September 1998

Ethnic and religious tolerance -- some cultural emblems of the Karelian town of Vyborg

by Jyrki Paaskoski

Eastern Europe today is not famous for ethnic and religious tolerance. We only need to look to Kosovo's recent history for the evidence. Historically, too, whether rightly or not, the area has been noted for its religious and ethnic intolerance.

There are theories, though, of interesting transition areas, of faultlines between the "eastern" and "western" civilisations. One of these great cultural faultlines starts from the White Sea, continues through Karelia and the Baltic States to Poland, Belorussia, and to the shores of the Black Sea. Different nationalities, religions, languages and customs have lived in this area side by side and not always in conflict with each other.

The Karelian town of Vyborg serves as a good example. Changing hands from Sweden to Russia to Finland and to Russia again, Vyborg used to have four nationalities living together for many centuries. These were the Germans, Russians, Swedes and Finns.

The strong German influence had its roots in medieval trade routes which passed Vyborg on their way to the east. In the 15th and 16th centuries Vyborg remained an important trade town. Its business was controlled by the Hanseatic League, the alliance of Northern German cities. More Germans settled in Vyborg fleeing from the Russian onslaught on the nearby areas at the beginning of the Great Northern War in 1703. Vyborg fell from Sweden to Russia in 1710, but the Germans who had recently arrived were content to make the town their new home.

The siege and fall of Vyborg in 1710 also brought Russian inhabitants to the town. They were mainly soldiers, officers and their servants, while the Swedish population dominated business and trade. Finns took their place as ordinary townspeople, and the Finnish peasants who lived around the town regularly took their produce to the market place in Vyborg.

There are several indicators to show that all the ethnic groups and cultures could tolerate and even live in profitable contact with each other. The archives do not hold any records of ethnic conflicts. Religion could have proved fruitful ground for schisms, but the churches seem to have co-existed at a practical level, too: in the 1790s, for example, the Lutheran and Orthodox churches were built very close to one another. It is also an interesting illustration of the degree of ethnic tolerance that Finnish was spoken by all social groups, including the Russian soldiers, Swedish priests and the German merchants.

This ethnic, religious and cultural tolerance was shattered in the second half of the 19th century. It was destroyed by the rise in nationalism in the 1870s and 1880s; by the political controversies between Swedes, Finns and Russians at the turn of the century; by the Russian Revolution in 1917; and by the Finnish Civil War in 1918. From the 1920s onwards, Vyborg's population was more homogeneously Finnish, with values that were anti-Russian, anti-Swedish and anti-German.

Jyrki Paaskoski holds a PhD from the University of Helsinki. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Noble Land-Holding and Serfdom in 18th-Century Russian Finland. With a long-standing interest in Karelian and Russian history, he is now writing the history of Karelia in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

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