in From the Archives

The national character of Soviet Karelian music

by Pekka Suutari

There has been little research in Finland into Karelian culture on the Russian side of the border during the Soviet era. From the 1920s to the 1950s we get a fragmented picture on the whole of cultural policy in the Soviet Union. Ever the victim of ideological change, Karelian culture was sometimes something that enriched a multicultural state, sometimes something to be denounced as unorthodox.

Finland’s relationship with Russian Karelia is astonishingly complex. Karelia straddles the border area between Finland and Russia, and it was an area of immense and diverse influence right up to the Russian revolution. The birth of the Soviet Union and the Cold War prevented normal cross-border contact for almost 80 years.

In my research in Petrozavodsk and various Karelian villages I have managed to discover more about the changes to Soviet Karelian national culture and its history from the 1920s to the 1950s. The Soviet era in any research into Karelia conducted in Finland is a virtual black hole and ethnographic surveys of recent history are not at all easy, as the experience of generations of Russian Karelians, especially since the Second World War, has been radically different from life in Finland.

Red Fennomania in Soviet Karelia

The Karelian-Finnish Socialist Soviet Republic was established in 1920, in line with Leninist nationalist policy. The purpose was to promote the native population to leading positions in the Republic. When the Republic was founded, the Karelian Finns and Veps, who collectively were called its native population, represented the majority of the inhabitants. Later annexations and industrialisation caused the population soon to triple, however, the Karelians came to be a minority. Nowadays they represent around 10% of the 700,000 or more inhabitants of the Republic.

There were also reasons connected with foreign policy for founding the republic. It was response to a Finnish call or promoting the status of Karelians. Several communists who had escaped from Finland were appointed leader of the Republic, such as Edvard Gylling, who held the position until 1935. The historian Markku Kangaspuro thought Karelian national ideologies were a sort of red Fennomania, whose ultimate goal was to unite the Finns and the Karelians through socialism.

Finnish musical culture

A good number of displaced Finns were invited to settle in Karelia, and the effect of Finnish culture on the region intensified, particularly at the start of the 1930s. The Finnish-speaking population was not so very great (just over 10,000), but Finns played an important role in the development of musical and cultural life there, and there were good arguments for using the Finnish language in national policies. It also helped counter the Russification of the population, and Karelian schoolchildren were told to study in Finnish, even though their families would have liked them to pursue their studies in Russian.

What is telling is that an attempt was made to develop all musical activity on a national basis. Especially well-known were the jazz bands led by American Finns in the 1930s, which performed at social events and in restaurants in Petrozavodsk and Kontupohja, a town known for its important timber industry. No equivalent subculture extending to all areas of the arts later came about, but Karelian folk music has become an important and lasting part of public musical life in Karelia. In musical areas other than folk music there has been integration with Russian musical life, and there are barely any special Karelian features to be found in the world of popular or classical music.

Clubs and art institutes

Karelian musical life was modernised by the founding of professional art institutes and the construction of Soviet palaces of culture plus a network of clubs covering all the villages in the Republic. The clubs were a particular success. In these the urban and rural population got to hear about new political schemes and became involved in cultural growth. There was a move to have Karelians break with the old traditional rituals, festivals and customs and replace them with new musical forms, which would be embraced through entertainment and enjoyment. The traditional, natural forms of entertainment would be changed into a repertoire overseen by the places of culture.

Fennomania prevailed in the musical life of the Republic until 1935, when Stalin’s persecutions started to focus on Finnish nationalism and it was proclaimed that Finnish culture would be liquidated in Karelia. After a brief spell of ‘Karelianism’, the hegemony of Finnish culture was restored during the Winter War under the leadership of O.W. Kuusinen. In the spring of 1940 the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Republic was formed, whose national identity would be based on a fusion of Karelian and Finnish cultures.

The use of the Finnish language thus continued in schools and cultural life. But there was no longer any aim for all areas of culture to have a national flavour and Karelian culture gradually became integrated ever more deeply with Russian society. The assimilation reached its zenith at the end of the 1950s, when the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Republic became an autonomous region.

