Political symbolism is known to have various functions. In political life it plays one of the key roles in structuring the society, organising interrelations within community and between the people and various institutions of state.
Specialists in the field of semiotics note that in the time of social and political crises, at the stage of ideological and moral disintegration, some sorts of the most archaic forms of political symbolism are reactivating in what is called the archaic syndrome (1). This notion is used, for example, to evaluate the situation on the eve and after the decay of the Soviet Union. The term is also applicable when speaking about pre- and post-revolutionary Russia.
Among the features of this phenomenon are its irrationality, insensibility to obvious contradictions, mythologisation of charismatic leaders’ abilities, be it Vladimir Lenin in Russia or Mahatma Gandhi in India. Thus, symbols are used as instruments of governing and political manipulation in order to exploit irrational spheres of human mentality.
When trying to understand the development of Soviet history and society, both on the level of centre and peripheries, one can easily notice the semioticity of the Soviet system, especially its ideology, be it ideological pronouncements or actual policies. New communist rites and rituals, as well as symbols were assigned to oppose the old religious ones associated with old Tsarist regime. Some scholars believe this semioticity, when almost everything seems to carry a message, to be an old Russian tradition.
If we take Soviet Karelia as a case study area, we must firstly stress the fact that it was (and actually still remains) a border territory with a very complicated ethnic composition. The latter ranges from Vepsians and Karelians who had lived there for centuries to Finns who came there from Finland proper, from the historical province of Ingria as well as from America mostly in the 20th century, and of course, to Russians and other Slavic and non-Slavic nationalities.
In this discourse the symbol and the icon of ‘the Border’ should be firstly outlined. From the end of the 1920s and onwards the word ‘Border’ was usually linked with the motto ‘The border is locked up!’ with the emphasis on the strong need to safeguard the achievements of the Great October Socialist revolution from the constantly existing external threat.
In Russian tradition the concept of boundaries has an exceptional socio-psychological meaning. The boundary, either artificial or natural, is first of all a defence line protecting the We / Ours from the hostile They / Others (2). In the case of Finland, its relations with the eastern neighbour have been an essential constituent in the creation of Finnishness, and in many cases the boundary between the two states has been regarded as an icon of these relations (3).
The related symbol of the external enemy beyond the boundary might be also described as an integral part of the Russian mentality, playing a key role within the paradigm of eastern paternalism by providing a necessary justification for the system of relations between the Leader and the People. It can be argued that one can hardly find a stronger mental succession in people’s behaviour, before and after the Bolsheviks’ revolution of 1917, than the implicit faith in the power of the Word and in the constant existence of an Enemy. Throughout the history of the Russian State, the latter concept has been repeatedly deployed, both to mobilise against actual external danger and to justify the struggle against a putative inner enemy, often a phantom. One can easily find examples illustrating this thesis in Russian history from its very beginning to the present day.
The fate of the so-called Red Finns in Soviet Karelia, i.e. Finnish communists who fled from Finland after the unsuccessful revolution attempt in 1918, serves as but one illustration of this thesis (4). Perhaps the most prominent among them was Ph.D. Edvard Gylling. Symbols of Border and Enemy, both being either external or internal, are closely linked to each other and, in Karelian case, have much wider spatio-temporal orientation.
External threat in the North-West borderlands has an extended record of resemblance with the situation on the eastern frontiers of Russia. The latter had direct reflection in Soviet/Russian Karelia at least for three times. In the early 1930, after the occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese an almost hysterical (or galvanised?) fear of intervention gripped the Soviet Union, and this, among all, was used as grounds for a purge both against jaeger officers of Finnish origin in Karelia and in border regions where Karelian lived (5).
For the second time, after the World war II and during the Korean war, Stalin, being not satisfied by the events in Korea, seems to be seized by a kind of war panic. Serious signs of war preparations were discerned by the Soviets even in Finland, and that was the last case when Otto Wille Kuusinen was summoned to Stalin’s cabinet (6).
And, finally, these issues have been once again connected together in public debates on Karelian question during the Perestroyka and Post-Perestroyka periods. Some Finns’ approach towards the fate of Lost Karelia was then compared by the official Japan’s approach towards disputed territories of Kuril islands (7). Generally speaking, all these cases are evoking latent appeal to the patriotic idea of inviolability of Russian borders and to the image of an external enemy.
The persecution in the 1930s of enemies who spoke a foreign language and were not only cultural but also national aliens should thus also be considered in the context of the long-term struggle for ideological influence in Russian Karelia.
