Visual Relics of the Soviet-Era Political and Linguistic Experiments in Karelia

The history of the Republic of Karelia, a federal district of Russia located in its northwest, was to a large degree shaped by political, economic and cultural interactions with neighboring Finland. To start with, the very establishment of Karelia as a separate federal district within Soviet Russia in 1920 was due to, firstly, Finland’s political and territorial claims on Karelian lands, and, secondly, to political efforts of Red Finns, or Finnish socialists, who after the defeat of their cause in the Finnish civil war of 1918 became political emigrants to the Soviet Russia. Since 1920 till 1935, Red Finns lead the autonomous Karelian republic, and their influence on its political, economic, and cultural development is hard to overestimate. The Great Purge ended the Finnish period in the history of Soviet Karelia, but the failure of Soviet plans to establish a pro-Soviet regime in Finland during a short, but fierce Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-40 and the necessity to save face in this situation forced Soviet leadership to unite Soviet Karelia and territories ceded by Finland. This is how Karelian-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic emerged, the sixteenth republic of the USSR, which had Finnish as its second official language despite the fact that by 1939 the share of Finns in the population of Karelia dropped to only 2% (Karelians, the title nation of the republic, had no established written language of their own). Though in 1956 Karelia was transformed from a ‘union’ republic back into an autonomous republic within Soviet Russia, the Finnish language remained official until 1991, when it lost its status and the Russian language became the only official language of the Republic of Karelia.

Use of Finnish name plates and shop signs in Karelia during the Soviet period

In this essay, I will not concentrate on the peculiarities of the language policy in Karelia either before or after the collapse of the USSR, but will rather trace the visual representation of the Finnish language in Karelia, focusing on its capital city Petrozavodsk. Finnish, which after the late 1930s and especially WWII has never been spoken by a large group of the local population, throughout the Soviet history remained a language used mostly for decorative purposes. In other words, shop signs and name plates were often produced in two languages, Russian and Finnish. Having no pragmatic purpose, this practice was strictly official, imposed by the state regulations.
First of all, signs in the Finnish language were posted on all three stations through which visitors arrived in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia: railway station, river station and bus station. A photo placed below shows the river station of Petrozavodsk in 1983 – a building resembling a ship with two plates on the top: Петрозаводск in Russian and Petroskoi (the Finnish name of Petrozavodsk).
Similar plates were installed in two other stations. Apart from these welcome signs, many public buildings of Petrozavodsk showed plates in the Finnish language.

River station of Petrozavodsk, a photo by I. Narovlianskii. 1983.
Source: heninen.Net (

This 1973 postcard shows the central department store of Petrozavodsk. The left facade is decorated with the Finnish sign Tavaratalo reading “department store”. Another postcard (below) shows the main hotel of Petrozavodsk – hotel Karelia – in 1988. It had two name plates on the top: Russian Карелия on the front facade and Finnish Karjala on the right side (the postcard is poorly scanned, no other copy is available):

A department store in Petrozavodsk, a postcard.1973.
Source: (

Hotel “Karelia”, a postcard. 1988.
Source: Heninen.Net (

Another hotel of Petrozavodsk, hotel Severnaia, also had two variants of its name on the facade: Северная in Russian and Pohjola in Finnish.

Hotel Severnaia, a photo from the home collection of Irina Kuropteva. Name of the hotel in Finnish and Russian is visible above the central colonnade. Mid1950s. Source: History of Petrozavodsk (

Finally, during the Soviet period Finnish name-plates were used along with Russian ones in movie theaters (Elokuvateatteri), grocery stores (Ruokatavaraa or Ruokatavarakauppa), book stores (Kirjakauppa) and drug stores (Apteekki). One of these, placed on the roof of a local ‘fashion house’ (studio of fashion design) in the 1980s, survived up to now.

Two plates originally installed in the 1980s on the studio of fashion design read in Finnish (left) and Russian (right). March 2009. Author’s photo.

For a while, even names of streets were also indicated in two languages, though by the 1980s the latter practice had been generally abandoned.

An abandoned and likely only street sign in Petrozavodsk surviving from the 1970s which is written in two languages: Russian (above) and Finnish (below). March 2009. Author’s photo.

For local inhabitants, all these plates in the Finnish language were a part of the everyday culture, even though the overwhelming majority of them did not speak a word in Finnish. Both for them and for outside visitors, this wide use of Finnish language name plates and shop signs gave Petrozavodsk a look of a ‘more European’ town, distinguishing it from other provincial Soviet towns. Still, in the Soviet time, this feature generally remained a curiosity, a decoration which had no actual practical aim. Its meaning changed only after 1991 – as almost everything else in Russia.

Current use of Finnish name plates and shop signs in Karelia

In 1991, the Finnish language was removed from the position of the second official language. Since Finns now constitute less than one per cent of the population of the Republic of Karelia, local language policy currently evolves around a possible introduction of the Karelian language as the second official language (in 2002, the share of ethnic Karelians in the population of the Republic of Karelia was 13%). Still, a walk or a ride around Petrozavodsk would demonstrate that name plates and shop signs written in Finnish can still be found in a number of places, while no signs of Karelian are obvious.
Most visitors (over three fourths of the total number) come to Petrozavodsk either by train or intercity bus, and upon arrival to the local railway or bus station they are greeted by renovated signs reading in two languages: Петрозаводск (Russian) and Petroskoi (Finnish). 

