Saturday, June 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Karelians Look to Europe for Help to Stem Their Demographic Decline

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 7 – Faced with declines in their overall numbers and in the use of their national language, the Karelians, the titular nationality of the Republic of Karelia, are increasingly looking to European institutions in general and Finnish ones in particular to help them combat assimilation and ensure their national survival.

            Olga Zharinova, the director of Karelia’s National Archive and the chairman of the plenipotentiary representatives of the Karelians for the past four years, told the Seventh Congress of Karels of the Republic of Karelia yesterday that unless certain trends are reversed, the prospects for the Karelians are bleak (

            According to the 2010 Russian Federation census, she said, there are now 60,815 Karelians living in the country as a whole, 30 percent fewer than there were only eight years earlier.  In Karelia itself, they number 45,570 or about 7.4 percent of the total population of the republic.

            Ever fewer of the Karelians say they speak Karelian, which is closely related to Finnish. In 2002, just over 50.6 percent did, but in 2010, that number had fallen to 25,605 or 36.8 percent of Karelians throughout the Russian Federation.  The percentage speaking Karelian in Karelia may be slightly higher.

            To prevent a further decline, Zharinova said, the Karelian Congress simultaneously supports the maintenance and development of federalism inside Russia and the development of expanded ties with international bodies, such as the EU’s Euro-Arctic Region, and with neighboring Finland.

            The Karelians have been forced to turn to such groups, she continued because “unfortunately,” their own republic government and local businesses have done little to help promote “the social-economic and ethno-cultural development of the territory” where Karelians have traditionally lived.

            The plenipotentiary added that the Karelian Congress is pressing Moscow to ratify the European Charter on the Defense of Regional and Minority Languages, a document that she said would help the Karelians secure greater support for their language from the republic-level authorities.

            The situation with regard to the study of Karelian has become “critical,” Zharinova said, especially after the unification of the Karelian State Pedagogical Academy with the Petrozavodsk State University and the closing the former’s Baltic-Finnish department. Restoring that group anytime soon, she added, will be very difficult.

                Karelian Republic head Aleksandr Khudilaynin sought to put the best face on recent development.  He told the congress that 6500 pupils are now studying Karelian, Wepsi, and Finnish language, 300 more than a year ago and that 139 instructors are being paid supplements for using these Baltic-Finnish languages (

            In addition, he said, many republic ministries are now headed by Karelians, that Karels form 16 percent of the delegates to the republic parliament -- even though members of that ethnic group currently form less than half that percent in the population. But other participants in yesterday’s meeting challenged his upbeat assessment.

            Anatoly Grigoryev, the president of the Karelian Congress, said that the republic authorities were more concerned about public relations than providing real help to the Karelians. Despite repeated requests, they have refused to create a Karelian language department within the republic education ministry.

            “And in the nationality policy ministry,” Grigoryev continued, “there are many remarkable and beautiful women, but it is very difficult to find Karelians” among that agency’s employees.

            Meanwhile, another congress delegate, Ivan Kirillov, complained that the republic authorities were quite willing to give wealthy Russians access to prime land even though the republic ministries had done nothing to help Karelians and their need for land to raise fodder for livestock. Sometimes, he said, Karelians have to travel 50 km to get it.

            The problems of the Karelians and their increasing tendency to look to Europe and Finland for assistance against what they see as a Russian government that is at best indifferent to their fate could lead to renewed interest in what Finns call “the Karelian question,” the possible reunification of historically Finnish lands in the Russian Federation with Finland.

            Those territories, taken from Finland as a result of the 1940 Winter War, have been the subject of discussions at the margins of Finnish politics for decades, even though the Finnish government and that country’s major parties say that no good will be served by re-opening the question.

            But this airing of Karelian problems, together with Vladimir Putin’s recent remark that Stalin had “corrected a Bolshevik mistake” by seizing these territories from Finland by means of the Winter War, could trigger a new interest in this issue, especially if Finns conclude that one of their co-ethnic groups is now on the road to extinction.

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