FAST-FIN-1 Finnish Institutions Research Papers

A Nation in Transition: The Resettlement of the Karelian Evacuees
Kristiina Tolvanen, Autumn 2008 (US)
A FAST-FIN-1 (TRENAK1) Finnish Institutions Research Paper
FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

The Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1944) which Finland fought against Soviet Russia were among the most important events in 20th century Finnish history. This was especially so for a large number of Finns who had lived in the south-eastern province of Karelia, the land area which then extended nearly to the outskirts of Soviet Leningrad. These Finnish Karelians lost their homes and almost everything they owned in consequence of the two wars.

This paper discusses themes connected to the resettlement of these Karelian evacuees before, during, and after the wars, focusing especially on the final and most important phase of resettlement, which took place after the Continuation War. How did the resettlement take place, and what was unique about it? Who were the people and parties behind the action? How did the resettlement of the evacuees affect Finnish society? And perhaps most importantly, why is the resettlement process worth remembering?

Background to the Resettlement Process

This map presents the land areas of Northern and Southern Karelia, the Karelian Isthmus, and Ladoga Karelia, which together formed the former Finnish Karelia. The map also shows the current ownership of these areas.
Image source: Virtual Finland.

Karelia and the Karelians

Geographically, Karelia1 covered a large land area on the Finnish side of the border between Finland and the Soviet Union. However, Karelia as it once was no longer exists, because most of the land area now belongs to Russia. Nowadays, Finnish Karelia only exists in a much smaller form. There is also a distinction to be made between Finnish Karelians, who live in Finland, and Russian Karelians, who live in areas that belong to Russia.

The Finnish population consists of different tribes 2 , each of which has its own general, sometimes stereotypical characteristics. Karelians form one of these main Finnish tribes. Other Finns see Karelians as lively, outgoing, talkative, and humorous. These features are not usually connected to Finns in general. Karelians also have their own traditions, cuisine, and dialect, for example.  

Finnish cultural heritage and folklore3 are in many ways connected to the Karelians. Karelia gave inspiration to many 19th century Finnish painters, poets, botanists, linguists and other experts from the arts and sciences. This led to the formation of a movement called Karelianism, which gave immense value to Karelia and the Karelians (Karelianismi). Related to Karelianism, a Finnish man named Elias Lönnrot gathered legends and tales from the ordinary people living in Karelia. From these stories, Lönnrot compiled the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, which was first published in 1835 (Kirjallisuus). Thus, it is evident that the influence of Karelia on the Finnish cultural heritage has been substantial.

In addition to the cultural aspects, there is one other significant element which unifies the Karelian tribe, and which has presumably led to the fact that their bonding is strong even today: the resettlement. While it is true that the entire Finnish nation suffered greatly during World War II, it was the Karelians who were affected the most because they lost their homeland.

The Emergence of a Need for Resettlement

At the end of the 1930s, the political situation started heating up in Europe. Germany was eager to extend its dominance. Related to this, the Soviet Union wanted to acquire more land in order to be in a better position to defend itself in case of an attack. The Soviet Union was strongly interested in Finland, because the country had a strategically valuable location in the Soviet Union's defence strategy, especially when it came to protecting its second largest city, Leningrad. Tensions grew and the situation tightened. Under these circumstances, the Soviet Union eventually declared a war on the Finnish front, when warfare was starting elsewhere in Europe as well. Finland was therefore unable to remain outside World War II.

Simply put, the Soviet Union's declaration of war against Finland was the reason behind the need for resettlement. Finland fought twice against the former Soviet Union during the Second World War: first in the Winter War (1939-1940), and then in the Continuation War (1941-1944). When it was apparent that hostilities were likely to begin, the Finnish authorities evacuated the people living on the Finnish side of the border between Finland and the Soviet Union; the Karelians. Then, the evacuees had to be placed somewhere, first temporarily, then permanently, as it became evident that Finland would have to cede large parts of its territory to the Soviet Union.

The two wars were the reason why resettlement of the civilians on whose homeland the battles were being fought was needed, and why Finland was forced to gain expertise quickly in massive evacuations and resettlement.

The Winter War: the First Round of Evacuation

The first exodus for the Karelians came about even before the Winter War had begun; in early October 1939, the Finnish authorities advised the people living in the Finnish Karelian border areas, where a possible attack was likely to occur, to leave their homes, as the threat of a war was very real (Siirtokarjalaisten). However, when at first nothing seemed to happen, some of those who had already left returned to their homes (Rapo). Unfortunately, the Winter War then did break out on the last day of November in 1939, and evacuation turned to reality for the majority in Karelia.

