Last updated
Flag of Karelians [1] [2]
Total population
c. 73,000
Regions with significant populations
Flag of Russia.svg  Russia 60,815 (2010) [3]
Flag of Finland.svg  Finland 10,000 (1994) [4]
Flag of Ukraine.svg  Ukraine 1,522 (2001) [5]
Flag of Estonia.svg  Estonia 363 (2011) [6]
Flag of Belarus.svg  Belarus 302 (2009) [7]
Flag of Latvia.svg  Latvia 192 (2018) [8]
Flag of Lithuania.svg  Lithuania 39 (2011) [9]
Karelian, Russian, Finnish
Eastern Orthodox majority
Lutheran minority
Related ethnic groups
Other Baltic Finns

Karelians (Karelian : karjalaižet) are a Baltic-Finnic ethnic group who are native to the Northern European historical region of Karelia, which is today split between Finland and Russia.

Karelian language Finnic language

Karelian is a Finnic language spoken mainly in the Russian Republic of Karelia. Linguistically, Karelian is closely related to the Finnish dialects spoken in eastern Finland, and some Finnish linguists have even classified Karelian as a dialect of Finnish. Karelian is not to be confused with the Southeastern dialects of Finnish, sometimes referred to as karjalaismurteet in Finland.

Northern Europe northern region of the European continent

Northern Europe is a general term for the geographical region in Europe that is roughly north of the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, which is about 54°N. Narrower definitions may be based on other geographical factors such as climate and ecology. A broader definition would include the area north of the Alps. Countries which are central-western, central or central-eastern are not usually considered part of either Northern or Southern Europe.

Historical regions are geographic areas which at some point in time had a cultural, ethnic, linguistic or political basis, regardless of present-day borders. They are used as delimitations for studying and analysing social development of period-specific cultures without any reference to contemporary political, economic or social organisations.

The fundamental principle underlying this view is that older political and mental structures exist which exercise greater influence on the spatial-social identity of individuals than is understood by the contemporary world, bound to and often blinded by its own worldview - e.g. the focus on the nation-state.


In Russia, Karelians mostly live in the Republic of Karelia where there are the designated ethnic group and in other adjacent north-western parts of the country. There are also significant Karelian enclaves in the Tver and Novgorod oblasts, as some Karelians migrated to those areas after the Russo-Swedish War of 1656-1658.

Republic of Karelia First-level administrative division of Russia

The Republic of Karelia is a federal subject of Russia, located in the northwest of Russia. Its capital is the city of Petrozavodsk. Its population in 2010 was 643,548.

Tver Oblast First-level administrative division of Russia

Tver Oblast is a federal subject of Russia. Its administrative center is the city of Tver. From 1935 to 1990, it was known as Kalinin Oblast, named after Mikhail Kalinin. Population: 1,353,392.

Novgorod Oblast First-level administrative division of Russia

Novgorod Oblast is a federal subject of Russia. Its administrative center is the city of Veliky Novgorod. Some of the oldest Russian cities, including Veliky Novgorod and Staraya Russa, are located in the oblast. The historic monuments of Veliky Novgorod and surroundings have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Population: 634,111.

In Finland, Karelians traditionally live in the regions of Savonia and Northern and Southern Karelia. The historic homeland of the Karelians is the Karelian Isthmus, Ladoga Karelia, Olonets Karelia in Russia and the regions of North and Southern Karelia and Savonia in Finland.

Regions of Finland regional subdivision of Finland

Finland comprises 19 regions, called maakunta in Finnish and landskap in Swedish. The regions are governed by regional councils, which serve as forums of cooperation for the municipalities of a region. The main tasks of the regions are regional planning and development of enterprise and education. In addition, the public health services are usually organized on the basis of regions. Currently, the only region where a popular election is held for the council is Kainuu. Other regional councils are elected by municipal councils, each municipality sending representatives in proportion to its population.

