The Bridge across Sestra River. Photo: Georg Mayer://Flickr/pGudto

Reviews On guard against red perils

Max Engman, Gränsfall: Utväxlingar och gränstrafik på Karelska näset 1918–1920 [Borderline case: Exchanges and border traffic on the Karelian isthmus 1918—1920] Helsinki/Stockholm, Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland [Swedish Literature Society in Finland] & Bokförlaget Atlantis 2008, 538 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 50-51, Vol 4:2010
Published on on January 11, 2011

No Comments on against red perils Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

Finland did not have to struggle much to gain independence once the old order in Russia crumbled when the Bolsheviks seized power in the fall of 1917. Securing the newly won sovereignty proved far more difficult. A civil war soon erupted that threatened the new nation and only intervention by the German war machine enabled the country’s legal government to ride out the storm. For six months, until the defeat of the German kaiser, the young republic was in practice a German vassal state, after which the political elite, who were overwhelmingly sympathetic to Germany, were forced to cast their lot with the entente powers to gain a modicum of security in the face of a dreaded Soviet Russian expansion. The situation was no uncomplicated matter. As history tells us, England and France intervened on the side of the White generals in a prolonged Russian civil war, while the Finnish governments willingly participated in the efforts to politically isolate and economically starve the young Soviet state. However, had the Russian Whites prevailed, they most certainly would have tried to seize Finland, the former Grand Duchy, once again. This is why the Czar’s General Mannerheim, who was Finnish, never marched on Petrograd. He allowed no campaigns in that direction — despite his pro-Russian, pro-British orientation.

For almost three years, up until the Treaty of Tartu in October 1920, a latent state of war existed between Finland and Russia. At least, that is how those in power in Helsinki viewed the situation, while the Soviet government, eager to break out of isolation and become recognized as an equal party in international circles, had every reason to quell the conflict, especially since their internal struggles were troublesome enough. The Bolshevik terror campaign against political opponents, initiated in earnest in the fall of 1918, was counterproductive in this regard, since it provided a hostile world with clear propaganda advantages and gave neighboring countries ample excuse to oppose any overtures to communist coercive rule. The situation triggered its own paradoxes. Finnish politicians could endeavor to achieve a western-type democratic mentality, but at the risk of appearing superficial as soon as zealous national interests take priority and civil liberties are curtailed at the first sign of any threat. Psychologically, the matter is easy to understand. The government was a fragile plant. The existence of the nation took priority over individual suffering. Finland’s birth as a nation among nations may simply have been a matter of chance. The founding of the state was largely an ideological process. The republic remained vigilant to the east against barbarism and political piracy. The power of the commissars was in obvious conflict with all propriety: communists, Russians, and Jews were all alien elements, potential sources of infection against which protection was needed.

Such was the self-image and the face of the enemy, painstakingly documented in Max Engman’s ambitious book about the vulnerability and tumultuousness of the borderland. No other researcher is as familiar with Finnish-Russian interactions over the past two centuries. In a number of monographs, as well as in more casual and impressionistic works, Max Engman has studied Finland’s relationship to an overwhelmingly powerful Russia — which at times had teetered on the verge of collapse — along with the position of Finns in the Russian economy and the Russian labor market, their position in Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian empire, and their role within the Russian army and government bureaucracy. With his knowledge of the peculiarities of the Russian Empire, its character as a despotically governed yet simultaneously unwieldy conglomerate state, he has conducted a comparative study of empires, where the fallen empire formed a significant background for how modern empires — like the Soviet empire — were first able to persist and then be dissolved and the implications such epoch events have had on more recent inheritor states. Finland is actually the only inheritor state after the break-up of the Czar’s empire that has succeeded in retaining uninterrupted national sovereignty since gaining independence and that has also been able to preserve its democratic constitution intact. This accomplishment did not occur without enormous human challenges. At times the foundations of the constitution have trembled, as happened during the glory days of the Lapua movement in the early 1930s. That was also when Finnish territorial expansion became a theme on the national agenda. And yet the bloody East Karelian uprising was put down in the autumn of 1921, with over 10,000 rebels on the run to Finland.