In fact, the 1939-1940 evacuations of the Karelians took place in three stages: first, as already mentioned, before the Winter War; then when the Winter War started; and finally after the Winter War had ended. The reason for this was simply the change in the political situation; when the war started, the authorities naturally had to enlarge the evacuation area. The final evacuation applied to those who had not been able to leave in time, and who had thus been forced to remain in their homes but had managed to stay alive during the warfare. All in all, over 400,000 Karelians were evacuated during the entire period of the Winter War (Henttonen).

The truce which ended the Winter War was concluded in 1940. Among the provisions of this truce were that the areas of Laatokan Karjala [in English: Ladoga Karelia] and Karjalankannas [the Isthmus of Karelia] were ceded to the Soviet Union, and a new border was drawn. Peace, however, did not last for long. In the summer of 1941 the Continuation War began (Siirtokarjalaisten).

This map presents the areas that Finland had to cede to the Soviet Union in 1940 and 1944. Petsamo is the northest area marked in gray and Salla is the area below it. The large grey area in the south is the lost part of Karelia.
Image source: Tarton rauha ry

The Continuation War: the Second Round of Evacuation

When the Continuation War began in late June 1941, the Finnish army was at first victorious. The areas of Karelia lost in the Winter War were reconquered, and a large number of evacuees returned to the ruins of their homes. They resettled and started repair work, even while the war was still continuing (Siirtokarjalaisten).

Then the tides of war changed. In 1944 Finland had to retreat. A peace treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union was signed, and the border was marked back to the same line as it had been after the Winter War (Siirtokarjalaisten). However, this time, in addition to the areas in Karelia, Finland also had to cede large portions of Petsamo and Salla, situated close to the border in the north.

Finland had suffered greatly during the Continuation War. In addition to this, the country had again been forced to cede large parts of its territory, and it also had to pay extensive reparations to the Soviet Union. Despite this, from the Finnish perspective the war had not been lost. Finland had remained independent and kept most of its land area. Nevertheless, the war was a bitter experience for the entire Finnish nation, especially the Karelian tribe. After the Continuation War, the Karelians had lost their homes for good.

The Consequences of the War

When the Continuation War was finally over, the consequences of warfare had to be dealt with. Nationwide, over 430,000 people were without homes; of these, 407,000 were Karelians. The Karelian evacuees made up 11% of the entire Finnish population (Siirtokarjalaisten).

The challenge was significant. The economy had been weakened by the war, and Finland had to pay reparations to the Soviet Union. Yet somehow, all the people suffering from the traumas of the war had to be resettled to new areas, and integrated as rapidly as possible into Finnish society and the national economy.

The Resettlement of the Karelian Evacuees

The Situation after the Winter War

As soon as the Winter War ended, with the peace treaty with the Soviet Union signed in March 1940, the Finnish government began discussing the status of the Karelian evacuees. Questions arose. Should the Karelians stay in the lost areas, which would now be part of the Soviet Union, or should they re-establish themselves in Finland? Should they be treated as a group, with all of the Karelians either required to leave or to stay; or as individuals, with each person or family having a right to choose? And above all, what was the Soviet Union's opinion about the Karelian evacuees and their future?

The status of the Karelian population was much discussed on Finland's behalf in the peace negotiations following the signing of the peace treaty. The Finnish side would have wanted to include additional articles to the treaty. The first of these would have given the Karelians a so-called "right of option", meaning that they would have had a right to remain Finnish citizens and move permanently to Finnish territory within a year from the date the treaty was signed, or else go back to Karelia, most of which now belonged to the Soviet Union. The second article would have guaranteed freedom of religion to people who would choose to live in the ceded areas (Hietanen 109). There was freedom of religion in Finland, but it was not entirely certain whether this would be the case in the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, the Soviet Union refused all attempts to create separate agreements concerning the evacuees by stating that they were unnecessary. The Soviet Union was not interested in the population of the ceded areas, and wanted to avoid all possible problems concerning ethnic minorities. The value of the conquered land for the Soviet Union was in the military prospects its location could offer (Hietanen 111), and depopulating the land it had acquired would have been more than suitable to the Soviet Union. In other words, the Soviet Union preferred the Karelians, who had already been evacuated, not to come back.

There had been a reason why Finland was so eager to negotiate with the Soviet Union about the status of the Karelian population. The Finnish authorities would have wanted to keep the border open for remigration because they were not keen on executing a massive resettlement process (Hietanen 112). At the time, the implementation of possible resettlement involving over 430,000 people represented a challenge beyond imagination. In a way, it is therefore understandable that the Finnish decision-makers tried to avoid it.

