Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 60,815 Karelians in the Russian Federation – a significant reduction from the 93,344 recorded in the 2002 census. The Karelian population in Russia has been steadily declining since the turn of the century due to assimilation by Russians and migration to Finland. Karelians are Finns who adopted Eastern Orthodoxy. The Karelian language is primarily a Russified form of Finnish. The majority of Karelians live in the Karelian Republic: nevertheless, notwithstanding their status as titular nationality in the region, Karelians comprise a very small numerical minority there: 7.4 per cent versus 82.2 per cent Russians, according to the 2010 Census.
The Karelian Republic had a variety of administrative designations and was the subject of a dispute between the Soviet Union and Finland from the time it was created. The Karelian Labour Commune was established in June 1920 and became the Karelian ASSR in July 1923. In March 1940 the status of Karelia was upgraded to that of the Karelo-Finnish SSR in connection with Soviet plans to incorporate Finland into the Soviet Union. The region’s status was reduced in July 1956. Karelia was the first ASSR to declare sovereignty in 1990. Although Finland renounced any claims to the territory of Karelia in December 1991, the Karelian Association in Karelia continues to campaign for unification with Finland.
In November 1992 the First World Congress of Finno-Ugrian Peoples took place in the Komi Republic. Delegates called for self-determination for all indigenous peoples and national minorities and condemned ‘Russian imperialism’. The Second Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples was held in July 1995 to demand new rights, including property rights in their traditional areas of settlement and language privileges. Karelia is also home to a small population of Veps, a related Finno-Ugric people.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Karelia has experienced increased contact with neighbouring Finland, which, together with economic decline and Russian cultural influence has further encouraged the decline of the ethnic Karelian population through the assimilation of Karelians into a Finnish cultural identity.
Increased contact with Finland also reinvigorated debates regarding the transfer of various parts of Finland to Soviet jurisdiction in the treaty ending the 1939-40 ‘Winter War’ between Finland and the USSR. The Karelian population of these territories was forcibly resettled to Finland. In 1999 representatives of this population and its descendants formed an organization named ProKarelia with the aim of campaigning for the peaceful return of those territories to Finnish sovereignty. The government of Finland does not support these claims.
In February 2005 a European Union-financed joint Russo-Finnish project was launched to improve the standard of teaching of the Finnish language in Karelia. The project reflected the increasing demand for Finnish in Karelia due to strengthened ties with neighbouring Finland, despite the demographic decline of the Karelian minority in Karelia. As well as Finnish, Veps, another Finno-Ugric language, is also taught in Karelian schools.
In March 2005 Karelian President Sergey Katanandov reiterated the rejection of calls for parts of Karelia annexed by the Soviet Union after the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish War to be returned to Finland. The statement was a response to the publication of a book in Finland advocating the return of the territories. The Finnish government has repeatedly affirmed that it has no territorial claims on Karelia.
While titular nationalities in ethnic republics benefit from a range of rights, including in language and education, in the case of Karelia, the concrete advantages deriving from titularity are minor, given that Karelians are only a very small numerical minority (7.4 per cent in the 2010 Census) within the republic. Karelian is studied as an optional subject only, and classes amount to two to three hours a week until grade 11.
Provisions passed in 2012 require Russian NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’ when they receive funds from abroad and implement ‘political activities’. The organization Nuori Karjala (Young Karelia), which promoted the languages and cultures of the Finno-Ugric indigenous communities of the Republic of Karelia, was included by the Ministry of Justice in the register of ‘foreign agents’. As a result the organization decided to cease activities in August 2015. The only non-Russian institution from which the organization had received funding was the UN, which had given a grant of US$10,000 for an education project. The case highlights the challenges facing minority and indigenous community organizations in the Russian Federation, even when conducting educational and cultural promotion activities.
Updated December 2020
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Kabards and Balkars
- Karachay and Cherkess
- Khants and Mansi
- Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks
- Russian or Volga Germans
- Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs