Orthodox Christianity in Karelia and Finland – A Historical Introduction
The history of Orthodox Christianity in Finland and Karelia spans approximately over ten centuries in time embracing the Karelian and Finnish populations, local cultures, and languages. The geographical and cultural sphere of Karelian and Finnish Orthodoxy has been subject to changes in terms of shifting borders and political and military powers through centuries. In this short overview, only a sketchy image can be presented by highlighting the most important occurrences and developments.
From Karelian Paganism to Orthodox Christianity
The first Christian influences in Ladogan Karelia can be traced back to commercial and cultural contacts mainly from two directions: Christianized Kiev Rus in the 10th century and the emerging Western Catholic influence that became prevalent in Scandinavia from 9th century onwards. Archeology of ancient Sigtuna, Sweden, the significant commercial city of the Mälare-region in the medieval era, reveals Eastern Christian influences.
Altogether, Varangians of Scandinavian origin were paramount in creating commercial connections through which Byzantine influences could spread from Constantinople to Kiev and further to Novgorod and Ladogan Karelia. In Kiev Rus, one of the great European powers in the medieval era before the Mongol occupation, Slavonic and Finno-Ugric people co-existed, as can be seen in several historical accounts.
Consequently, Christian influences came to the regions today called Finland from both the East and West. The hub of Orthodox activities in Ladogan Karelia became Lake Ladoga itself, its surroundings and islands. Staraja Ladoga, the ancient commercial settlement on the south-eastern corner of Ladoga, built its first church already in the second half of the 12th century. During the succeeding centuries, Orthodox monasteries were founded on the islands of Valaam, on Konevsky Island in the 14th century, Solovetsky Islands on the White Sea in the 15th century, Alexander-Svirsky Monastery in Olonets Karelia in the 16th century, and in Pechenga by the Arctic sea in the 16th century as well.
These monastic settlements along with other smaller monasteries and their numerous sketes created a network through which local people came in contact with the Orthodox Church. Local Orthodox ecclesiastical traditions commemorate several of their founders and other local saints as “the Enlighteners of Karelia”. The most well-known and significant of them include Saints Sergei and Herman of Valaam, Arseny of Konevsky, Tryphon of Pechenga, and Alexander of Svir.
Urban centers, such as the great city of Novgorod with Hansa connections, became hubs of Orthodox Christian culture and administration (with the archbishop’s seat in the city), but more scarcely populated rural settlements (organized into the system of pogosts) were slower to accept new religious influences. Local customs and traditions long prevailed alongside Orthodoxy. The seat of Novgorod made certain efforts to improve Christian knowledge and influence in people’s lifeworlds in Karelia. Significantly, local priests and deacons sent young men from villages and settlements to Novgorod to be trained and ordained into the priesthood. This meant that people with knowledge of the local language and customs came to act as priests in the region. The slow conversion of the region meant several things. Certain ancient pre-Christian customs lived on even up to the 20th century, sometimes out of dislike for the clergy. Brilliant folk poetry was also created and preserved in the region. In it, Orthodox influences fused into and lived side by side with the ancient culture and its realities. In the region, the liturgical language of Orthodoxy was for centuries Slavonic, and only in the latter part of the 19th century people began to demand Finnish-language worship. Altogether, the Eastern Finnish dialects, Olonets Livvi language, Veps language, Eastern Sami Skolt language, and Russian were among the languages spoken by the populations of this vast area.
Between the East and the West – struggles for and against Orthodoxy
The eastward expansion of the Kingdom of Sweden greatly shaped the fate of Orthodoxy in the Ladogan and North Karelia. The Treaty of Nöteborg in 1323 officially divided Karelia into two domains: the Swedish and Catholic realm, and the Novgorodian Orthodox realm. In succeeding wars and peacemaking, the border of Sweden and now Moscow-led Russia always moved to the East culminating in the Treaty of Stolbova in 1617. In it, Sweden occupied Ingria and the Kexholm region that covered both North Karelia and a greater part of Ladogan Karelia. In the succeeding years, the Swedish regime created and implemented different methods to embrace, lead, and convert the Orthodox to Lutheranism. Monks were expelled and all monasteries destroyed. Living an Orthodox life was made difficult, while converting was profitable. Lutheran parish life was built into the region. However, historical accounts also give a fascinating and vivid account of the vibrant and lively Orthodox religious life.