From Evading the Problem to Planning Resettlement

As already mentioned, the Soviet Union did not agree to any of the terms proposed, and the Finnish authorities saw that the peace negotiations of March 1940 had failed. The political and military leadership of Finland finally faced reality by declaring that the Karelian evacuees had a right to move to and stay permanently in Finland's area (Hietanen 116). The next problem was where and how to resettle these evacuees.

Resettling evacuees became topical on two separate occasions. The first need for resettlement was connected to the Winter War, but the second and most important test for resettlement came about after the Continuation War. The results of the decisions that affected the lives of the Karelian evacuees after the Continuation War had long-lasting effects on the entire Finnish nation.

Establishing a Foundation for Resettlement

In the aftermaths of both the Winter War and the Continuation War, the Karelian evacuees were not treated uniformly, which meant that the regulations of resettlement did not apply to all of them. Instead, the Finnish government's decisions led to the formation of two types of Karelian evacuees. Agricultural producers and people who had lived in the countryside of Karelia4 were entitled to receive a compensatory estate elsewhere in Finland. Townspeople and industrial workers, on the other hand, had to move to cities and surrounding areas and try to find work and a roof over their head as best as they could (Siirtokarjalaisten), although with some help from the state, as described in the next section.

All Karelian evacuees, however, received financial compensation from the state for the land, property and livelihood they had lost because of the wars (Jussila 64). While this paper will only discuss the resettlement of Karelians, there were also other people, especially after the Continuation War, who were entitled to apply to the government for land as well. (Vennamo 168). By granting so many people a right to receive land, Finland was in a way rewarding them from their efforts in the war, and also encouraging people to start thinking about the future and giving their contribution to the national economy.

During the short time of peace between the Winter War and the Continuation War in 1940-1941, the resettlement issue was tackled by enacting a law called the Prompt Settlement Act (Hietanen 308), which legally ensured the Karelians the right to receive land in Finland. The law passed in late June 1940 (Hietanen 149), but it never really took effect because everything turned upside down when the Continuation war soon began in June 1941, (Hietanen 191). Some months after that, many of the Karelians started moving back to their former Karelian homes.

The Final Phase of Resettlement after the Continuation War

After the Continuation War was lost in 1944, Finland once again had to figure out what to do with the enormous number of evacuees. Similarly to the situation after the Winter War, a few Finnish political leaders hoped that the evacuees could stay in their former habitats, despite the fact that the land now belonged to another country. Another proposed option was to let the evacuees deal with their problems themselves, to leave them on their own (Vennamo 35) and not create huge, official plans about where to resettle them.

Luckily, the existence of the Prompt Settlement Act of 1940 led the authorities to seek the same kind of solution as after the Winter War: creating plans and laws in order to resettle the evacuees (Vennamo 36).

The Legislation and Administration Leading the Way to Resettlement

There were two large institutions which took the main responsibility for the resettlement of the Karelian evacuees after the Continuation War. One was the Finnish Government and Parliament, and the other the Department of Settlement Affairs (ASO)5, a branch of the Ministry of Agriculture.

In order to implement the resettlement of the Karelians, guidelines had to be established and necessary laws enacted. The Finnish Government and Parliament, together with the President, took care of the immediate legal aspects. The result was the Land Acquisition Act (Hietanen 308), which passed on 5 May 1945 (Vennamo 50-55).  

The administrative decisions made by the Government and the Finnish Parliament then had to be turned into action. This was where the ASO stepped in. The Prompt Settlement Act of 1940 and the groundwork made at the time of the Winter War were highly influential when the ASO was creating the plan for settlement on paper (Vennamo 121).

The ASO made detailed calculations concerning the land available for resettlement (Vennamo 121). Naturally, they also had to know how much land was actually needed. This information was gathered from applications for land that the ASO received from the evacuees. Based on these applications, the ASO determined the amount of land that the evacuees from each Karelian administrative district were going to need, since part of the policy was to transfer entire village communities. Then they tried to find a matching area in Finland where land was available (Vennamo 122). The necessary land for settlement was then acquired from the state, municipalities, companies, and private owners (Siirtokarjalaisten).

After making a first rough draft for resettlement, the ASO consulted the representatives of each Karelian administrative district that had been lost to the Soviet Union (Vennamo 122). Based on their feedback, the ASO created a new version, which was then submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture for validation (Vennamo 123). An organisation called Karjalan Liitto [The Carelian League]6 played an active role in the process by giving proposals, providing experts' opinions and by actively lobbying parliament representatives and resettlement authorities to support the needs of the Karelians (Vennamo 69).

