At the Well blog


Sharing the stories of those migrated from Karelia

In her project “Winter Stories”, artist Evgenia Golant has recorded and shared personal stories of people who were forced to migrate from the eastern regions of Finland, which became part of the Soviet Union during the Winter War. In her project, Golant explores the trauma of losing one’s home. Now she shares some of the stories.

In my project Winter War, I work as an artist with personal stories of people who were forced to migrate from the eastern regions of Finland, which became part of the Soviet Union during the Winter War. In my project, I am thinking about the trauma of losing one’s home. In this blog post, I want to share some stories of the project’s participants, all of whom were born in Karelia and who had to abandon their homes. These stories touched me, shocked me, and saddened me. I feel that it is important to record and share them.

I live in Komarovo, which was called Kellomäki when it was part of Finland. Many places here serve as reminders that this used to be Finnish land. There is, for instance, a beautiful Finnish church in Zelenogorsk (Terijoki). As it is very close to Komarovo, I travel there on weekends with my baby to attend classical music concerts at the church. On the beach, one can still find stones that were part of a defensive fortification called the Mannerheim Line. Wind and time somehow relocated these stones. It looks like the Winter War memorial. Typically, every year two buses with Finnish actors, singers and tourists come to celebrate the birthday of Terijoki-Zelenogorsk. They perform their beautiful show at the head of the parade, making the festival unique. But I haven’t seen them the last few years; they did not come. Another thing that saddens me are old Finnish houses: almost all of them remain half-ruined and are slowly disappearing. Looking at these ruins, I started to develop my project.

And then in 2014, I was invited to participate in the Rauma Baltic Biennale. Walking along the streets of Rauma, I suddenly saw a photo in a window not far from the main square. It depicted young people gathered on the square – soldiers who would soon go fight against the Soviet invasion, the Winter War. Then Hanna Paunu, the curator of Rauma Art Museum, introduced me to two wonderful women: Laila and Aila. They are neighbors and friends who now live in Rauma. Both were born in Karelia and had to leave their homes because of the Winter War; Aila was 6 years old at the time and Laila was 10. My exhibition in Rauma was dedicated to these women. This is how my project Winter Stories began.

In 2015, I received a one-year grant for this project from the Kone Foundation, but my work continues. Many thanks to Mervi Piipponen from the Karelian Association, Matti Mäki and Pirre Naukkarinen from the Saari Residency, Viktoria Kulmula from the Culture Center and library in Mynämäki, all of whom helped me to find people for interviews and arranged meetings and translations.

I met with 14 people in their 80s and 90s, almost all of whom were born in Karelia and had to leave their homes. In addition, I met with people of younger generations but whose families originally came from Karelia (aged 50–60). I visited them at their homes where they shared memories of their childhood, their homes and life in Karelia, an area that is now part of Russia. They talked about the day the war started; about running away and leaving their homes; about evacuation and wanderings; about life in new places and how they were received there; about coming back and building houses from scratch because theirs had burnt down; about having to run away again; about missing their homes; about their dreams; about waiting for the possibility to see their motherland again and the graves of their relatives; and about what they actually saw when they got the opportunity to go back, first secretively and then openly after the Iron Curtain fell in 1990. They showed me photographs and belongings they managed to take with them during the evacuation. I was touched by the warmth with which they accepted me and shared their stories with me, a Russian who now lives on their land. I was very upset by their stories, their feelings and their experiences. I hope to pass along my strong emotions to the audience at the exhibition.

Of course, this is a major topic in Finland, which is broadly discussed and which resonates emotionally with almost every second family. But in Russia the situation is different. The Winter War is an unknown war for many people, the memory of it being hushed up with shame, so that not all people who live on the Karelian Isthmus know the history of the place where they live. This is why for me, too, there have been a lot of discoveries, and I would like to talk, on the former Finnish soil, about the history of people whose houses, roots and graves of their loved ones were left here.

I met with my project participants at their homes. They charmed me. They offered coffee and set a beautiful table with all kinds of food, including Karelian pies, each cooked by the women in their own way. As they shared their stories, I was deeply moved. They always had something to remind them of their abandoned home: an old map on the wall with the borders drawn as before the Winter War, or a herbarium over the bed made from plants gathered at home, or a photo of their house on a shelf behind the glass. At one home there was a painting featuring a house: photos of the house had been burned or had disappeared with the house itself, and an artist had painted the house according to the owner’s descriptions – which now remains the only reminder Laila has of her former home.

