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Kai Donner (1888 - 1935)

Adjunct Professor in Uralic Languages

1916. © National Board of Antiquities, Finland. Daniel Nyblin 1893. © National Board of Antiquities, Finland.

Kai Donner was born on 1 April 1888 in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. His father, Senator Otto Donner, was a professor of linguistics. Ever since he was a boy, Donner had heard exciting stories about explorers' adventures and these gave him an irresistible urge to travel to Asia. He prepared for the task by studying linguistics and sociology at the University of Helsinki and also abroad in Budapest and Cambridge.

Kai Donner 1913. © National Board of Antiquities, Finland.Donner made two trips to Siberia, from 1911 to 1913 and in 1914. Aged only 23, the young scholar followed MA Castrén's footsteps deep into Eastern Siberia, coping with the hardships of the climate and living like the local indigenous peoples. He bought a team of dogs, a sled and thick fur coats and boots. Donner appeared to be fascinated by the northern peoples' ability to cope in any conditions. He was a skilled observer and carefully noted down his feelings and experiences in his field diary.

Kai Donner
City of Helsinki

Despite the extreme conditions, Donner was attracted to the indigenous lifestyles. I find it utterly pleasing that at last I had the opportunity to explore areas never before touched by civilisation, grounds never before trodden by a cultured person. I enjoy taking the reindeer sled into the deep wilderness where life follows paths that are quite out of the ordinary. The non-existent woods and measly trees would soon give way to endless snow-covered plains. The sky that had just been dreary and cold would unfold in a spectacular display of northern lights performing a celestial dance across the endless space. How marvellous was a reindeer ride across the open tundra, in the kingdom of silence, under a flaming sky. I felt as if I had been flown away from reality and entered the depths of a wonderful world of fairytales. (Kai Donner)

Kai Donner 1911-1914. © National Board of Antiquities, Finland.
Kai Donner 1911-1914. © National Board of Antiquities, Finland.

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© Anna Seppo 2010.
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