Savonia (historical province)

Savonia is a historical province in the east of Finland. It borders Tavastia, Ostrobothnia, and Karelia. In current day, Savonia is divided in two provinces Northern Savonia and Southern Savonia. The largest cities in Savonia by population are Kuopio, Mikkeli, Savonlinna, Varkaus and Iisalmi.

North Karelia Region in Karelia, Finland

North Karelia is a region in eastern Finland. It borders the regions of Kainuu, Northern Savonia (Pohjois-Savo), Southern Savonia (Etelä-Savo) and South Karelia, as well as Russia.


Karelian woman wearing national costume National costume from Jaaski in Karelia 1900.jpg
Karelian woman wearing national costume

The first written mention of Karelia and Karelians occurs in Scandinavian sources. Several old Scandinavian sagas and chronicles refer to Karelia, sometimes as Karjalabotn, [10] Kirjalabotnar [11] or Kirjaland, [12] which means that Karelians and Karelia were known to the Vikings as early as the 7th century AD. Another mention of Karelians in Scandinavian sources is The Chronicle of Erik. [13] Part of the Chronicle mentions a Karelian raid to the then notable Swedish town of Sigtuna in 1187 and its subsequent pillage. This mention of Karelian raids on Sweden in the chronicle is given as the main reason to found Stockholm, the current capital of Sweden. [13]

Sigtuna Place in Uppland, Sweden

Sigtuna is a locality situated in Sigtuna Municipality, Stockholm County, Sweden with 8,444 inhabitants in 2010. It is the namesake of the municipality even though the seat is in Märsta. Sigtuna is, despite its small population, for historical reasons often still referred to as a stad. Statistics Sweden, however, only counts localities with more than 10,000 inhabitants as stads .

Stockholm Capital city in Södermanland and Uppland, Sweden

Stockholm is the capital of Sweden and the most populous urban area in the Nordic countries; 962,154 people live in the municipality, approximately 1.5 million in the urban area, and 2.3 million in the metropolitan area. The city stretches across fourteen islands where Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic Sea. Just outside the city and along the coast is the island chain of the Stockholm archipelago. The area has been settled since the Stone Age, in the 6th millennium BC, and was founded as a city in 1252 by Swedish statesman Birger Jarl. It is also the capital of Stockholm County.

Sweden constitutional monarchy in Northern Europe

Sweden, officially the Kingdom of Sweden, is a Scandinavian Nordic country in Northern Europe. It borders Norway to the west and north and Finland to the east, and is connected to Denmark in the southwest by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund, a strait at the Swedish-Danish border. At 450,295 square kilometres (173,860 sq mi), Sweden is the largest country in Northern Europe, the third-largest country in the European Union and the fifth largest country in Europe by area. Sweden has a total population of 10.2 million of which 2.5 million has a foreign background. It has a low population density of 22 inhabitants per square kilometre (57/sq mi). The highest concentration is in the southern half of the country.

The first mention of Karelians in ancient Russian chronicles dates to 1143 AD [14] when the Novgorod chronicle mentions that Karelians raided neighbouring Tavastia (Häme). Ancient Russian chronicles referred to ancient Karelians as Koryela. Until the end of the 13th century, Karelians enjoyed a period of relative independence and self-government. However, as Karelians came in contact with Novgorod some of them started to take part in the Novgorodian internal and external politics. Russian chronicles mention a joint raid of Novgorod and Karelians on Tavastia in 1191. In the 12th century, the Karelian relationship with Novgorod underwent significant changes, from partnership and alliance to gradual dominance by the latter.

Tavastia (historical province) Historical province of Finland

Tavastia is a historical province in the south of Finland. It borders Finland Proper, Satakunta, Ostrobothnia, Savonia and Uusimaa.

In 1227, an attempt was made to convert Karelians to Eastern Orthodoxy. [15] In 1253, Karelians aided Novgorod in its wars with Estonians. [14] In 1269 AD, the Duke of Novgorod prepared a raid against Karelians, but he abandoned his plans as he was advised against it by his councilors. [14] In 1278, Novgorod made war against Karelians and, according to the chronicle, put Karelian lands "to sword and fire", which significantly reduced Karelian military power. [14]

Estonians Finnic people inhabiting primarily the country of Estonia

Estonians are a Finnic ethnic group native to Estonia who speak the Estonian language.

