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by Bamber Gascoigne

(Fritiof) Tito Colliander (1904 - 1989)

Swedish-speaking Finnish writer, the most significant interpreter of the Greek-Catholic view of life in the Finnish literature. Between the world wars Tito Colliander was a central member of the artist colony of Kuokkala in the Karelian Isthmus, in the eastern part of Finland, where also the poet Edith Södergran had her last home. The theme of wandering is central in Colliander's fiction – in his own life the author restlessly moved from place to place.

"Faith comes not through pondering but through action. Not words and speculation but experience teaches us what God is. To let in fresh air we have to open a window; to get tanned we must go out into the sunshine. Achieving faith is no different; we never reach a goal by just sitting in comfort and waiting, say the holy Fathers. Let the Prodigal Son be our example. He arose and came (Luke 15:20)." (in Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander, translated by Katharine Ferré; original work published in Swedish, 1952)

Tito Colliander was born into a cultural family in St. Petersburg, the son of Sigfried Joakim Colliander, an officer in the Russian army, and Dagmar Ilmatar (von Schoultz) Colliander, from whom Colliander learned English. She had Scottish ancestry from her grandmother's side, the aristocratic Campbells of Scotland.

Sigfried had artistic talents. In 1904 he was dismissed from his post as a teacher at the Saint Petersburg military engineering school for criticing Eugen Schauman's assassination of Governor General Nikolai Bobrikov: the Finnish officers felt he was a traitor. Sigfried then supported the family as a businessman, without big success in his endeavours. Between 1907 and 1913 the Collianders lived in Oulunkylä, near Helsinki. At school Tito got bullied due to his upper-class mannerism – he could not hide his disgust over his classmates dirty clothes, constant spitting and foul language. The family, which was liberal, first greeted joyfully the Revolution, but soon the reality turned into a nightmare: they lived on the brink of starvation, all property gone. In the autumn of 1918 the Collianders left Russia for Finland, settling eventually in Porvoo. Tito's brother Rurik, who fought in the White Army, was killed in Estonia in 1919.

In his youth Colliander saw how a suspected thief was beaten to death, and this memory became a key to his works, from his novel Korståget (1937) to Gripen (1968), a book of memoirs. Also Colliander's novel Förbarma dig (1939) dealt with the theme of suffering and reconciliation. As in the novels of Dostoyevsky, Colliander examined through his characters deep religious and moral problems. Colliander's humanism and sensitivity to the plight of poor links him to the great 19th-century Russian writers.

At the age of seventeen Colliander met Solveig Segerstråle (von Schoultz), who was thirteen and became later a higly acclaimed writer. At that time Colliander collected insects and wanted to pursue the career of a doctor. The relationship and correspondence lasted about years, ending in 1925 when she broke with him. Colliander wrote very little about this matter in his memoirs, but Solveig von Schoultz recalled their love story in Pitkin vedenviivaa (1993). She later married the composer Erik Bergman, her second husband. 

Colliander studied art at the Centralskolan för konstflit, never graduating. Much of his time he sat at Broda, an artist's cafe. After giving up his studies, he moved to Porvoo, where he earned his living as a teacher of art at the Privata svenska flickskolan (1924-1928), a girl's school. Alcohol began to play a larger and larger role in his life. Colliander quit his job and headed first to Marseille. To get some money, he contributed travel articles to various publications.

In 1930 Colliander married Ina Behrsen (d. 1985); they had three children. Ina was an artist and refugee from Russia, who created a distinguishable career as a painter and graphic. The summer residence of her grandmother, the Villa Golicke in Kuokkala was a meeting place for Swedish-language modernists. In 1959 she was awarded the Pro Finlandia medal.  Because of Ina's impractical nature, Colliander hired domestic help so that they both could focus on their assignments instead of household work.

After marriage Colliander spent a year with Ina in the Karelian Isthmus, and returned to Helsinki in 1932. During the 1930s Ina participated in several exhibitions, concentrating especially on woodcut, a difficult medium, but less expensive than oil painting. After visiting the Petser Orthodox Monastery, Estonia, in 1938, Tito and Ina joined the Orthodox Church. In Måltid (1973, Ateria), the final volume of the author's autobiography, Colliander tells of his confessor Johannes (Ivan Alexeyevich Alexeyev, 1873-1958), who introduced him to the writings of the Holy Fathers. 

