalevala was its product,
because it was not possible to draw a line of distinction between
the Finns and the Karelians.
The president of the new Karelian-Finnish
Soviet Republic, Otto Wille Kuusinen, happened to be an enthusiastic
amateur folklorist. In his address in the anniversary jubilee of 1949
he celebrated the Kalevala as the fruit of the joint creative
effort of the Karelian-Finnish people. This people was not united,
however. According to Kuusinen's speech, the Kalevala actually
belonged to the toiling classes of the Karelian-Finnish people and
was created by them. As regards the exploiting classes, they had no
share in the Kalevala and no right to speak in its name, as
the Finnish nationalists were doing.
In the meantime, Finnish folklorists
arrived at the conclusion that that Kalevala had not been born
in any particular part of Finland but on Elias Lönnrot's writing
table. By and by it was admitted that Lönnrot's active role in
creating the Kalevala had been decisive, even if he had added
very few new verses that were totally his own writing.
Thus the passions aroused by the question
of the Kalevala's national origins began to fade on both sides
of the border. It was not until 1998 that a new Russian translation
of the Kalevala was published. The translators, Eino Kiuru
and Armas Mishin presented it as as epic compiled by Elias Lönnrot
on the basis of ancient Karelian and Finnish folk songs.
There is no longer a Soviet Union. There
is no longer a Karelian-Finnish people. Of the once populous Finnish
contingent in the Karelian republic only few remain. But the Kalevala
remains, and interest towards it is flourishing both in Finland in
The Finns' ability to run a sovereign
state is no more in serious doubt, and the question of the relationship
between the eastern Karelians and the Finns is interesting only for
researchers, not for politicians. This is a happy state of affairs,
and it may be assumed that the results of folkloristic study may nowadays
be more objective than they were just a couple of generations ago.
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