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Historical Karelia (Russia)

Last modified: 2021-08-26 by valentin poposki
Keywords: karelia | aunus | olonec | language | white sea |
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Situating East Karelia

Karelia is the area between Finland and Russia. When speaking about East Karelia, we are dealing with the Russian areas. However, autonomous East Karelia [both current and soviet] is just a small part of Russian Karelia, known as White Sea Karelia, or in other words, the area between the White Sea and the Finnish border. The area to the south of White Sea Karelia, between lakes Onega and Lagoda, is known as Aunus Karelia, named after the town with the Finnish name Aunus (in Russian: Олонец). Far into Russia itself, there is also and area inhabited by Karelians. This is Tver Karelia, named after the Russian city of Tver. When speaking about East Karelia in the following, it is mostly White Sea Karelia I am speaking about.
Jan Oskar Engene, 23 May 1997

Aunus (Olonets) Karelia

A short-lived government existed also for Aunus Karelia. The provisional government of Aunus was set up when Finnish volunteer forces advanced into the area in April 1919. An assembly was called and met in Rajakontu 5-6 June 1919. However, the Russian Bolsheviks quickly struck back and by 10 June the provisional government and the Finnish forces were back in Finland. That was the end of the Aunus government.

I have no information about the symbols, if any, of the Aunus government. In an account of the Finnish volunteer expedition into the Aunus area, written by one of the expedition’s leaders Major von Herzen, we find only two instances when flags are mentioned. The first mention is a description of how the advancing Finns were met by enthusiastic locals that had hoisted white flags over their houses. The significance of the white flags is not explained. The second mention is a reference to regimental colours. von Herzen describes how the Finns captured a regimental colour from the reds. The colour is not described, but it is interesting to note that a colour was brought with the forces into battle. I suspect that at this point in time, 1919, there were no official colours in the Bolshevik army. However, this is speculation on my part.

Jan Oskar Engene, 23 May 1997

Languages on flags of Soviet Karelia

Language relations and usage in Russian Karelia have represented a very complex issue ever since the October Revolution and they have been greatly influenced by varying political currents in Russia and the Soviet Union. Before the revolution, Karelian never existed as a literary language. Finnish was chosen next to Russian as the official language of the young Karelian ASSR, because, on one hand, Karelian language consists of several quite dissimilar dialects which are, on the other hand, fairly close to Finnish. The Finnish language has a long literary tradition, but “standard Finnish” was partly sovietisized in the KASSR by replacing certain “bourgeois” words by their “international” — or Russian — equivalents; e.g. "neuvosto" (="soviet" or "council") → "sovetti".

In the 1930s the political situation, mainly the tense relations between Finland and the SU, made it necessary to develop a “national” language for Karelia, based on the different dialects spoken in the ASSR as well as on the Russian language, avoiding as many “Finnish” features and words as possible. The task was very difficult and succeeded only partially: the result was a strange mixture that nobody could really understand. The official Karelian grammar, vocabulary and orthography were also changed several times within a few years. Even traditional Karelian-Finnish geographical names were russified: E.g.:

  • "Karjala" or "Kariela" (meaning "Karelia") → "Карелия"
  • "Karjalainen" (meaning "Karelian") → "Карельской"
  • "Venäjä" (meaning "Russia") → "Россия"
  • etc.
(By the way, "Karjalan ASSR" actually means "ASSR of Karelia" whereas "Карельской АССР" stands for "Karelian ASSR".)

These circumstances should explain some of the changes in the flag and emblem inscriptions. At first, a Latin-based alphabet was adopted for Karelian, but towards the end of the 1930s different adaptions of the Cyrillic alphabet were being used ever more frequently [in other ethnical areas of the Soviet Union]. The Karelian language version of the KASSR 1937 Constitution (adopted 15.4.1937) was published in both the Latin and the Cyrillic alphabet. Accordingly, there may have been two parallel versions of the emblem and the flag as well.

In late 1937, however, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, extended by the letters "ӓ", "ӧ" and "ӱ" (cyrillic "a", "o", "u" with umlauts), was made the only official alphabet for the Karelian language by orders from Moscow. Around the same time, new norms for the Karelian language were introduced and usage of the Finnish language practically ended. On Dec. 29th, 1937 a decree was issued according to which only Russian and Karelian inscriptions were to appear on the flag and emblem. In the new Constitution of the ASSR, adopted in July 1938, Finnish was no longer among the official languages of the republic. All these changes resulted in several flag and emblem variations during a short time. Unfortunately it is difficult to find exact information about all the changes and dates.

After the Winter War with Finland (30 Nov 1939-15.3.1940), some of the territories annexed by the SU were incorporated into the Karelian ASSR and the republic was upgraded to the status of Karelian-Finnish SSR. Karelian language was dropped once more in favour of Finnish language (this time standard, not “Soviet” Finnish language) as an official language. After this the language situation didn’t change until the break-up of the Soviet Union, although the Republic was downgraded back to ASSR status in 1956. According to the present constitution, Russian is the only official language in the Republic of Karelia despite the efforts of the ethnic Karelians (ca 10% of population) to have their language made co-official.

Marco Pribilla, 07 Dec 2002


  • [lau97] Kari K. Laurla: Itä-Karjalan tunnuksia. Helsinki 1997
  • Esa Anttikoski: Neuvostoliiton kielipolitiikkaa: Karjalan kirjakielen suunnittelu 1930-luvulla. University of Joensuu, 1998 (on line)
  • [pas94] Aleksandr Paskov: Karjalan vaakunat ja liput. Petroskoi/Petrosavozk, 1994
    (the book is in Finnish and Russian, but has a summary and a list of illustration captions in English)
  • East Carelia: A survey of the country and its population and a review of the Carelian question. Academic Carelia-League: Helsinki, 1934
  • Mauno Jääskeläinen: Die ostkarelische Frage. Helsinki, 1965
  • Gunnar von Herzen: Den karelska expeditionen. Helsinki, 1920
  • [zwe63] W. Zweguintzow: Drapeaux et étendards de l’armée russe. Paris, 1963. (Plates 27, 49)

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