FAST-FIN-1 Finnish Institutions Research Papers

Repaying the Debt of Honor: Ingrian Immigration to Finland
Emma Nurmela, Autumn 2003 (US)
A FAST-FIN-1 (TRENAK1) Finnish Institutions Research Paper
FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

The biggest group of immigrants in Finland today are the Ingrians, but despite extensive Ingrian immigration from Russia and Estonia in the last ten years, few Finns actually know who the Ingrians are or what lies behind their immigration to Finland. This paper presents an overview of the Ingrians and their immigration back to Finland, their historical motherland.

Historical Background

The Ingrians are descendants of Finnish-speakers who moved to the eastern shores of the Gulf of Finland after Sweden had annexed this area from Russia in the beginning of the 17th century. After the signing of the peace treaty of Stolbova in 1617, Finnish peasants, mainly from eastern parts of Finland, started to move to the area, which extends from Russian Karelia to present-day Estonia (see map below). The area was already inhabited by different Finnish-speaking peoples who were Orthodox. The new-comers had a separate identity, as they spoke a different dialect of Finnish and were Lutherans. They became the strongest community in the area, which was referred to as "Ingermanland" after the river Inkere (Humphreys and Mits).

In 1703, as a result of the Great Northern War, Russia reconquered Ingermanland and the Ingrians were separated from their motherland. The Russian czar Peter the Great built the new capital, St. Petersburg, in the basin of the river Neva and Russians started to move into the area. Ingrians were able to preserve their own culture and religion in spite of Russian influence. In 1809 Russia annexed Finland from Sweden and Ingrians were connected to their historical homeland. Throughout the 19th century the Lutheran church developed Ingrian culture very actively. Finnish courses were organized and different Ingrian societies were formed. Before the Russian revolution in 1917 there were about 150,000 Ingrians in Ingermanland (Humphreys and Mits).

The Historical Ingermanland (Inkerinmaa)
Source: Ingrian Associations in Finland

In 1917 the Soviet Union was born and Finland gained independence. Initially the Soviet Union treated its minorities with respect and the Ingrians were able to continue their traditions. The situation changed dramatically when Stalin came to power. Between the years 1929 and 1938 most of the Finnish-speaking intelligentsia were killed and tens of thousands of Ingrians were deported to different parts of the Soviet Union or sent to prison camps. Ingrian cultural life was destroyed and Finnish schools and churches were closed. People were afraid to speak Finnish and many of those who survived changed their names into Russian ones in order to escape further problems. Ingrians were deprived of their rights and an intense "russification" took place. In 1942, when the Soviet Union was at war with Germany and Finland, about 25,000 Ingrians were deported to Siberia (Humphreys and Mits).

As the Germans proceeded to Russian territories more than 60,000 Ingrians were evacuated to Finland. Some Ingrian men joined the Finnish army and fought against the Soviet Union. However, under the conditions of the peace agreement, Finland had to return all Ingrians back to the Soviet Union. Some Ingrians were able to stay in Finland, but most of them were forced to leave. The Soviet government promised the Ingrians that they could return to their previous homes, but in fact they were sent to different parts of the Soviet Union, such as Kalinin, Vologda and Sverdlovsk. Only in 1956 were the Ingrians allowed to return. Today there are about 25,000 Ingrians living in the city of St. Petersburg and its surroundings (Humphreys and Mits).1

The Moral and Legal Basis of Ingrian Immigration

Ingrians have suffered a lot just for being who they are. The historical guilt of the Finns for returning the Ingrians to the Soviet Union after the war was the starting point for the recent immigration. In 1990 Finnish president Mauno Koivisto gave his famous New Year's speech in which he stated that Ingrians living in the former Soviet Union can be regarded as Finnish returnees. This meant that they could to move to Finland if they were able to prove that they had Finnish ancestors (Ingrian Associations in Finland). Besides the debt of honor there were also other reasons behind this invitation: a growing labor shortage, especially in southern Finland, made decision-makers encourage immigration (Nylund-Oja and Pentikäinen 175-76).

Ingrians started to immigrate to Finland in great numbers. At first the legislation concerning immigration was not changed and Ingrians were treated as all other groups of returning migrants. However, it was emphasized that Ingrians' applications for residence permits should be handled with special sympathy. A practice was formed according to which the returnees had to have at least one parent or grandparent of Finnish origin so that they would be regarded as Finns and would be entitled to a residence permit. Soon it became clear that very few Ingrians could actually speak Finnish properly, and that the returnees were not well informed about Finnish society (Kyntäjä).

