Years of war in the river valley

Border disputes have brought centuries of war and destruction to the Oulujoki River valley. Although many generations have passed since the dark times, stories of locals who escaped persecution and hid in remote forest dwellings live on.

Until 1595, the entire Oulujoki River valley was officially under the control of the Republic of Novgorod, and later under the jurisdiction of Moscow. In 1323, the Treaty of Nöteborg settled the border between Novgorod and Sweden, but in the northern part of Finland things were much less clear.

Novgorod considered the whole of the Oulujoki River valley to be part of its territory and reacted when Sweden tried to strengthen its rule there. Sweden’s eastern policy and the need for border demarcation became more pronounced when Gustav Vasa came to power in the 16th century. For the Karelians of the White Sea, the River Oulujoki was an important link and trade route to the west, which had to be defended vigorously.

No official border was agreed in the peace treaty signed after the devastating war with Russia in 1495-1497. However, Sweden considered the border to run across Lake Oulujärvi, down the River Oulujoki to Ruskonkivi or Pällinkorva in Muhos, and from there to Kuusamo.

Devastated by wars and raiders

According to old records, the Ruskonkivi rock was located 12 kilometres from the church of Muhos towards Utajärvi in an area called Teerikangas. In the 16th century, the rock marked the unofficial border between Sweden and Russia. It is also believed to have been a place of execution, and many stories of war raids and executions in the 16th century mention it. As a young boy, Akusti Virkkunen remembers hearing “adults talking about a punishment device in the forest that was used to execute criminals”. It is said that the stone was carved with the Swedish crown, the Russian cross, a Lapp hammer and the year 1681, or alternatively the letters P V, marking a “place of blood”.

War and destruction swept over the region again when a 25-year period of war began in 1570. Long Wrath, also known as Old Wrath (1570-1595), had a profound effect on the lives of the people of the region. The Russians, led by Karelians familiar with the area, carried out expeditions of destruction, burning many villages and houses and killing the villagers. Some fled to secret forest dwellings – or wherever they could. Some waged guerrilla warfare against the raiders.

Armed resistance creates legends

There are many stories of local people who lived through the raids, and their experiences have been recorded by writers such as Samuli Paulaharju and A. H. Snellman. Muhos is particularly known for a man called Musta-Nykyri (Black Nykyri), who lived in the 1500s. He is remembered as a strong peasant leader who resisted the Russian troops “so powerfully that streams of blood ran on ice and the church was left unburned by the enemies”. Black Nykyri is said to have been a tall, swarthy man who was wiser than many of his fellows. Also said to be a sorcerer, Nykyri used his witchcraft against the enemy:

“In another story, Nykyri took the ‘cauldron log’ from beside his table and struck his enemies with it, and they fell like cut grass. Then he went out of his house, chased the Russians out of his yard and stood on the steps of his storehouse. There he took two bundles of feathers, dusted them in the air and said: “These all for me!” The feathers turned into men and Nykyri himself became invisible. In another version, the enemies were blinded by the feathers, thought the churchmen were on the move, and fled in terror.” (Snellman 1887)

Stories still told in Ahmas tell of the descendant of the village’s first settler, Lasse Räisänen, born in 1555 and known as Big Räisänen or Big Lassi. As the nickname suggests, he was a strong man, regarded by his contemporaries as a fearless hero and said to have defeated many enemies in the wars with Russia. It is said that a group of raiders burned down Big Räisänen’s house when they came to Ahmas. Big Räisänen, however, stood up to the enemy, prompting them to seek him out to capture and imprison him. It is also said that even after the peace treaty was signed, Räisänen was not left alone, but a group of raiders returned to the village to take revenge.

On an island in Lake Tulijärvi in Rokua lived Mikko the Birdman, who hunted all his food himself. It is said that wild animals once surprised him and mauled him. He treated his wounds with herbs he found in the forest and ate all the food in a house in the village while the inhabitants were away, much to the anger of the villagers. For three days the men of the village tried to hunt the food thief in the forests around Rokua, but they could not find Mikko the Birdman, who was hiding in a small shelter.

Famine and wars ravage the people of North Ostrobothnia

The Long Wrath subsided, but life was not easy: the 17th century was marked by cold years of crop failure, harsh taxes, conscription of young men into military service, disease and famine. The people were resilient, but the years of famine were hard on everyone.

But the new century brought new horrors: February 1700 saw the beginning of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), when Russia under Tsar Peter the Great occupied Finland, which until then had been part of Sweden. The Russian occupation (1713-1721), also known as the Great Wrath, was a period of severe oppression and hardship.

The Russians particularly devastated the regions of Ostrobothnia and Kainuu. In the autumn of 1714, the Tsar issued an order to destroy the entire region of Ostrobothnia, which resulted in the complete destruction of the villages around Oulu, and continued in 1716 when an order to destroy Northern Ostrobothnia was also issued. According to government records, thousands of people were murdered in Northern Ostrobothnia during the occupation. People were also tortured and forcibly taken to Russia, while children were taken to be sold on slave markets.

Numerous people were also internally displaced. Farmers sought shelter in forests and remote places. Many areas lost up to half their population during the occupation and some villages were completely destroyed. The war ended with a peace treaty signed in Uusikaupunki, but the destruction had serious consequences far into the future.

After the war, the period of occupation in the late 18th century began to be called The Great Wrath, especially in Northern Ostrobothnia. Historians have collected stories and biographies of contemporaries, and accounts of the destruction can also be found in court records. Especially in Northern Ostrobothnia, the ubiquity of the destruction made the period a history that was experienced and shared by everyone, regardless of their position in society.

Sakari Topelius (1875) later described the period of the Great Wrath as follows: “At that time half of Finland was a wilderness; villages burnt to ashes, fields unsown, cattle and horses robbed, fishing tools destroyed, wolves more numerous and braver than the poor refugees who sought shelter in the forests or wherever they could find it. Salt was so scarce that it was sold by the spoonful, and when it ran out, pits were dug for seawater, or seawater was boiled until the water evaporated and the little salt that remained could be recovered. All sorts of misfortunes struck our land without respite: war, fire, frost, famine, disease, beasts, flight, despair, spiritual darkness and brutality of manners.” The time of the Great Wrath left such a terrible memory in posterity that later, when people tried to describe its horrors, they said: “It was so dark that you couldn’t see the sun at noon”. Others said: “It was so cold that the fire in the fireplace froze”.


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