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Kirsti Salmi-Niklander

Born May 20, 1957, Joensuu

Master of Arts 1988, licentiate 1991, PhD 2004 (Folkloristics), University of Helsinki

University lecturer in folkloristics 2015–, University of Helsinki
Academy of Finland research fellow 2011–16

Docent in folkloristics, University of Helsinki 2008–
Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher 2005–09
Research associate in folkloristics, University of Helsinki 1989–2003
Assistant archivist, National Archives of Finland 1987
Temporary researcher, Finnish Organisation for Labour Heritage 1985–87
Research themes: interaction between verbal and literary expression, hand-written newspapers, oral history, working-class culture, migrant culture

Publications, research projects and other academic activity

Awards and special achievements:
Award for the best monograph in Labour History 2006

Photo: Mika Federley
Written by Kirsti Salmi-Niklander (Tiia Niemelä, ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington

The Graveyards of my Life

I am fascinated by graveyards, which provide valuable research material for my studies. Some graves have even become an obsession. One of the guidelines of my research is to follow compulsions and strange byways! Even the wrong track will get you somewhere, though it may not be your intended destination.

A machinist from Karkkila named Lennart Berghäll (1896-1929) founded the handwritten Högfors working-class youth magazine Valistaja (‘Enlightener’) and was later active in the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party of Finland. He fled to Canada to avoid conviction for treason in 1923 and died in Windsor in 1929. I wanted to go and look for his grave, and finally the opportunity presented itself. The professor of history at the University of Windsor, Leslie Howsam, became interested in the story of Lennart Berghäll and with the help of her students tracked down his burial site. Nothing there remained, however. Not even a small stone slab.

Standing on the burial site of Lennart Berghäll at the Windsor Grove Cemetery, where many immigrants were buried. Photo by Neil Campbell.

Many of the people I have studied have no graves that can be visited. They include, for example, the working class poets Kössi Ahmala and Kasperi Tanttu, who were killed at the end of the Finnish Civil War. A kind of symbolic grave is Kössi Ahmala’s wallet, pierced by a bayonet, which is now kept in his family archive in the People’s Archives. For Kasperi Tanttu, his symbolic grave is his confiscated papers, which are part of the Civil War archive of the National Archives.

The family graves important to me are in Mäntsälä, Joensuu, Kuopio and Tampere. Even as a child I heard the story of the rough childhood my great-grandfather David Salmi (previously Ax): he walked alone to Tampere following the death of his entire family during the Famine of 1866–1868. A year ago my relatives and I visited the Putaja sawmill in Suodenniemi, where the family of my great-grandfather perished. Their deaths were recorded in the church register. The autumnal landscape, with its flowing river, made for a concrete stage on which family stories could play out. Only a few generations ago the members of my family were silent victims. Social mobility through education was the great dream which gave them the strength to keep on struggling. My great-grandfather became a foreman at a Finlayson factory, my grandfather a judge. So far I have the only PhD in the family.

The family of my great-grandfather died in Putaja, Suodenniemi, during the Famine of 1866–1868. Photo by Kirsti Salmi-Niklander.

I often walk around the old cemetery in Karkkila. It is the final resting place of many people whom I have interviewed or whose writings I have studied. Employees at the iron works in Högfors were allowed to make cast-iron crosses that were to be their own grave markers, which meant a great deal to these 19th century workers.

When I look at the old wrought-iron crosses in Karkkila cemetery, I am reminded of a piece by the working-class youths of Högfors titled “Artist,” which was published in the Valistaja on February 25, 1921:

The desire to sculpt an image awoke in his soul one night, an image that was meant to represent ‘the Thrill of the Moment.’ And he went out into the world to look for bronze, as he could think only in bronze. But all the bronze in the world had vanished. Nowhere under the heavens could any bronze be found, expect in a single bronze sculpture, which was called “Eternal Sorrow.” And he had made this sculpture himself, shaping it with his own hands, and he had erected it on a certain grave, and this grave hid everything that he had ever loved in life. In memory of that which he had loved the most in life he had created this work of art, to serve as a monument of his love, which never dies, and to be the symbol of sorrow that lasts for all eternity. And he took this sculpture he had made, and he placed it in the melting furnace and let the flames devour it. And from the image of sorrow that lasts forever he shaped an image of the thrill that fades in a moment.

The wrought-iron crosses made by the iron workers of Högfors are a valuable part of the cultural heritage of the old Karkkila cemetery. Photo by Kirsti Salmi-Niklander.
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