In 1996 the Finnish Aliens Act was supplemented by a new section which established special criteria for the status of Ingrian returnees. The rules of Ingrian immigration were tightened: currently the returnees must have at least one parent or two grandparents who are regarded as Finns. According to the law, residence permits can also be given to the spouse and to the underage children of a returnee. The returnees are also obliged to take part in immigration training in their country of origin. A compulsory course in Finnish language is included in the training. However, the language skills of the applicants did not affect the decision on issuing a residence permit: it was enough for the Ingrians to prove that they had Finnish ancestors (The Finnish Aliens Act 5). The decisions of giving the returnee status are made in Finnish diplomatic and consular missions abroad. The Directorate of Immigration gives a statement on all the applications and interviews some of the applicants before the final decision of issuing a residence permit is made (CERD).

In March 2003 the section concerning Ingrians was changed. Now Ingrians must also pass an exam in Finnish or Swedish language. They must have adequate practical language skills in order to manage in most common situations. This requirement does not apply to those Ingrians who were returned to the Soviet Union after the war or who served in the Finnish army during the war. The family members of a returnee are also not required to prove their language skills. This law came into effect on 1 October 2003 (Ulkomaalaislaki).

Who is Moving to Finland and Why?

Today there are about 25,000-30,000 Ingrians and their family members in Finland; 20,000 in Russia and Estonia are waiting for permission to move. According to researcher Eve Kyntäjä, Ingrian returnees can be divided into three generations. The first group are elderly people who were born in the historical Ingermanland before 1930 and who have lived in the old Ingrian villages. These people have a clear Finnish identity and their mother tongue is Finnish. The second group are those Ingrians who were born in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of them were born in Siberia or in central Russia where Ingrians were deported to. Those who were not deported remember the evacuation to Finland and then the return back to the Soviet Union, after which they were sent away to other areas. The youngest of this generation were often born in Karelia and Estonia, where their parents returned when they were allowed to come back (Kyntäjä).

The second generation grew up in times of oppression and fear. Some parents kept Finnish traditions alive and spoke Finnish to their children at home. In schools children could use only Russian: it was not allowed to speak Finnish in public. Russian became the first language for many Ingrians, and those who moved to Estonia often started to use the Estonian language. Because of these experiences the second-generation Ingrians have identity problems; few of them clearly regard themselves as Finns. The third generation consists of those Ingrians who were born in the 1950s or later. They have had very little contact with Ingrian history and traditions. Usually they have only faint memories of a grandparent who used to speak Finnish. These people most often identify themselves as Russians or Estonians (Kyntäjä).

The reasons why Ingrians want to move to Finland vary a lot. Some identify themselves as Finns and feel a clear connection to their Finnish neighbors. Some come mainly for economic reasons, in order to build a better future for themselves and their children. Some move to Finland because it is a safer place to live than Russia and the quality of life is much higher. Many want to follow relatives who have already emigrated to Finland (Gulijeva 39-43).

The Life of Ingrian Immigrants in Finland

Ingrians are entitled to the same social benefits and immigration courses as other immigrants. They do not get any special benefits, except for those veterans who fought in the Finnish army in 1939-45: they get several special services, for example free housing and health care. Ingrians participate in education programs that help them to integrate into Finnish society. They take courses in Finnish language and they can further enhance their professional skills on vocational training courses. They are also provided with a special individual integration plan. The Ingrian societies in Finland also organize courses and cultural activities and help Ingrians adapt to life in Finland.2

But despite all the efforts, Ingrians have had problems in Finland. The unemployment rate in Finland among immigrants generally is quite high. In the beginning of the 1990s the economic recession also made it difficult for Ingrians to find work, even though they are highly educated compared to other groups of immigrants (Ministry of Labour 30-31). In many areas outside Helsinki less than ten percent of the Ingrians have found work (Parliamentary committee aghast). One big problem is the language barrier. Few Ingrians know Finnish adequately when they come to Finland. The lack of language skills makes it more difficult to find work. Under the law on integration, unemployed Ingrian immigrants should continue studying Finnish after moving to Finland. However, many local authorities have not been able to organize language courses because of a lack of money. Many immigrants can not participate in adult vocational training because their Finnish is not good enough (Parliamentary committee aghast).

