What if?

30 December 2001 | Articles, Authors

GateA little familyFor an extraordinary period between 1944 and 1956 part of Finland – the Porkkala peninsula, close to Helsinki – was leased to the Soviet Union as a military base. Inspired by the photographs by Jan Kaila, Olli Jalonen explores those silenced and mysterious years, which prompted Finns to ask the question: what if the whole of Finland had succumbed to the same fate?

In the autumn of 1944, the Soviet Union set up an enormous military base close to Helsinki. The Porkkala area, which had been forcibly leased from Finland for 50 years, was returned to the Finns early, in 1956. Completely divorced from its surroundings and strongly armed, the foreign power’s base was like a bear sleeping in Finland’s back yard. It has left in the minds of Finns hidden images of silence, fear and mystery.

In the Second World War, Finland lost two conflicts to the Soviet Union, first the Winter War (1939–1940) and then the Continuation War (1941–1944). After the Continuation War, peace conditions became, if anything, more stringent: in addition to severe war reparations, Finland was forced to cede to the Soviet Union territories whose total size was that of Switzerland. In addition, it was forced to lease the Porkkala peninsula, with its existing coastal defences, to the victor as a military base.

The Porkkala area comprised some 1,000 square kilometres of land, islands and sea. It was less than 20 kilometres from the border of the base to the Finnish capital. Half-tonne grenades from the massive 305mm cannon – installed, ironically enough, by the Finnish coastal defence forces in the 1930s – could have destroyed the whole of Helsinki, block by block.

The Finnish leaders felt the leasing of Porkkala to be a terrible threat to the independence of the country as a whole. In the last stages of the war, Marshal Mannerheim, who had been elected president of Finland, estimated that as many as 120,000 armed soldiers could be accommodated on the Porkkala base. The threat of invasion was a deterrent of such magnitude that it made Finns cautious and quiet.

Since the opening of the Russian archives in the 1990s, detailed information about the silenced years, which are known as the time of parenthesis, have begun to surface. According to Suljettu aika (‘A time of closure’, WSOY, 2001) by Jari Leskinen and Pekka Silvasti, there were fewer than 20,000 soldiers and civilians on the base. For Joseph Stalin, the base was a political and military weapon, a Gibraltar of the North, already planned by Peter the Great, that would dominate the whole of the Gulf of Finland.

The railway that linked Finland’s two most important cities passed through the Porkkala area. In response to generous compensation in dollars, the Soviet Union permitted the continuation of rail transport between Helsinki and Turku. It insisted, however, that the windows of the carriages should be covered with steel shutters, the doors should bed locked and every train should be guarded by ten armed Russian soldiers.

There was to be not a glimpse of the base. This only encouraged the rumours and fascination of Porkkala. So many western journalists and tourists wanted to experience this ‘longest railway tunnel in the world’ through the ‘empire of evil’ that during the Helsinki Olympics of 1952 extra trains, with their steel shutters, were run through the base.

The period of the lease was defined as 50 years; the area would not have been returned to Finland until 1994. In fact, the Russians left Finland as early as 1956. The Korean war had ended, Stalin had died, the weaponry of the Porkkala base was obsolete and roubles for its replacement were hard to come by. Nikita Khrushchev wrote later in his memoirs that Helsinki could, in any case, easily be destroyed with missiles and bombs from a greater distance.

So the Russians left, blew up their military installations and emptied the base, and the Finns tramped through the snows of early 1956 wondering at all that had happened and changed in the area, or whether it had all been a dream or merely a strange, short entr’acte.

First came the police, who shot all the dogs and cats of Porkkala – because of the danger of disease, it was said. Then the former inhabitants were allowed in to look at their houses and land: everything was strangely changed and at the same time familiar; in the landscape, two layers were superimposed. The fields were overgrown, the houses destroyed or painted in strange Russian shades of green or blue, there were strange letters on the walls, curved triumphal arches along the roadsides.

Those less than twelve years between 1944 and 1956 left a strange gap in Finland’s history and its intellectual and emotional climate, like a passing comment, a silent, silenced moment, as if a piece of memory had been lost. It was decades before it became possible to address the matter.
Although some painful and frightening matter is hidden deep in the mind, it does not disappear from the mind or from life. The heavily lost war, the threat of a foreign military base and, afterward, the memory of the threat, remained. Parentheses entered Finns’ thoughts, and within the parentheses merely emptiness or something indefinite, not properly shaped, a fragment of a sentence and a thought: what if?


