The Russian-Finnish Borderlands: Territorial Changes, Population Transfers, and Linguistic Changes

Oct 8, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in May 2013]

The previous post mentioned Finns among the nationalities deported by the Soviets before and during World War II. As it turns out, the situation in the Finnish borderlands is rather more complicated than that. The territory between St. Petersburg and Helsinki is home to a number of ethnic groups whose histories range from cultural and linguistic assimilation to population transfer to outright ethnic cleansing. One such groups are the Veps, whose history was the subject of an earlier post; unlike other groups discussed below, the Veps were to some degree culturally assimilated by the Russians, making a powerful influence on Russian material culture and language in the process.


A much worse fate befell the Ingrian Finns (in Finnish, inkeriläiset or inkerinsuomalaiset), that is Finnish-speaking inhabitants of Ingria, which is now the central part of Leningrad Oblast in Russia. Ingrian Finns should not be confused with Ingrian/Izhorian-speaking Ingrians (marked in green color on the map on the left), who speak a closely related but distinct language. Descendants of Lutheran immigrants from eastern Finland and the Karelian Isthmus (mostly from Äyräpää, now Baryshevo, Russia), the Ingrian Finns settled in Ingria in the 17th century, when that area, as well as Finland proper, belonged to the Swedish Empire. By the mid-17th century, Finns constituted over 40% of the Ingrian population; by 1695, this number grew to over 70%. However, when Sweden lost those lands to the Russian Empire and after Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703, the flow of migration was reversed. Peter the Great granted lands in Ingria to his nobles, leading many Lutheran Finns to abandon Ingria, moving to so‑called “Old Finland”, the lands to the north of the Gulf of Finland. There, Lutherans constituted a large majority. Over time, the Ingrian Finns who moved to the north assimilated with the Karelian Finns.

Ingrian Finns who remained in what had become part of Russia enjoyed cultural autonomy throughout the 18th and 19th centuries: Finnish-language newspapers were printed, public libraries opened, cultural festivals organized. By the end of the 19th century, the number of Ingrian Finns had grown to over 130,000; at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution it exceeded 140,000. After the Revolution, Ingrian Finns inhabiting the southern part of the Karelian Isthmus seceded from Bolshevist Russia and formed the short-lived, Finland-backed Republic of North Ingria, which was reintegrated with Russia in the end of 1920 according to the provisions of the Treaty of Tartu. However, the region continued to enjoy a certain degree of national autonomy. Between 1928 and 1939, the Ingrian Finns of North Ingria constituted the Kuivaisi National District, with its center in Toksova and with Finnish as its official language.

Beginning in the late 1920s, however, Ingrian Finns began to suffer from the Soviet repression. Some managed to escape to Finland; many of those who remained were either executed, deported to Siberia, or forced to relocate to other parts of the Soviet Union. In 1929-1931, some 18,000 people from North Ingria were deported to East Karelia, the Kola Peninsula, and Kazakhstan and other parts of Central Asia. These deportations were allegedly ordered to with facilitate the collectivization of agriculture; however, the need for cheap labor in the undeveloped parts of the Soviet Union, and more specifically to build the first Gulag camps, seem to have been the real motivations. Subsequently, the Soviet desire to create restricted security zones along the borders with Finland and Estonia resulted in worsening conditions for the Ingrian Finns. Soviet authorities had decided that the Finnic peoples as a whole were politically unreliable, and hence that they had to be closely monitored or simply removed (Martin 1998). In another deportation wave in April 1935, an additional 7,000 people (2,000 families) were sent to Central Asia and the Ural region. In May and June 1936 the entire Finnish populations of several border parishes, totally some 20,000 persons, were transferred to the area around Cherepovets in Vologda Oblast of northwestern Russia. Their villages and towns were resettled with people from other parts of the Soviet Union. In 1937, Lutheran churches and Finnish-language schools in Ingria were closed and publications and radio broadcasts in Finnish were suspended, and in March 1939 the Kuivaisi National District was liquidated.

