Quaderns de la Mediterrània, 10

Between Russia and the Mediterranean

By Esa Aallas

My family roots are in Karelia, Eastern Finland, on the shores of Europe's largest lake, Ladoga, sometimes described as a sea. Contact with the Byzantium and the Slavic world emerged already in the 1000s, when Karelian tradesmen and soldiers travelled along the Russian river routes to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Among the Finnish tribes the Karelians were the only ones who adhered to the Orthodox faith. The Finnish national epic Kalevala, which was collected in the Karelian song lands, contains much evidence of these travels and the faith of the local people.

As people of the border region the Karelians have also suffered from the curse of the borderland. During the Second World War Stalin wanted to swallow my country into his realm. However, Finland was able to maintain its independence which had been acknowledged by Lenin on the last day of the year 1917. But as a consequence of the war the Soviet Union annexed a large part of Finnish Karelia. Up to 400 000 Karelians — a tenth of the Finnish population at the time — had to become refugees like my father.

The Karelians settled in many parts of Finland in a satisfactory way. No Palestinian-style refugees camps emerged. In places, though, Karelian Orthodox refugees were considered to adhere to the “Russian faith” (in Finnish “ryssänuskoinen”, where “ryssä” is a pejorative word for Russian). This attitude ignored the fact that they had been fleeing from the atheist Soviet Union. Nowadays both Lutheran (82 % of the population) and Orthodox (1 %) faiths are state religions in Finland.

There is plenty of space in Finland: in a country the size of Italy there are now only 5,5 million inhabitants, in Italy 58 million. Finland is neither part of the West nor part of the East but much further to the North. Northern can mean simultaneously emptiness and spaciousness. Mediterranean, on the other hand, can mean crowdedness and denseness.

During six decades the part of Karelia which remained on the wrong side of the border has experienced the fate of dreams which with time become stereotypes. When I have met Palestinian and Cypriot refugees, I have noticed a similarity in the way home sickness becomes romanticised. The home region acquires a golden tinge.

Afer the Second World War Finland turned inward to lick the wounds suffered in the lost war. Simultaneously, it tried to get along with the great Eastern neighbour. Our most widely translated writer Mika Waltari's (1908-1979) historical novels served deeply felt needs. Theynot only offered a refuge from the grey every-day life but also widened our horizon towards the Mediterranean cultural sphere, the horizon which the sun has not the strength to climb over during the dark winter months.

Waltari's novels described the ancient worlds of Egypt, Rome, Byzantium and Islam, thus offering a contrast to the then prevalent Finnish literary tradition which described Finnish peasant life. Readers quickly warmed to the stories about  Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans, Turks and Jews, even if these novels differed from that tradition.

Waltari gained international fame with the story of Sinuhe, placed in ancient Egypt (The Egyptian; Sinuhé, el Egipcio). The novel appeared in 1945 and was subsequently translated into 30 languages. It was followed in 1948 and 1949 by the twin novels Mikael Karvajalka (The Adventurer; El renegado) and Mikael Hakim (The Sultan's Renegade; Michael, el renegado). These two novels brought Islamic culture into Finnish fiction. Mikael leaves medieval Finland travelling through Europe and ending up in the Ottoman Constantinople of the 16th century. There he becomes an advisor to one of the Grand Visiers of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Lutheran Karvajalka converts to the Muslim faith and becomes Hakim.

The novel Johannes Angelos, which was published in 1952 (Dark Angel; El ángel sombrio), desribed how the 1100-year old Byzantine realm was being crushed in the middle of the East and the West and was experienceing its last moments around the Bosporus.

In the Etruscan novel Turms, kuolematon (The Etruscan;El Etrusco), published in 1955, the main character first fights in the formative Mediterranean wars and then finally returns to his roots in ancient Eturia. The novel, which turned out to be Waltari's last, Ihmiskunnan viholliset I-II (The Roman; Senador de Roma), describes the life of Roman senator Minutus in the Rome of the emperors, Nero included. Waltari was still collecting material for another novel about the destruction of the Order of the Knights Templar in Terra Sancta, but exhaustion put a stop to his work.

At the end of the militarised decade of the 1930s the writer still felt drawn towards the rising Germany, as did many other academic citizens of the time. However, Finland lost the war of 1941-44, having joined the Germans against the Soviet Union.

The war weighed heavily on the writer's mind. The patriot became a citizen of the world. During the war he had emphasised military virtues whilst working with the propaganda unit but after the war he lost his faith in absolute truths. He tended to be a pessimist but now he could be described as a tolerant sceptic, a defender of universal human values.