The exhibition in Zelenogorsk (Terijoki) at the half-ruined Finnish house will take place in autumn 2018. This will be followed by a show at Mynämäki Culture Center in May 2018. I am also seeking a space to host an exhibition in Helsinki. A book will be published featuring interviews with the project participants, a diary of my trips to their homeland and my drawings and photographs.




Helli’s story

“Does your house still exist?” I asked Helli.

She answered, “There is an old legend. One of our ancestors did a favor for a poor man, and he blessed the house so that it would remain forever. They set fire to all the settlement, and only three houses survived. It was very cold last year, and they had to stoke the stove often, and the house got burnt. We weren’t sorry about it. The house was in a very bad state. It was just terrible.”

“Did drunkards live there?”

“Yes, they did. So this was the state the house was in.”

Helli was born in Polviselkä, near Kivennapa. She was 13 years old when the Winter War began.

I want to recreate part of the half-ruined Finnish house, which I found in Repino, within the exhibition space, with this words of Helli written on it: “Nightmares. Everybody had had their share of suffering. I have nightmares all the time. We are in a hurry. We have to run, and they chase us and sometimes they kill me in my dream. This is the kind of nightmare I used to have. I died. I thought I could do nothing about that. I was dying. After the war, I worked two shifts. My hemoglobin levels were low, and I had these nightmares about running away from the Russians, too. They gave me iron and other things, the vitamins. I stopped dreaming about running away, and in 1990, after the first trip, these nightmares stopped.”

“In 1990, the house was there, but strangers lived in it. We entered the house though. There was a grandma living nearby who liked coffee. She liked the coffee package. When I get really tired, I have a feeling that I have to set off again. I come back to those events. Again, I have to go. I cannot understand it – there was this beautiful place where we stayed in Sweden, and now we had to leave it. This is the kind of memories I have, dreams. I cannot understand that – why we have to flee Sweden. Why? How come? We had lived for only half a year in Sweden – a mother and kids.”


Aila’s story

This spring, I met with Aila at her home in her motherland, where she was with a group of Finnish Karelians who had come to their home in Metsäpirtti. She showed me the place that is still important to her family. Aila’s aunt told me: “As for our family, during all 44 times that we came here, we visited the hole, the miller’s hole it’s called; there is a bridge and there is a house where they lived. It is still there. And we always visit the place where our mill used to be. It’s a must-see place for us; there are millstones left in that place. It is getting worse and worse from year to year, with lots of bottles and rubbish lying around.” The mill used to be here. She said: “Even the millstones are gone, which were still there last year. There are only bottles scattered around and some rubbish.”

I met with them at the place where the Finnish cemetery used to be, where Aila’s father is buried. There are nearly no gravestones left, maybe three at most. Now it’s a park. “This is where my father lies,” Aila said. “We come here twice a year to clean and tidy up this territory.” I was deeply moved when I saw the love and care they show when removing pieces of soil with their hands and cleaning the stone, a remaining part of their Lutheran church’s foundation. Now there is a Russian cemetery there, but among the graves one can still see parts of the foundation. They told me how they dug into the ground to find something, some remnants, how they were walking around with a metal detector, how they sneaked stones from their land because nothing was allowed to be taken across the border, not even a stone.


Salli’s story

Here is Salli’s recollection of first day of the war and the evacuation:

“The day the war began, I remember I was woken up in the morning and I remember the fire had been kindled in the stove by Marco that day, too, and my grandmother – she was going to bake bread. And I can remember very well when we went out into the street – there was a big noise, naturally – but I can remember well only this: on the lake, when a big shell fell, it made big holes. It was from there that they were shooting, and when we went out into the street, we saw these huge holes. I also remember that everybody had started to pack quickly. There was our horse, then there was one sleigh and the neighbour’s sleigh, which was attached to our sleigh, so there was a horse and two sleighs. Now, this I cannot remember, but my mother told me afterwards that I had a doll and I took it – its name was actually Eiwa, but I called it Epo. I was holding my skis in my other hand. In the end, my mother took those things I had brought with me and left them at the flank of the house, saying that we had more important things and that we had to leave those things there. They put me into the sleigh, and I sat there next to the barrel with the dough for rye bread, which we hadn’t had time to bake – a big barrel. That I cannot remember; that’s what my mother told me. And then we stayed overnight in a house that had been left, and everything was so very beautiful there: there were tablecloths on the table, and I remembered this because these people were better off than us, and everything was very beautiful in their house – this made a deep impression on me.  And so in that house we at last baked a pie from the dough.”