For Russians, Karelia had always been and remained Russian territory, and any doubts on this score were perceived as representing an assault on the indivisibility and majesty of the State, be it the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. The only change after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was that the idea of the Communist Motherland gradually came to replace the Great Russian Orthodox idea. The image of An Enemy / A Stranger / The Other remained practically unchanged. At the beginning of the 20th century the defenders of the Great Russian idea blamed the Finns for trying to expand Lutheran influence in Russian Karelia (8). In the 1930s the Finns were once again blamed for so-called bourgeois nationalism, a conspiracy in the attempt to join Karelia to Finland (9).
Soviet Karelian newspapers have played their role in creating such an image of Finland (and Finns), which was apriori aggressive towards Russia (and Russians). This process culminated in late 1920s - early 1930s, when image of Finland was already presented as "part and parcel" of fascism and source of war threat (10). The way in which media propaganda was involved in the process of moulding of the external threat image during 1920s and 1930s reproduced, though in much more tough and harsh scope, methods of propagandistic campaign against so called Panfennistic activities in Orthodox Karelia, before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
Russians viewed the orientation within Panfennism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries towards mostly Orthodox Karelia as a manifestation of Finnish imperialism (11), and, conversely and not with the least foundation, the Finns suspected Russia of imperialistic ambitions when its central authorities proposed unification initiatives concerning Finland, just before the World War I (12).
In 1930s external threat was once again linked together with threat of nationalism in Karelia. This, being a reflection of much more general shift towards national Bolshevism in 1934 (as defined by Gerhard Simon (13)), in its turn connected with the phantomous notion of the Red Greater Finland and reflected fight for power both on the central and peripheral levels (14).
Another symbol, which dynamics correlate with the fate of Karelia, is ‘the United Family of Free Peoples’. The correlation is obvious, as the unity was stressed more and more strongly whilst real autonomy, real freedom was becoming more and more nominal. This process culminated in the late 1920s.
We can therefore come to the conclusion that there is clear evidence of continuity in the instrumentality of national policy conducted in Russia towards non-Russian border regions before and after the Bolshevik revolution in an attempt to avoid the danger of disintegration of the State.
One of the most specific features is the Finno-Ugric nature of Soviet Karelia’s autonomy, once again, real and nominal. During the period of fennicization of Soviet Karelia it was usually stressed by the advocates and initiators of the campaign that they were building a new Karelia (respectively a new school, new engineering, new poetry, etc.). This sign of novelty should not be considered as a totally specifically local one. The hymn of the Soviet Union later pronounced that ‘we will build our new world’. Local specificity becomes apparent in the way of Finno-Ugric involvement in the process of building something new.
If we return back to the role of a charismatic leader, it should be noted that the cult of Vladimir Lenin and later Josif Stalin was immediately reproduced at the local level, constituting a sort of hierarchy. As early as in the mid 1920s we can already trace back the existence of a local cult of prominent leaders, Gylling and Rovio. One of its most peculiar features was that these leaders were so-called Red Finns, representing by nationality the narrowest stratum of the Karelian population, and they were often perceived by the majority as strangers (15).
The famous Finnish epic compilation Kalevala offered good ideas to be used, among them Sampo, the mill of happiness (respectively, the Red Sampo), the traditional music instrument Kantele (respectively, the Red Kantele), etc. Needed scientific grounds for Kalevala’s images involvement in propaganda have been carefully provided by Soviet scholars (16) in order to draw a line separating bourgeois understanding of old Karelian mythology and the new Marxist, and thus the only lawful, one. In a way these adaptations could be described as arguments in favour of Red Finns’ dreams about Red Greater Finland (17). The latter, however, seems to have been much more vague and mysterious notion than the Greater Finland proper, since its contradictions with basic principles of communist internationalism concepts were thoroughly obvious (18).
The so-called Red Finns have played their prominent role in the history of the region, and this is also considered as a specificity. Soviet Karelia as a case study area gives a wide range of material for the discourse on the correlation of Soviet internationalism and patriotism as a legacy of disputes between zapadniks and slavophils.
The Centre needed to maintain the State as united, strong, and indivisible. But as after the Bolshevik revolution the idea of strong statehood could not be supported any more by the Orthodox idea, a new set of symbols and myths had to be invented. This was actually done during the first decades of the Soviet rule.
The symbolic world of Soviet Russianness seems to be finally moulded after the World War II, more familiar to a ‘rank-and-file’ Soviet citizen as the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, with, once again, strong emphasis on the notions of Border, Enemy and Fatherland. Within the Centre-Peripheries paradigm, also in the case of Soviet Karelia, this process had created a construction with much more strong and effective control from the Centre and much more emasculate and formal self-dependence of the local level. Under these conditions, real content of national, i.e. Finno-Ugric, specificity of Soviet Karelia was doomed to be demolished. Whilst formal attention to national culture and related symbols was constantly stressed, the very Finnishness of Soviet Karelia / Karelian Republic, as far as the second half of the 20th century is concerned, could be argued to shift its real meaning step by step towards a symbol per se.