Projektiesittely: Traumatized Borders: Reviving Subversive Narratives Of B/Order, and Other

Tuulikki Kurki, Kirsi Laurén, Saija Kaskinen, Tiiu Jaago and Tarja Tanttu


The project, Traumatized Borders: Reviving subversive narratives of B/order, and Other, funded by the Academy of Finland, is headquartered at the Karelian Institute in the University of Eastern Finland. The project is conducted between 2016 and 2020, and is collaborated with researchers in the University of Tartu. The project includes five researchers: PhD, Saija Kaskinen, Comparative Literature and Languages, UEF; PhD, Adjunct Professor, Kirsi Laurén, Folklore Research, UEF; Master of Arts, Tarja Tanttu, Finnish Philology, UEF; and PhD, Adjunct Professor Tiiu Jaago, Folklore Research, University of Tartu. The principal investigator of the project is PhD, Adjunct Professor Tuulikki Kurki, Folklore Research and Cultural Studies, UEF.

Traumatized Borders (from now on TB) is a multidisciplinary research project which investigates oral and written trauma narratives related to various topographic and symbolic borders in Russian, Finnish, Estonian, Ukrainian, and North-American contexts. In this project, traumas are understood as universal, but yet culturally bound narratives and linguistic constructions. Borders, on the other hand, are understood as political and cultural constructions that create traumas and determines the meaning and significance of border related trauma narratives. Geopolitically, TB focuses on the contemporary EU-Russian border, former Soviet internal borders, and the historical Soviet Union border with the West, whose influence reaches even the North-American context. The study covers time period between the 1920s to the present day including some of the most significant historical events that have defined Russia’s and its neighbors’ topographic and symbolic borders. Historical events and phenomena, such as Karelian Fever, the WWII, and Cold War, have constructed the grand narratives of the borders that are embedded in collective consciousness of people living in for e.g. Russia, Finland, Estonia, and Ukraine. However, border related trauma narratives are often excluded from these grand narratives which often represent and tell only the winner’s history. Therefore, in this geopolitical context, TB examines trauma narratives as subversive narratives of border, order, and Other. The project claims that traumas create ruptures in the fabric of social and political conformity as well as in collective consciousness by reconstituting the meaning of border, order, and other.

Theoretically the project works against the backdrop of previous international and national border studies, cultural studies (folklore studies, literature studies, cultural anthropology) and trauma studies which form the most relevant methodological and conceptual frameworks for the project. In the framework of border studies, the project creates theoretical and conceptual tools which contribute to understanding of borders and border crossings from the point of view of individuals, small communities, and the cultures at the borderlands.

The second framework connects with cultural studies which have attempted to understand the borders from people’s individual and ‘from below’ perspectives since the 1950s in Anglo-American anthropology and especially after the so-called spatial turn in the 1990s. Mobility, space, place, and identity in the borderlands as well as border cultures, have been in the focus of these studies (Aldama et al. 2012). In Europe, for example, the major themes in research have been identity formation, immigration, and globalization at the borderlands. These studies stress how individuals and communities have given narratively constructed meanings to the borders and border crossings. These meanings differ from those maintained by the dominating culture and dominating political and ideological discourses (Kurki & Laurén 2012; Kurki 2016; Tanttu 2014).

The third framework of TB connects with trauma studies. While trauma is rarely studied in border studies, it has been an object of literature, folklore, and history research since the 1990s (Caruth 1996). The research in these fields has focused mostly on collective, large scale ‘trauma events’, such as Holocaust, war, terrorism, and oppression. Personal traumas and border related traumas are now an emerging subject in cultural studies. However, also everyday circumstances can cause traumas which are not recognized as traumatizing in the dominating culture and power structures. These traumas are called ‘insidious traumas’ because they are silenced and unrecognized by the dominating culture, and they emerge only in memories of individuals and small communities (LaCapra 2001). Both these types of traumas are recognized in the TB research project.

TB contributes to the existing research on borders and border related traumas by focusing on the intersection of trauma studies, cultural studies, and border studies. Therefore, the scholarly fields that the project contributes to, are multidisciplinary.

In the project, Tuulikki Kurki examines written and literary trauma narratives in the territorial and symbolic borderlands between Finland and Russia. Kurki focuses on biographical and fiction novels of various migrants and so called defectors who moved across the Finnish Soviet Union and Finnish Russian borders. The research examines the trauma narratives in these novels and the reception of these novels during the 20th and 21st centuries. The purpose is first to identify the various types of trauma narratives. In the Soviet context, the trauma was related to facing another culture and political system. In the Finnish context, the trauma was created by hostile reception of these novels that often neglect to acknowledge the traumatic experiences of the migrants. Continuing from this position, the purpose is also to examine trauma narratives in contemporary literature written by mobile people moving across the Finnish Russian border.