This cultural oppression meant that conversions took place, even among the clergy, but the majority of the people remained steadfast in their Orthodox faith. Simultaneously, new Finnish and Lutheran settlers migrated to the region from the West, and many Orthodox started to migrate to Russia.
The breaking point of these Swedish strategies came in the Russo-Swedish War of 1656-1658. Two Russian armed forces entered into the region, and a great part of the Orthodox population joined them. Lutheran premises were destroyed, and as the success of the Russian forces faded, for fear of retaliation, the majority of the local Orthodox Karelian population left their lands and were evacuated with the retrieving troops into Russia. This historical turning-point made the remaining Orthodox a minority in their own land. The formidable Tver Karelian settlements that still exist in Russia, subsist as a result of these occurrences.
Also, the schism of the Russian Church in the Nikonian Synod of 1666-1667 touched the religious life of the region through the Old Believers that pursued to create their communities on the outskirts of the Russian central power. Old Believer influences have been arguably detected in Northern Ladogan Karelia up to the early 20th century. These influences faded away in the region after the Second World war at the latest.
Under the Holy Ruling Synod and in the Great Duchy of Finland
At the end the Swedish Karelian era, it was finally the outbreak of the Great Northern War (1700-1721) that changed the development of Orthodoxy. Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1725) defeated Swedish troops, and in the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, annexed a major part of the former Kexholm Karelia (except certain parishes in Northern Karelia) back to the empire. He suspended the office of the Patriarch and inaugurated the Holy Ruling Synod in its place – the Tsar’s tool for religious affairs. The growing and lively new capital, St. Petersburg, located close to Finland and Karelia, now became the ecclesiastical center of the region.
Under the reinvigorated Romanov rule, the Orthodox life in this region started to recover. The Valaam Monastery awoke from its more than a hundred year-long desertion in approximately 1719, and in the beginning, the modest community grew into one of the most formidable monasteries of the Russian Church in the 19th century enjoying wide-ranging influence.
Sweden lost its eastern regions, Finland, in the 1808-1809 Finnish War, and the autonomous Great Duchy of Finland was established within the Russian Empire. This time of autonomy meant for the Orthodox emerging legislation and parish structures, the development of schools and education, translations of liturgical texts into Finnish, and altogether a vibrant Orthodox revival in a Finnish and Karelian nationalistic tone.
Organizations for the education of laypeople were established, texts and books published, and Orthodox communities grew into different parts of the Great Duchy also as a result of Russian soldiers and businesspeople residing in the country. Simultaneously, the Russian populace remained a minority among the native Orthodox, the major part of which consisted of Karelian peasants. The Finnish and Karelian Orthodox were granted their own Diocese of Vyborg in 1892.
Towards the end of the era of autonomy, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the imperial government started to pursue efforts to unify the Great Duchy culturally, linguistically, and in terms of administration, more closely with the Empire. These efforts had the effect of uniting most Finns in defending the laws and institutions of the Great Duchy. The position of the Orthodox became increasingly difficult in this political tension. They were, on the one hand, often eager to develop Orthodox institutions and activities in their own language, which caused the central government to question their loyalties. On the other hand, in the eyes of the Lutheran Finnish majority, they appeared as suspiciously Russian by culture and their Orthodox religion.
Nationalized Orthodoxy in the Nascent Republic of Finland
The political tensions of Finnish right-wing and socialist parties erupted into a destructive Civil War in 1918. In the midst and the aftermath of it, people were executed, and Orthodox temples also suffered damages. The civil war was a local postlude of the First World War, which in turn meant the end of the Russian Empire. The birth of the new, independent Republic of Finland took place by virtue of the Declaration of Independence on December 6th, 1917.
The Russian October Revolution had penetrating ecclesiastical consequences. Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church 1917-1918 was interrupted, and atheist Bolshevik violence and political plotting pushed the Russian Church into chaos. In the midst of the revolution, the Church quickly re-established the office of the Patriarch. The Patriarch granted autonomy to the Finnish Orthodox in 1921, but this position was not accepted by all as satisfactory enough in the difficult situation.
For the Finnish Orthodox, potential Bolshevik fifth column influence appeared as a major threat and, in the era of the Russian Civil War, the young republic also wanted to closely incorporate the Orthodox minority into the new state-building project. This was made by the 1918 and later 1925 and 1951 government decrees. A convoy to Constantinople resulted in the Tomos of 1923 issued by the Ecumenical Patriarch. By granting it, the Patriarch blessed the Finnish Orthodox as an autonomous local Church in union with the seat of Constantinople.
