Thursday, August 21, 2014
On the day I die I hope to have an intact memory and if that is the case I will no doubt be able to recall my meeting with Harry Järv, a war veteran and author from Finland/Sweden who wrote the best piece I have read about what happened in Moscow on August 23 seventy-five years ago.
The impression I got from my one and only meeting with Harry Järv, i.a. deputy director at the National Library of Sweden, was unforgettable. Sweden´s librarian number two had not only himself written a long list of important books, he had led many recon patrols behind Soviet lines after having joined the Finnish Army as a volunteer in the Winter War of 1939-40. In the midst of his wartime service he was able to reflect about leadership, art and also to change his leadership according to his evolving ideas on humanity and war. I think I can best describe him in English as a real-life Jedi.
Twenty-five years ago Järv´s article "The Exception: Finland" (Undantaget Finland) was published in the Swedish culture journal Fenix. It is not available online but I would like to give some idea about it here now, as this coming weekend it will be exactly 75 years since the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, including a secret protocol, was signed. In his article Harry Järv first reminds about the fifty years of Soviet denial of the secret protocol that divided up the territories of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania into German and Soviet "spheres of influence", anticipating "territorial and political rearrangements" in Europe i.e. the invasions of Germany and the USSR of the listed countries.
As Järv wrote, it was only in August 1989 that the text of the secret protocol was published in Soviet press. The first paper to publish it was the Soviet weekly Argumenty i Fakty. This was possible due to the admission a few weeks earlier by Valentin Falin, Chairman of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
Järv then provided a history of how the protocol had been used, debated and supressed for half a century, eloquently demonstrating the many similarities between how the protocol was used by the USSR against the Baltic states and Finland. As a consequence of the protocol the USSR established the Finnish People's Government/Finnish Democratic Republic. The Soviet Air Force dropped the text of a treaty between the USSR and its new Finnish republic, i.a. on the unit in which Harry Järv served. Järv thus himself could pick up a fresh copy of this treaty. And here comes a quote from Järv on its effect on the Finnish troops: "I know of not a single example of it [the treaty] having had the desired effect" (my translation from Swedish). To make a long story short the Finnish puppet state of Stalin became a very strong motivation in the fight FOR Finland. Ultimately Finland, because of its incredible resistance, became the exception to the rule, the lone survivor of the secret protocol of August 23. Large territories had to be given up but the main body of Finland could go on as an independent and democratic state.
Bearing in mind the bloody history of "spheres of influence" and "People's Republics" it will be interesting to observe how the 75th anniversary of the secret protocol will (not) be remembered in different countries.
Harry Järv kindly obliged to my request to contribute a photograph from one of his patrols to Swedes at War. It is probably the strongest photo in the book (it is not the photo at the top of this blog post).
Friday, August 01, 2014
Today it is exactly 100 years since Russia became part of World War One, or as it is still known in some countries, the Great War. But there is almost nothing that reminds about it in today´s Russia, although the Russians generally have a great interest in history and especially wars.
You will find a World War Two monument in just about every Russian town, and in many villages too. In large cities you will find several statues and busts commemorating WWII heroes and a T-34 tank in some public area. Museums and exhibitions about WWII are also very numerous. But the first monument about World War One was unveiled only in 2004 and the first-ever Russian World War I museum has not yet opened (but it will, in St. Petersburg). These and other signs of low interest and scanty knowledge are covered in a highly readable article in today´s English-language The Moscow Times.
Why this low interest? After all, three million Russians lost their lives during WWI. Yes, THREE million lives. The above article tries to explain this mystery and I am not saying it got things wrong but perhaps one could explain even more simply by saying that there was just zero use for WWI. It could not benefit the Soviet state in any way and "stole" attention from the "October Revolution", although one can argue that with no WWI there had also been no revolutions in 1917...
I was thinking a lot about Russia 1914-18 when I recently for the first time visited the former prison in Karlskrona (south Sweden) of Anton Nilson, the Swedish revolutionary who went to Russia during the last stage of WWI and became one of the Red Army´s first aviators. I interviewed him during five intense hours in 1988 and the result is in Swedes at War 1914-45. Part of Nilson´s former prison is now becoming an international school and part of it is a cool restaurant. You should visit it when in Karlskrona. Thanks to the kind staff I got to see several prison cells, some of which looked pretty unchanged since Anton Nilson was in the building.