Front-Line Tourists

Issue 3/1976 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Nahka­peitturien linjalla (‘On the tanners’ line’, 1976)

Paavo Rintala (born 1930) published his first novel in 1954 and since then has brought out a new book almost every year. A merciless critic of the myths surrounding certain national figures and events, he has written about Marshal Mannerheim, against attempts to glorify war, and the ‘inevitability’ of Finland’s involvment in the German Barbarossa plan. He has made considerable use of reportage technique to produce anti-war documentaries and in more recent years worked with international subjects.

His books have been widely translated and are popular in East and West Europe. Paavo Rintala’s novel Sissiluutnantti (‘Commando Lieuenant’, Otava 1963) and its reception were the subject of a book by the ltterary critic Pekka Tarkka (Paavo Rintalan saarna ja seurakunta. ‘Paavo Rintala’s sermon and congregation’, Otava 1966). Paavo Rintala is chairman of the Finnish Peace Committee. The passage below is taken from Nahkapeitturien linjalla (‘On the tanners’ line’, Otava 1976) in which he again turns his attention to the war years. Rintala looks at the events of the years leading up to the war and the course of the war itself through the eyes of many different people – from the leading politicians of the day to the ordinary soldier.

The novel has already been acclaimed as the monument to the ‘unknown soldier’ of the Winter War.


Hessu duly presented himself at the Viipuri office of the Army Information Department (Visitors’ Escort Section), where it was implied that the expected visitors were Very Important People and that a singular privilege was being conferred upon Hessu and such front-line troops that the party might visit. Although His Excellency Field-Marshal Mannerheim made it a rule never to allow front-line visits by ordinary journalists or even by special correspondents, these gentlemen were, it seemed, such influential people that H.E. had agreed to their visit without demur. “You understand, Padre, what a great responsibility this will be for you? These are very high-up people.”

Hessu stammered out something to the effect that he would do his best to bear this in mind.

And with this the army bureaucrats had to be content. If Army Corps H.Q., in its wisdom, had decided to send this army chaplain to act as guide, presumably it knew what it was doing. One would have thought that someone a bit more military, an adjutant perhaps, could have been made available. Well, they would just have to assume that this fat clergyman was a reliable man.

“Here is the programme for tomorrow,” said one of the officials, taking a typescript from the desk. Hessu glanced through it. Visitors travel by night train. Arrive Viipuri early morning. Breakfast at the Knut Posse. Visit to Field Hospital at Juustila. Then on to Army Corps ammunition store at Rautakorpi, where visitors will have opportunity of firing ‘Suomi’ automatic pistols. Thence to Viipuri County Prison to interview Russian p.o.w.’s. All this before leaving for the Isthmus and the visit to front-line troops.

Altogether there were twelve items on the programme, ending up with a formal dinner at the Espilä (19.30) and departure for Helsinki by night train (22.15).

“If we get through all this lot in one day, they’ll be gasping for breath by the time they get on that train,” Hessu ventured to comment.

“It can be done in a day quite easily,” said the man behind the desk. “We’ve been over the ground and timed all the journeys and visits most carefully.”

“Oh, very well.” Hessu did not bother to argue the matter. In any case he had no intention of upsetting the visitors by sticking to the time-table. In the morning he went to Viipuri station to meet the night train from Helsinki. It was about half an hour late owing to the bombing of the railway at Kouvola. The party consisted of three middle-aged men. They were keen to see the Mannerheim Line. Over breakfast they went through the programme and decided to cut out the Field Hospital. They could always visit hospitals from Helsinki.

At the Rautakorpi ammunition store they spent no more than a quarter of an hour: only the Swiss visitor showed any interest in firing tommy-guns. They returned to Viipuri by way of Tali, where there was a hospital for horses. Very few of the animal patients were wounded: most of them were suffering from sand-cough, having ingested frozen sand while confined in the fodderless dug-outs. Both of the Englishmen were much affected by the animals’ suffering; the Swiss appeared not to notice it.

Hessu told him what he knew, from personal experience, about the characteristics of Finnish horses, and pointed out the importance of the part played by the horse in the Finnish economy.

From Tali they drove to the Viipuri County Prison.