When the ASO thought that a reasonable plan was ready on paper, it was time to turn the ideas into reality. This meant building new homes and repairing existing ones that had been damaged or left empty during the war, with the assistance of experts from different fields (Vennamo 153).

This map shows where the people of each Karelian administrative district were resettled based on the 1945 ASO plan. The names of the Karelian municipalities are marked in black; the main Finnish cities are marked in light red.
The bright red area is the part of Karelia ceded to the Soviet Union.
Image source and ©: Seppo Rapo

When it came to reconstruction work, the ASO gave assistance to everyone in need (Vennamo 183), for example by finding land to build houses in the city areas for those to whom the Land Acquisition Act and the resettlement plans did not apply (Vennamo 181). This meant that the focus was not solely on agricultural people or Karelian evacuees (Vennamo 187).

The city areas were crowded because a large number of the evacuees had found their way there. New houses had to be built and the damaged infrastructure repaired in those areas as well. The state was able to help with these problems since the Land Acquisition Act gave the ASO the right to have a say in town planning, for example (Vennamo 184). It seems that the Finnish authorities were wise enough to realize that it was in the nation's interest to offer help to the people in all possible ways.

The citizens could also apply for subsidies from the state. The aim of all these benefits was to help the entire Finnish nation to get back on its feet. Supporting the citizens like this was also an excellent way to prevent possible revolutionary ideas from emerging, and a means to reunify the nation. As in any time of confusion and unrest at the end of major warfare, it was likely that some elements of the population would have promoted their own political agendas and this could have led to another civil war7. After the Continuation War, communism, for example, was seen as a major threat in Finland. However, when people were focused on reconstruction work and their everyday lives and saw that the government was doing a considerable amount to assist them, they did not have too much time to think about politics.

The Resettlement: a Challenge to the Entire Nation

While this paper may give the impression that the resettlement was a simple, straightforward administrative process, this in fact was not the case. It took several years before everyone who had been entitled to benefits actually got what they deserved. During this time, numerous changes were made both to the laws and to the resettlement plans.

In a way, the process of resettling the Karelian evacuees formed a mission that could have easily turned impossible. Various aspects complicated the process. One of them was the ongoing back and forth movement of evacuees on the eastern border before, during and after the two wars due to the changes in the military and political situations. The moving started even before the Winter War, when the people were first advised to leave.

All in all, considering the circumstances, both the first and the final resettlements took place in a time period when Finland was in a state of disorder. Numerous things were happening at the same time: there was a need to create the legislation for the resettlement, buildings and infrastructure had to be repaired, new homes constructed and resettlement conducted.

As a result of the Continuation War, there had been a dramatic loss of manpower. There was also a shortage of food, because the war had weakened the agricultural production, and Finland had lost areas under cultivation to the Soviet Union. Moreover, due to both the loss of land and a need to pay heavy reparations to the Soviet Union, a post-war confusion reigned in the minds of Finns. But despite all this, slowly but surely, resettlement was somehow achieved.

The Impacts of Resettlement for Finland

Needless to say, the resettlement had a profound effect on all of Finnish society and Finland's citizens. First of all, it posed a major challenge to the authorities and legislators. Finland had no previous experience with large evacuations or resettling people. Luckily, the authorities were capable of finding creative solutions to problems, and were also willing to make compromises.

The extensive reparations which Finland was ordered to pay to the Soviet Union after the Continuation War eventually turned out to be a positive thing for the Finnish nation. The reparations forced Finland to build and develop its industrial production quickly, since the reparations were paid in part in the form of timber and metal industry products. In addition to this, the reparations brought the nation together by introducing a common goal to work for as a group. The goal was no less than national survival, which would have been severely threatened, if Finland had failed to pay the reparations to the Soviet Union.

The resettlement also created a large number of small farms. These introduced another change in Finnish society, since a larger percentage of the citizens were now landowners. Finally, the resettlement forced the Finnish nation to prove its adaptability and perseverance simply in order to survive in the challenging and continuously changing circumstances.

How did the resettlement process work in reality? In order to give an idea, a case study of the resettlement of Karelian evacuees from an administrative district named Sakkola is presented in the following.

Case Study: The Resettlement of Evacuees from the Karelian Administrative District of Sakkola

Sakkola is a Karelian administrative district located on the shore of Lake Ladoga, on the eastern side of the Karelian Isthmus. At the time of the Second World War, Sakkola fell into the category of an agricultural district. In 1937, the population of Sakkola is reported to have been a little under 6,500 people. Sakkola, like most Finnish administrative districts usually are, was divided to small villages with names such as Kiviniemi, Röykkylä, and Lapinlahti (Sakkola, Sakkolan alue).