The old Russian culture and Orthodox religion had a profound impact on Colliander's entire production in art and literature. Throughout his life, Colliander felt nostalgia for his childhood's St. Petersburg. He thought that Russian was the most beautiful language of all, but nevertheless wrote his own works in Swedish. The only time Colliander visited the Soviet Union was in 1960, when he attended the unveiling of Edith Södergran's memorial stone in Raivola.

His first collection of poems, En vandrare, Colliander pubished in 1930. It was followed by other  collections of poetry, short stories, and novels. Huset, där det dracks (1932) was written in a month. The protagonist was modelled after Ilya Repin's son Yuri.

Much of the controversy concerning Colliander's attitude toward the Third Reich is a result of his travel book, Glimtar från Tyskland: några anteckningar (1934). It came out after his  return from a six-week stay in Travemünde, where he stayed at the Deutsch-Nordische Schriftstellerheim. Colliander gives an idyllic picture of Germany, a haven a peace. Only the constant marching annoyed him. Colliander insisted that he never made the Nazi salute.

Taina (1935) was awarded the State literature prize. A German translation of the work by Karin Reitz-Grundmann was published in 1938. In the story a young woman, Taina, who has traveled over the ice to Finland, wanders into a small emigrant community. She doesn't remember much of her past, all her images are confused. Barbara Doll, an old woman, takes Taina into her protection and during her recuperation Taina finds love and God again. The book reflected Colliander's religious beliefs, and his recollections from Kuokkala, where he spent summers.

Ljuset (1936) told about a physicist who is blinded by the very subject he has studied his whole life, the nature of light. Colliander's breakthrough work was Korståget, which was based partly on his own life. (Moreover, it was Colliander's first book that was written with typewriter.) The work was translated by Helmut de Boor into Germany and published by the Hohenstaufen-Verlag in 1939 under the title  Der Versprengte.

The central character is young Tomas who escapes from revolutionary St. Petersburg to Finland. Tomas is haunted by a memory: his best friend was lynched because Tomas accused him of stealing a bread. At the end he experiences a religious conversion. The restless, wandering Thomas became the prototype of Colliander's heroes, outsiders, refugees, and cast-aways, who prove with their own story that security is only an illusion in life.

Due to childhood knee injury, which plagued Colliander his whole life, he was exempted from military service. His sympathies lay on the Russian side in the Winter War of 1939-40 between the Soviet Union and Finland: "Ypöyksinkö seison tässä? / Vain minäkö kuulen harhaksi joka sanan? / Miten vapaus ja oikeus muuttuvat hirviöiksi? / Ihana taistelu – murhaa! / Karttamme ahtaat rajat kahlitsevat / teräksen ja vihan sitein jokaisen avoimen sylin." (Tito Colliander by Raili Gothóni, 2023, p. 159)  Upon the outbreak of the war, Ina went with the children to Sweden, and returned after the peace was made. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Colliander wished that Hitler would crush the Bolsheviks. These years were for Colliander a period of feelings of self-doubt and depression. He lived – alone or with his family – in Helsinki, Kokemäki, Kirkkonummi, Kalajoki, Punkaharju, and then took up residence in hotels and bording houses, before settling in Kauniainen for seven years.

With Mika Waltari, Viljo Kajava, Maila Talvio, and Örnulf Tigerstedt, Colliander participated in 1942 in the Writer's Congress in Weimar, where the highlight was Joseph Goebbels's speech. Part of Colliander's uncritical attitude toward Nazism has been explained by his political naivety. Later, despite the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, he refused to divide nations and individuals into criminals and innocents. Economically Colliander's situation was relatively good – royalties from his books came regularly and mostly he was able to meet the deadlines. In 1946 Colliander began a liaison with Dagmar Enckell, married to the writer and critic Olof Enckell. The relationship lasted about two years. (Generalens dotter: Dagmar Thesleff by Emilie Enckell, 2018, pp. 175-186)

Förbarma dig, translated by Helmut de Boor, was published by Verlag A. Francke AG as Erbarme dich: Erzählung (1945) in Switzerland. The story, a battle between good and bad, is narrated by a young boy, who describes his father, a dreamer, whose life is destroyed by a woman. In Grottan (1942), a marriage novel, the theme dealt with the power of the irrationality of the mind. A central figure is an eight-year-old girl. The long poem Träsnittet (1946), written for the disillusioned post-war readers, was illustrated by Ina Colliander. She was her husband's first reader and trusted critic.