New forms of music

Kalle Rautio (1889-1963), who moved from California to Karelia in 1922, was a central figure in the Republic’s musical life. He and another composer, Leopold Teplitsky, were given the task in the 1930s of founding the Symphony Orchestra of Karelian Radio and, slightly later, the local branch of the Soviet Composers’ Association. Other important figures in music in Karelia were Helmer Sinisalo, Ruvim Pergament, Lauri Jousinen and Viktor Gudkov (1899-1942), who founded the Kantele Orchestra.

The founding of the Kantele Orchestra was an important and symbolic event in Karelia. Gudkov, who was from Southern Russia, had become besotted with the Kalevala, and Finnish and Karelian tradition. Having set eyes for the first time on a kantele, he immediately began to design his own collection of different types of kantele adapted for orchestral music. What was novel about Gudkov’s kantele was its chromaticism, which made it possible to perform specially arranged works with an ensemble made up of several kanteles. He put together a family of orchestral kanteles of different sizes, from the large bass kantele to the tiny piccolo – just as Vasily Andreyev had done with the balalaika at the end of the 19th century.

Developments in kantele music

The core of Gudkov’s kantele orchestral repertoire consisted of folk tunes, which he had collected from villages in Southern Karelia and arranged in a style that befitted the ideology of the times. But the music was not based on the improvisation and variation of melodies learned by ear, as was the case with performers of folk music: Gudkov’s band played from scores. Karelian composers gave the group a good deal of support and were still writing a huge number of works and arrangements for the band in the 1970s. Arrangements of folk tunes and popular melodies had their own ideological characteristics, because Gudkov maintained they represented the best in the Karelian nation’s creativity.

While Gudkov was modernising the kantele, in Finland Paul Salminen was also sketching new designs for the concert kantele. The differences between the instruments are striking. Gudkov’s kanteles were chromatic, louder-sounding and were of varying sizes. They had been designed for collective orchestral playing. Salminen’s were meant for solo performance. Gudkov even argued that the differences were due to two opposite musical cultures – bourgeois (in Finland) and proletarian (in Russian Karelia).

National choirs at the heart of culture

The development of Karelian culture was given a boost by the founding of several national choirs in the final years of the 1930s. The choirs and orchestras helped to highlight the nation’s creativity in the palaces of culture and at numerous popular art festivals. Music’s aesthetic influences thus no longer trickled down from on high, as with the popular enlightenment movement of the Romantic Age. Instead, a diverse, grassroots approach to popular culture was making itself felt. In the 1930s especially, music and dance events managed to evolve into something for and by the people: they were doing something they knew best – playing music from their own region tinged with a popular aesthetic and style of performance.

There was considerable support for the choirs, but a lot of resources were used up in development and training. The choirs’ most important function was taking part in competitions and formal inspections, for which detailed rules were written concerning performance style, repertoire and the subject matter of songs. In the early 30s, the press for example criticised the way some collectives conducted Karelian wedding ceremonies on a stage, which was considered to be propaganda in favour of backward tradition.

There was a need for new additions to the repertoire and they were made. The collection process, which got off to a robust start in the 1930s, was not limited to the recording of tradition: old forms had to be adapted for modern usage. So now traditional artists, inspired by the collectors, composed new laments and Kalevala-like runic songs, which were published in abundance.

Russification of Karelian culture

With time, however, Russification won out even in the performance style of the choirs. After the War, the choirs got trained conductors who did not know the local language (Karelian), and who also made the repertoire more ‘Russian’. When schools in the Republic finally stopped using Finnish in the mid-50s, the Karelian language gradually fell out of everyday use and Karelian and Finnish were no longer spoken in the clubs.

Assimilation was reinforced by the state, as national cultures were thought to be backward-looking on the Soviet Union’s road to communism. Although the Kantele Orchestra still performed and some national choirs still sang in Karelian and Finnish alongside Russian repertoire, the purpose of Karelian folk music was not to highlight national identity, but to present national cultures as part of a multicultural Soviet state and establish contact between its peoples. The promotion of national identity was the work of dissidents, not to be tolerated in the coherent ideology of the Soviet Union.

Translation: Spencer Allman

This article was first published in FMQ 3/2005.