The area higlighted in red on the right side of the map shows where Sakkola is situated in the ceded Karelia. The other red area shows where the people of Sakkola were settled in Finland, based on the ASO's plan of 1945.
Image source: Sakkolalaisten evakkotaival

Like most other Karelians, the habitants of Sakkola were evacuated twice during World War II. As Leo Paukkunen has noted in his 1989 study Siirtokarjalaiset Nyky-Suomessa [Karelian Evacuees in Present-Day Finland], in late November 1939, when the Winter War broke out, the administrative district of Sakkola received an evacuation command. The habitants were evacuated to Urjala, a small administrative district in the south-western part of central Finland, and its surroundings.

When the Winter War was over, and Finland had to cede parts of Karelia to the Soviet Union, the evacuees who had been temporarily settled to Urjala were resettled according to the villages in which they had formerly resided to a wide area around Tampere, one of Finland's largest cities. The resettlement followed the 1940 Prompt Settlement Act (reported in Sakkola-Säätiö, Sakkolalaisten).

At the beginning of September 1941, however, after the Finnish army had reconquered the Karelian Isthmus, some residents of Sakkola returned to their former homes, and others soon followed. Rebuilding began. The Karelians' love for their homeland can be deduced from the fact that 85% of the residents of Sakkola returned to their homes during the Continuation War (reported in Sakkola-säätiö, Sakkolalaisten). By the summer of 1944, 70% of all the 1939-1940 Karelian evacuees had returned to their native region (Siirtokarjalaisten).

However, in mid-June 1944 the residents of Sakkola once again had to say goodbye to their homes, this time for good. The second evacuation led them to the same areas in Finland as during the Winter War. The 1945 Land Acquisition Act, and the careful plans made by ASO, finally determined where they were placed. A new law was needed because the earlier resettlement following the 1941 Prompt Settlement Act had not been entirely finished, and those already resettled back then had given up their right to their new homes when they had returned to Karelia (Vennamo 170). The people of Sakkola were eventually resettled to ten different administrative districts close to Tampere. Among these were, for example, Lempäälä, Pirkkala and Viiala. Once again, the resettlement was carried out so that village communities were not torn apart (reported in Sakkola-säätiö, Sakkolalaisten).  

Nowadays, the former residents of Sakkola and their offspring have spread around Finland. This is only natural, especially since the resettlement plans only applied to agricultural people, but not city-dwellers, as mentioned above. The people of Sakkola have been integrated into Finnish society, but their Karelian background can perhaps still be seen in their traditions8 and heard in the way they speak9. Sakkola will always stay close to their heart, and they will pass on the memory of their native region by telling stories to their children and grandchildren. Their journey is written in the nation's history.

Veikko Vennamo: A Man with a Vision

When it came to creating plans after the Continuation War to help the Karelians and all the other victims of the Winter War and the Continuation War, a number of people in high places participated in the process. The activity of some of these people stood out more than others. One of the most active and influential politicians was a man named Veikko Vennamo.

Veikko Vennamo's interest in the Karelians is understandable, since he himself was Karelian. He was born in 1913 in an administrative district called Jaakkima, which was situated on the shore of Lake Ladoga. Vennamo was a licentiate of law, and a Master of Jurisprudence (Eduskunta), which made him a very competent and powerful advocate for the Karelians.

After the Continuation War, Veikko Vennamo became the leading figure of all the people who spoke for the Karelians, and tried to fight for their case. To this day the Karelian evacuees and their offspring remember him with great respect. To some others, however, particularly private owners who had to give up land for the resettlement, he may even be regarded as something of a criminal.

Timo Soini, a well-known figure in present-day Finnish politics, and nowadays the chairman of the Finnish political party Perussuomalaiset [Fundamental Finns], is Vennamo's former party colleague. In his autobiography Maisterisjätkä [A Chap with a Master's Degree]10 Soini states that Veikko Vennamo was a passionate, charismatic personality, who was more than ready to fight for the things he believed in (37). His witty intelligence was a great benefit in politics (Soini 43).

Vennamo was the director of the Department of Settlement Affairs (ASO) from 1944 to 1959 (Eduskunta). In this position he did most of his work in favor of the Karelian evacuees, and his input to the resettlement and reconstruction work was highly significant. Somehow, he seemed to know that the success of these projects was vital to Finland's future.

Vennamo had a long career in Finnish politics. In 1959 he founded his own political party, Suomen Pientalonpoikien Puolue [Finland's Party of Small Farmers], the name of which was changed in 1966 to Suomen Maaseudun Puolue (SMP) [Finland's Countryside Party]10. The party existed until 1979 (Värikäs). Vennamo even ran for the presidency on three occasions: in 1968, 1978 and 1982 (Eduskunta).

Throughout his life Vennamo was always ready to defend the less unfortunate, and fight against people who in his mind were villains. He passed away in 1997, at the age of 84 (Eduskunta). His colourful character and catchy slogans11 will stay in the nation's memory for years to come.

The Resettlement of the Karelians: A Finnish Success Story?

It is evident that when a large number of people suddenly have to be evacuated from their homes and settled elsewhere, the situation could rapidly become catastrophic. Yet overall, the resettlement was an amazingly positive achievement for Finland.

One of the main reasons why the resettlement of Karelian evacuees was unique and worth remembering is that, all in all, everything happened quite smoothly, without violence for example. When the enormous number of the evacuees, the extremely challenging circumstances, and various other factors are taken into consideration, the whole process could have failed miserably, creating more problems instead of solving any of them. But it did not. Why?

Factors Leading to Success in the Resettlement Process

According to Veikko Vennamo, one of the main reasons for the success of the long-running resettlement process was that the evacuees were not gathered into large refugee camps. Instead, starting from the very beginning of the evacuation process, they were decentralized as much as possible (16) by evacuating the Karelians so that the habitants of each administrative district were placed to a certain area elsewhere in Finland. This was probably the reason why many potential conflicts were avoided.  

The entire resettlement process was also admirably logical. The plan was to make adjustment to a new environment as easy as possible by not destroying village communities, so that familiar people who were in the same situation would be close by. This was clear already after the Winter War in 1940, when the foundations for the resettlement were created. The government reports declared that the evacuees entitled to receive land ought to be resettled uniformly according to their former municipalities and villages, while also taking religious and language factors into consideration (Hietanen 125). This meant that, since such a large number of the Karelian evacuees were Orthodox, they ought to be settled so that the other Finns who were mainly Lutheran would not feel threatened, and at the same time the Karelians would have the right to keep their own religion. The language part meant that if Karelians were settled in Swedish-speaking administrative districts 11, the number of evacuees should be small enough not to pose a threat to the language status of the administrative district (Vennamo 87).

Instead of placing the evacuees arbitrarily wherever land was available, the government and the ASO tried to make sure that the new habitat of the evacuees would have, insofar as possible, the same means of livelihood as their former Karelian habitat (Siirtokarjalaisten).

In order to ensure the livelihood of the evacuees and their agricultural input in a country which was suffering from a shortage of food, without weakening the situation of the existing farms when acquiring land for resettlement from them, the size and quality of the land area given to the evacuees was defined with the utmost precision in the aftermath of the war (Vennamo 106).

The resettlement of the Karelian evacuees was a positive example of how cost-effectiveness could be combined with humane qualities. The goal of the ASO was that small farms would create settlement areas by being situated close to each other. This in turn created communities and prohibited isolation, while work on new roads and housing that had to be built for the evacuees was centralized and infrastructure was created economically (Vennamo 181). Saving money like this would not have been possible if the evacuees had been settled far away from each other.

Another positive aspect worth mentioning is flexibility. Both the authorities and the Karelians waiting to receive a new place to live knew that the process at hand was going to be a long-lasting one. The Karelians had no unrealistic expectations, and they waited patiently while the legislators did everything they could to solve the problem of their resettlement.

The government was willing to make changes and adjustments to the legislation and to their plans, such as correctives to the laws concerning land acquisition for resettlement (Vennamo 102), for example about how much land private owners were required to give up for resettlement (Vennamo 105-120). The people who had to give up land also had a right to file a complaint if they felt that they had suffered injustice (Vennamo 59-63).

During the resolution of such disputes and planning, the evacuees patiently accepted the fact that they had to put their lives on hold, and they worked as sharecroppers until their case was dealt with. The sharecropping system was created so that the Karelians could give their input to the agricultural production. Some of the Karelians had even managed to take a few of their domestic animals such as cows or pigs with them when they were evacuated, and these animals naturally needed land on which to graze. A sharecropping committee, which executed a lease system, was set up. The land was mostly acquired from private owners through voluntary agreements, but sometimes the authorities had to use persuasion to get the land (Vennamo 157). The sharecropping system continued as needed until 1950 (Vennamo 158).

The Other Side of the Coin: the Negative Aspects of Resettlement

However, it would be falsifying the truth not to admit that, in addition to the harmonious aspects of the resettlement for the Karelians and the Finnish nation, there were also hardships and some areas of misunderstanding between the Karelians and other Finns.