In early 20th-century legislation, the Finnish Orthodox were linked with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and, simultaneously, made de facto a second, minority state Church in the republic. Structures such as parish administration, the local Church synod, etc. were stipulated by government decrees.
From Relocation in World War II to Contemporary Parish Life
The Second World War meant a major catastrophe for the Karelian Orthodox. In the Winter War of 1939-1940 and in the Continuation War 1941-1944, the majority of them was expelled from their homes and quickly resettled and scattered in different parts of the country. Most Orthodox Church premises were destroyed in the war or remained behind the new border in the Soviet Union. Parish life had to be completely recreated. Three monasteries were evacuated.
After the war, the Soviet regime started a campaign to bring all the Orthodox Christians in Finland back into union with Moscow. These efforts were passively and effectively resisted by the Finns until the death of Stalin in 1953. Thereafter, the canonical position of the local Church has remained undisputed, and relationships with the Ecumenical Patriarchate have grown in significance also in terms of cultural and spiritual influences, monastic connections, studies, and personal relationships.
The expulsion of the Orthodox from Karelia caused a major reorganization of parish life and activities. Conversions to Lutheranism took place in difficult situations. Before the Second World War, 2% of the Orthodox segment of the Finnish population gradually diminished to 1%, meaning today roughly 50 000 people in total. Rebuilding the Orthodox parish network and Church activities was a major task in the post-war period. The local Church was organized in the course of the 20th century into three dioceses.
The liturgical work of Archbishop Paul (Auxiliary Bishop 1956, Archbishop 1960-1987) characterized parish life from the 1960’s onwards by encouraging participation in worship. In the public eye, the image of the Church started to change. Relationships with the Lutheran majority Church developed in an ecumenical spirit. The previously ostracized “Church of the Russkies” started to appear in the media as an esteemed part of the Finnish society and as the cradle of deep spiritual traditions.
Volumes of spiritual literature, including the Filokalia, were published in Finnish. Simultaneously, the continuous secularization and privatization of the Finnish society in the late 20th and early 21st centuries challenged and even highlighted traditional Orthodox ways of life: spirituality, community, and faithfulness to the Holy Tradition of the Church.
There are three dioceses in the Orthodox Church of Finland. The seat of the Archbishop is in the Diocese of Helsinki, in the capital city of Helsinki, which is the largest in terms of population. The second-largest diocese is Kuopio and Karelia. The Diocese of Oulu is the geographically largest of these three, but smallest in terms of population. Finnish, and occasionally Slavonic, are the languages used most often in services, however Swedish (the second national language) supplements are also used, and Skolt Sami especially in North-Eastern Lapland. In addition, Greek, Romanian, and other languages are occasionally used. The Orthodox Church of Finland is regarded as the second minority state Church, with its own law and Church order, despite the fact that the bonds between the Church and the State have recently been loosened.
Missionary work is supported especially in East Africa. The association of the Orthodox Youth (ONL) organizes activities, among which schools for Christian learning for 15-year-olds are popular. Other fields of parish activities consist of gatherings, social work, choir activities, icon painting groups, etc., with their related associations, especially the Brotherhood of Saints Sergei and Herman (PSHV). The Orthodox Church Museum (RIISA) is located in Kuopio.
The monasteries of New Valaam and Lintula in Savo-Karelia are of great significance for the local Church with their spiritual life and cultural activities, including a folk school in New Valaam. In the South, new monastic organizations have started to emerge.
The education of priests, cantors, and teachers of the Orthodox religion in public schools takes place in association with the University of Eastern Finland. There, Orthodox theology is part of the study program at the School of Theology. In Joensuu, the Orthodox seminary, the local Church’s own institute, functions alongside the university. In public schools, Orthodox religion is taught at all levels consistent with the principle of providing religious education for pupils or students regardless of their religion in accordance with the official curricula.
In summary: The foundations of the local Church lie in the ancient Christian heritage of Karelia. However, Orthodoxy is emerging today as multinational and multilingual vibrant communities, especially in Greater Helsinki and other cities.
Johan Bastubacka Th.D., Adjunct Professor (Docent)