Between the years 1949 and 1953 Colliander studied at a Greek-Catholic seminary and worked as a teacher from 1950 to 1969 in Swedish-Finnish schools. Colliander's knee prevented him from being ordained as an Orthodox priest: he was unable to stand through the service. In 1959 Colliander was granted a state pension. 

"Genom att se på ikonerna lär man sig att förstå sammanhangen, hur allting hänger ihop. Och när man läser de gamla texterna. Där blir det klart, att det inte är bara något som skett, men något som sker, alltid sker, varje stund in i evigheten." (from Början, 1979)

Vi som är kvar (1959) examined the question of quilt. The narrator is an invalid, who helps a girl but unintentionally pushes her to commit suicide. Colliander's major work after World War II was his seven-volume autobiography (1964-1973). Its central themes are suffering, belief, and redemption. Colliander often avoids dates and years, he moves freely in time, from one impression to another. In one scene, depicting the narrator's wanderings in France, Colliander tells about his visit in a music cafe. An old Russian song, pleading Lord to hear the prayer, evokes images from his childhood, and he realizes that life is longing, eternal, never ending longing.

Colliander's memoirs came out first in Swedish. Following their translation into Finnish, Colliander became perhaps more popular among Finnish readers, and interest arose into his older works from the 1930s and 1940s, too. In addition to fiction and poetry, Colliander wrote plays, biographies of such artist as Ilja Repin (1942) and Tyko Sallinen (1948), and books on the Orthodox faith.

Asketernas väg (1952, Way of the Ascetics: The Ancient Tradition of Discipline and Inner Growth), a handbook for spiritual growth and the attainment of "purity of heart," has been translated into some ten languages. Some of Colliander's religious works are available at the new Valamo Monastery in Heinävesi. Tuuli Reinonen has described in Kannaksen mosaiikkimaailma (1968, The Mosaic World of the Isthmus) the artists' and writers' colony on the Isthmus of Karelia in the 1930s. Colliander died in Helsinki on May 21, 1989.

For further reading: 'Tito Colliander,' in A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Ihmisen ääni by Tito Colliander (1977); Aitoa ihmistä etsimässä: ihmisenä olemisen ongelma Tito Collianderin tuotannossa by Eira Herneberg (1989); 'Colliander and Russian Orthodoxy' by George C. Scoolfield, in A History of Finnish Literature, edited by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Det som har varit, det som är by Solveig von Schoultz, ed. by Inga-Britt Wik (1999); 'Effervescence of Life or Autopsies of Nazism? Two Finnish Eyewitness Accounts from the Third Reich' by Virpi Zuck, in Journal of Finnish Studies, Volume 3, Number 1 (Juna 2001); Inas längtan. Ina Collianders brev till Sven Grönvall 1925-1974, ed. by Kati Bondestam (2005); Tito Colliander och den ryska heligheten by Astrid Andersson Wretmark (2008); Kirjeitä Innalle - Skeemaigumeni Johanneksen kirjeitä Ina Collianderille vuosilta 1947-1957, suom. Sergius Colliander (2014); Ina ja Tito: Kohtauksia Collianderien taiteilijaliitosta by Annina Holmberg & Olli Löytty (2020); Tito Colliander by Raili Gothóni (2023)   

Selected works:

