Santtu Karhu, 36, sits in the Kivats Bar in his hometown Petroskoi. He is announcing his opinions like a propagandist. The next moment, he is already cackling at himself. The stubborn musician has made folk-flavoured rock music in Karelian language with his band Talvisovat for almost fifteen years. He refuses to bow in front of mainstream music or lower himself to ethnic nonsense.
Karhu is a controversial character. At times, he provokes by letting out racist comments like some backward redneck. On the other hand, he is shy and takes care not to reveal too much of himself. At least one thing is clear: he does not go easy even on himself.
Kivats, a trendy bar in Petroskoi, represents westernization and change. The shabby rocker, wearing a woolly hat and aiming to get drunk in the afternoon, stands out among the stylish clientele. They know Karhu. Some people respect him as a musician, others act evasive, even hostile. The faces do not tell whether the negative attitude spurs from the sharp Karelian language or the difference between Russian and Karelian cultures.
The majority does not esteem the stubborn cherishing of Karelian language and culture. Karhu has had to fight for his own culture his whole life, and the man is not popular among cultural bureaucrats. As one of his moves, he translated his Russian name Aleksandr Medvedev into the Karelian stage name Santtu Karhu.
"I am Karelian; I seek revenge by making music on my own language."
Karhu talks about revenge, of how he shows that he has not deferred into a victim of minority and language politics or lost his Karelian identity by talking and making music in Karelian of Livvi. He is proud to make music in a language that has been haunted, forgotten and despised, and which still carries the mark of a lower class language.
The Politics of Assholes--people diminished, language faded
Karhu's words are harsh: Russians are Ruskies and shitheads.
"Karelian is still the language of the lower class, but Karelians have never been slaves. That's why Russians hate us", Karhu snorts.
"Slavs themselves were slaves; Slavs like slaves. Perkele, none of my relatives have been slaves!"
There was an understanding in the Soviet Union that all soviets come from the same origins and there cannot be anything else. Still in the 1920s, Finnish was an official language in Karelia. It was declared the common literary language and was compulsory language at school for Karelians and the Veps people. The haunts and purifications narrowed the standing of Finnish, and the population diminished. Russian became overpowering, and Finns, Karelians and Ingrians started to lose their language. Socialism effectively weeded out the Karelian identity.
Karhu is bitter, because his extended family was torn apart thanks to the Soviet minority policies. His grandparents were deported to Belomorsk, but they retained their Karelianism.
"My grandma was mocked as Olga the Karelian. Grandma was stubborn, and she wanted to have one descendant who spoke Karelian. My mother speaks only Russian, but I learned Karelian with my grandmother's help."
Karhu was not taught a word of Karelian at school; all teaching was in Russian. Karhu's own children have learned Karelian from their parents. His wife Tanja teaches at a Karelian university, and their 3-year-old son prattles in Karelian and refuses to speak in any other language. Their daughter came under the experience in kindergarten that Karelian is not welcome, and she refused to talk the language anymore even at home. Nowadays, she is fluent in Finnish, Russian, and Karelian.
Santtu Karhu and his band mate Arto Rinne say that in the latest census, surprisingly more people marked themselves down as Karelians than in the previous one. There are 130,000 Karelians out of the population of 800,000 in Karelia, and people dare to be Karelians again. Nowadays, there are many schools that teach in Karelian in the area, but the language has yet to gain the official status of a minority language. In addition, a law proposal stating official minority languages should be written in Cyrillic alphabets has been passed in Russia. This does not improve the position of minority languages, and neither does it tempt to make Karelian official. Some people also think that the new popularity of the Finnish language, furthers the appreciation of Karelian language and culture as well, others think Karelian should get its own status.
Goethe made him a musician - Karhu returned on stage and on record
Santtu Karhu is an extremely talented musician. In addition, many people think that he is the only notable Karelian poet and lyricist. In the 80s, he played in a folk band, where he met the right people, Arto Rinne and Fjodor 'Fedja' Astashov. The band Talvisovat was born.
Karhu describes the band's music as mixed fruit juice, but also the band's line-up is a mix of many fruits. Only Karhu is Russian Karelian. Rinne's grandparents are Finns, who went over to Russia in the 1920s. Astashov's mother is Veps, but the man himself only speaks Russian. Drummer Igor Saharov is Russian.
Karhu's musical career went down years ago.
"I quit playing for four years. I was wondering if anyone needs this language and this music, I became bitter and depressed," Karhu recalls. During his break, he was a car salesman, exported cars from Russia to Finland, and worked as a truck driver.
"Then I started thinking of what I know best. I was stupid to quit, because I only know how to play, and that's what I want to do. I'm no good as a business man!"
The impulse came from a late German:
"I started reading Goethe, and it really hit me. Goethe thought that one should not imitate but do one's own thing. Then we started playing again. Goethe was a little crazy, he was my friend, just a tad smarter than I am," Karhu cackles with laughter.
The music career of Talvisovat band is highly respected in Karelia. Still, Talvisovat is not going to perform at Folk Marathon in Petroskoi this year. This is due to an argument with the organizers, the band Myllärit. Arto Rinne used to sing and play in Myllärit for years, but their paths separated last year. Rinne and Karhu do not like talking about the matter publicly, but language policies are part of the reason. Rinne would have like for the band to continue in Finnish, whereas the other Myllärit are moving on to Russian and further away from the band's musical origins. Karhu settles the situation by saying that in Petroskoi, he is persona non grata, and that Talvisovat does not belong to the local folk scene.
The first official album Hyvästit Karjala, Goodbye Karelia, came out in Nordic countries in March. The publisher is Hot Igloo based in Ruukki. Karhu's mobile phone beeps with a message from Finland from the owners of Hot Igloo, Anna and Jyrki Raatikainen:
"The record Hyvästit Karjala is on the power play list of an American radio station. Using Karelian pays off!" Later on, Karhu receives more messages: the album has received excellent reviews in Finnish magazines. Karhu deliberates about how he does not care what kind of reviews the album gets; the main thing is that it has been published.
There are no CD players in Karelian villages, and that is why Hot Igloo is currently trying to negotiate themselves a license to publish a c-cassette version of the album for Karelian and Russian markets. There is demand, even though most people living in Karelian villages are older men and women. The Karelian people value their son.
The Russian MTV reflects the top of the sales, performers and songs are exact replicas of the western idols. Boy band called Korni wiggle their behinds in pop videos. Exactly. Not caring about the big music market, Talvisovat published the world's first Karelian rock album. It gives reason to jeer the Russian main culture:
"I had my revenge, I made an album. Do the same if you can."
What do you think of that, shitheads?