Since the publication of Sinuhe the writer reflected on the unchanged character of human individuals in the course of history. Sinuhe the doctor had bought a slave, Kaptah, who wanted to become rich, whilst the war lord Horemheb thirsted for power. They were both ready to hurt other people to succeed in their endeavours. Is this how things will always be? Will idealism always be followed by realism and promotion of selfish interests? Do humans not change with time? Waltari asks.

Our most international writer, Mika Waltari, who was born a hundred years ago, produced a huge body of work: novels, miniature novels, poetry, plays, film scripts and radio plays. He also wrote hundreds of newspaper articles and book reviews.

My childhood home in Helsinki had bookshelves full of Waltari's books. Especially the novel Turms fascinated me with its magic Mediterranean world. As a small boy I explored the dark Etruscan tombs whilst our family was spending a year on the Colli Albani, south of Rome. The amphitheatres carved out of the limestone slopes of the hills and the pieces of marble which ended up in the pockets of my short trousers exuded a sense of history. Down in the valley of the river Tiber glittered the eternal city and further away one could just about see Turm's harbour of Ostia on the shores of the Thyrrenian sea.

The author of my later holy book — Välimeren breviaariossa (Mediteranski brevijar, 1987) — Croatian Predrag Matvejevic thinks that us Northerners are not only drawn to the Mediterranean by warm weather and light but also by a kind of ”Mediterranean spirit” or “a faith in the South”.

Of course we long for sun and light during the many weeks of Arctic darkness, when vitamin D is added into our milk for us to survive until spring. Whoever can, will move like migratory birds to the shores of the Mediterranean to the refuge of the sun.

That unsurpassable Mediterranean man Albert Camus possibly experienced similar ecstasy at the Roman ruins in Tipasa, Algeria. “I love this life in rapture… The sun, the sea, my heart jumping with youth, my body tasting of salt and this vast stage where tenderness and splendour meet as the yellow merges with the blue,” rhapsodised the author of The Stranger (sometimes translated as The Outsider) in his Les Noces essays.

Whilst on a reporting tour in Algeria at the end of the 1990s  I wanted to see Camus's Tipasa. I had to travel from Algiers sitting between two security guards in a convoy of two military vehicles because there could have been “terrorists” at the road blocks ready to rob me and cut my throat. The Mediterranean is constantly bleeding. The turquoise sea is also a vast mass grave. A couple of years ago on the Canary Islands and last autumn in Malta I witnessed how the coast guards rescued from the sea illegal immigrants who had sailed from Africa. There aren't any holiday flights from Africa to the Mediterranean.

However, from the chaos of Somalia at the beginning of the 1990s airplanes took off  to Moscow. The Somalis then continued by train across our eastern border. Working at the time as the information officer of the Finnish Refugee Council I witnessed how for the first time in Finnish history thousands of African Muslim refugees arrived in our country. The cultures clashed when the Lutheran policeman asked a Somali man why he had two wives. The Somali women assured him that they both loved the same man.

Now a community of several thousand Somalis has integrated into Finnish society with some difficulty. Only a few have been able to return to their chaotic home country. Now a  Muslim congregation works in peaceful coexistence with the Lutheran and Orthodox parishes.

Our small Orthodox church is growing because the number of Russians migrating to Finland is constantly increasing. Now there are about 40 000 people in our country who speak Russian as their mother tongue.

When Finland joined the European Union in 1995 our 1340 km long eastern border became also an external border of the Union. To cross the border I as the son of a Karelian refugee still need a visa, as do the Russians who want to come to my country. However, nowadays more than six million people are crossing yearly the Finnish-Russian border. Last Christmas the queue of lorries heading for St. Petersburg at the eastern border reached a new record: over 70 km.

For historical reasons the relations between the Finns and the Russians cannot be claimed to be very warm. Mental borders still divide us. Many Finns cannot forget the bloody armed dialogue in conditions of below -30°, with soldiers wearing white camouflage in the snow. They see the eastern neighbour as an eternal enemy which forces the Finns to be ever ready to defend themselves. However, there is nothing one can do about geography. The majority of Finns understands this.

But what about the Mediterranean where the Byzantine, Orthodox religion, Jewishness and Islam influenced the birth of modern Europe? The sea whose culture to our sorrow also produced the rucksack bombers of Madrid in March 2004 and car bombers of Alger in April 2007. There are people who fear that the European Mediterranean is threatened by an Islamic sharia-state  just like Soviet Communism was a threat earlier; there are others who think that Israel with the United States' backing threaten everybody else.

Homo res sacra homini — if only humans were sacred to other humans.


Articles by Esa Aallas in Finnish

Esa Aallas is a Finnish freelance writer and journalist



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