Karelians - Orientation

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.

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