Small Deeds Theory on the border
Text and photo by Gleb Yarovoy, 7x7-journal
This story is about one Karelian family from the Finnish town of Ilomantsi. Its life, past and present are connected with both Karelias. Their relatives fought on different sides of the front, but the couple has been together for almost half a century. They not only keep in touch with Russian relatives and friends, but also preserve and develop Karelian traditions in their city. In the difficult 1990s, they collected humanitarian aid in Russia and transported it to Russian Karelia. Now they work in a charity center and help those who have a hard time living in Finnish Karelia. It is believed that “ordinary people” should be friends and visit each other regardless of the borders and difficulties in the relations between politicians.
Correspondent of “7x7” Gleb Yarovoy came to Ilomantsi and spent one day with the Korhonen family.
Ilya sends to “Ilyala”
In the Finnish outback, not far from the border with Russia, lives a middle-aged family — Ritva and Otto Korhonen. This couple has been helping the needy for three decades now: it manages the “Ilyala” charity center, gives jobs to the unemployed and food to the hungry, and until recently transported humanitarian aid to the Russian Karelia.
Then there was a long, but very interesting story. After listening to only a part of it, I decided to prepare for the trip.
“Ilomantsi is a paradise”. For retirees
However, Ilomantsi already faced the war. Here in August 1944, the Continuation War, or the Soviet-Finnish war of 1941–1944, ended in a somewhat paradoxical way. The Finns, who lost the war and were preparing for surrender, won a “defensive victory” under Ilomantsi, one of the last in the war. And the Soviet army suffered the last defeat. The victory in a bloody operation is still considered to be an important event in Finland, which has made it possible to stop the advance of Soviet troops deep into the country. Memory of this is stored in numerous memorial complexes on the territory of the commune, in the summer schoolchildren and students make visits, and the search engines periodically discover the remains of the soldiers of both armies.
Local authorities understand, however, that a specific military historical theme is not of interest to any tourist, and they are trying to promote Ilomantsi as the center of “Karelian hospitality” and untouched nature. Official tourist guides inform about the Karelian cultural traditions — the “rune-singing” village of Parppeinvaara and the Parppeinpirtti restaurant, the Orthodox church of the Prophet Elijah in Ilomantsi and the ancient Orthodox chapel of the late 19th century in Hattuvaara.
One of the proofs of “survivability” of the Orthodox tradition in Ilomantsi is the charity center “Ilyala” (named after the prophet Elijah, as well as the local Orthodox Church), the main purpose of the trip.
Center for Neighbor Assistance “Ilyala”. Jesus Christ, Mannerheim — on the opposite
“This is a historic building. It was built by the son of a Karelian peddler [in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, peddler merchants carried various goods from the territory of present-day Russian Karelia to Finnish Karelia for sale, in canvas crib cases], who used it as a store and sold products made of metal. During the war, it was a General Raappana’s headquarter, so many photos were saved that we made a small historical exposition last year,” says the owner of the house Ritva Korhonen. She prefers to call herself “coordinator of the center”, although she also performs part of daily work. “I clean toilets here, too.”
Both “Ilyala”, and its owners-coordinators have a very interesting story, worth traveling nearly a thousand kilometers.
“The center was launched in 1990 as a public organization. If you recall the story, at that time Finland experienced a serious economic crisis [caused in large part by the fact that the Soviet Union, which was largely oriented towards Finnish industry, stopped buying Finnish products]. Private enterprises and banks were closed in Ilomantsi, many people were left without work. We, Orthodox parishioners, asked ourselves: how can we help these people, our neighbors. And the idea of the Center for Neighbor Assistance came by itself. The Orthodox Church owned an empty parish house, which became a center. I remember that women immediately started to come there, left without work and money, they had to feed their children. They asked us: “How are we supposed to live?”. And we tried to help them — both materially and morally,” the owners tell.
Charity based on enthusiasm
This money was given and is given by the state, which redistributes it between non-profit organizations and charitable foundations revenues from slot machines installed in every large store, rates and even ATMs (all banks use a centralized system for issuing cash, and the percentage is deducted for charity). State subsidies — 70 thousand euros per year — this is about a third of the budget of the Center.
The money is given by the state, which redistributes it between non-profit organizations and charitable foundations revenues from slot machines, rates and even ATMs
The center renders various services, first of all — related to the organization of events (“gatherings”, as they are called by locals). Big companies, sometimes up to a hundred people, come every day before Christmas. The center rents a large room, cooks, and sets the table, and sometimes provides a “cultural program”. It turns out cheaper than in a restaurant, and much more heartfelt. Moreover, everyone knows: money will go to good cause. Visitors write about it in the guest book.
“Several times in its history the center experienced a very difficult financial situation. There was practically no money for wages. But each time the money was eventually found and the center continued to work. God helps us,” Ritva is sure.
Rules of life of Ritva and Otto
“It’s been an incomprehensible, unknown land for many years,” Otto mused.
“People did not want to come here, because the border is so close,” adds Ritva.
But the locals were never scared of the border closeness. There was an understanding that Karelians also live on the other side, although it was known that hundreds of thousands of people — including the ancestors of Ritva and Otto — left Soviet Karelia before, during or after the war.
People did not want to come here, because the border is so close
“Karelian muzhik,” Otto dabs his chest with a finger smiling, somehow destroying the opposition “Russian/Finn”. He speaks Russian a little, like Ritva. But with the Finnish accent it sounds pretty funny: in Finnish there are almost no voiced consonants, so it turns out not “muzhik” but “musyk”.