  • En vandrare, 1930 [A Wanderer]
  • Småstad, 1931 [Small Town]
  • Kråkan och jag: en vers för små barn, 1932 (illustrated by Ina Behrsen-Colliander)
  • Huset, där det dracks, 1932 [The House Where There War Drinking]
  • Bojorna, 1933 [The Fetters]
  • Glimtar från Tyskland: några anteckningar, 1934 [Glimpses from Germany]
  • Taina, 1935
    - Taina (suomentanut Eira Hernberg, 1993)
  • Direktör Brenner, 1936
  • Ljuset, 1936 [The Light]
  • Korståget, 1937 [The Procession of the Cross]
    - Ristisaatto (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1978)
  • Förbarma dig, 1939 [Have Mercy]
    - Armahda meitä (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1976)
  • Dager är, 1940 [The Day Is]
  • Grottan, 1942 [The Cave]
  • Ilja Repin: en konstrnär från Ukraina, 1942
    - Ilja Repin: ukrainalainen taiteilija (suom. Lauri Kemiläinen, 1944)
  • Den femte juli: J.Z. Duncker och Savolaxbrigaden, 1943
    - Heinäkuun viides päivä: J. Z. Duncker ja Savon prikaati (suom. Helka Varho, 1944)
  • Två timmar och andra noveller, 1944 [Two Hours and Other Short Stories]
  • Bliv till, 1945 [Come into Being]
  • Vart tog det livet vägen, 1945
  • Ilja Repins undomsår, 1946
  • Träsnittet, 1946 [Woodcut]
  • Två timmar, 1946 {Two Hours]
  • Riksmomentet, 1947
  • Sallinen, 1948
    - Sallinen (suom. Jarl Louhija, 1949)
  • I årtal, 1949 [For Years]
  • Frödja dig: Akathisterna till vår högtvälsignade Härskarinna, Gudamoder och Eviga Jungfru Maria, och till vår allraljuvaste Herre Jesus Kristus, 1949 (translator)
  • Grekisk-ortodox tro och livssyn, 1951
    - Kreikkalais-ortodoksinen usko ja elämännäkemys (suom. Paula Kononen, 1952) / Ortodoksinen usko ja elämännäkemys (suom. Paula Kononen, 1982)
  • Asketernas väg, 1952
    - Kristityn tie (suom. Paula Kononen, 1957)
    - The Way of the Ascetics (translated by Katharine Ferré, 1960) / Way of the Ascetics: The Ancient Tradition of Discipline and Inner Growth (translated by Katharine Ferré, 1985)
  • Kristillisyys ja kulttuuri, 1953
  • Farled 1936-1953, 1954
  • Samtal med smärtan: anteckningar 1953-1956, 1955 [Conversation with Pain]
  • Fönster: noveller i urval 1932-1955, 1956 [The Window]
  • Glädjes möte, 1957 [The Meeting with Joy]
  • Nu och alltid: studier i ortodox kristendom, 1958
  • Vår helige faders Johannes Chrysostomos gudomliga liturgi, 1958 (translator)
  • Vi som är kvar, 1959 [We Who Are Left]
  • Med öppna händer, 1960 [With Open Hands]
  • På en trappa: dikter 1941-1961, 1961 [On a Staircase: Poems 1941-1961]
  • Bevarat, 1964 [Preserved]
    - Lapsuuteni huvilat (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1967)
  • Vidare, 1967 [Farther]
    - Nuoruuden sillat (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1970)
  • Givet, 1968 [Given]
    - Kahdet kasvot (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1971)
  • Gripen, 1968 [Griffin]
    - Aarnikotka (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1968)
  • Vaka, 1969 [Waking]
    - Kohtaaminen (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1972)
  • Nära, 1971 [Near]
    - Lähellä (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1973)
  • Måltid, 1973 [Meal]
    - Ateria (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1975)
  • Nya Valamo, 1974 (with Pertti Hietanen)
  • Niille, jotka haluavat osallistua jumalanpalvelusyhteyteen , 1975
  • Ihmisen ääni, 1977 (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää)
  • Motiv, 1977 [Motifs]
  • Början, 1979 [Beginning]
    - Alku (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1969)
  • Sju sagor, 1981 (illustrated by  Kati Bondestam)
    - Seitsemän satua (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1981)
  • Blick: ett urval uppsatser och föredrag om religion 1960-1980, 1981
    - Uskosta: valikoima kirjoituksia ja esitelmiä 1960-1980, 1982 (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää)
  • Ikkuna: novelleja, 1984 (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää) [Window: Short Stories]
  • Sanat ja hiljaisuus, 1988 (toim. Harri Saukkomaa; suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, Raija Jänicke) [Words and Silence]
  • Luostarin kirkossa, 1992 (2nd, rev. ed.)
  • Ortodox tro och livssyn, 2017 (fjärde upplagan; kuvittaja Ina Colliander; valokuvaaja Olli Lähdesmäki)
    - Ortodoksinen usko ja elämännäkemys (neljäs painos; suom. Paula Kononen, 2017)

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