Our Finnish Past And Who We Are Today

So, you’re a Finn. That’s commendable! But let me ask you a question. What do you know about the exact history of your ancestors, and the parts of Finland – or even other areas – that they came from? Do you think it matters? Well, let’s explore a bit.

So, you’re a Finn.  That’s commendable!  But let me ask you a question.  What do you know about the exact history of your ancestors, and the parts of Finland – or even other areas – that they came from?  Do you think it matters?  Well, let’s explore a bit.

The name Karjala for example, or Karelia, has been of massive importance to Finland.  It’s in our most famous foods, the music of our most celebrated composers, and to many, it is much more.  It is the territory that the Winter War was fought over from 1939 to 1940, and ultimately annexed by Russia.

This is Karjala.
This is Karjala.

Today, while the “Karelian Question” still lingers in the minds of many, little is actually left of it and few are willing to stir the waters in any official capacity.  The question is, whether Finland should ask for this land back.  Perhaps the wrong questions are being asked.  But before we get to this, let’s delve more into a lesser known name: Ingria.

This is also Karjala.
This is also Karjala.

Ingria, or Ingermanland, was Karjala’s neighbor and every bit as Finnish.  Historically this area was comprised of mainly Finns, but in terms of ruling powers, switched hands between Sweden and Russia over the centuries – just as is true of the independent country of Finland we know today.  In the late 17th century, 73.8% of the population were Ingrian Finns – or Inkeri – and the rest were mostly Izhorians and Votians, also Finno-Ugric people related to us, like the Estonians.

Ingria wished to gain independence like Finland, but this was put to an end – to put it mildly – when Josef Stalin came into power in the Soviet Union. To help you visualize, if Ingria were to exist as a country today, its capital would likely be Saint Petersburg.  It would be similar in size to Portugal, Ireland, Estonia, Austria or Greece.  This is what we lost.

I am an Ingrian Finn.  For the first 25 years of my life, I didn’t even know it.  This is because for people such as my father, the wound was still too fresh, too difficult to discuss.  He never talked about where he lived, or even his own family.  I didn’t know if he was ashamed of it or what.  On the contrary, he loved it all so much that it haunted his thoughts for decades afterward.  If he shouted out in his sleep, it was likely to be his memories of the bombs flying around him, or being harassed by soldiers.  Of losing his home, family and friends and not understanding why this was happening.

It took me many years to dig up the truth and make sense of it.  It began as such an abstract thing.  What… we came from Ingermanland?  Were we Izhorian?  All the information I could find came from old, poorly maintained historical websites that looked like they were made in the days of Angelfire and Geocities.  None of it made a heck of a lot of sense until I got access to the thoughts and feelings of the man whose thoughts and feelings had eluded me my whole life.  My father Eino died in 2012, but it turned out that he actually had written a few things about his young life in some Finnish publications.  My great aunt Sylvi had written a memoir in Finnish too.

And from these, I learned with joy, interest and sadness what it was to be Inkeri.

Today, Finnish Karelia and Ingria are both gone.  Very few Finnish people live there, and documentaries and such have been made about these “dying cultures”, but I ask the question now that should be asked:

Just because the territories themselves now have little relation to us, does this mean that we need forget about who we are and lose our sense of community, especially in this internet age?


One might argue that their identity changes when they become integrated into a new place and culture, but I do not believe that it really works that way.  Whether we know it or not, whether we even consciously know our history, it is genetically expressed.  New research in epigenetics is exploring how the traumatic experiences of our ancestors can resurface down the line.  These are also my own experiences.  I know from a frank and honest evaluation of events in my past and even dreams, that I carry the history of the Finnish Ingrians within me.  I also know that many others feel the same, or have begun to feel things even if they don’t quite know how to explain them.

What is a nation, and what is a people?  Are we defined by borders, or by our community and common ground of a different sort?  Is it to our benefit to forget the past, or to honor it even as we find ways to move forward?

Some people have begun online communities such as Facebook groups, and that’s a start.  How else can we redevelop our culture, and perhaps even ourselves in the process?  These are my questions.

Explore these ideas further and learn about the Ingrians in Inger: Father & Son, out now in traditional paperback and on Kindle, PC, Mac, iOS and Android:

[stc-subscribe category_in=”Forgotten Finland”]