During World War II, most of the remaining Ingrian Finns were deported as well. The Soviets deported them to Siberia. Then, under Finnish and German occupation, the remaining Ingrian Finns were sent to Finland. After the War, however, Ingrian Finns who had been relocated to Finland were forcibly returned to the Soviet Union, provided that they were Soviet citizens; most were settled in central Russia and Estonia. After the dissolution of the USSR, some Ingrian Finns moved back to Finland, where they are eligible for automatic residency under the Finnish Law of Return. As a result, the number of people in Russia who declared their nationality as Finnish dropped significantly. By the 1990s, moreover, many Ingrian Finns, especially younger ones from mixed families, had been culturally assimilated to Russians and spoke Russian rather than Finnish. Their “repatriation” to Finland caused numerous social integration problems, provoking public debate over the retention of the Finnish Law of Return. In contrast, Finnish-speaking immigrants were quickly absorbed into Finnish society, losing all traces of their Ingrian identity. Ironically, the only “Ingrian Finns” remaining today are those waiting in the Finnish immigration queue.


Being a ball in the game of ping-pong was also a familiar role for Karelian Finns, those indigenous to the Karelian Isthmus, the stretch of land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga to the north of the River Neva. Like Ingrian Finns, Karelian Finns speak a dialect of Finnish. Control over the Karelian lands had once been disputed between the Novgorod Republic and Sweden, but by the 17th century Swedish power had been firmly established.






The area changed hands again as a result of the Russian victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War, which ended in 1721. But already in 1703, Peter the Great began building his new capital, Saint Petersburg, in the southern end of the isthmus. In 1812 the northwestern half of the region was transferred, as a part of the so-called “Old Finland”, to the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, under Russian domination since 1809. As the industrial revolution gained momentum in the 19th century, the Karelian isthmus became one of the wealthiest parts of Finland. Three major railroads built between 1870 and 1917 connected Saint Petersburg with important cities in the Karelian Isthmus—Viipuri (in Russian: Vyborg), Hiitola, and Sortavala—contributing to the area’s economic development.




By the end of the 19th century the areas along the Saint Petersburg–Vyborg section of the railroad has become a popular place of summer resort for wealthy Saint Petersburgers. Many of the station names on this rail line were still known locally under their Finnish names (shown on the map on the left) well into the 1980s, when my grandparents rented a summer house in Roschino/Raivola.





After the 1917 Revolution, Finland gained its independence and was allowed to keep the northwestern part of the isthmus, including Viipuri, the second largest Finnish city. Finnish independence meant that the border was now a mere 40 km from St. Petersburg (known then as Petrograd and later renamed Leningrad), Russia’s second largest city. In an attempt to gain territory and push the border back, the Soviets staged the Shelling of Mainila, a village on the Russian side of the border. Soviet authorities falsely blamed this attack on Finland, which they subsequently invaded in November 1939 in what became known as the Winter War. In order to gain international support, the Soviet propaganda machine—under the direction of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs—pretended to drop “food packages” over Finland that were actually bombs. The Finns responded by attacking Russian tanks with “Molotov cocktails”, home-made incendiary devices meant as “the drink” to complement Molotov’s “food”. But the Finnish guerilla counter-offensives were not the only challenge for the Soviets, as the natural environment played a major role as well. Soviet tanks simply could not operate in the harsh terrain pocked with basalt outcroppings and extensive marshlands that turned into “a frozen hell” during the winter months. The Soviet army took a heavy death toll. Only in February 1940 did the Soviet forces manage to penetrate the Finn’s defensive Mannerheim Line across the isthmus. Finland was then forced to agree to the Peace of Moscow, under which it ceded all of the Karelian Isthmus to the Soviet Union.