The indigenous Karelians Korhonens also understand the language of the ancestors, but do not speak it. They had to leave Ilomantsi: for 11 years they lived in Stockholm, which was common for Eastern Finland in the 1970s. Their children were born there. Having earned enough money, Otto and Ritva returned to their native place, Otto built a house in Ilomantsi, where they still live. They started a small private business. But they did not forget about the Karelian traditions.
After returning from Stockholm in the 1980s, Ritva worked in the Center for the Preservation of Karelian Culture, participated in the national amateur performance. Vision of “foreign” Karelia, the one where Finnish folklorist Elias Lönnrot collected material for the famous epic “Kalevala”, according to Ritva, was quite romantic. But the Korhonens succeeded to visit the other side of the border, Soviet Karelia, only in 1988.
“In Soviet Karelia in the late 1980s, people lived just as they did in Finland after the war,” Ritva recalls. “Since then, we often go to Karelia. A piece of this Karelian world stayed inside me, and I wanted to do something to keep it.”
To preserve the “Karelian world” (Soviet, and then Russian) in a material and symbolic sense, was easier from afar, from Finnish Karelia. Ritva continued to popularize Karelian culture. Passion for handcraft — creation of Karelian dolls — has gradually developed into a major hobby. Now Ritva has an entire Doll Museum in Ilomantsi, one of the largest in Finland, with both Karelian handmade dolls, and homemade and factory dolls from all over the world.
“The first thing we saw on Valaam, when tourists arrived there, was children begging. After the return we decided that we should help. We collected from around the village as much as we could, and sent to the island. Received messages from Valaam residents: we need shoes or outer clothing, this or that size. We bought and sent, and money was also sent. At Christmas, money was given people so they could celebrate, or for graduation. Not the monastery was helped by donations, but people,” Ritva emphasizes. “We invited these children here several times, and we ourselves constantly went to the island. Until last year, although the children have already grown up, and many have parted. Now you can not go to Valaam, people were evicted. It is unclear why they are not allowed to live in peace on the island. Apparently, a lot of money is spinning there, and some people are interfering. They say that they even build a house for Putin there.”
When the border was opened in the early 1990s, Ritva and Otto established a whole system of targeted humanitarian aid.
“Humanitarian aid was carried throughout Karelia. We collected whole cars of food, clothes and other things. We started, of course, with those who were easier to help — with relatives living in Vidlice. But in the end it became a drop in the sea. In Olonets, we had a “coordinator” — a local woman who worked in the school. She received applications for humanitarian aid, not only from Olonets and Ladoga, but also from all over Karelia. I still do not understand how she managed to collect all the information, probably through school channels. She received applications and help too. We knew exactly who, where, what and how many. Collected here by trucks and carried to orphanages, hospitals, schools. This went on for more than ten years,” Otto recalls.
Ritva likes to reсollect their trips to Karelia. They said: “Look, Ritva came to charge with energy”. And it was true. She is still charged with energy when she does people good, and her Otto is always next to her:
“Happiness is not money at all. I’m a rich person, because I have many friends all over the world, I have a wonderful family, and I do what I love,” Ritva said.
Family friend Ilya Solomeshch most precisely formulated the rules of life of Ritva and Otto: “Small deeds theory — do not help all of humanity, but help specific people.”
“Simple people should not be hindered by a big politics”
“I’ve known the Korhonens for a long time. In the mid-1990s, I moved from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy, and Ritva and Otto were my kummi, godparents,” Sirpa says.
Sirpa speaks Russian well, although nothing connects her with Russia, and she learnt it in childhood, at the gymnasium of Hainaut, 50 km from Ilomantsi. She recollects, that many studied Russian in frontier Karelia, education was accessible and qualitative.
“Yes, they should know, although it’s hard to say for sure.”
“But this place thought to be so important for Ilomantsi,” I’m perplexed.
“Oh, are you asking about Ilomantsi? Well, of course, everyone here knows “Ilyala”, both in Ilomantsi itself and in the district. This is a very important place, you are right. Perhaps, the most important and most famous among the locals. They help the old, the indigent, the hungry. I thought you asked about Joensuu. There they must know, but I can not say for sure,” Sirpa says.
Ritva and Otto are returning from the kitchen with a new portion of “Karjalan Piiraka” and a fruit-drink, and conversation somehow goes on itself to the discussion of the current relations between Russia and Finland, Finns and Russians.
“People, of course, are watching the events in Russia. There is much talk in the media about the conflict in Ukraine and the role of Russia in this conflict. But we understand that there is a lot of propaganda in this, and we do not know what is really going on. I believe it to be internal matter of Russia and Ukraine, just as the problems of Finland are an internal affair of Finland, and we ourselves must solve our problems,” Ritva argues.
Ritva is sure that Russia does not pose a threat to Finland and that Finland should not join NATO: it is better for states to focus on common threats, such as terrorism, rather than think about wars, because “ordinary people do not want war, they want peace and cooperation.”
“I agree with Ritva,” says Jukka from Kuopio. “More and more Russian-speaking people stay in Kuopio. I have many friends who came from Russia, they are educated and hard-working. They are nice people, one of us. The older generation, perhaps, is more negative, but young people do not share these prejudices. Of course, radical politicians may seem to be in the majority. But only because they create more “noise”, including in the media. But ordinary people understand that it is necessary to distinguish between state, regime, and people. In this sense, Russia is our good neighbor. And we must work every day on developing this good-neighborliness.”
This story is made for the project «Eyes on Barents» — a joint media partnership of the Barents Region