Finland Under the Guns
Last summer DAVID L. COHN, author, far traveler, and fighting Southerner, went north to Finland to see what it was like to live with people who were under Russia s guns. Here are his impressions. Mr. Cohn, who comes from the Delta, has published a penetrating study of the South, entitled Where I Was Born and Raised; during the war, at the request of General Somervell, he undertook a trip of some 10,000 miles to our armies in the various theaters, recording his findings in a diary entitled This Is the Story.
by DAVID L. COHN
WE WERE merry that July afternoon in Finland’s summer as we sat on a lawn high above a green-wooded lake, talking, laughing, telling stories — remote it seemed, from the glowering world in which we were. Finnish friends were giving me a party at their home near Helinki; an alarmingly hospitable party. For the hospitality of Finland — even to one brought up in the Deep South — is almost overwhelming in its warmth and gusto. So we were very merry, but every now and then, almost as a mournful refrain to our festiveness — a disturbing note that smote upon the heart — I heard melancholy snatches of song borne upon the wind.
The singing came from the Russian military base at near-by Porkkala. After the war, the Russians seized an enormous tract of land near Helsinki, made everybody move out, and then moved in. Technically, they leased the land because dictator states like to move “legally,” and Russia pays Finland a rental of 5 million marks a year for it. Then she charges Finland 25 million marks a year for the privilege of moving railroad trains through the base to other parts of the country. Finnish trains traversing the area are drawn by Russian locomotives and are in charge of Russian crews, while Finnish trainmen sit in a car with drawn blinds. Under no circumstances can they alight on the base, and once when a car caught fire and they jumped out, Russian soldiers shot at them.
“Do you ever see Russian troops?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” my host replied. “They are brought into the base and taken out in trains with drawn shutters. They are not permitted to see either Finns or Finland because the lies that are told them about us would vanish in the sunlight of truth. So they stay behind their wire manning the guns that dominate the Gulf of Finland and Helsinki. Right now, you may be sure, they are looking at us from their watchtowers and wondering what we are doing; something conspiratorial, no doubt, because to them any meeting of people is conspiratorial. After a while, you can see the base for yourself.”
Here were people living literally under the enemy’s guns. How, then, reconcile the high spirits of my friends with the dangers they faced? I thought of what a dear price the Finns had recently paid for their relative freedom. In Finland every twenty-fifth child is a war orphan, every seventeenth woman a war widow, every sixteenth man permanently disabled, every ninth citizen a displaced person.
As war reparations, Russia seized one sixth of Finland’s best land and its only ice-free port. Homes had to be found for 400,000 people who left the Russian-seized area. This is as if we had had to take in 15 million refugees after emerging from a devastating war. In addition, Russia demanded 300 million dollars in goods to be manufactured by the Finns, including large quantities of ships and machines, with severe penalties for failure to deliver on the dot. It did not matter that the Finns had never had a sizable metalworking industry. They had to make bricks without straw, and they have done it. By 1952, they calculate, they will have paid all.
Finland, moreover, is not behind the Iron Curtain. It is easy of access to the foreigner. He is neither bedeviled nor spied upon, and the Finns are making preparations to receive thousands of visitors to the Olympic Games to be held in Helsinki in 1952. Nor is Finland a Russian satellite. The people elect their own government, and have preserved their essential freedoms. No Communist sits in the Cabinet although Communists have 19 per cent of Parliament seats, while the power of Communists in the press, the radio, the theater, and other places — including the labor unions — is steadily being reduced. How do they do it?
I soon had an opportunity to ask. My hosts were discussing the question of adding a wing to their house and I inquired whether they thought it wise to do so when it lay under the Russian guns.
“We think so,” replied my hostess, a slender, dark, middle-aged woman who had been decorated for bravery while serving in the Lotta (the Finnish equivalent of our WAC) during the war. “Suppose that we didn’t build the wing because of fear of the Russians? Wouldn’t they then be defeating us in our hearts? One defeat in my heart, another in my neighbor’s, and soon we would be defeated as a nation. All is in the heart. All is from the heart. So we’ll build the wing. And if the Russians come, we women will go and fight with our men. We always have. We won’t whimper or complain. And that will make our men stronger in the battle.”
In the crystalline light of late afternoon, amid green pines and multicolored wild flowers, some of us walked to the Russian military base. Inside its wire, soldiers stripped to the waist were cutting hay. On our side of the wire, a Finnish family was picking strawberries. They had been evicted from the area occupied by the base, and there I could see their barns, doorless now and windowless, in order to open a line of fire where cattle once stood.
The peasant mother talked to me about the Russians. Occasionally her family was permitted to gather hay in a no man’s land between the Russian base and free Finland, working under a guard with enforced silence on both sides. “I feel sorry for those boys,” said the mother. “They are peasants, as we are, and they would like to be at home with their own families making their own crops. We want to talk to them and they want to talk to us. But no one can say a word. Don’t you think it is sad that human beings have to live like that?” she asked.
She did not mention her own hardships, which were largely of Russian making. There was no complaint in her voice and no defeatism. It was clear that she was all compact of resistance yet without visible hatred. I remember her there, her eyes serenely blue, face resolute, her strong bronzed arms working over her strawberry plants with the affection of those who love the soil.
A WEEK later I was in Finnish Lapland, beyond the Arctic Circle. This is a land of air strangely light; of trackless wilds, endless forests, bogs where cranes step with slow dignity from one islet of matted vegetation to another, and lakes dotted with wild fowl in summer. Primitive, stark, silent, this is a landscape of the morning time of the earth.
Everywhere in the area moss abounds upon which live reindeer herds numbering 200,000. They wander free summer long in the forests, to be rounded up in autumn much as our ranchers round up their cattle, each animal carrying on an ear the tiny brand of its owner. The reindeer, whose flesh is destined for the domestic pot and for export largely to Sweden, no longer draw the sleighs through the arctic snow, for the automobile has come to Lapland; but they are the region’s principal traffic hazard. One may motor there for miles without seeing man or house, but we had constantly to be on the alert against reindeer that suddenly darted in front of us going from the forests on one side of the road to the forests on the other side.
Here the summer sun does not set for sixty days; whereas January and February are a time of almost unrelieved darkness. Lapland summer is a delirium, a period of urgent, throbbing growth, a delicious madness singing in the blood of men; a compulsive moment for fishing, swimming, boating, walking, lying in the sun, visiting neighbors, no one sleeping more than the bare minimum required to keep the flesh alert. But it is a period, too, for hard work in the fields and on the rivers where floats the timber that is Finland’s principal treasure, because in this rigorous climate most men can live only by working as farmers in summer and as lumberjacks in winter.
In the war the Germans destroyed nearly all of Lapland’s towns, villages, and farmhouses when they retreated out of the area, their mathematical malice extending even to the forest huts. Yet, by herculean labor, the hard-working Finns being almost as fluent with the axe as the sculptor with clay, Rovaniemi, Lapland’s provincial capital, a town of 9000, has already risen from the ashes. Here I found three bookshops for a bookloving people, and a new hotel of modern design, shining clean in keeping with the Finnish passion for cleanliness. The United States flag flew above the hotel entrance; a most welcome sight in that remote place.
One midnight, the sun high, people working in the fields, I came to the new Russo-Finnish frontier. One might easily have passerd it without knowing, for here was none of the usual paraphernalia of the frontier: guardhouses, soldiers, flags, conspicuous markings. There were simply three railroad ties lashed by chains to the rails of an abandoned railway, and a tiny sign on a post, reading “RussoFinnish frontier.” In this casual and sinisterly impermanent manner the Soviet colossus had marked the boundary with its tiny neighbor.
In this area were several new houses of Finns who had left Karelia when the Russians seized it. The windowpanes of these houses shone like polished crystal in the midnight sun; their window boxes were bright with flowers, their little yards scrupulously neat. I entered one of them — by then it was two o’clock in the morning— to find the young and buxom housewife swinging a paintbrush, hard at work after a long day of toil, a cradled child beneath her watchful eyes.