There were occasions where Karelians were accused of being communists, or Russians. Other Finns sometimes regarded them as complete strangers coming from behind the border because they spoke a different dialect of Finnish, and had their own cultural habits and traditions. These accusations and the occasional besmirching of Karelians were mostly harmless, mainly caused by cultural differences, as well as the tense political atmosphere which prevailed after both wars.

Related to the habits and traditions, a large number of the Karelians were members of the Orthodox Church, which further nourished some people's conceptions of Russianism, since other Finns mostly belonged to the Lutheran church.

Even intermarriages of the Karelians with other Finns were occasionally questioned. The success of such a marriage was doubted, because the culture, dialect and religion of Karelians were seen as such strongly differentiating features.

Both of the evacuations of the Karelians had to be done quickly because the situation was extremely dangerous, and on both occasions the need for evacuation came as something of a surprise. There was no time to make careful plans about where to place the evacuees, and Finland no previous experience of large evacuations. This is why, even though it seems very odd and inconvenient from the present-day perspective, the Karelian evacuees had to rely on the help of others in terms of accommodation (Vennamo 157). This system had a legal foundation in a 1930 law, remodified in 1939, which said that the state and administrative districts were responsible for taking care of people who have had to leave their abodes and be evacuated (Kekkonen).

According to the law, there were three options to implement provisioning and accommodation for evacuees: private care, group care or independent care. In private care, evacuees received accommodation and food from private households. The administrative districts and authorities determined who would receive evacuees. In group care, people shared accommodation (Kekkonen). These first two ways were mostly used with the Karelians, and therefore the evacuees were largely situated in private homes and public spaces, such as community halls and schools, where they resided until it became evident that resettlement was needed, and they would finally receive a permanent place in which to live. Private care meant that an evacuee would receive financial assistance from the state to in order to pay for food and shelter. This plan of action was used only on rare occasions (Kekkonen). Naturally, taking care of strangers is not an easy or a congenial task when you are barely surviving yourself, and other Finns were not always happy and eager to share their households with their Karelian subtenants.

Disputes over land and property were not unheard of, even though the Finnish Government tried to avert this with laws and careful plans, and did a pretty good job at it. As mentioned above, the land for resettlement was acquired from the state, municipalities, companies, and, as a last resort, from private owners. Private land was acquired according to a ceding scale12 created by the Finnish government (Vennamo 106). Sometimes coercive measures were needed when it came to acquiring the necessary land for resettlement from the private sector (Siirtokarjalaisten), which is understandable considering the difficult circumstances, and the fact that private ownership is usually considered to be something that cannot be interfered with.

One of the largest problems for the resettlement was the difficulty of acquiring land from the Swedish-speaking areas along the west coast of Finland, because the Swedish-speaking communities13 saw the language differences as a threat to their right to use their own language in the future (Vennamo 75)14.The Swedish-speakers were afraid that giving up land from their communities to evacuees would result in them losing their official minority language status.

During the years following the resettlement process there were accusations of malpractice against the administration, and especially against Veikko Vennamo, for example, by private landowners. These accusations were mainly related to the land acquisition for resettlement. There was also discussion about whether the authorities had acted in accordance with the law. Some people, for example Toivo A. Jussila in his book Oikeus harhateillä [Justice on the Wrong Track]10, claimed that Vennamo had favored the Karelians by misusing his status and power (12), for example by making decisions quickly even though not everyone was in favor of them. However, a lot of the criticism that Vennamo received may have been due to his strong, quirky personality than any misconduct in office, as he was known to be outgoing and quick in his moves.

Jussila supports his accusations toward Veikko Vennamo with complex financial calculations (50-63), and claims that Vennamo's actions in the resettlement of Karelians cost Finland enormous amounts of money. He also implies that the evacuees actually benefited financially from the situation (63).

Jussila's arguments may have some foundation, but he seems to have studied the matter from a purely monetary point of view. He fails to consider humane factors like suffering, the feeling of displacement and the loss of one's home. What money could ever compensate for that?

The Final Truth: Resettlement Strengthened Both Finland and the Karelians?

It is impossible to say what the absolute truth concerning the monetary issues might be, or if such a truth actually exists. All parties concerned certainly had their own opinions and views about the matter, and those who did not actually take part in the action will make their decisions based on what they know. However, ultimately the resettlement of the Karelian evacuees was a positive achievement for the Finnish nation.

Finland survived the war, remained independent, and managed to pay its enormous reparations to the former Soviet Union. The evacuees were integrated into Finnish society, and the nation took care of its war widows, war veterans, and the other misfortuned as best as it could.

