”I was brought here in shackles. I’ve never been confined in a place like this before, seeing how as a rule I’ve done my best to steer clear of the law.”
Yrjö Aaltonen is your average coastal homesteader doing his best to scrape by: a family man whose primary source of income is fishing, with little farming on the side for household needs. One thing a professional fisherman won’t get far without is a seaworthy boat: a vessel that can, if need be, safely cross a bigger body of water – like the Bothnian Sea between Finland and Sweden.
Yrjö manages to carry quite a few boat-loads of illegal passengers across the sea to Sweden, most of them Ingrians terrified of being returned to Stalin’s Soviet Union.
At the time of the novel’s setting, the mid-1940s, Finland viewed the question of the Ingrians, a sister nation living under Soviet rule, quite differently than it does today…
For those unfamiliar with this episode in Finnish history, some context is useful:
Ingrians are the descendants of ethnic Finns, Savonians, and Karelians who, in the 17th century, were forcibly moved by the Swedish crown to Ingria, in the vicinity of what later became St Petersburg. In Soviet times, Stalin determined to erase local ethnic identities, and most Ingrians were displaced and resettled elsewhere across the vast state. In addition, approximately 13,000 Ingrians were executed during the period 1929-37.
When Germany occupied Ingria during WWII, approximately 62,000 Ingrians were brought to Finland, where the welcome influx of 35,000 able-bodied workers did much to ease the nation’s wartime labor shortage. And then, according to the terms of the interim peace signed with the Soviet Union on September 19,1944, Finland agreed to return these same Ingrians to the Soviets. The majority of who did go back eventually ended up in Siberia.
Needless to say, not all Ingrians were eager to return. Some were transported by ship to Sweden by Finns – often in exchange for significant compensation. One who participated in this illicit operation was a southwestern Finnish fisherman whose daughter turned over her father’s diaries to the author Tapio Koivukari.
Mining these diaries, archival material, the accounts of contemporaries, and his imaginings, Koivukari has created Yrjö Aaltonen – a family man who, after several successful voyages smuggling humans across the Bothnian Sea, ends up in the clutches of the Finnish State Police.
Over the Sea, Behind Bars is the story of Aaltonen, his helpers, the authorities, and the Ingrians – a people without a homeland. Based on real-life events, the novel takes place between autumn 1944 and autumn 1946.
Nearly half a century later, Finnish President Mauno Koivisto (b. 1923), who hailed from the same regions as the fictional Aaltonen, decided to offer the Ingrians redress. In spring 1990, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he announced that Finland would grant Ingrians right of repatriation. Since then, approximately 30,000 Ingrian Finns and their descendants have permanently settled in Finland.
“By and large, Tapio Koivukari’s protagonists are individuals cleaned from statistical set to statistical set, to make life seem, on average, statistically good.” – Turun Sanomat newspaper in 1998