Finns reunited with a cultural icon

April 17, 1998

when the Finno/Russian border was sealed in 1920 universities in Finland suddenly lost access to one of their primary cultural resources.

East of the border, lay most of Karelia, the land that had inspired Sibelius's popular Karelia Suite and the work of many other north European artists.

More importantly for scholars, Karelia had given Finland its national epic, the Kalevala, one of the great cultural discoveries of the 19th century.

The Kalevala is a collection of thousands of songs woven into a cohesive narrative by the Swedish philologist Elias Lonrott. In the early part of the 19th century Lonrott toured Karelia, to the north-east of Finland, transcribing songs that the peasants sang to him. In 1833 he published his first edition of Europe's missing national epic, a work that continued to have great influence for the rest of the century.

When the border was closed most of Karelia was locked in on the other side and would not be seen again by westerners until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. During this 70 years little could be done to trace the Kalevala back to its roots in an oral tradition that was fast dying out. Karelian Finnish was banned in the USSR in 1937 and 1956.

It was against this background that in 1985 Sirpa and Markku Nieminen set up a Kulttuurikornitsa (the Karelian word for cultural chamber) in the Finnish city of Kuhmo. Sirpa Nieminen, who had studied folklore and folk poetry at Helsinki University, was concerned that Finland's Karelian roots were being lost.

"The iron curtain was at that time very thick and young people didn't even know that there was a Finnish- and Karelian-speaking minority in Soviet Karelia."

At first the Kulttuurikornitsa visited the Kalevala lands, bringing contemporary Karelian writers to Finland and organising Kalevala lectures at the Finnish universities of Helsinki, Joensuu, Oulu and Turku. This has remained a key project and it entitles them to funding from the Finnish ministry of education. The centre's library in Kuhmo is collecting every edition of the Kalevala ever printed (it has been translated into 45 languages). Copies of all scholarly works on the text are also in the library.

But since the border was reopened the Kulttuurikornitsa has organised courses for Karelian farmers who need to be taught modern agricultural techniques if their farms are to become profitable. It has also set up a programme to help Karelian schools, allowed only to teach Russian from 1956 to 1990, reintroduce the teaching of Karelian Finnish.

The centre organises cultural tours across the border and it is also working with Helsinki's Sibelius Academy to send Finland's young music students back to Karelia to continue the work begun by Elias Lonrott 150 years ago.

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