Wednesday, January 18, 2012


The “Cross of Sorrow” at Koirinoja
Only a few memorials remind the traveler that Karelia’s silent green landscape is one huge war cemetery. About 83,000 Finns and 333,000 Russians (including civilians) died in the Winter War and the War of Continuation alone. About twice those numbers were wounded. In both wars Karelia was a battlefield where the dug-in Finnish army faced massive onslaughts. The largest pitched battle in the Nordic theatre took place in the Continuation War at Tali Ihantala (June-July 1944), just north of Viborg after its fall, and was decisive for Finland’s survival as a sovereign state. Only a laconic inscription, in Finnish and Russian, on a simple stone overlooks a strategic part of the vast battlefield. Finnish volunteers still search there for traces of the missing dead.
Memorial Stone at Tali Ihantala overlooking part of the battlefield
A more notable and impressive memorial is the Cross of Sorrow in Koirinoja (title picture), just north of Pitkäranta on the east coast of Lake Ladoga, commemorating one of the bloodiest battles of the Winter War. About 6,000 Finnish and 36,000 Russian soldiers were killed there in January-February 1940 as several Russian armored divisions headed towards Sordavala (Sortavala) from Petrozavodsk. Using their famous ‘motti’ tactic, the outnumbered Finns destroyed the Russian divisions by allowing them to advance along forest roads well into Finnish held territory before breaking the long columns into small, immobilized segments by simultaneous attacks from the side. (Motti is a Finnish word used for chopped fire wood.)
A “motti” attack left miles and miles of wreckage
After the fall of the USSR, the Russian and Finnish governments agreed in 1992 to honour the dead of both countries on both sides of the new border. Leo Lankinen, of Petrozavodsk, won the competition for the Koirinoja memorial which was raised among the trenches of the war.
Remains of war trenches at Koirinoja
Both sides agreed on the memorial’s form and text and funded its construction. Raised in 2002, it is still in good shape, which is more than can be said about the surrounding infrastructure. The near-by washroom facility did not survive the first winter. When spring came, local interests had removed the door and the sanitary equipment. A decade later the facility is still not restored and garbage accumulates in a large pile outside – an indication of the local authority’s priorities.
Modern conveniences are much sought after
More Finnish than Russian visitors appear to stop at the memorial. At our visit, a boisterous group of Russian school children played on the grounds, while their portable radio, placed on the memorial’s base, blared western music. We took the liberty to turn it off. Thereafter, we joined a group of Finnish visitors attentively listening to its guide’s lecture about the bloody battles on these fields.
The Finnish guide explains the battle of Koirinoja
Most of the members of the group were too young to have participated in these battles. We guessed that their parents had participated or were refugees from the area. They kindly offered us a cup of coffee from their portable canteen and cheered us on our way by singing the Marching Song (Marssilaulu) written during the Winter War by the Nobel Laureate in literature of 1939 Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1888-1964) and set to music by Aimo Mustonen. Click on the word “VIDEO" to see and hear them sing the song.
Nordic bonding at the Cross of Sorrow
We saw few memorials of the battles in the Winter War and the War of Continuation. However, we kept stumbling across reminders of the many battles in previous centuries. This was not surprising since today’s border is close to the border that prevailed between 1721 and 1812. Consider but two monuments that we saw!

The first commemorates the battle at Ruskeala on 17 May 1789. Presumably the monument was raised only after 1812 when Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy (although war memorials still had to be approved by the Czar). It was destroyed by the USSR after 1944, perhaps because it stood in the playground of the village’s nursery school and could have disturbed the minds of young children.
The Ruskeala Memorial in the thirties (possibly at the 150th anniversary) … and today
Seizing the opportunity given by the outbreak of war between Russia and Turkey in 1787, Gustav III attacked Russia in 1788 in the hope of recovering territorial losses of 1721. Incompetently prepared and unconstitutionally declared, the king’s war was doomed when his navy failed to gain mastery of the Bay of Finland at the outset. On land, Russian troops quickly dispersed an army led by an officer corps that was ill-trained and ill-motivated and unable to stop the Russians.

