III World Congress of the Finno-Ugric Peoples

Helsinki (Finland) December 10–13, 2000


Brief information


Speeches of the peoplesí representatives




List of participants

Consultative Committee
of the Finno-Ugric Peoples



Doctor of Philosophy,

I would like to start with a personal memory. During the Congress of Fenno-Ugrists in 1985 in Syktyvkar, Republic of Komi, a trip to the village Kuratovo was included in the program. A monument to the poet Kuratov was unveiled there together with the opening of the Museum of local lore.

In the crowd I found myself a apart from the others and arrived at the museum a bit late. The guide started to explain the different objects to me in English, when I interrupted her after a while and told her that there was no need to explain them to me, because I knew them all. This was true. I had seen tools, every day utensils and wooden dishes just as these or of the same type in my father's house in Finland, in the northern part of the province Savo, and in many other country houses.

This observation made me stop and think. Of course I knew that I was visiting the land of a related people. I had read about them already in school. But still a long term perspective opened in front of my eyes through these every day objects. I realized how widespread the northern forest belt is, in that it extends from Finland through Karelia a long way to Siberia and all the way to the Pacific coast. I felt that we had our origin in the woods. With those primitive, but sturdy tools forests had been cleared into arable land, our forefathers had hunted and fished for many thousands of years.

This experience was highly emotional and it had features of a kind of sudden realization or vision. I realized that I was not alone with my conception. The same kind of vision had probably already for a long time spurred linguists, specialists in folklore and artists and brought results also during difficult times. One need not go farther than this hall in order to remember the film - Veelinnurahvas - The waterfowl people - made in 1970 by the present President of the Republic of Estonia -Lennart Meri. Three years earlier the Estonian poet Minni Nurme had visited Finland for the first time and in her poem "Kevadises Helsingis" - In springtime Helsinki -marvelled at the familiar sound of the Finnish language. The poem ends with the observation: "sõnadel / kusagil sügaval on juured" - words / somewhere deep have roots.

We know that our views regarding kinship between related peoples undergo changes and that new theories replace former theories as obsolete. But one does not have to know, where we have lived and when or wandered so near to the Hungarians that we have borrowed from each other central, important words. Still today listening to Hungarian at a distance, its rhythm and phonetic form are very much the same as in Finnish. Karelian, Vepsian and Estonian are even to a layman, as if only behind a thin door. The Sami people have left deep traces in the names of many localities. Words have, in spite of all their differences, their roots somewhere deep, in times gone by.

But I do not think that our faraway guests have come here just to hear the motional visions described above. I presume that many of you have arrived here with thoughts concerning present day problems, for which you are searching to solve. I cannot and do not strive to present such solutions during my short speech, but I believe that during the discussions in groups such solutions can be found. I will though try to describe the Finnish experience during the long way toward the present moment, some stages and orientations, through which we passed during some two hundred years in search of ourselves and our inner nature. The goal has roughly been that what for some twenty-thirty years ago was referred to in the programs of the cultural organization of the United Nations UNESCO as national identity or cultural identity. Setting of such a goal meant that each people, even a mall one, should have the right and possibility to develop its own language, culture and social conditions.

In this connection I also have to touch upon the cultural history of Finland and dwell on times some 150 or 170 years back, when a kind of national awakening took place. It is a fact that research on the Finnish language and folklore had begun already in the 18th century, with the publishing of the first anthologies of Finnish sayings and puzzles, when the central influential person in the field of culture - Gabriel Henrik Porthan - had already collected folk poetry and studied the main features of its metre in his study written in Latin. His student Kristfrid Ganander lad for his part published a book on Finnish mythology in 1789.

Finnish had apparently been used during the divine services of the Catholic church already during the Swedish rule, in the Middle Ages, but the use of written Finnish began in the middle of the 16th century, when the bishop Mikael Agricola published a Finnish ABC-book and translated the New Testament into Finnish. The language of the Finnish intelligentsia and upper class was, however, for a long time Swedish. Latin in turn was the language of textbooks, and the importance of this language became even greater with the foundation of the Academy of Turku in 1640. But even for a long time after Agricola the use of Finnish in literature was limited to a narrow sector, i.e. religious and ecclesiastical literature.

A new phase began in the beginning of the 19th century, when Finland as a result of the Swedish-Russian war of 1808-09 passed from under Swedish to Russian rule. Significant in this connection is the fact that Finland was granted an autonomous status, that it preserved the Swedish laws and forms of society and was later able to have its own parliament and even its own money. Even so, the change of mother country meant a great change, and among the teachers of the Turku Academy discussions began on the significance and possibilities brought about by the new status. As a result of this discussion emphasis was laid on studies of the Finnish language and folklore and this actually meant that a small step had already been taken toward a national and cultural identity, although this was not at that time as yet clearly determined.

Soon, as early as in the 1830ies, an intensive development began. The Finnish Literature Society was established in 1831. A talented Swedish speaking poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, appeared and soon became the national poet of Finland. A great interest for folk poetry awakened, and took the physician Elias Lönnrot on many a trip to the parts of eastern Karelia to the west of the White Sea with the aim of collecting folk poetry. These trips resulted in 1835-36 in the creation, by way of combining and editing of the collected poems, of an ample epos of poetry called Kalevala (an extended edition was published in 1849).

