Sixty years ago: Parliament within range of Soviet guns
Officially it was "the Porkkala Leased Territory", but Mannerheim said Finland was an occupied country
By Riitta Vainio in the Porkkala peninsula
Friday, September 29th, 1944. Finland was in the grip of fear.
The Soviet Union began to take over an area of around 1,000 square kilometres right on the doorstep of Helsinki.
Porkkala had passed into the hands of the Red Army as part of the Moscow Armistice, signed on September 19th after the guns fell silent on the three-year Continuation War.
Before the borders were closed and the area was taken over, some 8,300 people living in the Kirkkonummi, Siuntio, and Inkoo communities had to be hurriedly evacuated.
In addition to the peninsula known as Porkkala and the area immediately to the west of it, the Soviets were granted harbour facilities for their submarines in Helsinki, Hanko, Turku, and in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands.
The airfield at Malmi (then Helsinki’s main airport, though now used only by light planes) became a closed-off area and came under the jurisdiction of the ostensibly bipartite "Allied Control Commission", whose task was to check Finland’s adherence to the terms of the Moscow Armistice.
Though technically this body was to be made up of representatives Great Britain and the USSR, it was universally understood that the Soviets held a dominant position, under their feared senior representative Marshal Andrei Zhdanov.
The Control Commission set up shop in Hotel Torni, the tallish building that nowadays passes for the only skyscraper on the Helsinki skyline.
At the time, in late September 1944, the Finnish statesman J.K. Paasikivi (who was soon to be called back from private life to serve first as Prime Minister from October 1944 to March 1946 and then as President from March 1946 to March 1956) described his feelings as follows:
"Terrible! Terrible! - The question is whether the Finnish people can live as a nation after this. Porkkala, Control, interference in our internal affairs..."
Before long, the first artillery batteries were set up on the peninsula and pointed towards Helsinki: they were so close that they could have more or less literally dissolved Parliament without difficulty. Big coastal guns, one with a range of 42 kilometres, underlined the threat to the western suburbs of the capital.
The presence of the Soviet forces was described as a leasing agreement, but in his memoirs, Marshal C.G. E. Mannerhem (the wartime commander-in-chief and Finland’s President from August 1944 until his resignation through illness in March 1946) commented that as long as there were Soviet troops in the country, Finland was under occupation.
The Finns themselves feared that Porkkala was merely an overture to the seizure of the entire country. Estonia had already succumbed.
The occupation eroded the confidence of the Western Powers in seeing Finland as an independent country (see the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office documents in the links below), and it hampered Finland’s attempts at rebuilding post-war contacts with the West.
The Red Army troops were also permitted to arrive in Porkkala via Helsinki, and these marches are regarded as being the most critical phase of the occupation.
If, when they disembarked in Hietalahti, the Soviet troops had turned towards the centre of the city instead of heading out towards Kirkkonummi in the west, the capital would have been in a parlous state: Finland’s best troop units were by this stage in Lapland, attempting to satisfy another of the Armistice demands - the removal of Nazi German forces from Finnish soil.
Around 15,000 Russian soldiers marched through the western districts of Helsinki.
The Soviet Union wanted Porkkala as a means of shutting off the Gulf of Finland and safeguarding access for its own naval units to the Baltic Sea.
The military bases also gave a powerful fist to the actions of the Allied Control Commission (in effect from 22.9.1944 until 26.9.1947, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in February of that year): there were interrogations, arrests, and censorship was in force.
By almost any standards, Porkkala was massively equipped. The area had artillery and anti-aircraft batteries, coastal gun emplacements, a tank regiment, a division of Red Army marines (in three regiments and six separate battalions), supply units, and servicemen’s family members.
There were a total of 40,000 people replacing the original residents, with 30,000 of them in uniform.
The base area was initially fortified to the hilt in 1944-1945, with a view to defending against a possible German incursion.
Following the end of World War II, the wooden battle positions and the trenches that had been dug began to fall into decay.
Later, a military port was built at Upinniemi, and a supply harbour at Båtvik to go with it. When the Cold War temperature slipped down a few degrees in 1951, the entire area was reinforced with concrete emplacements.
Porkkala was also prepared to withstand a nuclear attack, and an underground command & control centre was excavated on the site, capable of surviving an H-bomb blast.
In 1994, when an international study was carried out on former Soviet military bases, there were reports of finds of mustard gas in Porkkala.
The use of this battlefield weapon had been outlawed internationally after the end of World War I.
Porkkala was also a colossal espionage centre, in which spies were trained, debriefed, and entertained.
At the time of its initial handover, the length of the lease on the Porkkala area was set at 50 years, meaning it should have passed back to the Finns only ten years ago, on October 1st, 1994.
However, the Soviets relinquished Porkkala on the initiative of Secretary-General Nikita Khrushchev in January 1956, at the height of Paasikivi’s career, and just before he handed over the Presidency to Urho Kekkonen.
The temporary thaw in Soviet relations with the West was one reason, the decline in the strategic significance of Porkkala was another, and the price for the gesture was a lengthy continuation of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance that had been signed in 1948.
As for the people who had been evacuated nearly 12 years previously, they could go home, but whether they would find things as they remembered them was quite another matter.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 29.9.2004
More on this subject:
The iron curtain comes down, and "the world's longest railway tunnel" is created
"We were all pawns in the great historical game"
Previously in HS International Edition:
Porkkala: A Finnish white spot (21.5.2000)
Hanko (1940-41) and Porkkala (1944-56)
Terms of the Armistice, 19.9.1944
The Allied Control Commission arrives in Malmi, 22.9.1944
Official British FCO documents relating to the early years of the Control Commission
A report on the state of affairs in Finland in November 1944, by a British officer attached to the Control Commission (.pdf file, rather faint text)
The Cold War and the Treaty of 1948
A lengthy article on Finnish involvement in World War II, by Max Jakobson (Virtual Finland, originally in Helsingin Sanomat, 4.9.2004)
RIITTA VAINIO / Helsingin Sanomat