“‘Gloomy Finland’ and the Russian Imperial Gothic”: Valeria Sobol at the Noontime Scholars Lecture

On a hot and sunny Tuesday, September 26, the current head of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Professor Valeria Sobol gave a lecture entitled “‘Gloomy Finland’ and the Russian Imperial Gothic.” The talk was a part of REEEC Fall 2017 Noontime Lecture Series, but as Professor Sobol pointed out in her opening remarks, the talk could also fit into the “1917: Ten Days that Shook the World / 2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus” initiative since it was 1917 when Finland finally gained its independence. However, the lecture took us back to the time when Finland became a part of Russia – the timeframe that is of particular interest to Sobol as she is working on her new project, Haunted Empire: The Russian Literary Gothic and the Imperial Uncanny, 1790-1850.

In her new book, Sobol explores the North-South axis (that comprises Finland, the Baltics, and Ukraine) and its place in the rhetoric of Russian Imperial discourse. However, for the lecture she concentrated on Finland and its image in Russian literary and ethnographic works of the 1840s.

Professor Valeria Sobol

Finland has always held a somewhat peculiar position in Russian imagination. In the early Russian annals, Finnic peoples were referred to as Chud that was commonly interpreted as ‘foreign’, from Russian ‘chuzhoi’. During the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721) St. Petersburg was founded and bordering Finland became a part of the narrative which is now known as the Petersburg Text. At last, as a result of the Finnish War (1808 – 09), the eastern part of Sweden became a part of Russian Empire as the Grand Dutchy of Finland. Russian authors of the time interpreted this event in Finnish history as a moment of enlightenment when unsophisticated and uneducated Finns were taught and polished by progressive and ‘European’ Russia, omitting the fierce Finnish resistance.

As a literary example of promoting the idea of assimilation, parental influence, and kinship between Finns and Russians, Sobol cites Nestor Kukolnik’s Egor Ivanovich Silvanovky, or the Conquest of Finland under Peter the Great. The story was published in the very first issue of Finskii Vestnik (Finnish Herald) in 1845. As a whole, the 1840s were marked as a period of intensive ethnographic studies after the most significant work of Finnish literature, an epic poem based on local folklore and mythology, Kalevala, was compiled and published by Elias Lönnrot in 1835. It was popularized in Russia by Yakov Grot, the first professor of Russian at the Helsinki University. Grot, as well as Kukolnik and other scholars and writers, created an idealistic image of Finland as a gloomy prehistoric place inhabited with poor, simple-hearted people. In Kukolnik’s story, Eric, a Finnish sailor, accused of black magic by both his Swedish professor and noble family of his bride, “is rescued” by the victorious Russian army so that he is able to become a part of the army and to marry his fiancée. Russia is glorified as a modern country that is not afraid of mysticism but rather honors reason, enlightenment and carries a message of brotherhood between the Finnish Eric of the past and the Russian Egor of the present and future.

However, V. Odoevsky’s The Salamander, the other story that Sobol discussed in the lecture (and to a greater extent in her new book in progress), seems to be more complex and less one-sided. The first part of the book tells a common, optimistic story of Russian influence where Russia is depicted as a Fatherland to an orphan Finn, Jakko. Thanks to Peter the Great’s progressive attitude to education, Jakko becomes an educated European. Later on, however, he is divided between his two identities as he has to choose between Elsa and Marja. His friend from childhood, lively and nature-driven Elsa, reconnects him with his Finnish roots, native land and its nature. Nevertheless, as a true product of civilization and city-life, Jakko prefers Marja, a cold and superficial daughter of his Russian benefactor with an ambiguous name Zverev (with zver meaning beast in Russian) and embraces his Russian identity under a new name of Ivan Ivanovich Iakov. While he venerates Russia’s power and grandeur of the Empire building, Elsa sees it only as a terrifying scary place. The demonic nature of St. Petersburg as a part of its myth is revisited through the perspective of a naïve and natural Finnish girl. The Gothic uncanny perception of Finland is reversed so that Petrine Russia is exposed to critique of its Imperial expansion. 

“The Imatra Waterfall in Finland” by Fedor Matveev (1819)

The second part of the book contains a number of fantastic elements and uses an image of a mystical house with a haunted room to depict modern conditions through a story of the past. Apparently, Jakko becomes dissatisfied with his life after the death of Peter I, longs for his Finnish ancestry, and finds himself as an alchemist. In one of his experiments he encounters Elsa both as a salamander and as a woman in traditional Finnish dress. She brings ruin to Jakko, eventually destroying everything with fire. Jakko’s story is told in late 1830s Moscow by a spiritual aunt to his rationalist nephew who fails to explain scientifically the screams that can be heard in a room of the old Boyar house. As it turns out, the house bought by a merchant who wants to turn it into a factory stands where once Jakko has lived and the room is in the place of Jakko’s laboratory. The mix of different times in one story allows for the discussion of good traditional pre-Petrine Russia as opposed to the evil industrial post-Petrine times.

Sobol concluded her lecture with the idea that even though Finland was not mentioned in the earlier drafts of The Salamander, Odoevsky used its image to comment on the opposition between organic unity and the urge for rationalism and mechanism in Russia’s modernity with Finland being Russia’s Imperial subconsciousness. 

Olga Makarova is a Graduate student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her interests include Russian literature and intellectual history, Bulgarian culture, translation studies and library science.   

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