A name plate with the Finnish name of Petrozavodsk, Petroskoi, at the Petrozavodsk railway station. March 2009. Author’s photo.

The railway station had been reconstructed by the 300 year anniversary of Petrozavodsk in 2003, and this sign in the Finnish language (a similar one in Russian is to the right of the central entrance, outside the photo) was certainly a part of the efforts of Karelian authorities to construct a positive image of the town. And it was Finnish, not English (and neither just transliteration to Latin characters), which was chosen for this purpose, though the flow of international tourists to Petrozavodsk is really diverse, with Finns constituting a minority, though a considerable one. A similar name plate, also renovated in the early 2000s, can be seen on the bus station of Petrozavodsk.

To the left of the central lettering reading Автовозкал (bus station) one can see the Finnish name plate Petroskoi. March 2009. Author’s photo.

Moreover, the right side of the bus station has also a Finnish spelling Autoasema (bus station).

The Finnish language sign Autoasema duplicating the Russian language plate Автовокзал on the local bus station. March 2009. Author’s photo.

Another organization which actively involves the Finnish language in its visual representation is the National Theater of Karelia. Its very name is quite deceiving: despite being ‘national’ (the title nation of the Republic of Karelia is, quite obviously, Karelians, not Finns), it stages plays in the Finnish language, because originally, in 1932, it was established on the basis of a Finnish theatrical troupe, in which Finnish immigrants were involved. Surviving Stalin’s repressions and WWII, it was known under the name of Finnish Theater until 1992, when political trends (including the loss of official status for the Finnish language) forced it to be renamed to National Theater of Karelia. Still, no attempt has ever been made to stage a play in the Karelian language, and the theater remains a Finnish language theater (incidentally, the only one in Russia). A photo of a billboard of the National Theater of Karelia placed below reads Kansallinen teatteri (national theater) – without any indication: the theater of the nation that it is. The use of the Finnish language in the text implies that it is still a Finnish theater, as it was in the Soviet times – despite a pathetic national in its official name. By the way, the Finnish name is more exact, since the official Russian title (Национальный театр Карелии) means “National theater of Karelia”, while the official Finnish title (Petroskoin kansallinen teatteri) means “National theater of Petrozavodsk” (the last line on the picture below).

A billboard of the National Theater of Karelia reading Kansallinen Teatteri (National theater) in Finnish. March 2009. Author’s photo.

Another sphere where visual representation involves the Finnish language is business. Signs in Finnish are widely used on restaurants, as well as on grocery and drug stores. All these plates are new and it is obvious that they were installed only recently, not being remains of the Soviet time. A photo below demonstrates one of such signs on a local café.

A local café which has two plates: Кафе in Russian (to the right, not visible on the photo) and Ruokala in Finnish. March 2009. Author’s photo.

A closer look at this photo will show that the Finnish text Ruokala is repeated on the entrance door, while Russian is not. What is important, this café is located outside the downtown where most foreign tourists would have been potential clients, its waiters do not speak Finnish, and menus in Finnish are not available (neither they are in English), so, these signs are aimed mostly (if not wholly) at local inhabitants.
A similar situation involves many grocery and drug stores. Though their personnel does not speak Finnish, the owners often place Finnish language shop signs, as demonstrated by photos below.


A recently made plate on a grocery store reading Ruokatavaraa, Finnish for foodstuffs. A similar Russian plate is to the right (outside the photo). March 2009. Author’s photo.

Similar plates on another grocery store. March 2009. Author’s photo.


Many drug stores in Petrozavodsk also identify themselves in two languages: Russian (Аптека) and Finnish (Apteekki), though the practical use of the latter is rather non-existent. March 2009. Author’s photo.

A Finnish language sign was re-installed even on a local movie theatre, though it does not show movies in Finnish (or in English) and in the practical sense, a Finnish lettering is quite useless.

During two large-scale reconstructions in the 1990s and 2000s, the Finnish name plate reading Elokuvateatteri (movie theater) was renovated, rather than removed. March 2009. Author’s photo.

These observations allow us to distinguish two different spheres in which Finnish language lettering and shop signs in the Republic of Karelia are currently used. One of them is commercial. Use of Finnish language signs appeals to the feeling of nostalgia for Soviet times which is quite wide-spread among the older generations. It explains why owners of shops place Finnish signs without an intention to serve Finnish customers (as they do not hire waiters or sellers who speak Finnish – neither in the case of the movie theater – where movies are not screened in the Finnish language). We can predict that the use of Finnish in the sphere will decline, because since the early 1990s, younger generations living in Petrozavodsk are educated in the monolingual culture and do not associate the Finnish language with “good old times”.
However, other examples of the Finnish language in visual representation fall out of the business sphere, as in railway and bus stations and local theater. Here, another tendency seems logical. The Finnish language is used as a marker to distinguish Karelia and Petrozavodsk from other Russian regions and towns, or, in more general terms, as a part of the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which is instrumental in forming regional identity. It explains why the name plates were re-installed and renovated in the train and bus stations – these are the ‘gates’ which link Petrozavodsk and Karelia with other parts of Russia, and at this ‘place of meeting’ visual representation in the Finnish language is most powerful in terms of creating and maintaining unique regional identity – which is a dual process, since people sharing a common identity should be also recognized as such by the outside society. Being an instrument of secondary importance in construction of regional identity in the Republic of Karelia, the use of the Finnish language in this sphere will probably also be abandoned sooner or later, but for now it remains a quite interesting linguistic, cultural, and – to no lesser extent – political phenomenon.

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