Last week, a committee of inquiry of the Russian Federation announced that it would begin to investigate what it referred to as “the destruction of Soviet prisoners of war and members of the Slavic civilian population in concentration camps set up in Karelia by the Finnish occupation”. The crime, according to the announcement, was genocide.
The announcement was met with bewilderment in Finland. Article 13 of the armistice between the Soviet Union and Finland, concluded on 19 September 1944, required that Finland “undertake to cooperate with the Allied Powers in the arrest and sentencing of persons charged with war crimes”. Finland acted in accordance with that requirement.
The invasion of East Karelia, which was part of the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1941 was the fulfilment of the Karelian dreams of the Academic Karelian Society (Akateeminen Karjala-Seura). Military collaboration with Germany had made it possible. Finland also became part of Germany’s expansionist Lebensraum policy and wanted a part of the “New Europe” of the future. The East Karelia region, which had never belonged to Finland, was to be permanently taken over.
On 10 November 1941, Ernst von Weizsäcker, state secretary at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reported on a discussion with T. M. Kivimäki, the Finnish ambassador to Berlin. He noted that Kivimäki had proposed that two million people of Finnic background be transferred from elsewhere in the Soviet Union to an area east of Finland extending south from the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk region. The region would become home to the Voguls, Mordvals and other populations living west of the Urals, as well as the Tver Karelians. They would form a buffer against the East. Similarly, the non-national population in Karelia and the “lesser Russian population” (russischen minderwertigen Elemente, as they were described in German) of the Kola Peninsula would be relocated eastwards.
Ethnic segregation in East Karelia was part of this policy. Between 98 per cent and 99 per cent of those held in transfer camps (initially concentration camps) were classified as non-nationals, mainly Russians. The number of inmates in the camps peaked at around 24,000 in April 1942, with an estimated total of 30,000 between 1941 and 1944. According to a database compiled by the National Archives of Finland, a total of 4,060 people died in the camps. Of these, 1,345 were children under the age of 15.
A few weeks after the armistice was concluded, the Allied monitoring commission, led by Colonel General Andrei Ždanov of the Soviet Union, who arrived in Finland on 5 October 1944, called on Finland to act in accordance with the armistice by immediately arresting and sentencing persons accused of war crimes. To impel the Finns to act without delay, on 19 October 1944 the monitoring commission presented the Prime Minister of Finland, Urho Castrén, with a list of 61 persons to be immediately imprisoned as war criminals. According to reports prepared by the monitoring commission, these individuals were responsible for the military regime in East Karelia, amongst other things.
In accordance with this demand, in Finland the detainees were referred to as “List 1 prisoners”. Fifteen of those on the list had served in the military administration of East Karelia.
Forty-five people on List 1 were arrested, but legal proceedings against them made no progress. In response to an inquiry, in April 1946 the monitoring commission announced that the main war crimes cases would be dealt with first, and only then would it be the turn of the persons on List 1. The interrogations began in November 1946 with a decision of the monitoring commission, but they made slow progress. Misidentified persons were released.
Finland and the Soviet Union signed a peace treaty in Paris on 10 February 1947. On 20 February 1947, the commission decided that 17 of the detainees had to be released immediately; 16 more were to be prosecuted, and the investigation of another six was to continue.
The trial began after the commission, led by Major General Gennadi Kuprijanov, provided evidence gathered on the basis of consultations in the occupied area, amounting to more than 2,400 pages. The material was of little value as evidence, because many of the testimonies were based on hearsay.
Fourteen people were eventually sentenced to imprisonment, three of them for manslaughter. The longest sentence was given to a captain convicted of killing two inmates who were under orders. He received a prison sentence of four years and five months. The Allied monitoring commission had left the country in September 1947, and the Soviet Union did not intervene in or enforce judgments handed down in Finland after that.