I was born in the late winter of 1954 in Helsinki. Porkkala was still in Russian hands. The last remnants of post-war rationing were being removed. Jan Kaila was born in 1957. The Russians had already left Porkkala. Jan Kaila became a photographer. I became a writer. Jan Kaila and his family moved to Porkkala. I had never even visited the area.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Porkkala base was history, something as distant as the Iron Age. Nevertheless its echo, those mysterious parentheses in the memory, had remained with the Finns. When, close to his home, Jan Kaila uncovered old Russian signatures, he became interested in that hidden past and began, with the use of photography, to seek what could be found within the emptiness of the parentheses. Neighbours began to bring Kaila rubbish and objects that the Russians had left behind, deliberately or accidentally, in Porkkala almost half a century before. Strange writing or foreign-looking wallpaper had been found on the walls, bones and dice in the ground, broken schnapps glasses on rubbish heaps, Russian cigarette stubs in gaps between attic floorboards.

After years of work by Kaila, these small things amounted to something greater than the sum of their parts: they were pieces in the shaping of something that had not yet been shaped. The completely strange, the great unknown began to become something small and ordinary, familiar, but at the same time some new, great, almost mythic dimension had attached itself to the fragments. A Russian cigarette stub was no longer merely a cigarette stub. Even when stopped, a clumsy clock made out of a hand-grenade showed many times at once.

When Jan Kaila began to put together an exhibition on the subject, he asked me to join him to make texts. I accepted his invitation immediately, because I had some very personal links to the subject.

In many of my books, I had dealt with the strata of memory, and in one of them – Johan ja Johan (‘Johan and Johan’, Otava, 1989) with the chaotic period of Soviet history in the early 1920s. At that time, St Petersburg was called Petrograd. My paternal grandfather had disappeared in the travails of its early socialism. He had defected across the border after Finland’s bloody civil war in the spring of 1918, when the White Finns were victorious over the Red Finns. For years and for decades, the losing side remained an object of suspicion in Finland.

My grandfather had escaped across the border in the midst of the fear of revenge and mass hysteria. He disappeared without a trace. My father was still a little boy. In Finland, the children and widows of Reds who defected to Russia were not well-treated. Both my father and my entire family were branded with the painful memory and with shame.

In some sense, I too had in my head, ever since I was a child, the parentheses associated with this silenced matter; the general Finnish parentheses of silence grew there over the years.


Thanks to Jan Kaila’s exhibition, I had an opportunity to examine my own empty gaps in a new way. We both rummaged within the parentheses of our minds, Jan Kaila in the language of his photography and I by writing.

Quietly, I stared at the hundreds of pictures that Kaila had taken of Russian objects and the prints he had made from the negatives left behind by the Russians in Porkkala. For months, I surrounded myself with a few pictures that had become important to me: a small, brightly coloured cow made of wood and two prints of forgotten negatives. One was a strange double exposure of the base’s triumphal arch. The other was taken in a room with rose-printed wallpaper. It showed a beautiful woman and her two children; the mother was wearing a rose print skirt and the girl and boy polka-dot sweaters.

Jan Kaila also gave me the notes of a Komsomol activist and informer who had lived on the base in 1951. Hidden behind an old tile stove, the pile of papers had been discovered only when the stove was demolished in 1987. The notes included lists of the achievements of socialism and denouncements of drunken and politically lazy soldiers interspersed with very personal, oddly affecting phrases expressing deep longing.

I began writing by walking in a straight line defined by the compass through the empty areas of Porkkala. It was November; the trees were leafless, but no snow had yet fallen. Even if I had not stumbled on the remains of the paved Kabakov ordnance road or elks in the Russian cemetery, it felt as if I were wandering in a strange land and in a different time.

I wrote a short story called ‘Pieni puusta veistetty kirjava lehmä’ (‘A gaudy little cow carved from wood’) about the informer, in other words about myself, and about the superimposed memories and emptiness a radio play called Porkkalansaari (‘The island of Porkkala’). Later, I had the main character in one of my novels live close to the Russian cemetery where the children’s graves were decorated with toys and sledges.

When one casts light on the emptiness contained and concealed within one’s own parentheses, it is as if a larger wind were blowing.


The photographs are from Jan Kaila’s exhibition Porkkala 1944–1956, which was held in Helsinki in 1994, and are taken from the series Valokuvaaja: Tuntematon venäläinen sotilas (‘Photographer: Unknown Russian soldier’)


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