A Finnish Legend
A few weeks ago I moved from beautiful Amsterdam to beautiful Finland. A leap of faith, yes, but one that I have every faith in that it will turn out very well. It was love at first sight, both with the man and the country, and that love has blossomed into something profound. I look forward to getting to know Finland and its people better and wonder with a big smile what the future has in store for me.
Finnish Characters in Russian literature
Finland is of course neighbors with Russia, and Russian literature features many Finnish characters. I thought it would be interesting to investigate this subject a bit more and came across The Salamander, a gothic story by the romantic writer Odoevsky. I had never read Odoevsky, and was pleasantly surprised.
Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky (1803-1869) was an impoverished nobleman, like Tolstoy descending from the highest branch of aristocracy in Russia: the Rurik dynasty. He worked for the Russian government until he died, and was extremely interested in literature, music, education, philosophy, science and the occult. His house was a regular meeting place for writers like Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to name but a few. Together with Pushkin he founded the famous magazine The Contemporary. On his Wikipedia page it says that he even predicted blogging and e-readers. So definitely a remarkable character!
He is not exactly widely read nowadays, overshadowed by those aforementioned giants, but I found him captivating and genuinely enjoyed reading his stories.
The Salamander (1841) is a complex tale that combines several legends and influences. It tells the story of Finnish Yakko and his sister Elsa, children of a poor fisherman. Yakko makes a good career in Saint Petersburg under the care of Peter the Great. Elsa, who has clairvoyant powers, initially stays behind in Finland. Her wealthy brother brings her to Russia, but she dislikes the Russians and they, in turn, think her beautiful but very strange and suspect her of witchcraft. The story continues to take us on a journey full of legends, superstition, sorcery, greed, and alchem, and it ends eventually with a haunted house in Moscow.
The story starts with a mythological description of Finland that echoes the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala*. The Kalevala was first published in Finland in 1836 and had not yet been translated into Russian in 1841. Elias Lönnrot had based it on the Karelian legends he had collected. The Russian Yakov Grot, who was a friend of Odoevsky, had however accompanied Lönnrot on several of his research journeys, and had published articles about the Kalevala and Finnish people and customs in The Contemporary. This explains Odoevsky’s detailed knowledge of the subject.
Another major source of inspiration was his friend Pushkin: the primitive Finnish lad being educated by Peter the Great reminds the reader of course of The Moor of Peter the Great (1837) and the image of the poor Finnish fisherman and the flooding of Saint Petersburg seem to come straight from The Bronze Horseman (1833). Yakko’s frenzied greed in the second part of the story is very similar to that of Hermann in Queen of Spades (1834). As I’ve explained before, this was not considered plagiarism, but was seen more as a tribute.
Finns versus Russians
So how are the Finnish portrayed compared to the Russians? The Finnish are portrayed as half wild compared to the educated and advanced Russians. They have a splendid city, and an army, whereas the Finns live in primitive huts and are forced to fight the wars of other nations. Clearly the Russians considered themselves superior. But there is also a (romantic) admiration of their pure soul, simple customs, and closeness to nature. In his introduction Odoevsky describes the Finns as “kind, patient, obedient to the authorities, attached to their obligations, but distrustful and so cunning that, when they see a stranger, they can opportunely pretend not to understand him. Once annoyed, their vengeance knows no bounds”.
Well! Forewarned is forearmed!
*The Kalevala is the Finnish national epic poem, the Finnish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey. Elias Lönnrot compiled it from legends and songs he collected in the Karelia region (nowadays partially in Finland and Russia). This epic has been of immense importance for the shaping of the Finnish identity.
Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer
The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales – Vladimir Odoevsky
Empire and the Gothic / The Politics of Genre – A. Smith & W. Hughes
To whom does the Kalevala belong? – Timo Vihavainen
The north in Russian romantic literature – Otto Boele
Rekonstruoidusta kansaneepoksesta Lönnrotin runoelmaksi – Kalevala Venäjällä – Kalevala maailmalla. Helsinki: SKS. 2012 – Mirja Kemppinen ja Markku Nieminen