The deaths and violence in the war camps were investigated by Finland much more extensively and thoroughly than the cases of the 61 persons named by the Allied monitoring commission. Under the leadership of Lieutenant General Woldemar Hägglund, a research body for prisoners of war camps was set up. Its activities were supervised by a committee chaired by Antti Tulenheimo, then-chancellor of the University of Helsinki. By the beginning of 1947, the body had examined more than 3,000 cases. A total of 1,400 charges were filed, and 910 trials were launched.
About half of the defendants were acquitted due to insufficient evidence against them. Most of the sentences handed down were lenient, but in the autumn of 1948 there were still 98 persons convicted of war crimes in prisons, some of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment.
When the trials were over, both in Finland and elsewhere in Europe there was a desire to gradually forget the wartime events. In part, this process was promoted by the pardon decisions of the President of Finland. In 1951, for example, President J.K. Paasikivi pardoned a builder who had already served five years of a life sentence for the deliberate killing of 34 prisoners of war.
The Soviet Union did not intervene in these decisions of the Finnish judiciary either. Finland had also been ordered to pay extensive war compensation, which was considered equivalent to the damage assessed by the Soviet Union.
The Finnish military regime in East Karelia has been studied extensively in Finland. The above information is partly based on my study, published in 1987, on Finland’s prison administration during World War II (Vangit, vankilat, sota – Suomen vankeinhoitolaitos toisen maailmansodan aikana). Since then, the National Archives of Finland has undertaken several large-scale research projects funded by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Academy of Finland, on topics such as the deaths of prisoners of war, mortality in civilian camps under the military regime of East Karelia, the handover of persons carried out by Finland between 1941 and 1955, the fate of the Ingrians, and the participation of Finnish volunteers in the German SS paramilitary organisation in violence in Ukraine and the Caucasus. More than 20 research monographs and many scholarly articles have been published as part of these projects.
The National Archives of Finland published a database of prisoners of war who died during the Winter War and Continuation War and of persons who died in civilian camps in East Karelia. This database is freely available online at http://kronos.narc.fi/index.html. The search instructions are in Finnish, Swedish, Russian, English and German.
The recent launch of a criminal investigation by a committee of inquiry of the Russian Federation into the killings of civilians and prisoners of war in the Continuation War during the Finnish occupation of East Karelia is a highly peculiar decision.
The allegations of the use of gas chambers and the burial alive of prisoners of war are absurd. Nothing of this kind came to light in the Allied monitoring commission reports, nor in Finnish archive sources, memoirs or the many studies of the occupation of East Karelia.
We are well aware that the committee has not used the original archives of the military administration of East Karelia, the Academic Karelian Society, or of other organisations or persons that are contained in the National Archives of Finland. It is in these archives that the events of the war and their background are most accurately documented.
Research on these topics is easy in Finland, as all wartime archives are publicly accessible. They are available to both Finnish and foreign researchers. It is part of the Finnish mentality that it is necessary to scrutinise even difficult parts of one’s own history.
The committee of inquiry of the Russian Federation does not appear to have considered the fact that immediately after the war, the war crimes investigations required by Article 13 of the armistice between the Soviet Union and Finland were carried out both at the request of the Allied monitoring commission and by Finnish investigators acting independently. Based on these investigations, several prison sentences were imposed, some of them life sentences. According to normal legal practice, the same person cannot be convicted of the same offence more than once.
The Russian study, which has been prominently publicised, is of a low standard of research and does not meet the basic requirements of “the legal process”. It is mystifying why such an endeavour is being undertaken at all – and has been presented so prominently.
It should be noted that in Russia, too, much historical research of an internationally high standard is being carried out on the Second World War. Archival collaboration between Finland and Russia has also been open and well-functioning. For this reason, obtaining the necessary materials from Finland or elsewhere would certainly not have been a problem if the committee had wanted to use these materials in search of the truth.
Regrettably, a project of this kind is embarrassing for those respected and academically serious Russian researchers who are deeply familiar with the original sources and literature on these issues in the archives of Russia, Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and other relevant countries.
Sensationalist claims might perhaps have an impact on the Russian public, but international experts will not be convinced by such attempts.
The author is the director general of the National Archives of Finland and an adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki.