Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing? the Fate of Russian "Aliens and Enemies" in the Finnish Civil War in 1918

By Loima, Jyrki | The Historian, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing? the Fate of Russian "Aliens and Enemies" in the Finnish Civil War in 1918


Loima, Jyrki, The Historian


INTRODUCTION: TASK, SOURCES, AND POLITICAL SITUATION IN 1918 THIS STUDY EXAMINES the treatment of Russians and other "Russian" foreigners such as Baltic, Polish, and Ukrainian peoples during the Finnish Civil War. (1) It first provides an analysis of the most noteworthy "ethnic" battlefields--Tampere and Rautu--from this particular point of view, concentrating especially upon the foreign combatant and civilian population. It then considers the Russian prisoners of war (POWs) and their destinies during and after the Finnish Civil War as well as the national and international rules regarding the treatment of civilians under wartime conditions. Those responsible for the treatment of foreign POWs will also receive attention.

The brief but savage war in Finland was a local, ideological outburst at the end of World War I (WWI), which itself opened political possibilities for various small European nations to reach for independence. The Finnish Civil War was caused by three main phenomena. First, Russian Tsarist troops and navy and military officials lost their willingness, motivation, and control in the Grand Duchy of Finland along with the revolutions in March and October 1917.

Consequently, Finnish workers had organized voluntarily, but armed Red Guards to maintain control in industrial towns and southern Finland, while farm owners and the middle class had their White Guards for the same reasons elsewhere. Second, the Senate of Finland voted for and manifested the Declaration of Independence in December 1917, but the political question of power remained open. Third, a Russian military train from St. Petersburg in January 1918 was a final spark to start local and sporadic shooting, which rapidly flamed into warfare. In fact, Lenin had sent weapons only to support the Finnish Red comrades, not to start war. (2)

Given the detailed and already well-researched descriptions of the battles themselves, this study only briefly treats the actual combat in order to concentrate on the topics mentioned. It adds to the history of ethnic minorities and their culture in the broad sense of "everyday" life, and has an obvious and strong thematic connection with the five-year "War Victims in Finland 1914-22" (WVP) research project set up by the Prime Minister's Office in 1998. This contribution thus has its place not only in the history of ideologies and mentalities, but also in the history of the Russian communities bypassed by previous research.

Complementing the WVP material, this study uses earlier and later statistics concerning Russian Orthodox parishioners within the Finnish state. These consist in mainly civil registers but also include the contemporaneous military registers (1910-17) of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). However, the existing archival lacunae and fragments often remain just that. On the other hand, WVP research remarkably has, as a whole, been able to transfer more identified victims to its electronic database, including the location of and reasons for their deaths. (3)

As Geoffrey Hosking put it, Finland had been "an unusual success story" for Russian imperial policy in the nineteenth century. However, the rise of national ideologies changed the political atmosphere. Anti-Russian ethnic and national stereotyping began to increase exponentially in Finland, especially in the Karelian Isthmus, where tens of thousands of Russian summer inhabitants (datchniks) had settled in green and comfortable villa areas close to St. Petersburg. Nationally, a social and ethnic gap based on economics, social status, and education existed. Politically, and like the southern Finnish coast, the Karelian Isthmus was important to Russia for the security of the capital and of the naval base at Kronstadt. The Russian Tsarist forces had played a visible social role during WWI in Finland, the location of several garrisons and military hospitals and 125,000 soldiers and marines in 1917. In spite of their unwillingness to wage war, it was both easy and politically logical to see them as foreign Russian troops who were enemies of the newly independent Finland in 1917, in particular because the military core of the established White ("farmer") Army in January 1918 comprised Finnish jaegers trained by the German Forces, with whom they also served and fought against the Russians in WWI.

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Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing? the Fate of Russian "Aliens and Enemies" in the Finnish Civil War in 1918
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