A group of ‘representative’ prisoners had been brought to the canteen to be interviewed by the visitors. A prison official asked Hessu, as interpreter, to explain to the visitors that these were typical Red Army soldiers, ‘typical Bolsheviks’. They looked to Hessu very much like the stocky peasants he had watched as a child in the fields and lanes around his father’s country parsonage; except that these had bandaged heads or arms, and their faces were cleaner and better shaved than those of the average Central Finnish cottage-dweller. He made no attempt to translate the official’s remarks.

“Finnish country people look very much the same as these chaps,” he said in English. “This gentleman tells me they are ‘typical Bolsheviks’. I think he means from the ethnological point of view. But if these men are typical, so am I. Look, I have just the same skull formation as they have: we obviously belong to the same brachycephalic Baltic race. The geography book we use in our Finnish secondary schools has got a picture to illustrate this type: it shows a man from Häme, in Central Finland. And look at my build. Exactly the same as theirs. Well, a few extra yards round the middle, but still …. So what’s a ‘typical Bolshevik’, I wonder?

At the back of the group stood one or two taller, darker-haired men.

“May we talk to them directly, in Russian – I can speak Russian,” one of the Englishmen asked.

Hessu asked the official, who gave his permission.

The visitors approached the ‘non-typical’ group of Russians, who were wearing leather jackets.

“Captured tank crews,” the official explained. He indicated a muscular, Scandinavian-looking man with reddish hair. “This one’s an officer.” “You are a Red Army officer?” asked the Englishman, in Russian.

“I am.”

“How is it that you let yourself be taken prisoner?”

“I didn’t surrender voluntarily, I had no choice. My tank was hit by a shell, I lost consciousness. When I came to, I found I was a prisoner. I would never have surrendered.”

“What would you have done?”

“A Red Army soldier is expected to fight on to the end. Especially an officer,” the man added proudly.

“Are you and your comrades being well treated?”

“Prisoners are never well treated. But we have no complaints.”

“Do you know the reason why you went to war against Finland?”

“I know I’m a prisoner, but I don’t think I have to answer that kind of question.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t asking you as a prisoner, I was asking you as one human being to another,” said the Englishman. “But you don’t have to answer if you don’t wish to. I’m not an interrogator.”

Hessu noticed that the Englishman spoke Russian quite well.

“The Socialist Soviet State never wanted this war,” snapped the officer.

“And yet you are attacking Finland.”

”The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics doesn’t want war, and didn’t want this war,” the man repeated, and his companions nodded in agreement. “We came to help the Finnish people.”

“Then why are you fighting them?”

“You say we are to talk as one human being to another. All right, I will answer your question. The Western Imperialists have forced us into this war, which has arisen from the same causes as the last one – conflict between the Germans and the Anglo-French Alliance. Soviet Russia has no desire for war, I assure you.”

“What’s he saying?” the other two visitors asked impatiently.

“Wait, I’ll tell you in a minute. One more question, captain – we can talk quite freely, your Finnish guards don’t understand Russian: how do you think this war is going, what was the morale of your troops like when you were still with them?”

“I do understand Russian, but you may speak freely all the same,” said Hessu in Russian.

The tank commander turned and addressed Hessu, his eyes blazing. “Tell me this,” he shouted. “What made you Finns treat our perfectly justifiable demands as a reason for going to war? A bit of territory round Leningrad, was that such a big thing? You would have been compensated for it, many times over. And now thousands of men are being killed, men in the prime of life. All because you never even seriously considered holding discussions with us. Was it so unreasonable of us to ask you to withdraw to just a little more than shelling distance of the gates of Leningrad? The responsibility for all this is entirely yours. You didn’t even try to understand our point of view. ”

Hessu was embarrassed. “It’s a regrettable business,” he said. “For both sides.”

“The fault is yours. The Soviet Union didn’t want war, and still doesn’t.”

“Why haven’t you answered my question?” the Englishman persisted.

“What’s going on, why don’t you translate what’s being said?” grumbled his companions.

“I agree with you that this is an unfortunate war,” said Hessu. “But I suppose all wars are unfortunate, come to that.”

“I should like my question answered, if you please.”

