Monday, June 24, 2019

Centenary of Otava Flag Recalls White Sea Karelians’ Struggle for Freedom, Tuomi Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 23 – Below is summarized the last article Andrey Tuomi, the great Karelian interpreter of his people’s history and goals, prepared before his death earlier this month. Over the past two decades, his writings have informed the world about a people Moscow would prefer it forget but one whose best days, thanks to his efforts like his, lie ahead.

            June 21st was the centenary of the first flag of Karelia, a blue field on which are emblazoned the seven stars of the Great Bear constellation (Otava). It was designed by a Finnish artist inspired by the runes of the Kalevala, and it flew over the Ukhta Republic which sought independence from Russia but not union with Finland, Tuomi begins (

            The summer of 1918 was the time “when the northern White Sea Karels made their first conscious steps to their own independence and the foundation of their own state, the Ukhta Republic,” Tuomi writes. But the Karels of the White Sea region had begun to recognize their distinctiveness long before that.

            First of all, it was precisely this people, the Northern Karels, who preserved almost all the records extant that were assembled into the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala.  That alone, Tuomi says, justifies labelling them “a special sub-ethnos, different both from the rest of Karelia and from Finland.”

            Another factor which set them apart, he continues, was their complex economic activity which involved them in trade and travel with Europe. There the White Sea Karels picked up many ideas including not least of all the idea that as a separate nation they had a right to a separate state.

            They were helped along in this understanding by the formation in Helsinki of the Karelian Enlightenment Society which had as its goals promoting a flourish Karel culture and the independence of the White sea Karel nation. That society opened the first schools in the Ukhta district.

            The tsarist authorities sought to suppress all these differences and used both secular and religious means to do so, but they did not succeed in keeping the Karels from pursuing their own independent future when that became possible after 1917, a goal they had been working toward for some time and not one that Finland had imposed on them.   

            In 1918, under the Otava flag, the Northern Karelian Republic was formed, independent of both Russia and Finland.  Had the Karels wanted to unite with Finland which had received its independence a year earlier, they might have had an easier time of it but they would not have been true to themselves, Tuomi continues.

            But from Moscow’s point of view, that distinction didn’t matter: the center was committed to suppressing any independence movement when it could – and in 1921 that opportunity arose with regard to the Ukhta Republic. The Soviets sent 26,400 men against the republic whose army numbered only about 3,000. The result was a forgone conclusion.

            The Soviet force lost more than 2,000 of its soldiers in battle and frozen to death; and 11,000 Karels fled the Ukhta district to Finland, preferring emigration to life under occupation, an occupation that became increasingly repressive and murderous during the 1920s and 1930s, Tuomi recounts.

            That occupation and that repression means that the residents of Ukhta district are constantly suspected of separatism, that the Karels now form “less than 20 percent” of the population and not the 36 percent Moscow says, and that they have never been included among the numerically small peoples of the North who get special benefits.

            At the present time, he continues, there are rumors that the authorities plan do divide up what is now called the Kalevala district and thereby “remove forever from the memory of the people about the Ukhta Republic, the dream about freedom and independence, about the right of each people, even the smallest to decide its own fate independently.”

            But despite their attempts, the Russian officials won’t succeed. The Otava flag returned to mass meetings n 2011 and 2012 and has become the symbol of the Republic movement in Karelia, a movement which seeks economic and cultural autonomy. Young people especially have flocked to this flag.

            Tragically, those who do so often face problems: “Today the use of this symbol has again become dangerous – according to repressive Russian laws of recent years, it may be interpreted as ‘a call to the violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.”  Still the flag flies because it speaks to the deepest feelings and inalienable rights of the White Sea Karels.

            Andrey Tuomi (1967-2019), R.I.P.

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