Finnish POWs were relatively privileged, claims recent doctoral thesis
Around one third of them never came home
By Jaana Laitinen
The Soviet Union breached international norms in many different ways at the camps they ran for Finnish prisoners of war. At the same time, it has to be said that the Finns were among the most privileged of POWs in Soviet care.
They got a better reception, for instance, than that meted out to German POWs. This is the conclusion drawn by Dmitri Frolov, 34, who has studied the treatment of Finnish soldiers taken prisoner by the Soviet side during the conflicts of 1939-40 and 1941-44. Frolov is a Moscow-born researcher who has lived in Finland for many years.
In 2001 Frolov was the first foreigner to receive a Finnish State Non-Fiction Prize, along with Finnish journalists Reijo Nikkilä and Teuvo Alava, for work on a pair of TV documentaries about prisoners of war on the Soviet and Finnish side.
Dmitri Frolov defended his doctoral dissertation on the treatment of Finnish prisoners of war at the University of Helsinki last Friday [the date of original publication of this article]. He argues that the USSR was not well prepared for the arrival of POWs during the Winter War or the Continuation War that followed the brief period of peace from 1940-41.
Frolov takes the view that the progress of the war had been wrongly estimated from the Soviet side, and that they had also miscalculated on the numbers of prisoners likely to be involved. Many camps were unfinished and poorly equipped to cope with the influx of men.
"The treatment of POWs at camps was often tailored to the country’s own laws and paid no attention to international regulations. Prisoners’ rights were violated. No inventories of prisoners were handed over to the enemy, POWs were not allowed to correspond with their families in Finland, and the Red Cross did not get acccess to the camps", lists Frolov.
"For all that, the Finns were nonetheless treated better than other nationals in their own camps", he claims.
Initially the Finns were not seen as fascists, but as unfortunate victims of the evil Helsinki government, or as "civil guards". It was only after Finnish troops crossed the old borders between the two countries late in 1941 and began to occupy parts of Russian Karelia that the political terminology began to change.
"Not everyone regarded the Finns as enemies. The further a camp was from the actual front, the milder were the attitudes towards the inmates. Finns were not the object of systematic genocide, as the German prisoners were on occasion."
According to Frolov, a total of 997 Finnish POWs died during the two wars. The mortality rate was at its highest in 1942 and in the autumn of 1944. Roughly one-third of all Finnish soldiers taken prisoner by the Soviets died in captivity. This figure includes those who were shot while being taken prisoner.
"Nobody really knows the precise number of such deaths. Some vanished on the way from the front to the camps. In all probability they were summarily executed, and no records of the cases were written up."
There were no executions in the camps themselves. The causes of death there were starvation and diseases, often cholera or dysentery. Executions were more commonplace at the front itself, sometimes depending simply on "how irate or hungry the person doing the capturing happened to be".
"In particular the Russian partisans would tend to shoot the Finnish soldiers they picked up, after they had first got any useful information out of them. The order to despatch them came from the HQ of the partisan movement on the Karelian Front."
The researcher developed an interest in the Winter War and the Continuation War while studying political history at Moscow University in the 1990s. "The events of the wars with Finland are only sketchily known in Russia", he admits.
There is a personal aspect, too. Frolov’s wife hails from Petrozavodsk (Petroskoi in Finnish) in Russian Karelia. Her father, Frolov’s father-in-law, defected to Finland in the 1950s. The Finnish government returned him to the Soviet Union just before a visit by Secretary-General Nikita Khrushchev. Those were the days when the relationship to the east was not to be jeopardised by such international incidents.
"My wife’s father spent ten years in the Gulag. The stories about him increased my interest in the subject."
Frolov has collected his material from the Russian archives. He dug out interrogation documents and orders from the archives of the Soviet Communist Party and the Russian War Archives. "It is important to know how the systems work in order to get inside these places. I was fortunate in having contacts with researchers at the archives."
His work has been funded in Finland by a voluntary organisation acting on behalf of former POWs. Frolov expresses a measure of astonishment at the fact that the Finnish government itself does not allocate any budget funding for research into the history of prisoners of war.
"As far as I know, Finland is the only West European country not to have its own State-funded project investigating the fate of its own prisoners of war. Now even Russia has such a thing."
"We know what went on. The information should be passed down to children and grandchildren. Otherwise they will lose a part of their history."
Dmitri Frolov has told his own daughters "bedtime stories" about the POWs.
"Despite it all, they have slept well enough on it."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.11.2004
Previously in HS International Edition:
Professor Ylikangas calls for study into fate of those expelled from Finland (19.1.2004)
Soviet captors tried to persuade Finnish POWs to change sides (2.10.2001)
University of Helsinki: Finnish POWs in the Soviet Union (Dmitri Frolov)
Finnish prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, 1941-1945 (Timo Malmi)