Sunday, November 23, 2008

Red Finnish women 1918

Naisia tietyömaalla Simpeleellä ~Female road crew at Simpeleel.

As you can see, someone's mother is in the middle of this group of women building roads somewhere in Finland during the civil war. This photo from the Kansan Arkisto (Finnish) People's Archives is found on a page of photos from the 1918 civil war. On the page, the caption under the middle photo reads: Women at a construction site. The Finnish text at the bottom of the page reads:

"After the war, life continued. Men waited to be released from the prison camps to return home to work, but the wait for many became extended. Women and children persistently forged ahead however they could. 20000 children were left orphaned as a result of the war. Red children were taken from their parent(s) and placed in orphanages and (white/non-socialist) families. Because their men were in prisons, women ended up also doing men’s work."

Sairaanhoitajia, Loviisa.
Valokuva A. Johansson. ~ Nurses in Lovi, photo by A. Johansson. These are red guard nurses.
A few weeks ago Hanna Snellman, a visiting professor from Jyväskylä University, came to do a photo presentation and talk on Finnish women during the 1918 civil war. I found a few of the photos she showed, like the 2 above, online at the (Finnish) People's Archives. To a crowd of about 50 who had come out to the Finlandia Club to see her presentation, Hanna commented on and showed photos about the 1918 war and women's roles in the war, both on the white side and red side.

Known as the Vapaus Sota (War of Freedom) to the whites, the Luoka Sota (Class War) to the reds, now it is referred to as the Kansallis Sota (Civil War). The civil war came on the heels of the Russian occupiers leaving Finland, and was a power struggle concerning the political direction that the newly freed nation should take. Of course, the social, political and economic context of the Finnish civil war is complex, with reams of scholarship and opinion.

It was a short but brutal war (4 months) with terrible atrocities committed on both sides, but with the reds suffering heavier losses. The white side won the war, and as victors are apt to do, wrote the history of Finland up until the recent past. After the war, being red was outlawed, seen as a scourge, and much had to be hidden away. Many men on the red side were taken away to prison camps, people were executed, and many others stolen, injured or suffered other hardships. And for many years it was illegal to commemorate the reds in any way.

Kansalaissota. Punakaartilainen E. Wanhanen ja tunnistamaton naisseuralainen ateljeekuvassa vuonna 1918. Civil War. Red Guard E. Wanhanen and an unknown female friend in a studio portrait 1918. [type in sota to find the photo]
The majority of photos in the Finnish Archives are of the red side, which is why most of the photos she showed were of the red side. Hanna explained that during the war, before heading out to the front, whether white or red, many people had family photos taken or photos of themselves with friends and neighbours, like the one above, as momentos. After the war, however, these same photos were used to round up the people who lost, that is, the reds. So, the whites would go door to door collecting photos and forcibly getting people to identify who was in them. They would write the names on the back. That is why there are so many photos of reds in the archives with people identified.

The people in the photos, as well as the photographers, were then arrested, collected and then thrown in prison camps, or executed. The red side had to be punished. There was much lawlessness.

Vartija ja vankeja Fellmanin pellolla Lahdessa. Guards and prisoners at Felman field. On this page you can see a photo that shows rows and rows of people who had been arrested and brought to this field in Lahde. 20000 reds were collected here in April and May of 1918. Most of the women and children were sent home, but the men were sent to various prison camps. Here too in Lahde was where many women were executed.

36000 people were killed during the civil war, of those 27000 were reds. 9000 were killed in action; 11000 were killed outside the front. There were 15000 punaleskija (red widows). 15000 red orphans (the website said 20000). 600 red orphans were shipped to Pohjanmaa to be raised in white families. 10000 people were executed; of those 7000 were red, 1500 were white, others unidentified. 364 women were executed, most in Lahde when the war was over. 12000 died of hunger in the prison camps. The prison camps were death camps; a blight on Finnish history.

Political ideology was not necessarily the deciding factor in whether someone was on the white side or the red side. Sometimes, there was a knock on the door and you were taken away to fight on the side of who came knocking. It was a time of starvation, thus others joined to get something to eat, or to get work.

There were 2000 white female Jaegar troops (volunteer fighters trained by the Germans), and the same number of red women soldiers with guns. Lots of these photos are in the archives. Many of the women were very young, some as young as 17.

Verna Erikson, a young student, was a Helsinki White Guard. This image became a popular iconic photo, a sexualizing of female resistance. The photo was originally published on the front cover of the Suomen Kuva Lehti (Finnish Photo Magazine) in June 1918, just shortly after the civil war ended. Although there are photos of white women of the civil war time, they were not the ones collected. Rather, because Mannerheim frowned on women carrying guns, images of mother or grandmother in active resistance were put in the bottom of the drawer. Except for the sexy photo of Verna. It has lived on, although she died of cancer shortly after posing for this photo.

In the 1960s, as Hanna related, a flood of narratives and repressed memories surfaced, resulting in 10000 pages collected by researchers. Up to that point, the history that was taught in Finland was white history. Some people still have a problem acknowledging the red history of Finland because that would be acknowledging the white atrocities. Both sides committed atrocities; history is clear on that. Yet one side disproportionately faced dire consequences by being on the losing side. Up til the recent past the white victors/history has been a celebratory one. Any hint of opening up the red can of worms makes some folks uncomfortable. Like the writer of an opinion(ated) piece/letter in this week's local Finnish language newspaper, Canadan Sanomat. He, too, attended Hanna's talk, but wrote that she was biased to the reds, confused, poorly prepared, and accused her of trying to change Finnish history to cleanse the reputation of the reds. "Aika laittaa punaiset pyykkilaudat hyllylle", Time to put the "red washboard" on the shelf, he said, as old memories.

Sadly, his washboard metaphor not only makes red history into a relic, discounting the importance of returning to history with critical questions and new eyes to piece together a more comprehensive account that doesn't white-wash history, sanitizing it, but also, discounts women's work...

Kansalaissota. Punakaartin sairaanhoitajia vuonna 1918.Civil war. Red guard nurses. 1918.

...and taking women out of history results in a distorted history. Acknowledging the work of our grandmothers is important, washboards, guns, and all.

Punakaartilaisnaisia 1918. Red guard women 1918.


marja-leena said...

History has always been written by the winners and because it's so one-sided, hatred and unfairness continues long after even in peace, and sometimes results in another war (WW I turned into II). Thank you for writing about these brave women.

northshorewoman said...

Although I did some research, I learned most of this from Hanna's presentation, so it was inspired by Hanna. There were lots of engaged listeners at her talk! It would be good to learn/do more work on some aspects of this. I hope to do some research perhaps in the Finnish archives here on women in photos and submit to make a presentation at the 2010 Finn Forum being held here in TBay.

It is so true that hatred and unfairness continue long after events, which simply does not need to be. If our stories were more inclusive and holistic and together we try to meaningfully redress wrongs, wouldn't we all benefit. I'm thinking, too, of Canada's colonial history and its treatment of First Nations peoples and how still today, Canadian history does not meaningfully address what we as a nation did/continue to do to First Nations peoples. So, too, the history of Israel gets written by the victors, and the Palestinians get written out and re-written in ways that fit the dominant tellings.