Karelians’ ancestors lived to the southwest of today’s Republic of Karelia, in the Karelian Isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga in Leningrad Oblast and to the north of it. This was the Kirjalaland of Scandinavian sagas and Korela of Russian chronicles.
Due to its strategic location the traditional Karelian territory has been the border between the West and the East. As a result, there is not one but three Karelias: Finnish Karelia, Russian Karelia and Tver Karelia.
Karelians live in the Republic of Karelia (of the Russian Federation), with Petroskoi (Petrozavodsk) as its capital. Karelians who either fled Swedish conquerors or were deported by them, resettled in the 17th century to Tver lands, thus forming an ethnic group of Tver Karelians. Until World War II, Karelians also lived in the former Finnish territories of Russia. Their descendants now live mostly in Finland and Sweden.
The population of Karelians is declining at an alarming rate: according to the 2010 census, there were 60 815 Karelians, a 34.9% drop from 2002 (population of 93 444). In 1989 there were 124 921 Karelians, hence the Karelian population is rapidly declining, including due to Russification and negative birth rates. The decline in the Tver Karelian population has been especially fast: while 23 169 Karelians lived in Tver Oblast in 1989, in 2002 this figure was 14 633 and in 2010 just 7 394, amounting to a 68% decline within 21 years.
The number of Karelian speakers has decreased by a half: in 2010 there were 25 605 speakers, a 53% decline from 2002 (52 880 speakers).
The Karelian language belongs to the Baltic-Finnic language group. Currently there are two written languages: Livvi Karelian and North Karelian. A transitional form from Livvi Karelian to Vepsian language is the South Karelian language. Dialects of the first group are spoken in the northern part of the Republic of Karelia in the White Sea region, as well as in the central part and in Tver and Novgorod Oblasts. Dialects of the second and third group are spoken in the southern part of the Republic of Karelia, in the area between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega.
North Karelian language is distinct from Finnish due to many Russian loan words. Livvi Karelian differs more from Finnish, but is more similar to Izhorian. The oldest known written text in a Baltic-Finnic language, dating from the 13th century, was written in Karelian language on a birch bark.
Eastern Karelia become known as the land of music and poetry when its folk poetry became the basis for the Finnish national epic “Kalevala”, published in 1835.
Karelia has international significance due to the railway that northward from Belomorsk is the only land transport connection between Murmansk and the rest of Russia.