Identity problems are also common among Ingrians, as many of them have a very complex view about their ethnicity. Especially the younger generation of returnees has had problems integrating into society. Those teenagers who no longer go to school are often left outside society's networks: they have problems in making friends and learning the language. The attitudes of Finns are also not very positive towards immigrants and especially towards Russians. Ingrians are usually seen in a positive light, but many take Ingrians for Russians because most of them speak Russian as their mother tongue. Many Ingrians have Russian spouses and their children are usually totally Russian: these people often do not have a strong feeling of belonging to Finnish society (Jasinskaja-Lahti). Some have fallen into crime. According to police information Ingrian juveniles commit about 7,000 car break-ins in the Helsinki region per year. In 2000 over 500 Russian and over 300 Estonian citizens were arrested for drug-related crimes in the Helsinki area (Parliamentary committee aghast).

Discussion over Ingrian Immigration

Lately there has been a lot of discussion over the question of Ingrian immigration. Some think that the debt of honor has already been paid and that Finland should stop favoring Ingrians, or at least that stricter limits should be put on their immigration, especially from Russia. Former Minister of the Interior Ville Itälä thinks that it is time to review the concept of Ingrian immigration (Itälä). In 2002 when Itälä was still in office he stated that he was ready to put an end to the returnee migrant status of Ingrians if the government decided to do so. In that case Ingrians could still continue to move to Finland, but on the same basis as immigrants from other countries (Itälä). This would probably lead to a significant decrease in the number of Ingrian immigrants.

Often the people who come to Finland under Ingrian status do not regard themselves as Ingrians. Many Finns think that it is not right that Russians who might only have a very distant Ingrian relative and who do not have anything in common with Finnish culture can come to Finland under the cover of Ingrian status. There have also been cases of document falsification: residence permits have been given to people who are not entitled to them (Parliamentary committee aghast).3

While these questions about Ingrian immigration are being posed, the immigration continues actively, and especially in Russia the Ingrian queues are long. The number of Estonian returnees, however, is decreasing as Estonia's economic growth continues; the country is soon going to be a member of the European Union (Ministry of Labour 46). Many politicians and researchers think that if the Ingrians' special position as returnees is extended, integration policies should be changed. Many blame the government for not having been able to create a consistent policy on Ingrian immigrants. According to Eve Kyntäjä, the immigration courses offered both in the country of origin and in Finland should be made more effective. Finnish society also needs to be more open and tolerant of immigrants (Kyntäjä).

New Views on the Ingrian Question

Ingrians have come a long way in history; they have suffered from repression and have not been able to live according to their traditions and ethnicity. Finland has given the Ingrians a possibility to return to their historical motherland, and by doing this, paid back its debt of honor for not being able to protect the Ingrians earlier. However, the common opinion in Finland is that it is time to search for alternative solutions to the Ingrian question.

Many Finns think that Ingrians should be given support in the countries that they live in, instead of encouraging them to move to Finland where many of them live on welfare. Several Ingrian societies also claim that local Ingrian societies lose their best individuals because so many leave for Finland (Ministry of Labour 45-46). The different ministries of the Finnish Government have also expressed that they want to slow down Ingrian immigration. Instead of encouraging immigration, the ministries now finance various support programs in Russia and Estonia that are intended to improve the living standards of the Ingrians and preserve Ingrian culture. By doing this, Finland also wants to create possibilities for Ingrians in Finland to return to Russia and Estonia.

Along with the Government, the Lutheran church, several non-governmental organizations and private persons also help Ingrians abroad. Old people's homes have been built and Lutheran churches renovated. In St. Petersburg Ingrians are being retrained to be experts on commerce and are being offered work in Finnish firms. The education of teachers of Finnish is also being supported (Ministry of Labour 42-25). Many see this kind of support as the best solution to the Ingrian question.


  1. For more information about the history of Ingrians, see Sanna Rimpiläinen's article Ingrian Finnishness as a historical construction. (PDF)
  2. For further information about the education and integration of immigrants in Finland, see Leena Koskimaa's paper Immigrants and Education in Finland.
  3. For further information, see an article in which Ingrians comment on the selection of returnees: Ingrians criticise selection of returning migrants.

Works Cited

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Last Updated 22 April 2010