What if Lenin had drowned here?
Former President Mauno Koivisto’s book, Itsenäiseksi imperiumin kainalossa ("Gaining Independence under the Arm of the Empire"), begins with the words: "Lenin on thin ice".
It is a good opening statement, open to many different interpretations.
After that, Koivisto tells an amusing and dramatic story about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s escape from Finland to Sweden in late 1907. It culminates in the crossing of the Örfjärden sound between Parainen and Nauvo in the Southwest archipelago.
On Finnish Independence Day, one might do well to ponder what would have happened if Lenin had fallen into the ice. Koivisto’s book is, at least in his own words, a contrafactual pondering of history. He examines turning points and moments of decision, whose consequences could have been different from the way things turned out to be.
One of these was Lenin’s adventure on the ice. The President tells it right at the beginning, but he does not presume to speculate what might have happened if the ice under Lenin’s feet would have broken.
"The name of V.I. Lenin is extremely precious for the people on our planet", reads the first page in a guest book in the local museum in Parainen. The booklet is in the small bedroom of the Norrgården guest house.
The museum is not heated in November, but there were times when the little room was quite crowded. Behind the door of a closet there are a number of silver-coloured heads of Lenin, ostentatious statuettes, small banners, and countless lapel pins.
This tiny room was one of the places of pilgrimage where Soviet tourists were taken during visits to Finland. There is a bed in the room where Lenin spent a couple of nights, and above it there is a copy of a very dark painting, in which Lenin is crossing Örfjärden in the dark. The original is in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
The painting is impressive. Three figures can barely be seen in the dark night. Lenin, who is taller than the others, looks decisive and alert as he holds a briefcase. His face gets most of the light. Behind him are two other figures holding sticks, and one of them has a pipe. They are Finnish "peasants" - Lenin’s guides on the night ice. Alongside Lenin the men appear to be trusting, but simple.
A few stars shine in the sky, and a little bit of light from a fire can be seen on shore.
It was not easy to paint it: dark figures in the dark night. Especially difficult was placing the figures so that Lenin would not appear to be walking behind his guides, but would seem to be leading the group.
Lenin, who was facing arrest, had fled toward Sweden from Veräjämäki in Oulunkylä, outside Helsinki. While he was on the train he suspected that he had two members of the Czar’s secret police on his tail, and he tried to shake them off at the restaurant of Karjaa Station. However, this did not succeed. When the train stopped at the station of Littoinen a few kilometres before Turku, Lenin did something that was straight out of a Hollywood action film. He jumped off the train just after it left the station.
The station now has a plaque commemorating the event.
Lenin was slightly injured, and he was very cold by the time he got to Turku. There he warmed himself up at the home of local activist Walter Borg. The building also has a monument testifying to its part in Lenin’s flight.
Lenin had missed the ship to Stockholm. He then went by horse toward Parainen, hoping to possibly catch a boat from there or from further out in the archipelago. Lenin arrived in Parainen on the island of Kirjala, at a guest house which has since been turned into a museum and physically moved to the centre of the municipality.
Lenin identified himself as Dr. Müller, a German, who was studying the limestone deposits of Parainen. From the guest house Lenin was moved to the Parainen cooperative store, and was taken care of by the shopkeeper. That house is also still exists.
Parainen, which outwardly looked like a sleepy island community, was actually a hotbed of resistance at that time. The police constable himself protected Lenin. Russian socialist revolutionaries had a bomb-making school in Parainen, whose teacher was known by the nom de guerre Dingo.
Shortly before Christmas, Lenin was moved to the small island of Lillmälö, which was as close as he could get to Nauvo. The sound of Örfjärden could not be crossed by boat or on foot, because the stormy wind had broken up the ice. They had to wait until it froze over again.
There were not many houses in Lillmälö, and there still aren’t. It is the place where long lines of cars will gather on summer weekends, waiting for the Nauvo ferry. Next summer it is good to remember that Lenin also had to wait on the same shore.
In Lillmälö Lenin felt frightened. The Finnish hosts began to celebrate Christmas, and started to drink hot toddies and mulled wine. Lenin was offered some, but he turned it down. "What kind of a doctor won’t even have a drink?" the local people wondered.