While Novgorod unsuccessfully tried to subdue Karelians, Sweden achieved its goals over the neighbouring Finnish tribes. The Swedes raided Karelian lands, began to convert the local population to Roman Catholicism and attempted to ensure their complete dominance with the foundation of castles, in 1293 at Vyborg and in 1295 at Kexholm (Käkisalmi in Finnish, Koryela in Russian chronicles), on the sites of ancient Karelian settlements. [13] However, Novgorod managed to repel the Swedish attack by capturing and burning down Kexholm Castle. After this, Sweden and Novgorod engaged in the long conflict for rule over the Karelians and their lands. [14]

In 1314, Karelians rose up against efforts made to convert them to Christianity, according to the Novgorod chronicle. The first rebellion started against Russian Orthodoxy with Käkisalmi captured and the killing of all Christians there. Then the rebellion spread over all Karelian lands, which sufficiently weakened Novgorodian influence. [14]

In 1323 AD, Karelians suffered a forceful sundering as Sweden and Novgorod divided Karelian lands and their inhabitants by signing a peace agreement. The agreement transferred governance of all western Karelian lands to Swedish sovereignty, while eastern Karelian lands fell under Novgorodian rule. This sundering started a long process of separation of Karelians into two different halves, with the main difference being religion, as western Karelians became first Roman Catholic and later Lutheran, while eastern Karelians were converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. [14]

Subsequent wars had Karelians fighting on both sides of the conflict and often against each other. Meanwhile, Karelians on the Novgorodian and later Russian side of the border continued to settle northward towards the White Sea. By the late 14th century, Russian Karelians established control over White Karelia and came in conflict with the Norwegians on the peninsula of Kola.

Karelian traditional costume Girl from Karjala.jpg
Karelian traditional costume

As the struggle for power in the region continued over the next centuries the borderline between Sweden and Russia moved several times with most of the changes happening in Northern Karelia and Kainuu. However, in 1617, the history of Karelians underwent a significant change as Russia ceded to Sweden, along with other territories, the eastern part of the Karelian Isthmus, Ladoga Karelia and certain parts of Northern Karelia. This meant that the majority of Karelians were again living in one country, yet it did not bring peace to the Karelian people. As Sweden commenced the process of conversion of population of the ceded territories to Lutheran Protestantism, resistance appeared among Old-Believer Orthodox Karelians and neighbouring Orthodox Izhorians.

By the mid 17th century, the tension between the Lutheran Swedish government and Orthodox Karelians led to yet another conflict between Sweden and Russia. From 1656 to 1658, Russian armed forces waged war on Karelian territories and tried to recapture them with the aid of some of the sympathizing local Orthodox population, but after two years of fighting both sides came to a stand-still.

Many of the Karelians who remained Orthodox by 1658 AD were unwilling to remain in Sweden and convert to Lutheranism, which triggered a mass migration of many Orthodox Karelians from these areas into other parts of Russia, some going to the region of Tver and forming the Tver Karelians minority, while others moved to the region of Valdai in the Novgorod region and yet others to White Karelia by the White Sea.

As some of the lands in the eastern Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia became partially depopulated Sweden decided to move settlers from Savonia to those Karelian lands which resulted in a mixture of local Karelians with Savonians in some areas. However, as Savonians themselves are of Karelian origin, this migration mostly affected local Karelians religiously (as the majority of the population became Lutheran) and to some extent linguistically, but it did not bring major changes to the ethnic map of Karelia.

The next change happened in 1721 as Russia won the great northern war against Sweden (1700–21), which forced Sweden to cede the entire Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia to Russia, with its now mostly Lutheran population. Although there were attempts to convert the local population to Orthodoxy these did not meet with any success.