In March 1940, most of the territories ceded by Finland to the Soviet Union were incorporated into Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic, although some of the southernmost districts became part of Leningrad Oblast However, the republic was short-lived: few of the area’s residents were willing to stay and fall under Soviet rule. As a result, almost the entire population, amounting to some 422,000 people and 12% of Finland’s population, chose to relocate to other parts of Finland, taking their belongings with them. Only the buildings and machinery were left behind intact, as required by the Peace of Moscow.


After Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, Finland initially regained the lost territory, reaching as far as the Russian side of the 1939 border, a mere 40 km from Leningrad. Leningrad, meanwhile, was besieged by the Nazi forces for the legendary “900 days and nights”—one of the longest and most destructive sieges in the world history. Millions died of cold and starvation: at the height of the siege from November 1941 to February 1942, the only food available to a civilian was 125 grams of bread, adulterated with sawdust and other inedible admixtures, and distributed through ration cards. For about two weeks at the beginning of January 1942, even this food was available only for workers and military personnel. The diary of an 11-year old Tanya Savicheva (see image on the left) documenting starvation and deaths of her grandmother, uncle, mother, and brother—the last three pages say “The Savichevs died”, “Everybody died”, “Only Tanya is left”—became iconic of what the city had to endure and was presented at the Nuremberg trials. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”, celebrating the city’s resilience, was performed there on August 9, 1942.

Going back to the story of Karelia, as Finland gained territory in 1941, some 260,000 Karelian Finns returned home from their places of exile elsewhere in Finland. But in June 1944, Soviet forces pushed the front from the pre-1939 border to Vyborg, and the returned Karelians were evacuated to Finland proper again. Ultimately, no Finns remained in Karelia. As a results, the Soviets drop the “Finnish” part of the Karelo-Finnish republic’s name, for the lack of an ethnic Finnish population. In 1956, the area was incorporated into the Russian SFSR as the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Since the 1990s, some associations have been calling for the return the area back to Finland, despite its lack of a Finnish population.


The sad saga of ethnic deportations in the Karelian Isthmus is not limited to the region’s Finnish-speaking population. Particularly interesting is the history of the so-called “Russians from Kyyrölä”. The roots of this community go back to the serfs of Count Chernyshev, the first Russian commandant of Vyborg (Viipuri). These peasants were brought to the Karelian Isthmus in 1710 to settle four villages in the vicinity of Vyborg. The largest of the villages was named Krasnoe Selo, or in Finnish Kyyrölä; hence the name of the larger community. A hundred years later, when Karelia became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland, the descendants of these settlers became Finnish citizens. Many of the men, especially those who engaged in trade and crafts, spoke Finnish as well as Russian, while the womenfolk mostly stayed in the villages and spoke only Russian. Despite being surrounded by Finnish-speakers, the Russians from Kyyrölä maintained their native language for many generations.




During the Winter War of 1939-1940, the residents of the Russian-speaking villages in the Karelian Isthmus were evacuated to the island of Kimitoön (Finnish: Kemiönsaari) in southwestern Finland. The majority of people living in this area were Finnish Swedes; for some reason the Finnish government decided that it would be easier for the Russians to learn Swedish rather than Finnish. In the late autumn of 1940, Kyyrölä people returned home, even though more than 90% of their houses had been destroyed. But at the start of the hostilities between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1941, the Finnish government again evacuated the Russians from Kyyrölä, this time to the town of Hameenlinna, where they were now forced to learn Finnish. After World War II, members of the community—many of them now trilingual in Russian, Finnish, and Swedish—scattered throughout Finland, though many remained in Hameenlinna. Many have intermarried with Finns, and the community has been gradually absorbed into the larger population. Practically all of “the Russians from Kyyrölä” now speak Finnish, and virtually none born since 1950 speak Russian. Nonetheless, they still maintain their religious and cultural traditions: many go back to Karelia for a visit and celebrate the traditional holy day of the Theotokos of Tikhvin, one of the most celebrated Orthodox Christian icons.



Martin, Terry (1998) The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing. The Journal of Modern History 70(4): 813-861.

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