Openly opposed by the army’s Finnish officers in Finland, always the theater of wars with Russia, the war proved a series of disasters. Saved at last by a naval victory at the second battle of Svensksund (Ruotsinsalmi), Gustav III accepted an outcome of status quo ante bellum. Circles in the nobility, which formed the officers’ corps, exacted revenge by assassinating the king in 1792. The assassination provided the original plot for Verdi’s opera The Masked Ball.

The second memorial at near-by Pälkijärvi honoured heroes of the Finnish wars of 1789 and 1808-09. Among those involved was Fredric Vilhelm Malm (1772-1826), of Kuopio, who participated in both wars as an officer in the famous Savolax Brigade. In the first, he was promoted for bravery in battle. The second war started when Alexander I attacked Sweden, a year after meeting Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807, to force it to join the Continental Blockade against the United Kingdom.
Pälkijärvi Memorial
Who was Captain Malm, honoured by this lonely memorial at the intersection of two country roads in a desolate country?  We turned to Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877), Finland’s poet laureate of the Finnish war of 1808-1809, to find out. Runeberg mentions Malm in the very first poem of his war epic Fänriks Ståls sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål, Vänrikki Stoolin Tarinat), published in 1848 and 1860, where an inquisitive school boy asks a wizened veteran to tell him about the war.

Jag satte mig på sängens halm,                       I took my seat upon his cot,
Han började berätta                                         charmed by the tales he told
Om Dunkers eld, om Kapten Malm,              of Dunkers’ fire and Captain Malm
Om mången bragd för detta;                           and many a hero bold;

On 9-10 August 1808 Captain Malm had chosen to attack rather than to retreat. With a small band of soldiers and armed peasants, he pursued and routed a twice as large Russian troop at Pälkijärvi on the Finnish side of the border. Thereafter he crossed the border to occupy temporarily the village of Pirttipoja - the only Russian territory taken in that war. Dunker, a legendary figure himself, promoted Malm to Major.

Malm’s exploit had greater impact on morale than on the outcome of the war. This war was lost by incompetence and treason at higher levels. Gustav IV’s strategy was to fall back in the face of advancing Russian troops, converting all Finland, and ultimately Sweden proper, into battlefields. Runeberg captures popular dissatisfaction with the military leadership in his denunciation of the incompetent commander-in-chief, Gustaf Mauritz Klingspor (1744-1814).

”Den som sagt att Klingspor stannat,              “You say that Klingspor dares to face
Han har talt förbannat galet.                             The enemy? You’r sore mistaken!
Adlercruetz det var och Hertzen,                     Adlercreutz it was and Hertzen
Som slog knut uppå vår nesa.”                        Who put an end to our disgrace.”

Wherever we went, we were reminded that Karelia had been a battlefield between East and West for over one thousand years. From the Vikings to the crusaders, from the centuries’ long struggle with Russia for mastery of the coasts of the Baltic Sea to the expansion of Stalin’s USSR, Karelia was always the first battlefield. Now a wasteland, it is an example of a policy characterised already two thousand years ago by Tacitus: ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. 


  1. Per och Emil,
    Mycket intressant resa, förstår jag. Har sett på bilder och läst en del text - ni har fångat en landsända i världen och dess tragiska och drömska historia. Tack!

  2. Emil!
    Tusen tack för denna intressanta information om Karelen. Ni borde publicera denna synnerligen läsvärda sammanställning i en bok. Såväl foton som text håller hög klass!

    Bästa hälsningar
    Tomas Thorsén

  3. Per och Emil,
    Tack för intressant läsning! Jag är speciellt nyfiken på Pälkijärvi, för jag har släktingar som kommer däriifrån, långt tillbaka i tiden. Exakt var ligger Pälkijärvi?

    1. Dear Jerry,
      We are delighted that you found our blog to be of interest to you.
      Pälkjärvi lies close to the Finnish border. You can reach it on the road that crosses the border at Värtsilä, just north of Parikkala. Pälkjärvi is the municipality along that road that lies just before the municipality of Ruskeala.
      Besides the war memorial in Pälkjärvi that we discuss in the present blog post, we also mention and show a picture of the foundation of Pälkjärvi Church an the earlier blog post "A Godless Country?"
      Yours sincerely
      Per and Emil