After Russia conquered the entire Finnish territories in yet another Russo-Swedish war in 1808–09, it was decided to join the Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia to the newly formed Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812, which brought all western Karelians into the same state with Finns, while eastern Karelians remained under independent Russian administration. Although Karelians ended up in the same country the religious difference between eastern and western Karelians remained a dividing factor, which somewhat affected the linguistics but even until the beginning of the 20th century both groups could understand each other. Yet eastern Karelians managed to preserve traditions and folklore better than their western brothers.

As the Grand Duchy of Finland was formed, its inhabitants struggled to properly identify themselves ethnically, some being Finnish, some Swedish and some Karelian. As the Fennoman movement started and the new Finnish nation commenced its forming and shaping process, attempts were made to restore the lost Finnish identity. The process of "finnisation" of Finland started. As part of that process during the 19th century, Finnish folklorists including Elias Lönnrot traveled to different parts of Eastern Karelia to gather folklore and epic poetry. The Orthodox Karelians in North Karelia and Russia were now seen as close brethren or even a sub-group of the Finns. The ideology of Karelianism inspired Finnish artists and researchers, who believed that the Orthodox Karelians had retained elements of an archaic, original Finnish culture which had disappeared from Finland. This led to numerous confusions with some claiming that western and eastern Karelians were different nations.

As Finland gained its independence in 1917 the process of "finnisation" continued, but now even eastern Karelians were viewed as part of the Finnish nation. From 1918 to 1922, Finland made several attempts to expand into Eastern Karelia with some support by local Karelians. Several thousands of eastern Karelians migrated to Finland by 1922 from different parts of Eastern Karelia.

After the Winter War, Finland had to cede the Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia to the USSR. As the local Karelian population was unwilling to end up under Soviet rule, over 400,000 people were evacuated across Finland's new border from the territories that were to be ceded. After the Continuation War (1941–1944), in which Finland temporarily held most of Eastern Karelia, several thousands of Karelians chose to migrate west as Finnish forces retreated.[ citation needed ] The Karelians who migrated to Finland in the 20th century were initially Karelian speakers, but due to minor lingual differences and in order to assimilate into the local communities soon adopted the Finnish language after the war. Some of the evacuees later immigrated, mainly to Sweden, Australia and North America.

Russian Karelians, living in the Republic of Karelia, are nowadays rapidly being absorbed into the Russian population. This process began several decades ago. For example, it has been estimated that even between the 1959 and 1970 Soviet censuses, nearly 30 percent of those who were enumerated as Karelian by self-identification in 1959 changed their self-identification to Russian 11 years later. [16]


The Karelian language is closely related to the Finnish language, and by some Finnish and Karelian linguists is viewed as a dialect of Finnish language. The biggest difference between the two languages is that while Finnish language borrowed many words from Swedish, the same happening with western Karelian dialects, eastern Karelian dialects borrowed many words from Russian, which leads to certain differences and difficulties in understanding one another. There are currently 7 different dialects of what can be classified as dialects of Karelian language: karelian proper, which is spoken in White Karelia in the Russian side of the border; livvi – a dialect spoken in Aunus (Olonets) Karelia. Lyydi – which is spoken in certain areas between Ladoga and Onega lakes.

Tver Karelian – the most archaic dialect spoken by descendants of Karelians that moved to mainland Russia after 1658, North and South Karelian dialects in Finland, which are often classified as dialects of Finnish language but the main difference being that they were developed and spoken by ethnic Karelians living on Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia; the same may be said stated about Savonian dialect, yet it has to be noted that it has originally been developed by Karelians who populated this area. As a significant effort was made in the 19th century to develop a common Finnish language Savonian and North and South Karelian dialects are viewed as part of the Finnish language and other dialects are usually viewed as a distinct language. [17]


The majority of Russian Karelians are Eastern Orthodox Christians. The majority of Finnish Karelians are Lutherans.[ citation needed ]


Old Karelian women in Sambatuksa (Sammatus), Russian Karelia. Karjalan mummot.jpg
Old Karelian women in Sambatuksa (Sammatus), Russian Karelia.

