Karelia (Finnish: Karjala; Russian: Карелия, Karyeliya), officially known as the Republic of Karelia, is a republic of the Soviet Union located in Northeastern Europe. The republic includes territory in Fennoscandia and includes coastlines on the Gulf of Finland, Lake Ladoga, Lake Onega, and the White Sea. Karelia is a unique area which has been influenced by both Finns and Russians for centuries, which continues to shape the region to this day.
The modern day republic gained it start following the Winter War in 1940, when the Soviet Union annexed territory from neighboring Finland. These territories were merged with East Karelia to form the short-lived Karelo-Finnish SSR. The hopes of spreading communism into the rest of Finland were unsuccessful, with the KFSSR being downgraded in 1956 as Fenno-Soviet relations were improving and much of the non-Russian population moved out of the region. As part of Glasnost and the Parade of Sovereignties, support grew for the re-establishment of Karelian sovereignty, which became a reality in 1995.
The history of the modern day Republic of Karelia dates back to the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. As part of the secretive Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin intended to annex all of Finland (which had been a part of the Russian Empire prior to the 1920s). The Finnish territories which were under Soviet occupation were organized into a pro-Soviet puppet state as preparation for the eventual conquest Finland. Soviet attempts to conquer all of Finland proved fruitless within months as Finish troops were able to defend most of their territory, with the Winter War coming to a formal end in March 1940. As part of the peace agreements, Finland was to cede much of its territory to the USSR.
Shortly after the peace process, the Soviet Union merged the new territories with the rest of Soviet Karelia and established a new republic of the USSR: the Karelo-Finnish SSR. Conflict with Finland continue as World War II soon made its way to the USSR. The beginning of the Cold War marked the end for the KFSSR as its continued existence as a union republic came under question. While intended to be a republic for Finns and Karelians, much of the Karelo-Finnish population fled the area following Soviet annexation, while ethnic Russians were being moved into the region. By the 1950s, Russians made up the vast majority of the republic's population, with some areas of the KFSSR (including the Karelian Isthmus) being transferred to Russia. The second nail in the coffin was improved relations between Finland and the USSR following rise of Nikita Khrushchev. Due to these issues, the KFSSR was reorganized into the Karelian ASSR in 1956 and was absorbed back into Russia.
It wouldn't be until the 1990s that the so-called "Karelia Question" re-emerges in both Finnish and Soviet policy. Under Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost policy, ethnic Finns and Karelians began to re-express their culture and history, which were mostly ignored prior. Within a few years, the Parade of Sovereignties makes its way to Karelia, with new pushes to re-establish the old Karelo-Finnish SSR. This movement also spread to neighboring Finland, which began to question the return of its ceded territories from the Winter War, though most Finns (including the government) were indifferent to regaining these territories. The president of Russia at the time, Boris Yeltsin, would eventually come out in favor of a Republic of Karelia and even offered to allow referendums to be held in the regions which once belonged to the KFSSR as a means to end the Karelia Question once and for all.
As part of the union-wide elections held in 1994, Karelia and portions of Russia voted on whether to secede and become a new republic of the Soviet Union. The vast majority of the Karelian ASSR voted to become a republic, with the former territories in the Leningrad Oblast and the Murmansk Oblast being split but favoring their inclusion in Karelia. The Republic of Karelia would officially become admitted as a union republic the following year, becoming the first new republic to have a Russian majority. The new government of Karelia favored co-operation with Finland and began to brand itself as "new frontier" for Finnish and European business. Much of the exiled communities began to return to the region, as well as a new generation of non-Karelian Finns looking to take part in the economic growth of the republic and the USSR. The late 1990s would see the expansion of all things Finnish and Karelian within the republic. The capital was relocated from Petrozavodsk to Olonets — a more central city which had a Karelian majority population. Finnish was made an official language of the republic, with Karelian being regarded as a regional dialect.
As of the the 2009 census, ethnic Russians make up the majority of Karelia's population, while ethnic Finns (including Ingrians, Karelians, and Votes) make up over a third of the population. Belarusians, Udmurts, Ukrainians, and Veps are the largest minorities within the republic. The majority of Karelians declared Russian as either their first or second language. In recent decades, Finnish has grown in understanding, though remains the largest minority language. The majority of Karelians declared to be Irreligious or Atheist, with those adhering to the Eastern Orthodox Church (the largest church) making up about a quarter of the population, and Protestants making up a minority of the population.
The economy of Karelia is dominated by the wood processing industry, with much of the Soviet Union's paper companies being headquartered in the republic. The mining sector accounts for about a third of the republic's economy. In recent years, tourism has become a growing industry within Karelia, particularly among Finnish and Western tourists. Several border towns with Finland has become popular vacation areas. Keeping with the tradition of Karelia being the "Songlands" of Finnish culture, many music festivals are held within the republic (the largest of which are held anally in Kostomuksha).