“My mother had a bicycle. There was only one bicycle, but my mother and Marco’s mother rode in this way: first my mother would ride the bicycle for a while, then leave it and walk on, and then Marco’s mother would pick up the bicycle and ride it. They were taking turns riding the bicycle and walking. On the way we dropped in at a place called Kirvo, where our grandmother stayed with our cows. This was a very big house, and evacuees were already there; evacuated children were there, too. I remember playing with them in the barn, on the second story of the barn, in its attic, and I remember that there was electrical light. At home we had only oil lamps. It was so surprising to be playing and having this bulb up there that was pouring out light.

“Another thing I remember is that when we were going to Kirvo, at some point I was in a car – that is, they put me into a car, and I remember there were soldiers inside and they gave me some chocolate. And chocolate at that time seemed to be something heavenly delicious. And now let us come back to our journey, to how we are travelling by train. We reached Sawo, province and there was just this transit point there, and we had to change trains. My mother was messing around with the things and even though my grandfather was supposed to look after me, I fell into the space between the platform and the train. But there must have been some angels standing nearby and holding me. The train had passed by, and I was still standing there, and then they got me out of there. I had a winter hat made of leather, and I remember that after I fell there were stripes on it made by the blow. My mother did not really scold me, but she got really upset about the hat. I can remember that very well, while I cannot remember very well the rest of it.”


Helka’s story

“On the 30th, the war started, and a policeman came up to us. It was 3 pm, and he told us to be at the pier at 6 pm. The normal transport connection with Vyborg was a departure in the morning and arrival in the evening. My mother was at work in Vyborg that day. She came back from Vyborg and started to prepare dough to bake bread and put it aside. She kindled the stove to bake the bread and cook the porridge, of course. She put rice porridge inside, and it was undercooked. I can remember perfectly well my brother and I taking our spoons and getting ready to eat and eating, and ever since whenever I eat rice porridge I remember that time it was undercooked.”


Within the exhibition, I want to display original belongings or sculptures of things that project participants managed to take with them during the evacuation from their home in Karelia. I will make a rolled mattress and Airi’s backpack. I want to make Markku’s large bundle: “When my brother was born, my father made a bed for him, and everything we owned went into the bed and under its legs, making a big bundle, and it was with that bundle that our family set off.” There would be Markku’s father’s wedding coat: “It is small. Markku is taller than his father. It was made by a tailor in Merzopirti for his wedding in 1939, and that suitcase is also from Karelia, but it was painted after the war. Markku’s sisters painted it.” Karri’s alarm clock will be part of the display as well: “There is an alarm clock that belonged to our relatives. I just repainted it, but there is no doubt it came from Metsäpirtti. At first it was blue, then somebody, I don’t know why, painted it black, and I repainted it blue again. I got it from William’s children, and my father, with whom I lived for a long time, said that he remembered that alarm clock because William had no watch – it was broken or he didn’t have it at all – and so when he went to work he always carried that alarm clock with him. So my father knew for sure it was his alarm clock and that it came from Metsäpirtti.”

I also want to make some sculptures of things that were left at the home in Karelia – Salli’s doll and skis and Leo’s ship.

And Helli’s pearl: “I found a blue pearl in the field near my home. I found it when I was digging in the field next to my home. An archaeologist was scolding me, asking why I didn’t take that blue pearl with me. I remember where I kept it, in the small medicine chest. It was a mistake not to take it with me.”

I asked: “Did you expect to return?”

“We didn’t think. We wanted to survive. There were no thoughts, no time to cry. What do you think, Evgenia?” she asked me.

I couldn’t find any words.



Many thanks to the project participants, without whom this project could not be realized: Helli Taponen, Helka Hannula, Eva Harju, Leo Mirrala, Markku Lemmeti, Marjatta Martelius, Sirpa Arola, Salli Rastas, Aila Martelius and her aunts, Sylville Soitin, Airi Miettinen, and Jaakko Makela.


Evgenia Golant