Karelia borders on the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland, the Ladoga Sea, the Onega Sea, and the White Sea and the northern part of the Gulf of Botten. Its 1945 population was approximately a half million people. Its chiefly Finnish-speaking eastern portion was a target of Finnish irredentist policies, although it never passed into Finnish hands; the western part did belong to Finland until World War II. In the Treaty of Tartu in 1920, Finland expanded territorially up to the Petsamo region, although it continued to harbor ambitions to incorporate the whole of Karelia.
In 1932 Finland and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact that lasted seven years. But in 1939, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviets invaded Finland. The Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940 that ended hostilities gave the Soviet Union most of Karelia, including the port of Viipuri (Vyborg).
Finland lost a strategic territory, rich in resources and accounting for 12 percent of Finnish area. Also, more than 400,000 inhabitants (or about 12 percent of the total Finnish population) living in the lost territories had to be evacuated and resettled in Finland proper. The emergency resettlement act of June 1940 allocated 1,274 square miles of land to former Karelian farmers.
From August 1940, the Finnish government negotiated with Berlin regarding military cooperation between Finland and Germany against the Soviet Union. The Finns' goal was to regain the territory lost in the Russo-Finnish War as well as to annex eastern Karelia. Finland received German military assistance in return for facilitating German troop transfers to Norway through its territory and authorizing the stationing of German troops in Finland.
Finland remained neutral until late June 1941, when the German government announced that Finland had aided Germany in its invasion of the Soviet Union. Berlin's action led the Soviets to bomb Turku, Helsinki, and Poryoo. Finland then joined Germany in war against the Soviet Union.
In the second half of 1941, Finland regained its pre–World War II frontiers, including Karelia. The Finns took some additional territory for defensive purposes, but they refused to assist the Germans in taking Leningrad. When the tide of war turned in June 1944, Soviet forces went on the offensive against the Finns, in both the Karelian Isthmus and Lake Ladoga regions. In September 1944 when the so-called Continuation War ended, the Soviets had retaken Viipuri and the territories lost earlier.
Following the resignation of President Risto Ryti in August 1944, the new president, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, accepted the responsibility of ending the war, risking retaliation by German forces remaining on Finnish soil. As a consequence of the peace settlement with Moscow, thousands of Finns who had returned to Karelia were again forced to relocate to Finland. The Allies concluded formal peace with Finland in the Paris Treaty of 1947. Finland was forced to cede the Karelian Isthmus and also Petsamo and grant an extended lease of the Porkkala peninsula west of Helsinki.
During the Cold War, Karelia became the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic. By 1954 Russian had replaced Finnish in the schools, assisted by the settlement of Russians and Belarusians in the area and by intermarriage with the Finns. By 1955 collective farms had been introduced, and many place names had been Russianized.
In 1956, however, the Soviets evacuated Porkkala, and the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic was demoted from the status of a union republic to that of an autonomous republic within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). This move implied that the Soviets no longer harbored the notion of annexing the whole of Finland.
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 abrogated the Soviet-Finnish treaties of 1947 and 1948. Karelia then became the Republic of Karelia within the Russian Federation. Finnish attempts to secure the region met rebuff. Reportedly, in November 1998 a Finnish businessman offered Russian President Boris Yeltsin $500 million to return Karelia to Finland but received no response.
Friberg, Eino. The Kalevala. Keuruu: Otava, 1988.; Laine, Antti. "Where East Meets West: The Last Stand of Finns and Karelians in Contemporary Karelia?" Nationalities Papers 20(1) (2001): 53–65.; Singleton, Fred. A Short History of Finland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.