Karelia is a region lying in both modern day Finland and the Russian Federation. Karelia was annexed to Russia by Peter the Great in 1721, as part of the Grand Duchy of Finland. In 1917 part of Karelia was retained by Finland when it gained its independence from Russia. The remainder became an autonomous region in 1920, and an autonomous republic of the USSR in 1923. Following the wars of 1939-40, Finland ceded 46,000km2 to the USSR. Part of this territory was incorporated into the Russian Soviet Republic, and part into the Karelian Autonomous Republic in 1956. A Karelian reunification movement emerged in the 1980s.

The people of the area speak either Russian or Karelian. The Karelians have a strong oral culture.

See also:

The modern Republic of Karelia within the Russian Federation is almost wholly ethnically Russian, with only 10% of the population being native Karelian (Finnish). While the demographics might have changed somewhat as a result of the wars, this presumably reflects the original situation in 1917: Finnish-majority areas became part of independent Finland, while Russia retained areas where they were the majority1. The region became the Karelian ASSR.

In 1940 the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were swiftly incorporated into the Soviet Union, whose intention was to absorb Finland in the same way. The USSR fought Finland, but they fought back. A Soviet government was created but did not manage to take power.

On 31 March 1940 the Karelian ASSR was elevated to the highest rank of subdivision within the USSR, and became the Karelo-Finnish SSR (Karelian name Karjalais-Suomalainen SNT2). Of the newly conquered area of Finland that the USSR did manage to get hold of, the northern part was added to the Karelo-Finnish SSR and the southern part near Leningrad (St Petersburg), including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg), was annexed to Russia itself.

The Karelo-Finnish SSR was intended to be absorbed into a newly-created Finnish SSR when Finland was conquered, but the Finns held out. If this SSR had remained in existence till the breakup of the USSR it would have become an independent country; however in 1956 its status was reduced to an ASSR, and it was renamed the Karelian ASSR again.

With the breakup, Karelia became one of the 21 highest-level autonomous republics within Russia. Its presidents since then have been Viktor Stepanov (1989-1998) and Sergey Katanandov (1998- ). As a flag they adopted a horizontal tricolor of red, light blue, and green.

The capital is Petrozavodsk, lying on Lake Onega, one of the two great lakes on its southern boundary, the other being Lake Ladoga near St Petersburg. In the north-east it's bounded by the White Sea and goes as far as north as the Arctic Circle, to the Kola Peninsula.

"Karelian" is a distinct dialect of Finnish, but there are also small minorities of Finns proper and of Vepsians, speakers of another near-Finnish language. Teaching policy has fluctuated several times between Karelian and standard Finnish; at one point both were official languages (as well as Russian).

1. gn0sis has told me that the Karelian proportion was much higher in 1917, and directed me to http://www.soros.karelia.ru/projects/1998/atlas/eng/ist.htm. This page is detailed but somewhat unclear; it shows that the area was roughly half Karelian at the beginning, and through repeated boundary changes and resettlements, some of them forced, it has reached its present state.

2. SNT = sosialistinen neuvostotasavalta - vuo

Karelia is a suite of three movements by Jean Sibelius, based on incidental music he wrote for a student production in 1892 of three historical tableaux set in Karelia. The three movements are the intermezzo, ballade, and alla marcia.

The intermezzo is lively and march-like (in a soft Sibelian way), depicting a procession of hunters paying tribute to a Lithuanian prince; the ballade depicts a deposed king poignantly listening to a minstrel's ballad in the castle of Viipuri; and the concluding alla marcia was to illustrate the siege of Käkisalmi Castle.

This was composed in the same year as Kullervo, the choral symphony drawn from the Kalevala, and which made Sibelius's name in Finland: it was seven years before the overtly nationalistic piece Finlandia which brought him into conflict with his Russian rulers.

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