Saija Kaskinen’s research Border Utopias focuses on trauma narratives in US, Russian, Norwegian, and Finnish contexts. Kaskinen’s research has been divided into three phases. The first phase focuses on the treatment of trauma, the role of memory in trauma, and the nature or characteristics of trauma. These divisions are examined in relation to the state violence and so called “symbolic violence”, which first may appear as an insidious trauma but can be, through different mechanisms, externalized and, thus, identified. The phase two combines trauma studies with border and mobility studies and the questions of discourse analysis. The purpose is to locate or place trauma within the theoretical framework of Betrayal Trauma Theory. The purpose is to show how individual cases of traumas are linked to various political state borders of sovereign nations who have created so called Border Utopias that can be further divided into two categories, Historical and Contemporary Border Utopias. In the last phase of the research, the discussion focuses on the question of how the historical border utopias are recreated in contemporary Finland and Norway.

Kirsi Laurén’s research Silenced Traumas: Narratives about Soviet Partisans’ Attacks in Finland’s Borderland of North-Western Lapland (Vaiennetut traumat: suomalaisten kertomukset neuvostopartisaanien iskuista Koillis-Lapin rajaseuduilla) focuses on traumatic memories of the Continuation War (1941–1944) and the Soviet partisans who attacked remote villages in Finland’s Lapland. The partisans killed 180 civilians in Finland, the majority of whom were women, children, and elderly people. Until today, these killings have been silenced in Finland, and have not been included in official historiography. Laurén will examine the witness stories and trauma narratives about these killings by applying the concept of trauma within the theoretical framework of narratological research and oral history. The central research questions are: In which way are the partisan attacks narrated? How traumatic experiences have affected the lives of the villagers and the perceptions of the Finnish-Russian border? The overall ambition is to reveal how personal narratives develop into a metadiscourse on history.

Tiiu Jaago examines letters, memoirs, biographies, and life-story narratives to observe the development of subjective borders and related trauma experiences in these texts. The specific nature of formation of the subjective borders in Estonian context is associated with Estonia’s unique geopolitical position and political history. In these individual narratives, Jaago’s research focuses on tension between Estonian cultural continuity and the ruptures caused by internal and external political forces. Using the texts about everyday life in the 19th and 20th century narrated by Estonians, Baltic Germans, and Russian speaking people of Estonia, the way how the historical and cultural trauma intertwines with personal trauma, and how people process their traumatic experience, will be analyzed.

Tarja Tanttu’s research focuses on language, discourse, and communication strategies in every-day, face-to-face encounters between immigrants and public administrators in an employment office in Finland. These encounters are inherently asymmetrical as they occur between immigrants, new-comers to the society, and professionals that possess the cultural and institutional knowledge of Finnish society. Tanttu examines the ways how asymmetry manifests itself in these encounters and communication acts. Furthermore, Tanttu examines the communicative strategies that the public administrators use to strengthen the newcomer’s competence in the society that can further assist the newcomer’s path to full agency in the society. In the Traumatized Borders project, Tanttu’s research contributes to the examination of insidious traumas that migrants may face in the Finnish society. The lack of agency and the sense of disempowerment may result in forming invisible or seething traumas.


Aldama, Arturo, Sandoval Chela & García Peter (eds.) 2012. Performing the US Latina and Latino Borderlands, Indiana, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Caruth, Cathy 1996. Unclaimed experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP.

Kurki, Tuulikki 2016. “Personal Trauma versus Cold War Rhetoric in the Finnish-Russian Borderland”, Kannike A. (ed.), Dynamics of Cultural Borders. Approaches to Culture Theory V. University of Tartu Press: Tartu.

Kurki, Tuulikki & Laurén, Kirsi (eds.) (2012). Borders and Life-Stories. Folklore 52/2012.

LaCapra Dominic 2001. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Tanttu Tarja 2014. Encounters Along Micro-Level Borders: Silence and Metacommunicative Talk in Service Encounter Conversations Between Finnish Employment Officials and Immigrants. Culture Unbound, vol. 6, 2014. DOI: 10.3384/cu. 2000.1525.1461227.