The tank commander smiled for the first time. “Ah yes, morale. Well. You speak such good Russian that I think you must know the Russian character. You can judge for yourself what our troops’ morale is like. As for how the war is going – the Soviet Union is an entirely different country from the Russia of the last war. We don’t waver from our ideals. Lenin put a new element into Europe. And now we are led by the great Stalin. The contribution made to European equilibrium by the peoples of the Soviet Union will be unique and irreplaceable. Our great leader Lenin and, later, Stalin …”

“These are all very high-sounding political phrases, but what I would rather hear is your own personal opinion.”

“This is my own personal opinion,” said the man. “Stalin is the inspired continuator of the work of Lenin.”

“Well, do you think you will soon be able to conquer Finland?”

“The Soviet Union has no wish to conquer anyone. But we shall force Finland to make peace by crushing the army of the Tanner-Mannerheim clique. We are a socialist industrial power and even the Western imperialists can no longer ignore us as they did in the Great War. Under Stalin’s leadership …”

The Englishman smiled, and began to translate the conversation.

Later, as they sat in the car on the way to Henri Mustamäki’s Divisional H.Q., the Swiss remarked to the others: “A well-schooled Bolshevik, that officer.”

“Bolshevik or not,” said Hessu, “I must say that in my own private thoughts I’m beginning to come round to much the same idea. The Soviet Union can’t really have wanted this war. We Finns forced them into it by going at least half-way on to the war-path ourselves.”

“An interesting viewpoint,” said the Russian-speaking Englishman. “May I ask whether this opinion is generally shared by your fellow chaplains?”

Hessu laughed. “I’m only a chaplain by … a sort of accident, as it were. But about this programme: we have about an hour’s drive to the H.Q. of this unit. That is, if enemy aircraft don’t keep forcing us to stop and take to the woods.”

The weather was clear, but they were able to drive as far as Henri’s command-post without interference from the air. Henri showed them over his H.Q., explained its workings, and took them in to lunch.

“Tell them my unit is now in reserve as part of the rear supporting line,” he said to Hessu. “I’ll take them forward when it begins to get dark, but the men there won’t be from my unit. Leo’s there, as a matter of fact. He’s been informed.”

In honour of the visitors, there were meat-balls and mashed potatoes for lunch, and fruit-juice as well as milk.

“What’s your relative strength, as compared with the enemy’s?” asked the Swiss, tucking into the mashed potatoes.

“Did you understand?” Hessu asked Henri.

“Tell them that up here we have the infantry from five divisions, and opposite us they have at least ten.”

“Why don’t you tell them yourself?”

“Wait till my English begins to come back to me.”

Hessu translated.

“And tell them that it’s misleading to talk only in terms of relative manpower. They have absolute superiority in the air. And we have no tanks. Tell them those old British crocks are no good at all. And as for artillery and ammunition it’s absurd to talk about relative strength. They have unlimited supplies of both, while we have to count the shells each day. They fire more in a day than we do in a month.”

“This Mannerheim Line must be enormously strong, for you to have held out so long,” said the other Englishman – the one who did not speak Russian. He was, Hessu had gathered, a Member of Parliament. He had been very busy looking round and taking notes.

“Tell them that later on this afternoon they’ll be able to see it for themselves. A great wall of steel and concrete, really impressive. I daren’t take them yet, it’s still too light. Let’s have a look at that programme: what have they laid on for them here?”

Hessu took the paper from his briefcase. “It’s quite impossible. Almost as though they were deliberately trying to prevent these gentlemen from getting a true picture.”

“What are you discussing?” asked the Swiss.

“The programme for this afternoon,” Hessu explained.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” said Henri. “But we’ll have to go to all these places, you know. They’ve all been informed and they’ll be expecting us.”

“Gentlemen, let me read out the programme that has been drawn up for this afternoon,” said Hessu, getting down to business. “And then please tell me what you yourselves would like to do. The Colonel here tells me he wants you to feel that you are really getting something out of this visit.”

“No, listen, Hessu, honestly, I can’t change anything that’s laid down in a G.H.Q. order.”

But Hessu went on: “After lunch, it says here, we are going to visit a neighbouring unit to inspect their sauna, which they say is a very fine one. I understand it’s an underground sauna. Very well constructed.”

“Is it for officers only?”

“I don’t think so. Probably for the whole unit.”

“Is it near the front line?”

“No, here in the reserve area.”

“What do we want to go there for? We want to meet ordinary front-line men.”

“Then let’s leave this item out.”

