Karelia Needs to Restore 1918 Otava Flag: Stepa

The flag a nation chooses for itself is important as an indication of how it sees itself and its place in the world. Twenty-five years ago, Russians marched under three different flags: the white-blue-red tricolor of the democrats, the red flag of the Soviet Union carried by communists, and the black-gold-white one of the monarchists and nationalists.

Pro-Russian neo-Nazis wave the gold, black and white nationalist Russian flag and have embraced Nazi SS symbolism. The orange and black Ribbon of St. George has also been adopted as a symbol by Russian neo-fascist groups. Photo: Euromaidan press

The adoption of the first seemed to indicate that Russia had made a European choice, especially given the rejection of the second which pointed to the isolation of the past. But increasingly Russians are displaying the black-gold-white one which suggests the return of a very different past (ej.ru/?a=note&id=27993).

The Russians are not the only people who have struggled with which flag to fly: Belarusians remain divided between the red and white flag chosen by the pre-Lukashenka democrats who hoped to integrate with Europe and the Belarusian SSR flag the Mensk dictator restored to signal that he did not want his country to move in that direction.

But the choice of flags may be even more important for those nations which have not yet secured genuine autonomy or even independence because the flag they select is a symbol they can control and that says much about how they see themselves, what they hope for and whom they hope to mobilize in order to achieve those ends.

On St. John’s day in 1918, Karelian revolutionaries raised “a very unusual flag” over the village of Ukhta in their region, Russian regionalist Vadim Shtepa writes in “Vesti Karelii.” He argues that that flag, which shows the stars of Ursa Major (“Otava”) in silver on a blue field, should be restored (vesti.karelia.ru/social/pervyj_flag_karelii_ne_pora_li_ego_vernut/).

At that time, Shtepa notes, the residents of the White Sea region of Karelia thought a lot about symbols because they hoped to acquire self-determination. The Bolsheviks had promised that to all peoples of the former empire, but the new rulers of Russia applied it “selectively” and didn’t extend it to the Karels.

“Had the Bolsheviks built a real federation, the citizens of the Ukhta Republic certainly would have had nothing against that. In any case,” he writes, “they hardly wanted to unite with Finland but rather wanted to preserve their own self-administration and cultural identity.” They only wanted open borders like in the EU today.

The Otava flag of White Sea Karelia, adopted on the 21st of June 1918 in Ukhta

Unfortunately, Shtepa continues, few people know this history: there is not even a single exhibit devoted to the Ukha Republic in the National Museum of the Karelian Republic. Moreover, people are taught to consider the birthday of the republic to be only on June 8, 1920, when Moscow recognized the Karelian Workers’ Commune.

That is especially sad because that event represented “the restoration of the empire, when decisions about one’s republic were no longer taken by local residents but by ‘the bosses in the capital.’”

Why should the Otava flag be restored now? There are several compelling reasons, Shtepa argues. The current Karelian flag adopted in 1993 is simply the flag of the former Karelo-Finnish SSR without the hammer and sickle, “a continuation of the heraldic standardization” Moscow wanted which was “murderous for any regional distinctiveness.”

That pattern continues, Shtepa says. “If in Soviet times the hammer and sickle on a red background had to be present on the flag of each republic, then the post-Soviet republics of the Russian Federation in their majority adopted as the basis of their flags the Russian tricolor.” That has led to mistakes because people often don’t know which color should be on top.

Undated photo of the Otava flag being flown at a concert in the region form Vesti Karelia

In the early 1990s, some suggested restoring the second and better-known flag of the Ukhta Republic, the one with a cross of “the Scandinavian type.” But the Supreme Soviet of Karelia rejected that, “and in this case, their arguments were convincing.” It was too much a copy of the ones in use in Scandinavia.

Despite that, Karelian national cultural activists have used the flag with the cross since then. It has even “acquired the status of the Karelian national banner.” That deserves respect, but is it wise, Shtepa asks, to have such a flag for the entire republic, given that the Karels form less than ten percent of the population and that the Wepsy have their own flag with a cross?

“The Otava flag in this regard looks more appropriate: it is associated with Karelia but is at the same time free from narrow ethnic connotations.” Its seven stars allow for “a broad range of creative interpretations.” They could stand for seven local dialects, seven historical monuments, seven local brands, or for something else entirely.

Some have objected that the Otava flag too closely resembles that of Alaska or the EU, but it is older than either and its stars are silver, not yellow. Consequently, any copyright challenge to the Karelian flag would fail, Shtepa says.

Adopting the Otava flag, he continues, “would create a new, recognized and attractive image of Karelia, something especially important in today’s era, when each region seeks to show the world its originality and distinctiveness.” It could be put on Karelian goods for tourists and thus “in a laconic way” emphasize “the uniqueness of our northern republic.”

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