Long reads


Sofia Kotilainen, winner of the 2023 Vuoden Tiedekynä Award, explores the importance of perspective: a money forger labelled as an immoral criminal was a generous benefactor in his local community


Long reads


Sofia Kotilainen, winner of the 2023 Vuoden Tiedekynä Award, explores the importance of perspective: a money forger labelled as an immoral criminal was a generous benefactor in his local community

Historian and linguist Sofia Kotilainen paints a picture of a charming scoundrel, a 19th-century money forger Talvi-Erkki, whom law enforcement saw as a criminal but his local community viewed as a skilled “banker” and a kind spirit. Kotilainen wants her readers to think about the importance of perspective. The Kone Foundation is presenting this year’s Vuoden Tiedekynä Academic Writing Award and the prize money of EUR 25,000 to the Jyväskylä-based researcher. Vuoden Tiedekynä is an annual award for an academic article that demonstrates exemplary use of the Finnish language. 

Tales of the mid-19th-century money forger Talvi-Erkki have kept historian and linguist Sofia Kotilainen intrigued for over two decades. Her award-winning article examines Talvi-Erkki’s escapades from the point of view of the authorities on the one hand and in the light of the local community’s recollections on the other.

Kotilainen succeeds in portraying a world free of stereotypical character roles.

“This has never been a full-time project for me. I would describe it more as a sideline or even a hobby”, says Kotilainen, who currently works as a Project Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä’s Centre for Applied Language Studies. 

“I keep coming across little bits and pieces of information here and there and taking my time putting the pieces together, because my research into Talvi-Erkki is not linked to any particular project and has no fixed deadline. My process involves sifting through different sources of information and collating my research gradually. I am still constantly learning more about Talvi-Erkki and intend to keep on writing. This is typical of microhistorical research: it often ends up being like detective work.”

Literacy gone rogue: notorious money forger used his education to launch a criminal enterprise

As far as sources for her research are concerned, Kotilainen considers the oral history she has retrieved from folklore archives at least as valuable as the facts recorded in official documents. 

It was the ideas, attitudes and perceptions evident in people’s recollections that opened her eyes to the simplistic narrative of the money forger by the authorities.

Far from being just a common criminal, Kivijärvi-born Erik Turpeinen was known locally as a kind of Robin Hood who used the skills he had honed through his lawless trade to help neighbours who found themselves in financial dire straits.

In the 19th century, few of the common folk in the countryside could read and write, and those who could were expected to use their education for respectable purposes that served society. Talvi-Erkki broke free of the poverty in which he grew up by going against what was considered appropriate and leveraging his literacy for immoral pursuits. 

Banknotes were a rarity in remote regions, which created opportunities for fraud. The timing was also ideal, as Finland had just adopted its own currency – the markka – and counterfeit notes were easy to distribute in the confusion of the transition.

The narrative constructed by the authorities in particular and newspapers to a lesser extent of an unscrupulous villain is juxtaposed in Kotilainen’s article by the story told by Talvi-Erkki’s contemporaries of a mischievous rascal remembered fondly by the local community.

“It is crucial for historians to recognise whose voice or voices are telling the story, the perceptions that prevailed in society at the time and whether they represent conflicting realities’, Kotilainen explains.

“Understanding different perspectives of a shared experience is only truly possible through people’s recollections.”

Non-stereotypical characters help to keep the magic circle of storytelling intact

“There are indirect, subtle nuances and clues that historians can pick up on to build a picture of an individual’s life and, through it, broader communal and social phenomena”, Kotilainen says, referring to the clue-based method that she used to construct her article.

Professor of Folklore Studies Lotte Tarkka from the University of Helsinki, who chose the winner of this year’s Vuoden Tiedekynä Academic Writing Award, was particularly impressed with Kotilainen’s skilful avoidance of the trap of anecdotal evidence when researching an extraordinary individual.

Kotilainen’s article refrains from giving an oversimplified, formulaic explanation for Talvi-Erkki’s actions and instead immerses the reader in a more multifaceted narrative about his character. 

“Kotilainen takes the reader inside the same magic circle of stories where contemporaries of Talvi-Erkki heard and spread tales of his counterfeiting operation”, Tarkka says.

Tarkka also draws attention to the prevailing power relations that Kotilainen describes in her article and the ability of folklore to turn that hierarchy on its head.

“The emergence of Talvi-Erkki as a local hero and a lovable rogue illustrates the power struggle between the elite and the common folk: a clever man of the people humiliates those in charge by manipulating the official benchmarks of value and avoiding punishment by the authorities.”

“It is in this collective telling of Talvi-Erkki’s story where the common thread of Kotilainen’s research lies”, Tarkka says.

“What the reader sees is a picture deeper than the narrative itself –  a picture of a complex world inhabited by characters that are not just stereotypes of heroes and villains, intellectuals and common people.”

Kotilainen’s award-winning article ‘Talviaisten rahapaja: Luku- ja kirjoitustaidon hyödyntäminen rahanväärennöstarkoituksiin 1800-luvulla’ (‘Mint of Talviainen: use of literacy for money forgery purposes in the 19th century’) has been published in the 22nd issue (2022:3) of the scientific journal ‘Ennen ja nyt: historian tietosanomat’ (‘Then and now: history journal’).

Read the award-winning article (in Finnish)