The Karelian evacuees earned their place in their new habitats by rebuilding Finland, by helping to pay the extensive reparations which Finland had been required to pay to the Soviet Union, and by enriching the lives of other Finns with their lively, exuberant personalities, colorful dialect, and distinctive cuisine, among other things. Even if the financial side did not add up with every cent, Finland still survived.

The process of resettlement made the Karelian tribe even stronger. They shared a common experience by having survived the war and being evacuated and resettled. The resettlement process was also the starting point for great men such as Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2008. Ahtisaari himself was one of the Karelian evacuees, born in the city of Viipuri. In a New York Times article following the announcement of his selection as the Nobel Prize winner, he states that his childhood experiences strongly influenced his career as a peace negotiator, by helping him understand people in similar circumstances (Lyall).

A Process to Be Remembered, A Process to Be Learned From

The Karelian resettlement process could surely be used as a model in solving similar problems elsewhere in the world, both at present, and in the future. Unfortunately, this part of Finnish history seems to be almost unknown or forgotten to present generations. Considering all aspects of the problem, the resettlement of Karelians is definitely an admirable part of Finland's history; one which is worth remembering.


  1. The term "Karelia" used in this paper refers to the so-called "Finnish Karelia", which consists of Southern and Northern Karelia in Finland, and the areas called Karjalankannas (Karelian Isthmus) and Laatokan Karjala (Ladoga Karelia), which were signed over to the former Soviet Union. "Karelia" can also refer to Russian Karelia, which presently consists of the Republic of Karelia, and the areas called Tver and Novgorod (Rajantakaista).

  2. In addition to Karelians, examples of other Finnish tribes are the Savolaiset and the Hämäläiset. More detailed information concerning the Finnish tribes and their differences is given in The Tribes of Finland: Regional Characterizations of the Finnish People, by Irina Kyllönen.

  3. Up-to-date information about Finland, the Finnish culture and history can be found for example from the vast web pages of Virtual Finland.

  4. Approximately 35% of the Karelian evacuees were agricultural producers entitled to receive land (Siirtokarjalaisten).

  5. "Department of Settlement Affairs" is a free translation of the Finnish term "Asutusasianosasto", abbreviated ASO.

  6. Karelia [in Finnish Karjala] can be spelled in English either with a K or with a C.

  7. Finland had already fought a bitter civil war in 1918, after the nation had gained independence in 1917. The Finnish Civil War was fough between two camps: the Reds and the Whites. More information concerning the Finnish Civil War is given in The Finnish Civil War as Depicted in Väinö Linna's Under the North Star, by Päivi Aalto, and in The Victims of the Finnish Civil War, by Sini Sylvelin.

  8. Due to their different culture, the Karelians had their own traditions. Easter, for example, was a big celebration for the Karelians, since they were mainly members of the Orthodox Church. To the other Finns, who were mostly Lutheran, Christmas was the most important festivity.  

  9. The Karelians speak a dialect of Finnish which is very different from standard Finnish, and it may sometimes cause problems of understanding to other Finns, not to mention foreigners.

  10. The English names are free translations by the author of this paper.

  11. Among Vennamo's most memorable slogans are for example "Kyllä kansa tietää!", freely translated as "The people know!"; "Talonpojan tappolinja", freely translated as "A peasant's death sentence" referring to the social and administrative changes that made agricultural production less profitable in Finland; and "Rötosherrat kiikkiin!", freely translated as "Nail the bad guys! ".

  12. The ceding scale was a formula according to which a certain percentage of a private owner's land was acquired for resettlement, depending on the size of the estate. In 1945, for example, the owner of 25-35 hectares of land was obligated to give at least 10 hectares of it for resettlement. The government and resettlement authorities had ongoing negotiations about the scale, and thus a 1946 scale, for example, is slightly different from the 1945 version (Vennamo 105-120).

  13. Finland is officially a bilingual country. The official languages are Finnish and Swedish. This is because of a relatively large Swedish-speaking minority, nowadays almost 300,000 people, mainly living in the west coast municipalities of Finland. The people who speak Swedish as their mother tongue have the right to be served in Swedish in official situations and with authorities.

  14. Today, the Finnish law says that in order to receive bilingual status, at least 8% of the population, or alternatively 3,000 residents of an administrative district, have to have the minority language as their official language. If the number of those speaking the minority language goes under 6%, the administrative district becomes monolingual (Ruotsin- ja kaksikieliset kunnat).

Works Cited

Followup Report (PDF)

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Last Updated 22 April 2010