Max Engman’s book focuses on the first three years of independence. They were rather chaotic. The stream of refugees had to be handled and the new national boundary with Soviet Russia needed to be guarded. Both countries had citizens who were left behind in the other country; some had quite simply lived there for most of their lives, in what was no longer a reasonably integrated nation. Another problem involved the prisoners of war resulting from the gains and losses of the First World War, and although the exchange of prisoners, when the time came, did not necessarily solely affect Finnish and Russian citizens or Finnish and Russian national interests directly, the border crossings at the Karelian isthmus often became a natural route even for repatriated citizens of other nationalities or from other countries (Germany, England, France). Such traffic was far from easy to maintain under war-like conditions, and enough people in leading positions on both sides found it undesirable because complications would keep arising. Imposition of quarantine and hostage-taking were everyday occurrences in this small-scale cold war that had crystalized at the bridge across the Sestra River, which served as the boundary between Russia and Finland. Smuggling of people and goods was carried out tirelessly; the old nation lived a shadowy existence. In general, the political class in Finland considered the Bolshevik government to be an unpleasant fact that would soon disappear through its own inner decay. Each acknowledgment of its legitimacy would only prolong the suffering of the oppressed. Repression of the extremism and excesses of the revolutionary regime through business ties and expanded human contacts appears to have been a minority position in Finland at this time. Isolation was the primary strategy and intentionally provocative methods were not uncommon.

Max Engman organized his book in thematically grouped case studies, the product of more than thirty years of research on and off. The method of presentation is narrative rather than theoretical and synthesized. The view of history consistently neither glorifies nor condemns; in fact, it is almost ironic that the author allows himself a telling silence personally, rather than indulging in lecturing moralism, a sad practice that has insidiously crept in here and there in present-day modern historical research, especially when abominable systems and individuals are under discussion. Engman is capable of doing this due to the power of his superb mastery of archival sources, newspapers, and a massive library of primary and secondary literature that transforms his narrative into both drama and symphony. The case studies intricately intertwine with one another. Well-known names, such as the Bolshevik leaders Litvinov and Kamenev, sometimes on the wrong track and in custody, sometimes in the middle of real financial negotiations with a foreign counterparty, share space with an unhappy Swiss train dispatcher, Fritz Platten, who seated Lenin and his entourage in the sealed train from Zurich and who in the autumn of 1918 saved Lenin from an assassin’s bullet, but who nevertheless was arrested on his way home from a Comintern meeting in Moscow by the Finnish authorities as “a dangerous person spreading the Bolshevist infection everywhere,” a process not fully in compliance with international law. Emma Goldman, along with 248 other American anarchists (“communists”), was deported from the United States after involvement in violent strikes, placed on a ship whose first port of call was the Finnish harbor town of Hanko, before deportation to Russia was completed. US journalist John Reed remained with the Turku police after trying in vain to get from there to Stockholm stowed away in the coal box of a steamship, with gemstones and political propaganda in his luggage. A throng of people and institutions march past. The thorough investigation Engman devotes to the Danish Red Cross and its Russian director, Doctor Camillo Martiny, inspires respect and understanding for the conditions under which humanitarian work had to be carried out when the entire operation was viewed with general distrust, not just by the country’s authorities, but also by its adversaries.

And finally. Max Engman has an eye for the unusual and the obscure. Major Georg Elfvengren was a monarchist of half Finnish and half Polish descent, “whose Finnish was poor and his Swedish even worse, nor were his Russian or French without fault”. He was involved in Kornilov’s attempted coup of September 1917, fought alongside the Crimean Tatars against the Bolsheviks, and headed the breakaway Republic of North Ingria, which backed his unsuccessful attack on Petrograd in July and October 1918, carried out in direct disobedience of orders from the Finnish military leadership. Engman does not portray Elfvengren as a lunatic soldier of fortune, but rather as a fairly normal expression of the societal confusion that was the legacy of the senseless murdering of the First World War. Guilty of terrorism; shot in Moscow as a spy.

Among the book’s merits are beautifully sketched short biographies, abundant illustrations, and detailed captions. Strikingly, considering the lengthy period during which the book was conceived, almost no repetitions can be found. ≈

Note: This review, in a slightly abridged version, was originally published by Nordisk Østforum (Oslo).

Max Engman, Gränsfall: Utväxlingar och gränstrafik på Karelska näset 1918–1920 [Borderline case: Exchanges and border traffic on the Karelian isthmus 1918—1920] Helsinki/Stockholm, Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland [Swedish Literature Society in Finland] & Bokförlaget Atlantis 2008, 538 pages