Staunton, September 11 – Paradoxically, Karelia which shares a common border of more than 750 kilometers with Finland has far less freedom of speech and far fewer opportunities for civic activism than does its fellow Finno-Ugric republic Komi which has no such border, Vadim Shtepa says.
But this paradox is more apparent than real, the editor of Tallinn’s Region.Expert portal says, because it reflects Moscow’s view that Karelia’s location on the border “is not a stimulus for cooperation and development but rather a risk and a threat” and thus the center allows things in Komi that it immediately suppresses in Karelia (severreal.org/a/30152787.html).
What makes this divergence so striking, Shtepa says, is that during perestroika, Karelia was one of the most progressive regions of the country. It had its own Peoples Front, it adopted its own declaration on state sovereignty, and it sought to promote the creation of real federalism within the Russian Republic.
And taking advantage of cooperation with Finnish firms, Karelia’s capital Petrozavodsk saw its apartments wired for the Internet already in 1997, “even earlier than was the case in Moscow,” the regional specialist says. During all this time, the Komi Republic was mostly a quiescent backwater.
“But today the situation has radically changed. Komi activists are in the lead in protesting Moscow’s plans for a trash dump at Shiyes, and Oleg Mikhailov, a member of Komi’s State Council, has very publicly decried “Moscow’s ‘colonial policy,’” something no Karelian politician could do without suffering serious reprisals.
Moreover, in the Komi Republic there has emerged an active youth movement “which combines the struggle for civil society with the promotion of the cultural uniqueness of their republic. They have even thought up a new version of the republic flag, one of ‘Scandinavian type’” which Shiyes protesters are now carrying.
What is striking is that they aren’t being persecuted or prosecuted for doing so, Shtepa continues. In Karelia, the situation is entirely different and entirely different from what it was 30 years ago during perestroika. Yes, some activists have sought to revive the Otava flag but generally they’ve kept it and themselves out of politics.
Displaying this flag or talking about the Ukhta Republic is dangerous, Shtepa says. And Karelians haven’t been able to achieve even the modest de-sovietization others have: “Practically all the central streets of Petrozavodsk up to now bear the names of communist ideologues and Soviet leaders right up to Andropov.”
“Moreover,” Shtepa notes, “Karelia is the only Russian republic in which the titular language does not have official status.” The regime says it can’t make it the state language because it uses the Latin script and Russian law requires that all “state languages in Russia” use Cyrillic.
When Aleksand Khudailaynen became republic head in 2012, many Karelians hoped for a positive change largely because of his Finnish name. but they were quickly disappointed. He closed the only Baltic-Finnic philology department at a Russian university and began broadscale repressions against opposition figures in the republic.
Galina Shirshina, the elected opposition mayor of Petrozavodsk was forced out and direct elections for the mayor were cancelled. Local Yabloko leader Vasily Popov was forced to ask for political asylum in Finland. And Shtepa himself ultimately left, for Estonia, when officials signaled that he was in trouble.
The situation in Karelia has become even worse since Artur Parfenchikov replaced Khudilaynen in 2017. Most notoriously, he has overseen the persecution of historian Yury Dmitriyev who unearthed and then documented the mass graves of Stalin’s victims at Sandarmokh.
That created a problem for Moscow which had decided to “rewrite the history of Sandarmokh” just as the Soviets did about Katyn and suggest that the bodies buried there were “not GULAG inmates but Soviet POWs shot by the Finns in 1941-1944.” In addition, Parfenchikv has brought in numerous security types to serve in his regime.
As a result, as Karelian journalist Andrey Tuomi has pointed out, Karelia is now returning not to the days of perestroika but to those of the 1930s when Soviet security officials ran Karelia because there were so many GULAG camps there.