At her time, Aurora Karamzin was mentioned as the richest woman in Europe. She was of noble descent and a prominent socialite in the Grand Duchy of Finland and in the court of the tsar of Russia. Later generations have come to know her as the pioneer of social work, the founder of the Helsinki Deaconess Institute, a philantrophist and a prominent leader in societal matters. Many sites in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area have been named after her, such as Aurorankatu Street, Aurora's Hospital and the Aurora Hall in the Helsinki Deaconess Institute in Helsinki, and the Aurora Daycare Centre and the Aurora School in Espoo.
There are not many women in history like Aurora Karamzin. Her life intersected Jokioinen at multiple points: some of her relatives, to whom she had warm and close relations, lived there.
The Jokioinen Estate – the Site of Aurora's Childhood Summers
Eva Aurora Charlotta Stjernvall was born on 1st of August in 1809 in Pori during the Finnish War. Her father was Lieutenant Colonel Carl Johan Stjernvall and her mother Eva Gustava von Willebrand.
The Jokioinen Estate was one of the most prominent Finnish estates. At the time, it was owned by the provincial governor of Turku and Pori, Ernst Gustaf von Willebrand, and his wife, Wendla. They had three beautiful daughters, of whom Eva Gustava was Aurora's mother. Grandfather E. G. von Willebrand, a vigorous and productive estate owner, had within a short time made Jokioinen one of the most remarkable sites of industry in the Tavastia region. The neo-classical main building of the Estate was then the second-largest lived-in building in Finland, and the Estate was surrounded by an English-style park.
Aurora wasn't the first child born to her family. Before her, six children had already been born, but only one of them had survived.
One year after Aurora's birth, her grandfather von Willebrand died at 58 years of age. During the same year 1809, Finland became a grand duchy of Imperial Russia as the Finnish War ended in Russia's victory.
Aurora's father Carl Johan Stjernvall was invited to be the first provincial governor of Vyborg in 1812. He managed hold the office for only three years before dying at the age of fifty, leaving his wife and children in misery. Eva and the children rented a smaller apartment, attempting to survive with their small funds and save for the children's schooling. However, the family's financial situation was not worrisome, because Wendla von Willebrand, now in possession of the Jokioinen Estate, had enough funds to assist her daughter.
Stjernvall's successor as provincial governor was Carl Johan Walleen whom Eva married after a year of widowhood. Eva and Carl Johan were of the same age and had known each other since childhood. Their marriage was happy. Family life was important to Carl Walleen. He enjoyed reading and the arts and was as good a father to his step-children as to his own five children who were born in the following years. During her two marriages, Eva gave birth to altogether sixteen children. Contemporaries have remarked that weakened by many births, and tired from much staying up and taking care of sick children, she was old already at forty.
It is told that Eva and her children regularly spent their summers with Eva's mother at the Jokioinen Estate. The Estate was an ideal place for children. It had a spacious park, garden, and a 'storage' for treats, administered by steward Holmström. The large building with its many corridors and mazes was the mysterious and exciting target of the children's expeditions. Grandfather Willebrand had had a French-style greenhouse built between the Loimijoki river and the garden, and many tropical fruits were grown there: apricots, figs, bitter oranges, citrons and grape wine among others.
The Beautiful and Admired Aurora
In 1820, Wendla von Willebrand, who had taken care of the Jokioinen Estate after her husband's death, died as well. The same year, the Walleen family moved from Vyborg to Helsinki. Carl Walleen had become a senator in the new capital, and he later became also a procurator.
Due to their social position, the Walleens were a prominent family in the society and Aurora Stjernvall was its brightest star.
Youthful Love and Marriages
In Moscow Aurora met her old sweetheart Aleksander Muhanov whom she'd got to know years earlier in Helsinki. Their love sparked again, and they were engaged in 1834. All wedding preparations were in vain, though, since Muhanov got seriously ill and died only a few days before the wedding was due.
In 1835, Aurora became a maid of honour in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The most important task of a maid of honour was to assist the Tsarina.
The Tsar himself recommended a marriage with the Royal Master of the Hunt Paul Demidov to Aurora Stjernvall. In doing this, the Tsar mostly had national interests in mind. The immeasurably rich Demidov family owned large parts of the Ural mines and iron industry, and many of the heads of the family were known for their liberal use of funds. The tsar wanted the rich bachelor Deminov to stay in Russia and not take his property to Paris and Italy.
