Sunday, May 6, 2007

A Pistol to Finland's Head - 1944 - 1956

On September 19, 1944, Finland and Russia signed in Moskow an armistice treaty which ended the Continuation War. One of the stipulations of the treaty was the agreement that the Soviet Union lease the area of Porkala on the Gulf of Finland for 50 years. The lease in fact lasted only from 1944 to January 26th 1956. The period is called the Parenthesis.

Porkala was the second naval base that the Soviets established on Finnish territory in the 1940’s. The Soviet Union also leased Hangö Udd after the winter war of 1939-1940, but the Finns reconquered it six months after the beginning of the Continuation War in June 1941. In 1944 the Soviets demanded the lease of Porkala instead in order to establish a naval base at Obbnäs in the archipelago. Its strategic importance, for the protection of the newly constructed naval base of St. Petersburg, was realized already by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. The Russians had repeatedly tried to construct a block of the Gulf of Finland between Makilo, south of Porkala peninsula, and the island of Nargö, off the coast of Estonia at the narrowest point of the Gulf. But Finland and Estonia actually managed to construct it in top secret collaboration in the 1930’s. The lock held throughout the two wars, ultimately with Germany as an ally on the Estonian side.

The distance from the naval base at Obbnäs to Helsinki was a little over 20 kilometers, and the closeness of the base to the capital, defered to as a “pistol to Finland’s head, raised international concern.

The lease covered about 1000 square kilometers, a large part of which was inhabited by Swedish-speaking Finns. It included parts of several communities, namely two thirds of Kyrkslätt, a third of Sjundeå, practically all of the small community of Degerby (except for three villages) and smaller parts of Ingå and Esbo. The area affected had a population of 7000 persons which had to be evacuated. The inhabitants were officially informed by the Finnish authorities of the evacuation on September 19th, 1944, and thus had nine days in which to pack up and leave with all their belongings, including their grain stores and root crops still in the fields.

The Finnish state paid the farmers and houseowners compensation for their lost property and helped them to some extent with their resettlement. When the evacuees moved back in 1956, the state demanded repayment of the compensation. The people of Porkala were only a fraction of the total 400.000 persons displaced because of the two wars.

On September 28th the borders on both sides of the area were closed to traffic. The railway line between Helsingfors and Hangö, crossing the area, was kept in use, but all windows in the wagons were equipped with shutters and these had to be closed while passing through. Boat traffic in the part of the archipelago affected was forbidden. However, occasionally Finnish boats would stray into the area and were apprehended. The release of them usually involved cumbersome dealings with the Russian military authorities.

During the spring and summer of 1955 changes occurred in the political situation in Europe. As a consequence the strategic importance of Porkala diminished. In the fall of 1955 the decision was made to relinquish the Russian lease of the area and Porkala was returned to Finnish authorities on January 26th, 1956. The citizens of Finland also rejoyed when in that year the country became a member of United Nations and joined the Nordic Council.

A majority of the former owners moved back. The destruction which had occurred during the Parenthesis was enormous. The landscape was changed; many buildings had been destroyed while others had appeared and the fields were fallow. Those buildings that remained were painted in a specific hue of blue. All this became evident when the snow melted during the spring.

Today the concrete bunkers remind visitors of the Russian presence. The fields are as beautiful as ever, the houses are new or renovated. In 1997 the small Degerby Igor museum was built and, according to tourist sources, the interest in the Parenthesis is growing.

In 2006, 50 years have passed since the border was opened and, when my wife and I recently visited the museum, a guide was able to provided details of the period in five languages.

The Parenthesis of 1944-1956
Ulf Fagerlund

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