Kirsti Relander at 90: THE LADY FROM KARELIA

The year was 1973 – only three years short of half a century ago. The place was Joensuu, the capital city of beautiful Karelia. The Finns were at the time inviting their Nordic sister cities for a reunion. It was summertime – and the livin‘ was easy. That is when we met Kirsti – the lady from Karelia – for the first time. It was a beginning of a beautiful friendship. In my memoirs In Sun and Shadows I describe our first encounter with those words:

„Kirsti was at the time president of the Juensuu town council. As such, she was our host. She seemed to speak every language and understand every dialect. When I say „speak every language“ – it means fluently and accurately. Only Icelandic was a bit too much for her. She chaired the meetings, businesslike and efficiently.

It was evident from her performance that she was used to be in charge. Elegant, eloquent, full of wit and humour. Although she had traveled widely and expressed herself fluently in several languages, we soon realised that her heart belonged to Karelia.She was a hard core Finn through and through. Never in a boisterous way. We simply sensed it from her being and personality – also when she remained silent.“

When we, 30 years later, became briefly ambassadors for Iceland to Finland, we renewed our friendship. Kirsti had a small apartment in Helsinki which had housed her descendents while they were studying in the Finnish capital. When Kristi came visiting this small apartment became the center of a continuous and deep dialogue on history, our contemporary problems and opportunities and the power of culture to redeem our human frailties. Everything was on our agenda, including PISA and the excellence of Finland‘s performance in international comparison. Again, never boisterously. But we learned a lot. And we enjoyed our conversation endlessly. We shall always be grateful to her for sharing with us her provocative intelligence, contagious lust for life and her irreverent sence of humour.

At 90 she is still her beautiful and vigorous self. From the white island of the High North, we send her our heartfelt greetings across the seas.

Bryndís Schram and Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson
Former foreign minister of Iceland and ambassadors to Finland