Aurora quit her position as a maid of honour and married Paul Demidov in 1836. He gave her le Sancy, the world's seventh largest diamond, as a dower. In 1839, Aurora gave birth to a son, Paul, Aurora's only child. Her husband had a moody and selfish character, and gave money away indulgently but was surprisingly sparing as to his wife. Patiently and unselfishly, Aurora took care of her sickly husband and also won the trust of Paul's family. Paul died in 1840 and on his deathbed, he gave Aurora the large palace of the Demidov family in St. Petersburg in addition to her dower as a show of gratefulness for her love and care.
As a widow, Aurora divided her time between Helsinki and Pietari. She did take part in upper class socialite parties, but did not feel attracted to a frivolous lifestyle. Aurora enjoyed visiting literary saloons, and in these circles, she met Colonel Andrei Karamzin. He was a direct, cordial and intellectually spirited. Andrei was five years younger than Aurora, but the mutual affection was so strong that despite the age gap, the couple got engaged and married in Petergof in the summer of 1846. In her letters, Aurora speaks of her new happiness and brings up her gratefulness that she has, as late as at forty years of age, still found such great and undeserved happiness.
This marriage, too, was a short one: colonel Karamzin fell in the Crimean War on crossing the Danube in 1954.
The Hakasalmi Villa – A Villa by the Sea
Between years 1843 and 1847, procurator Carl Johan Walleen had built, on property rented from the city by the Töölönlahti Bay, an extraordinarily handsome villa to serve as the townhouse of his large family. The low-lying and partially rocky site had previously been a pasture. As the architect, Walleen chose the Berliner E. B. Lohrmann, who was working as the director of the Construction Administration (Rakennushallitus) in Finland, following C. L. Engel.
After Walleen’s death in 1867, his step-daughter Aurora bought the building, but she only settled there permanently in 1875.
After the termination of the rental contract of the property in 1896, the city bought the buildings although Aurora Karamzin occupied them until her death in 1902.
The Hakasalmi Villa has been hosting the City Museum since 1911, but the building is still called the Karamzin Villa.
Philanthropist, Benefactor and Helper of the Poor
Aurora’s life style was completely different from the common life style among Helsinki habitants. The celebrated and admired socialite did not enjoy the shallow life of the high-class society and she became a pioneer in social work in Finland, a great philanthropist and benefactor.
The 1848 revolution in Paris had raised Aurora’s interest in social reforms and the freedom of speech. Travels to Ural and getting acquainted with the living conditions of the mine workers awoke her compassion and willingness to help the poor and the suffering.
Aurora Karamzin is best remembered for her support to the Deaconess Institute, but she was also amongst the founders of the labour movement.
A Walk in the Jokioinen Estate Park
There are still old oaks in the spacious, English-style park of the Jokioinen Estate that Aurora has played under as a child. A path takes the wanderer to a peaceful corner of the park, the place which grandfather von Willebrand already during his lifetime chose to be the burial site of himself and his wife Wendla. According to him, that place always gave him ‘such a peaceful state of mind’ during his afternoon walks.
Aurora’s grandfather E. G. von Willebrand was the most important of all the owners of the Jokioinen Estate and his work is still visible today in Jokioinen. His granddaughter Aurora has become a legend, still featured in stories told to kids, even though she has been dead for over a hundred years.
The wooden church in Jokioinen, from the 17th century, is one of the oldest wooden churches still in use in Finland. Close to the church, in the older part of the beautiful cemetery, there is a pyramid-shaped sculpture. The inscription on the white, already well-worn marble tells us that it is on the grave of Carl Johan Stjernvall and his seven children. Thus, it is the resting place of Aurora Karamzin’s father and seven of her siblings. Aurora’s mother, Eva, is buried in the Walleen family grave.
During her long and legendary life, Aurora Karamzin lost very many people near and dear to her, while reaching 97 years of age herself.
Aurora Karamzin died in the Hakasalmi Villa on 13th of May in 1902 and she was buried in the Hietaniemi Cemetary in the family grave of the Stjernvalls’ and the Walleens’.
Written by Laila Liski
Aapeli Saarisalo, Aurora Karamzin ja hänen aikansa
a brochure of the Helsinki City Museum