Here, obviously, was one of that host of devoted, hard-working Finnish women to whom the nation owes so much. I asked if I might talk with her husband, a lumberjack, and she took me into their bedroom where he lay asleep. Awakened, he greeted me with dignity and good humor, and after we had lit cigarettes and exchanged a few amenities, I asked him why he had built his house on the new frontier so that in the event of war he would be directly in the line of march. “I’ve built three houses in the past ten years,” he said quietly. “If the Russians come, I’ll build another.”
ON my return to the wooded, islanded capital city of Helsinki, gay with its summer flowers, I continued to look for the spirit of a people who became a sovereign nation only after some seven centuries of subjection to the Swedish and Russian empires. I had already learned something of the obdurate stubbornness of the ordinary Finnish citizen in fighting oppression; of that heady freedom of his which comes only to those who are ready to die for their convictions; of the willingness of Finns to toil as perhaps only Chinese toil in the modern world so that they may lead cleanly, comfortable lives in their austere environment, and praise God for his blessings in their white Lutheran churches hard against the murmuring forests.
“How is it,” I asked a high government official, “that you are able to do what the Czechs could not do, although they are far stronger than you are?”
“There are perhaps two principal reasons,” he replied. “The first is that many Czech intellectuals deserted their country in time of peril and so deprived their country of much needed leadership. Our intellectuals, on the other hand, stayed right here in Finland. The other reason is this. Certainly the Russians can overrun us. They are 200 million, and we are 4 million. They are also next door to us. But they know, and we know, that if they should try to do it, we would all go to the forests and fight. It would take hundreds of thousands of men to keep us down. And we believe that at this time the Russians don’t want that.”
A little later I got a glimpse of the Finnish spirit in another of its aspects. I asked Finnish friends what they had done with their small Jewish population when the German Army, with its tens of thousands, came to Finland. Nearly everywhere else the Germans went they demanded, and largely got, the local Jewish population for their gasextermination chambers or slave labor camps. The Finns were astonished by a question that seemingly bore no relation to reality, and I had to repeat it. “We did not do anything,” one of them said when he had recovered from surprise at my query. “We told the Germans we would not turn over our Jewish citizens to them. Neither would we hide them, nor pass any anti-Semitic laws.” Thus it was that although the Germans slaughtered hosts of Jews throughout Europe, in Finland during the war they did not touch the hair of a single Jew.
Courage matched by nobility of spirit , the Finns have taken to heart the injunction of Kivi, their adored novelist: “And one more thing, set plainly before the eyes of your souls what will be our final victory: we shall be men.” So doing, their population small, their resources slender, their burdens huge, the odds against, them great, they daily stare into the eyes of an unrelenting enemy. But although the Finns have no reason to love the Russians, I heard fewer expressions of hatred toward them during my stay in Finland than one daily hears in the United States. Hate, evidently, is neither a policy, a mode of action, nor a liberating agent, while its constant reiteration, not at all hurtful to the hated, is damaging to the hater. The Finns, then, quite properly devote their energies, not to hating Soviet Russia, but to opposing it on every front, aware apparently of the old American saying that we seem to have forgotten: “The steam that blows the whistle wall never turn a wheel.”
In all this, their determination is bolstered by the solid realities of their national life. In the brief twenty years from the beginning of their sovereignty until their war with Russia, the Finns had constructed one of the most admirable smaller states of the world; a workable combination of socialism and private enterprise; democratic, highly literate, free of marked extremes of riches and poverty, enterprising in all that pertained to the public welfare, and vigorously expressive of at least two of the arts — music and architecture. Their politico-industrial system had served them well. They were free after seven centuries of servitude to Sweden and Russia. This freedom, the greatest of all gifts, the iron-willed Finns mean to keep or to die in the effort. And by a conjunction of the high heart and the stubborn mind they have retained it and so presented to all who desire to remain free a miracle of the human spirit.
My friends came to see me off on the little Danish ship that was to take me to Copenhagen. “You Finns are absolutely mad,” I said, “to carry on as you do against impossible odds.”
“Of course we are mad,” one of them replied. “We believe that those whom the gods would preserve they first make mad.”