For the Union Dead

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
—Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead”

On her always surprising blog Found in Translation, Kate Sotejeff-Wilson, a translator based in Finland, has recently reviewed Tiina Lintunen’s Punaisten naisten tiet (Red Women’s Paths).

Ms. Lintunen has traced the lives of women in the Pori area who fought for the Reds during Finland’s brief civil war (1918) and the aftermaths of their decisions.

As Ms. Sotejeff-Wilson writes in her conclusion, Ms. Lintunen’s book seems to be a perfect candidate for translation into English, especially in this centennial year. (Finland is celebrating 100 years of independence this year.)

“The immediate consequence was often months of waiting—if not dying—in near-starvation conditions in prison camps before their case went to court. The daughter of one woman, Katri, remembers the story of how her mother stole fresh bread from her own mother’s kitchen and was hysterical when her little sister wanted to leave the house with red ribbons in her hair. Katri was sure that her sister would be arrested for openly supporting the Reds. Another woman remembers her teacher knocking a boy’s head against a brick wall for taking 1 May, the international workers’ day, off school.”

In my adopted semi-hometown of Imatra, there is a war memorial, seemingly leftist in its aesthetic, and twelve headstones at the city’s cemetery. They sit cheek by jowl with the clearly delineated, amply identified part of the cemetery where the “real” Finnish war heroes lie, i.e., men who died fighting the Soviet Union in the Winter War and the Continuation War.

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“Leftist” memorial and gravestones to twelve “non-heroes” of the Finnish Civil War, Tainionkoski Cemetery, Imatra
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The section where those who fought and died against the Soviet Union lie in rest is much better looked after and more clearly identified.  Tainionkoski Cemetery, Imatra

Until quite recently, all the names and dates of the dead and brief details of their deaths were listed on large laminated sheets of paper, hung behind glass in a information stand situated midway between the two memorials.

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“Tainionkoski [Cemetery] War Graves.” This schematic is keyed to the lists of the war dead, most of them local soldiers and officers who fought in one of the two wars against the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1944. The twelve graves situated perpendicularly and at a distance from the main mass of war graves are marked on this schematic, but the men and one woman who lie in those graves are no longer listed on the information stand, although only a few years ago they, too, were deemed worthy of inclusion in the list of war heroes.
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All the local men who perished the Winter War and Continuation War are still listed on the information stand, as are their dates of birth and death, as well as their exact location in the “heroes” section of Imatra’s Tainionkoski Cemetery. But you will find no information about the war dead buried nearby, eleven men and one woman, who were most likely executed by the Whites during the waning days of the Finnish Civil War.

Then, about a year or two ago, the names of the twelve—who most likely were Finnish Reds executed during late April and early May 1918 at Ruokolahti, near present-day Imatra, if my memory serves me as to what was written on the old lists—were mysteriously removed from the stand.

When I last visited the cemetery again, a week or two ago, the graves of the twelve “traitors” seemed to have been spruced up a bit. The names and dates engraved on the headstones had been outlined in white to make them more legible, but their bearers were still absent from the laminated list of heroes in the information stand, and there was nothing but the memorial behind them that would suggest to anyone who they were and what side they could have fought on.

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This is all Imatra’s Tainionkoski Cemetery has to tell us about Amanda Knutars, who was, I seem to remember, executed near Ruokolahti (which in the administrative toponymy of that era, before Imatra and Ruokolahti were incorporated as full-fledged municipalities, could have been almost literally down the street). It also strikes me as odd that the modest headstones of her and eleven companions in death are marked with crosses. Were they Reds or Whites? Or is the current generation too modest to tell us plainly, passing off Reds shamefacedly as “good Christians”?
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Meanwhile, nearly all the gravestones marking the final resting places of the “real” heroes bear traces of the German Junker aesthetic that has been all too prominent in the insignia and symbolism of the Finnish Army, even to this day.

I am sure the memorial to the twelve, by the way, is no longer legible to the younger generation, i.e., people born after 1991, just as the motto etched on its base, something about “brotherly sacrifice” has long been overgrown with moss.

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The only real clue to their identities is the fact that members of the Finnish Social Democratic Party march to the Tainionkoski Cemetery very early in the morning every May first and place a wreath at the memorial before going to have their Mayday coffee and roll. Next year, I’m marching with them.

Text and photos by Living in FIN

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