Lenin was housed in the bedroom of his hosts; the wife slept in the kitchen. The owner, Gideon Söderholm, slept with Lenin. In the same bed, perhaps?
Lenin had to wait for a week, past Christmas.
On December 26, he was getting impatient, and he phoned his contact in Turku. He was annoyed by the way the Finns would drink, speak their own language, try to offer him drinks, and give him the occasional slap on the shoulder. Lenin was afraid that he would be betrayed. His contact tried to calm him down.
Finally the temperature dropped, and although the ice was very thin, Lenin was urged to go for it.
To guide him across the dark ice came Gustav Wallsténs of Kemiö, a brave and lightly-built man.
Wallsténs walked ahead, and the scared Lenin came behind. The ice bent and cracked under them.
Lenin recalled that the guides were a bit tipsy, and he admitted that he was frightened, as he was sober.
"How stupid it would be to drown here", he later recalled himself thinking.
Lenin nevertheless made it to Prostvik in Nauvo, and from there he was taken by Johan Sjöman, a socialist tailor, to a small rock islet, from where the steamship Bore took him on board.
In this roundabout way the Russian revolutionary leader got out of the Russian Empire, reaching Stockholm, and from there he continued to Berlin and Geneva. He later recalled the Finnish island people with great affection.
So world history was made in Lillmälö that night. What if the ice had given way beneath the feet of Vladimir Ilyich? Would the October Revolution ever have taken place? Would Finland have stayed a part of the Russian Empire - perhaps to this very day?
Could it be, after all, that we have Lenin to thank for our independence? Wasn’t that the way of thinking promoted in years past?
Professor Osmo Jussila does not believe that the Russian Revolution would have stopped. Someone else would have taken Lenin’s place.
"After all, Trotsky led the practical operations of the revolution."
Lenin arrived from his exile only at the last moment. The events were moving at a very fast pace by that time.
"When Lenin came, he said: es schwindelt, or ‘I am dizzy’"
Jussila also observes that it was not easy to for Lenin to convince the others that Finland should be allowed to break off from Russia.
The director of the Lenin Museum in Tampere, Aimo Minkkinen, ponders the question.
"This is one of those big ifs. Marxists, among whom I still include myself, think that individuals do not decide. Instead, deeper currents push individuals into deeds."
Minkkinen also believes that Trotsky would have taken Lenin’s place.
"Even without Lenin there would have been revolutionary events in Russia. After all, there were even some non-socialists involved. The power of the Czar had degenerated so badly."
"At the decisive moments, the others were more hesitant than Lenin was."
The good treatment that had been extended to Lenin proved to be useful for Finland.
"Lenin knew Finland. He knew that it has its own language and its own culture, and that there was opposition to the power of the Czar. He had to defend his policy lines concerning Finland among his own people."
Minkkinen notes that President Urho Kekkonen once pondered in a letter to Finnish Communist Party leader Arvo Poika Tuominen whether or not the Winter War would have broken out if Lenin had still been in power in 1939.
Lenin still lives in Lillmälö. Sten Bergman is in his yard washing his car. He laughs. Lenin, you say. Yes, there is the room where Lenin spent Christmas.
"But it seems to be a bit messy and disorganised in there."
We go in for a look anyway. Inside is his wife Hjördis.
She tells about how busloads of Soviet tourists would appear in the yard unannounced.
"But they seemed to be interested in everything that we had in the house more than in Lenin."
We open the door to a small room. The bed is no longer there. In the room the Bergmans write at the same table where Lenin wrote.
We learn that Sten Bergman’s two uncles, Svante and Gunnar took Lenin to the shore on that night. Gunnar was just 14 years old then, Svante was older.
On the shore they broke off a branch of a pine tree for Lenin. He looked a bit confused as he carried it.
It is said that before stepping out onto the ice, Lenin had made a sign of the cross and muttered a prayer, but this could be a legend.
In any case, the Revolution walked over creaky ice in Lillmälö. Providence was with them, and possibly with Finland as well.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.12.2004
ILKKA MALMBERG / Helsingin Sanomat