An enemy army ransacked my father-in-law’s hometown. In his telling, the place was paradise, a land that grew the biggest apples and produced the sweetest honey. The invading soldiers spoke a different language and practiced a different religion. All the inhabitants fled.
No, this was not Palestine in 1948. It was not the Palestinian Nakba. This outpouring of refugees fled Russian soldiers in September 1944 from the Finnish city of Sortavala. My father-in-law Yrjo Ristola was 15-years old. He and his eight brothers and sisters evacuated first to government-run reception centers in the north and then to lands given to them in central Finland. A peace treaty ceded Sortavala and the rest of the historic region of Eastern Karalia to the Soviet Union.
Like Yrjo, about a tenth of the then Finnish population, some 400,000, fled. They left a land steeped in Finnish lore, the birthplace of the nation’s oral epic tale Kalevala, the setting for much of Jean Sibelius’s music, and the site of some of the oldest recorded Finnish-speaking settlements, not only Sortavala but also the major city Viipuri.
Like almost all the refugees, the Ristolas resettled and prospered. While Yrjo sometimes dreamed of returning, his six children including my wife Anu did not. They built new, prosperous lives in Finland, all rising into the comfortable middle class. Anu grew up looking westward: she studied Swedish, English, and French, not Russian. We met in Paris. In more than two decades of marriage, the only time where she refused to move was when I was offered a job as bureau chief for an American magazine in Moscow. While I thought it was close geographically to Finland, she thought it a million miles away in spirit.
I can already hear the critics: like most analogies, this one between Karelia and Palestine has limits. Fleeing Finns had a homeland, with a democratic government, to receive them. Postwar Finland had plenty of space to resettle them and recognized international borders. And World War II left millions of Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians fleeing westward, needing to recreate destroyed lives in new homelands. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, many returned “home.”
But intriguing similarities exist with the Middle East. Finns are a small nation of only 5.5 million bordering a hostile 145 million Russians. Finns know they can be wiped off the map; the Russians almost did wipe them off the map during the 1940 Winter War. After a brief, disastrous flirtation with the idea of a Greater Finland, they were left for almost five decades as the only “free” country on the border of the Soviet Union.
During the Soviet era, Sortavala was situated in the restricted border zone, making it almost impossible to visit. Russians repopulated the city. Perestroika reopened the door and President Boris Yeltsin reportedly wanted to “sell” back the captured land. This didn’t happen, and there’s almost no talk today of a “right to return” in Finland.
Anu’s father visited one time before his death in 1984 and was shocked by Soviet misery. This summer, my wife and her sister took her first trip to Sortavala. They wanted to see her “father’s” paradise. I accompanied them.
When we arrived around 9 a.m, the Niirala border station was quiet. The Finnish guards wave us through; the Russian guards conducted prolonged checks and made us disembark from the tour bus. It took about an hour, and multiple checks, to cross.
On the Finnish side of the border, the red-painted wood or brick houses are tidy and clean. On the Russian side of the border, the terrain looked indistinguishable from Finland: two-lane roads cutting through thick forests. But the landscaped, well-tended land left behind by the Finns had been left to rot. Derelict wood houses in most old Finnish villages seemed abandoned – the Soviets had avoided repopulating the border area.
Sortavala itself is home to 19,000, up from 6,000 when the Finns lived there. Grey, grimy Soviet-era housing blocks guard the city’s entrance. In the downtown, Finnish-build wooden buildings, many with intricate carvings, remain standing, though decaying. On the main street stands the red-wooden firehouse, my wife’s father’s home. Her grandfather Aksel was a volunteer fireman and given housing in a second-floor apartment. Today, the building stands abandoned.
In addition to the historic 19th-century wooden buildings, Sortavala is full of interesting Finnish monuments, including several fine turn-of-the-20th-century stone National Romantic style school buildings where my father-in-law studied and an Art Deco theater where he learned his dance steps.
The town housed one of Europe’s most advanced hospitals, home to famed surgeon Gustav Winter. Eight kilometers from downtown, famed architect Eiliel Saarinen built Winter an award-winning villa in 1909. Today, it’s been turned into a luxury hotel for Russian oligarchs and Russian leader Vladimir Putin has a nearby dacha. Our guide said Putin (who she loved) was in residence and two sleek luxury yachts, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Monte Carlo, stood guard on the lakeside entrance.
Back in the rundown center, improvements from Soviet times were visible. The supermarkets were well-stocked. Open-air markets bulged with fresh fruit and vegetables. Restaurants buzzed. Beaches beckoned. Sortavala sits at one edge of Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest freshwater body of water.
Before leaving Sortavala, we visited the Finnish cemetery. It was unkempt and overgrown. Near the entrance, we found the gravestone of Anu’s grandfather Aksel. He died in 1938, just before the catastrophic war. We cleaned the site of weeds and took a long look. My wife’s father was a refugee and regretted his loss. I could only feel how lucky my wife was that he had left.