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Olavi Paavolainen

Olavi Paavolainen (nom de plume Olavi Lauri)
Born September 17, Kivennapa. Died July 19, 1964, Helsinki

Studies at the University of Helsinki (aesthetics, literary science, art history)

Freelance writer
Director of the theatre department of the Finnish Broadcasting Company 1947–64
Head of advertising 1935, Kudos Oy Silo, Kestilän pukimo Oy
Employee at Suomen ilmoituskeskus Oy, 1933-34, 1936
Editor in chief of the periodical Tulenkantajat 1930

Nuoret runoilijat (‘Young poets,’ 1924) (under the nom de plume Olavi Lauri)
Valtatiet (‘Highways,’ 1928) (under the nom de plume Olavi Lauri, together with Mika Waltari)
Nykyaikaa etsimässä (‘In search of modern time,’ 1929)
Keulakuvat (‘Figureheads’, 1932)
Suursiivous eli kirjallisessa lastenkamarissa, (‘The great clean up, or in the literary nursery’ 1932)
Kolmannen valtakunnan vieraana, (‘A guest of the Third Reich,’ 1936)
Lähtö ja loitsu. Kirja suuresta levottomuudesta, (‘Departure and incantations. A book about the great unrest,’ 1937)
Risti ja hakaristi. Uutta maailmankuvaa kohti, (‘The cross and the swastika,’ 1938)
Synkkä yksinpuhelu. Päiväkirjan lehtiä vuosilta 1941–1944, I–II, (‘A gloomy soliloquy, pages from a diary 1941–1944, I–II, 1946) Pietari–Leningrad, (‘St. Petersburg–Leningrad,’ 1946)

Order of the Cross of Liberty, fourth class
Order of the Lion of Finland – Pro Finlandia Medal 1962
Eino Leino Prize 1960
Honorary member of Kiila (Finnish socialist cultural organisation) 1953

Photo: Finnish Literature Society, literature archives
Written by Olli Siitonen
Translated by Matthew Billington

From modernism to political extremes

Olavi Paavolainen, born in the Karelian village of Kivennapa in 1903, began grammar school in Vyborg, but his family moved to Helsinki when his father, Pekka, was elected member of parliament from the ranks of the Young Finnish Party. Karelia nevertheless had a huge influence on the writer’s life, and Paavolainen described himself as 100 per cent Karelian.

The poet, who had dreamed of a career as an officer in his younger days, enrolled at the University of Helsinki in 1921. Paavolainen’s studies in aesthetics, literature and art history were sporadic and were eventually left incomplete. This did not prevent the young Paavolainen from entering the capital’s literary circles. He was a central figure in Tulenkantajat (Flame Bearers), a group of artists described as pro-European and in thrall to modernism. Other members of the group included Katri Vala, Yrjö Jylhä ja Mika Waltari.

Paavolainen travelled assiduously, and his work Nykyaikaa etsimässä (‘In search of modern time,’ 1929), which explored the themes of urbanisation, the increasingly technological nature of life, and futurism, was published as a result of his travels to Paris in the summer of 1927. He also understood the significance of different channels of publication and tirelessly wrote in various periodicals.

Photo: Finnish Literature Society, literature archives

Paavolainen’s review of Pentti Haanpää’s collection of short stories Kenttä ja kasarmi (‘The Field and the Barracks,’ 1928) in the publication Tulenkantajat had a clear effect on his career, hampering, among other things, his efforts to find a publisher. Paavolainen’s criticisms were directed less at the work itself than its portrayal of reality. Paavolainen was also critical of the book’s depiction of ‘delinquent Finnish male culture,’ which men were seen to promote alongside external discipline. According to Paavolainen, the achievements of the modern world required a foundation in discipline.

After the death of his father, Paavolainen returned to his home town of Kivennapa, where he spent the beginning of the 1930s, publishing, among others, the work Suursiivous eli kirjallisessa lastenkamarissa, (‘The great clean up, or in the literary nursery’ 1932), a critical appraisal of young writers. In the book, Paavlainen lambasted the decadence and aestheticism of his peers, in other words, the same themes he had earlier promoted himself.

In the 1930s, Paavolainen’s literary production took a political turn. The writer seemed to be sailing between the extremist ideals of a polarised world. On the other hand, he claimed his role was that of an onlooker and name-caller. Paavolainen’s starting point was the idea that events in the world at large were misunderstood in Finland, and consequently his accounts included detailed explanations of events and a sense of his having throwing himself into the situation. On this basis, his audience may have gained a conflicting picture of his works. For example, depending on the interpretation, he could have been seen as either an admirer or a critic of fascism.

Paavolainen’s writing reflects his ambivalence towards National Socialism. He was attracted by technology, Hitler’s grandiosity and German efficiency, but he was alienated by its racism, nationalism and inflexible deference to authority. His works on the subject were published before World War II: Kolmannen valtakunnan vieraana (‘A guest of the Third Reich’) in 1936 and Risti ja hakaristi. (‘The cross and the swastika’), a critique of the idolisation of fascism, two years later. The party, which emphasised fascist notions of progress, also attracted many other writers and thinkers of the time.

Photo: Kim Borg / Sotamuseo.

Paavolainen, now a well-known author, served most of the war in a signals company. He was wounded at the end of the Winter War in an air raid and also worked as assistant to General Martin Wetzer. In the War of Continuance Paavolainen, as a soldier in the signals, spent his time between HQ in Mikkeli and the frontline. His signals duties in the War of Continuance gave him a relatively free hand to study the occupied territories in Karelia. Karelian culture also played a strong role in the birth of his 1946 work Synkkä yksinpuhelu (‘A gloomy soliloquy’).

After the war, Paavolainen turned to the political left and spent the remainder of his life as the director of the theatre department of the Finnish Broadcasting Company. He participated in the likes of the translation council of the Finnish-Soviet Society, which decided on Russian translations of Finnish works.

In Later life Paavolainen was decorated with numerous honours, including the Eino Leino prize and the Pro Finlandia Medal. The writer’s last years were overshadowed by alcoholism, leading to cirrhosis of the liver and his consequent death in Helsinki in 1964.

Photo: Finnish Literature Society, literature archives


  • Korhonen, Kuisma, “Olavi Paavolainen oli narsisti ja takinkääntäjä,” (‘Olavi Paavolainen was a narcissist and a turncoat’) Helsingin Sanomat (Accessed 24 September, 2015).
  • Kurjensaari, Matti, Loistava Olavi Paavolainen, Tammi 1975.
  • Olavi Paavolainen, Wikipedia. (Accessed 24 September, 2015).
  • Paavolainen, Jaakko, Olavi Paavolainen, keulakuva, Tammi 1991.
  • Riikonen, H. K. Paavolainen, Olavi, National Biography online publication, SKS, (Accessed 24 September, 2015).
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