The British professor Michael Branch, connoisseur of our culture and folklore, has using a sociological term characterized the two main trends in Finnish literature: the "great" and "small" tradition. By the "great" tradition is meant the heritage of classic literature, the influence and model role of antique Greek and Roman literature. The "small" tradition in turn means the own heritage based on folklore, national mythology and folk music, where the features found in these subject matters are made use of and further developed by means related to literature, drama, music and the visual arts.

Now those two traditions, the "great" and the "small" one, become one and cross with one another around the year 1830 and later in a very interesting way. A new kind of art is born, in connection with which one can speak of paradoxes, i.e. the joint influence of seeming opposites, the consequences of which became much farther reaching than seemed possible at that time.
Let us take for instance the paradox of Runeberg. He wrote in Swedish narrative poems in compliance with the "great" tradition using the hexameter, the antique metre following in the footsteps of Homer. But what then did Runeberg depict in his own epic poems? The Finnish people, ordinary Finnish people living in the inner parts of the country, emotionally experiencing their conditions of life and praising their energy and perseverance. He also praised the Finnish nature as he wrote the words to our national anthem "Maamme" - "Our land". In writing these words he was by the way inspired by a patriotic poem written by the Hungarian poet Wörösmarty. The ballads written by Runeberg about the war of 1808-09 appeared at the same time as Sandor Petöfi in Hungary became an outstanding guiding star of the fight for freedom in his country. The poet Runeberg, who wrote in Swedish, became a national poet known to all, whose poems were read for a long time in all the schools in Finnish translations as well as in the original language.

Another and even more complicated paradox is the Kalevala. For a long time the Kalevala was believed to be a genuine folk epos, which had been found by Lönnrot and assembled by him as archaeologists put together pieces of a mosaic. In fact the work of combining and editing done by Lönnrot was so thorough that the result was a totally new kind of composition - although based on genuine folk poems, but with an overall structure, a unified plot and portrayal of characters - all the result of work done by Lönnrot himself.

At the same time the Kalevala acquired, as if it were an unexpected by product and a kind of "into the bargain", a much greater significance. It brought out the Finnish folk poetry and its peculiar 8-syllable metre, the established name of which has become the Kalevala metre. Furthermore it crystallized in the conscious mind of the general public the Finnish mythology in the form stylised by Lönnrot: the heroes of the original poems, whose names and characters often mixed, were now given their own roles and clear-cut profiles within the epos. And Kalevala also became the national epos of Finland, eposes like these were considered in the beginning of the 19th century as distinctive features of a civilized people. For a long time people also believed that the Kalevala depicted the past and thus gave to Finland its own history. Now we know that this was not the case, but the idea of a great golden age gave strength to the building up of the own culture and became particularly at the turn of the 19th and 20th century a source of inspiration and supply of subject matters for many forms of art - poetry, music (Sibelius!), visual arts (Gallen-Kallela!), the theatre, architecture etc.

And what about the importance of the Kalevala from the point of view of the development of the language? Kalevala brought up a rich and expressive language of poetry, a fine rhythmic and phonetic instrument that people had learned to use during hundreds or even thousands of years as an oral heritage and had also combined music with it - the fact is that folk poetry was usually always sung. But what was its significance in view of the language of prose and every day language? The men in the Finnish Literature Society were able to note already as early as 1831 that keeping the minutes in Finnish was an insurmountable task - the necessary vocabulary was missing, as well as the official language. After four meetings the members shifted to keeping the minutes in Swedish and this practice continued for almost 30 years. In the meantime the Finnish language had become more flexible and accommodated itself to the use in rational prose. Also in this case literature showed the way, first came the anthologies of popular tales by Eero Salmelainen, then in 1870 the first novel of Finnish prose and maybe to this day the best achievement of this genre, a classic of lasting value: Seitsemän veljestä - the Seven brothers by Aleksis Kivi.

Dear participants of the Congress! I have dealt rather a long while with literature and spoken of the paradoxes connected with Runeberg as well as with the Kalevala in order to make it clear that as a result of the kind of complicated and even unexpected development the Finnish language has become a flexible, expressive language of culture. Many things had to be set aside because of the limited time at my disposal, for instance the importance of the philosopher Johan Vilhelm Snellman for the awakening of the Finnish national consciousness and the declaration of the significance of the national literature. I have neither emphasized the decisive importance of the educational system and libraries in the building up of the Finnish identity nor the prominent role of different societies at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the birth of Finnish publishing houses and their growth from the end of the 19th century on. The development of literature has been supported by the intensive growth of the press, the spread of literacy and after the latest wars, the system of state grants, which began in 1948 and was broadened in 1970, within the framework of which the work of some 70 writers can be financed each year with 1, 3 and 5 year grants. The amount of books written has been constantly growing and this year, which is coming to its end, is probably an unprecedented year in the history of our literature as to the amount of books published.

In conclusion it might be appropriate to emphasize a few facts. There have beginning with the end of the past century in Finnish literature been numerous notable and independent women writers. Their number has grown steadily and is still growing. Another thing is the fact that literature in Finland has always reacted very quickly in relation to current events and social problems. It has often been characterized by self-criticism and been argumentative. A current topic at present is environmental protection, the state of our environment, which is of vital importance to us all. As we shall surely deal with this issue during the congress in different connections, we should remember the moral of folk poetry about what trees, plants, animals, clean waters and natural landscapes mean also from the point of view of the quality of our life.

Source: III World Congress of the Finno-Ugrian Peoples. Helsinki, 2000 [Joshkar-Ola, 2001], pp 24–28.

print version

I - Syktyvkar, 1992
II - Budapest, 1996
IV - Tallinn, 2004