Significant enclaves of Karelians exist in the Tver oblast of Russia, resettled after Russia's defeat in 1617 against Sweden — in order to escape the peril of forced conversion to Lutheranism in Swedish Karelia. The Russians also promised tax deductions if the Orthodox Karelians migrated there. Olonets (Aunus) is the only city in Russia where the Karelians form a majority (60% of the population).

Karelians have been declining in numbers in modern times significantly due to a number of factors. These include low birthrates (characteristic of the region in general) and especially Russification, due to the predominance of Russian language and culture.

In 1926, according to the census, Karelians only accounted for 37.4% of the population in the Soviet Karelian Republic (which at that time did not yet include territories that would later be taken from Finland and added, most of which had mostly Karelian inhabitants), or 0.1 million Karelians. Russians, meanwhile, numbered 153,967 in Karelia, or 57.2% of the population.

By 2002, there were only 65,651 Karelians in the Republic of Karelia (65.1% of the number in 1926, including the Karelian regions taken from Finland which were not counted in 1926), and Karelians made up only 9.2% of the population in their homeland. Russians, meanwhile, were 76.6% of the population in Karelia. This trend continues to this day, and may cause the disappearance of Karelians as a distinct group.

See also

Related Research Articles

Lake Ladoga freshwater lake in Russia and largest lake entirely in Europe

Lake Ladoga is a freshwater lake located in the Republic of Karelia and Leningrad Oblast in northwestern Russia, in the vicinity of Saint Petersburg.

Karelian Isthmus isthmus

The Karelian Isthmus is the approximately 45–110 km wide stretch of land, situated between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga in northwestern Russia, to the north of the River Neva. Its northwestern boundary is the relatively narrow area between the Bay of Vyborg and Lake Ladoga. If the Karelian Isthmus is defined as the entire territory of present-day Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast to the north of the Neva, the isthmus' area covers about 15,000 km2.

Finnish Orthodox Church

The Finnish Orthodox Church, or Orthodox Church of Finland, is an autonomous Eastern Orthodox archdiocese of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Church has a legal position as a national church in the country, along with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.

Karelia can refer to:

Ingria historical region in northern Russia

Historical Ingria is the geographical area located along the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, bordered by Lake Ladoga on the Karelian Isthmus in the north and by the River Narva on the border with Estonia in the west.

Karelia (historical province of Finland) historical province of Finland

Karelia is an historical province of Finland which Finland partly ceded to Russia after the Winter War of 1939–40. The Finnish Karelians include the present-day inhabitants of North and South Karelia and the still-surviving evacuees from the ceded territories. Present-day Finnish Karelia has 315,000 inhabitants. The more than 400,000 evacuees from the ceded territories re-settled in various parts of Finland.

Korela Fortress fort

Korela Fortress, at the town of Priozersk, Leningrad Oblast, Russia.

Swedish Ingria former Swedish possession in near the Gulf of Finland

Swedish Ingria was a dominion of the Swedish Empire from 1583 to 1595 and then again from 1617 to 1721, when it was ceded to the Russian Empire in the Treaty of Nystad.

Livvi-Karelian language Finno-Ugric language

Livvi-Karelian is a Finnic language of the Uralic family spoken by Olonets Karelians, traditionally inhabiting the area between Ladoga and Onega lakes, northward of Svir River. The name "Olonets Karelians" is derived from the territory inhabited, Olonets Krai, named after the town of Olonets, named after the Olonka River.

Greater Finland irredentism

Greater Finland is an irredentist and nationalist idea that emphasized territorial expansion of Finland. The most common conception of Greater Finland was defined by natural borders encompassing the territories inhabited by Finns and Karelians, ranging from the White Sea to Lake Onega and along the Svir River and Neva River—or, more modestly, the Sestra River—to the Gulf of Finland. Some proponents also included the Kola Peninsula, Finnmark, Torne Valley, Ingria, and Estonia.