“I can’t …,” Henri began, but Hessu interrupted him.

“You can ring them and say we’re not coming, we simply haven’t the time. What’s next? After the sauna we can go and see a heavy howitzer battery in action. Are you interested?”

“We wouldn’t be able to see the effect, would we?” the Russian-speaking Englishman queried.

“No, the targets are many miles away.”

“Don’t let’s bother, then,” said the visitors, more or less with one voice. By the time they had finished their coffee, Hessu had succeeded in getting nearly all the other ‘show piece’ visits struck off the list. It was obvious that the organizers, in including these, had had their own interests in mind rather than those of the visitors. They spent the whole afternoon going the round of Henri’s battalions. The visitors themselves chose what they wanted to look at. As there was at least one officer in each company who spoke passable German, they managed pretty well without Hessu’s help, the Swiss acting as interpreter when necessary.

The afternoon wore on, and darkness began to fall. The visitors were enjoying themselves; meanwhile Henri kept looking at his watch. When they got round to ‘A’ Company, 3rd Battalion, they were invited to stay for a meal. A space was cleared on the table, a candle was lit, and a small banquet improvised from the ‘regulation issue’ field packs. The guests were delighted. Henri took Hessu outside.

“Now look what you’ve done!”

“What’s the matter, everything’s going fine. You see how happy they are when we let them poke around for themselves without us hustling them all the time.”

“That’s all very well, but your programme says dinner in Viipuri, 19.30 at the Espilä Restaurant. We’re not going to have time to drive over to Leo’s unit at all.”

“We’ll tell Viipuri we’re not coming to dinner. We’ll take them straight to the train from the front. Bung them in a sleeper with a packet of sandwiches. They’ll prefer it that way, I dare say. Better than sitting stiffly in the Espilä, listening to pompous speeches and having to reply. I’ll ask them now if you like.”

“God, you’re hopeless. It’s out of the question. Look at the programme. Damn it, the G.O.C.’s going to be there himself, he s going to make a speech of welcome, he’s going to be the host at this do. And the whole of, his staff too. Christ Almighty, how can I possibly tell them you’re not going?

”I’ll tell them myself,” said Hessu. “On my head be it.” Henry made a choking sound.

Hessu went back into the dug-out and began to explain to the visitors. “We haven’t got much time left: your train leaves Viipuri at 22.15. There are two alternatives, and you’ll have to choose between them. The general in command of the Army Corps, and his staff, are expecting you at a smart restaurant in Viipuri. On the other hand, the officers and men of two front-line companies are waiting for you on the Mannerheim Line. Which is it to be? Hands up those who want to go to the Espilä Restaurant to listen to the general’s speech of welcome, and reply to it. Nobody in favour of this proposal? Then, gentlemen, I take it you wish to proceed with the visit to the Mannerheim Line.”

Henri had followed Hessu in. “You can do the explaining yourself. There’s a phone in my office: come on!”

“We can ring from Leo’s H.Q., there’ll be plenty of time.”

“Plenty of time my foot, you’ll be hanged, drawn and quartered if you leave it till then to ring them. They’ll all be sitting in the restaurant by that time, straightening their ties. Lieutenant Eerola,” Henri called to his adjutant, “take the Padre to my office and get the Chief of Staff on the phone.”

“And you’ll have to think up one hell of a convincing excuse,” he added to Hessu, “some thumping great lie or other, you can’t possibly tell them the plain unvarnished truth. Think of something, do. Should be right up your street – well, no, not yours personally perhaps, you’re so hopeless you can’t even tell a lie. I was thinking more of parsons generally. Look, you must try to realize – the truth simply won’t do. If you let them suspect that we’ve been putting our visitors’ interests first and the Espilä speeches second, there’ll be hell to pay. And come straight back. We’ll leave at once for Leo’s regiment.”

In the car, the visitors had a lively conversation amongst themselves, comparing their impressions of the day’s doings. Henri, squashed into a corner of the back seat, remained silent, waiting for Hessu to speak first. After about ten minutes, during which Hessu did not utter a word, Henri could restrain himself no longer.

“How did it go? Did you get through to the top brass?”

“Yes,” said Hessu dismally, “I got through.”

“And they weren’t too pleased, I take it?”

“They’re going to skin me alive. When I get back from here.”


Translated by David Barrett


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