Thursday, November 23, 2006

Releasing the Past

As President Putin arrives in Helsinki today, he may just be aware of the fact that a large collection of photographs relating to the Russian-Finnish wars of 1939-40 and 1941-44 has this week finally been released to public view by the Finnish Defence Forces’ picture archive.

Many of the photographs are grisly and harrowing, but that is not the main reason why they have been withheld from open scrutiny for so long - some 45 years. The ban on the photos, first instituted in 1962, was last renewed in 1981, and the validity of that decision expired on November 19, giving the FDF the opportunity to break with the political self-censorship which had branded the archive collection as “unsuitable for use”. An extensive report in the international edition of Helsingin Sanomat explores the background:

…the first photographs put on the classified-items list were of Russian prisoners of war. It was not thought overly smart to annoy the Soviet Union. The same running order is found in the 1981 decision.

Within the Finnish Defence Forces, some have speculated that the publication of images of POWs and captured spies may also have been frowned on because of the potential propaganda weapon it would have offered to pro-Soviet elements within Finnish society.

When Helsingin Sanomat wrote about the locked-up pictures in 1998, the then Head of the FDF Picture Archives Lt. Col. Juha Myyryläinen described the 1981 decision as political. He said candidly that the statute reflected the Finnlandisierung [Finlandisation] era. Even so, that decision has remained in force until today.

The paper also notes that the release of the pictures has implications for the development of Finnish society as a whole in the post-Cold War era:

The relatives have had a personal need to see the gruesome images. But they are also important to others.

The pictures are a part of the secret history of Finland and the Finns.

They contain the seeds of a special kind of trauma associated with their enforced secrecy. Speaking of the mass killings of Finnish civilians by enemy forces has been forbidden, and the subject is not easy to grasp or to deal with - neither the facts of what happened nor the cover-up that followed.

Images of murdered civilians laid out on the grass and of bodies heaped on the back of trucks bring to mind the pictures seen in the media of mass killings of civilians in trouble-spots around the world.

From these partisan pictures it is possible to see that Finland has not been immune: these things really happened here sixty years ago.

During the Vietnam War, one image in particular became famous around the globe - a screaming 9-year-old girl running burned and naked down a highway, fleeing her napalmed village.

It would feel bad to publish a similar picture of a Finnish child from which he or she could be recognised.

Pictures of courts-martial in the field and of executions also exist. Images of judgements carried out on Finnish soldiers have been transferred into the closed files in order not to cause further distress to relatives.

The sequences of pictures of the executions of Russian infiltrators, dropped into Finland to spy and cause sabotage, tell us something of the insanity of war.

One set, marked as “Hanko Sector 1941″ sees a group of Finnish soldiers having a cigarette with a captured Russian spy.

The mood looks relaxed, even cordial: the men appear to be sharing a joke. On the back of the photo is the hand-written text: Finnish officers chatting with a Russian infiltrator. He is laughing at the ‘condemned man’s last request’.

In the next image the man is standing at the side of a mown hayfield, facing a firing squad of half a dozen men with rifles, and in a third - marked Infiltrator’s death-sentence - his body is shown slumped on the ground.

(Hat tip: Marius)

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