Savonian dialects dialects of Finnish spoken in Savonia

The Savonian dialects are forms of the Finnish language spoken in Savonia and other parts of Eastern Finland. It belongs to the eastern Finnish dialects and it is divided to more specific dialect groups.

Olonets Governorate

The Olonets Governorate or Government of Olonets was a guberniya (governorate) of north-western Imperial Russia, extending from Lake Ladoga almost to the White Sea, bounded west by Finland, north and east by Arkhangelsk and Vologda, and south by Novgorod and Saint Petersburg. The area was 57,422 m², of which 6,794 m² were covered by lakes.

Swedish–Novgorodian Wars were a series of conflicts in the 12th and 13th centuries between the Republic of Novgorod and medieval Sweden over control of the Gulf of Finland, an area vital to the Hanseatic League and part of the Varangian-Byzantine trade route. The Swedish attacks against Orthodox Russians had religious overtones, but before the 14th century there is no knowledge of official crusade bulls issued by the pope.

History of Karelia aspect of history

The History of Karelia is about the cultural and geopolitical region of Karelia, in present-day eastern Finland and northwestern Russia in northern Europe. The Karelian people's presence can be dated back to the 7th millennium BC—6th millennium BC.

Finnish–Novgorodian wars

The Finnish–Novgorodian wars were a series of conflicts between Finnic tribes in eastern Fennoscandia and the Republic of Novgorod from the 11th or 12th century to the early 13th century.

Finnish military administration in Eastern Karelia

The Finnish military administration in Eastern Karelia was an interim administrative system established in those areas of the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic (KFSSR) of the Soviet Union which were occupied by the Finnish army during the Continuation War. The military administration was set up on July 15, 1941 and it ended during the summer of 1944. The goal of the administration was to prepare the region for eventual annexation into Finland.

Tver Karelians are a people who inhabit regions of Tver, Saint Petersburg, and Moscow. Their dialect is remarkable in that it does not borrow from other Baltic-Finnish languages due to centuries of geographical isolation. Although the number of Tver Karelian people is about 14,633, very few name the dialect as their primary language.

Olonets is a town in the Republic of Karelia, Russia


  1. Minahan, James (2000). One Europe, Many Nations. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 368. ISBN   978-0-313-30984-7.
  2. "The Flags of Karelia". Heninen.net. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
  3. "Russian census of 2010" (XLS). Gks.ru. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
  4. Languages of Finland. "Finland". Ethnologue.com. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
  5. "Ethnic composition of Ukraine 2001". Pop-stat.mashke.org. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
  6. "RAHVASTIK RAHVUSE, SOO JA ELUKOHA JÄRGI, 31. DETSEMBER 2011". Pub.stat.ee. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
  7. Национальный статистический комитет Республики Беларусь (PDF). Национальный статистический комитет Республики Беларусь (in Russian). Национальный статистический комитет Республики Беларусь. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 February 2018. Retrieved 1 August 2012.
  8. "Latvijas iedzīvotāju sadalījums pēc nacionālā sastāva un valstiskās piederības (Datums=01.01.2018)" (PDF). Retrieved 18 February 2018.
  9. [Lietuvos Respublikos 2011 metų visuotinio gyventojų ir būstų surašymo rezultatai "https://osp.stat.gov.lt/documents/10180/217110/Gyv_kalba_tikyba.pdf/1d9dac9a-3d45-4798-93f5-941fed00503f"] Check |url= value (help). Retrieved 18 February 2018.External link in |title= (help)
  10. Sögubrot af nokkurum fornkonungum í Dana- ok Svíaveldi
  11. Hálfdanar saga Eysteinssonar
  12. Saga Ólafs hins helga Haraldssonar
  13. 1 2 3 The Chronicle of Duke Erik, Chapter 10-The founding of Stockholm
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016–1471
  15. The Laurentian Chronicle
  16. Barbara A. Anderson and Brian D. Silver, "Estimating Russification of Ethnic Identity among Non-Russians in the USSR," Demography 20 (November, 1983): 461–489.