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An exhibition outside the Finnish embassy in Moscow peddles Stalin-era massacre fakes and extolls Russia’s role in Finnish history

Moscow residents and tourists have recently been given the opportunity to browse a free outdoor exhibition of the Russian Military Historical Society (RVIO) entitled “Episodes of Finnish Russophobia.” In the explanatory texts, the authors of the exhibition call Finland “Sweden’s miserable colony,” assert that Finland did not enjoy any rights or freedoms until its annexation by Russia in 1809, and blame Finnish soldiers for a Stalin-era mass shooting carried out by Soviet NKVD agents in the Karelia region.

The exhibition, spread out between three locations at or near the Finnish Embassy in Moscow, includes 16 stands containing graphic photographs and explanatory text littered with spelling and punctuation errors — to say nothing of their factual inaccuracies. The narrative presented to interested passers by is based on the notion that Finland gained its statehood and independence only thanks to its relationship with Russia, and that it is “Finland’s fault that our countries had four armed conflicts in the first half of the 20th century.”

Moreover, the authors of the exhibition present Finland’s early 19th century annexation by Russia as the true catalyst for the formation of the Finnish nation. “In 1810, the population of the Grand Duchy of Finland amounted to 863,000 people, and in 1910, bordered on 3 million. Finns multiplied quite well under the tsarist ‘oppression,’” the historians responsible for the text conclude. What they fail to mention is that, thanks to the growth of economic well being and a sharp decline in mortality, all of Europe underwent a demographic revolution over the same period, with the overall population on the continent increasing from 188 million to 498 million — relatively less than Finland’s reported rise, but substantial nonetheless.

One of the stands is dedicated to the 1904 assassination of Nikolay Bobrikov, Russia’s Governor-General of Finland and the Finnish Military District. The exhibition’s authors describe Bobrikov as an advocate of “greater unification of Finnish and Russian legislation,” and claim that “He was outraged in particular by Russophobia in Finnish educational institutions. The Finns, who considered the governor's indignation as tsarist ‘oppression,’ brutally murdered him with a shot to the stomach.” In reality, however, Bobrikov pursued a pro-Russian imperial policy with contempt for the existing Finnish constitution, imposing the Russian language on the population and organizing surveillance of universities. Under his rule, educational institutions were placed under vigilant control, and “disloyal” teachers were eliminated. Bobrikov launched a crackdown on the Finnish press, liquidating several newspapers. In 1902, he deported many public figures abroad. His policy made him extremely unpopular — both among Finnish nationalists and in Russian revolutionary-liberal circles. On Jun. 3, 1904, Eugen Schaumann, the son of a Finnish senator, fatally wounded Bobrikov with a Browning pistol in the building of the Finnish Senate before shooting himself. The odious Governor-General died on the night of Jun. 4.

Nikolay Bobrikov
Nikolay Bobrikov

Another stand is dedicated to events in Sandarmokh, a heavily forested area located in Russia’s Karelia region, which borders Finland. Sandarmokh is best known as one of the sites where Stalin-era NKVD officers executed and buried their victims between 1937-38. However, the present day Russian exhibition fails to mention anything about the Great Terror, instead noting:

“In 2019, a search expedition took place in the area of Sandarmokh under the auspices of the Russian Military Historical Society, unearthing evidence of the shooting of Soviet citizens at the sites of their alleged forced exploitation in the construction of Finnish defensive lines. The remains of nine out of 16 bodies found were identified as female. The presence of buttons with stars and some other decayed elements of uniforms among the remains indicate that some of the executed were Red Army prisoners of war. The shell casings found in the graves belonged to Colt revolvers, which were used in Karelia only by the Finnish army.”

Again, Sandarmokh is one of the largest and most famous burial sites of victims of Stalin’s repressions. It is home toa total of 236 execution pits where, according to researchers' calculations, 6241 people were secretly killed and buried. Among the terror victims were special settlers and residents of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, prisoners of the White Sea-Baltic labor camp, as well as prisoners from the “first stage” of the Solovetsky labor camp, including famous cultural figures, scientists, and leaders of political, national, and religious movements.

Rather than working in the interests of historical research, however, the Russian Military Historical Society (RVIO) has been trying for many years to prove that Sandarmokh may contain burials from World War II. Historians, particularly activists from the Memorial Human Rights Group, have interpreted its efforts as an attempt to rewrite history and thereby cover up the tragedy of state terror in the USSR. Yury Dmitriev, a historian and chairperson of the Karelian branch of Memorial, was among the leaders of the expedition that found the remains of Sandarmokh massacre victims. The Russian state sentenced him to 13 years in a penal colony on falsified charges of pedophilia after a lengthy and complicated series of trials and appeals. Many attribute the severity of his punishment to revenge on the part of the Russian authorities due to his work demonstrating what really happened at Sandarmokh.

Historian Yury Dmitriev in Sandarmokh
Historian Yury Dmitriev in Sandarmokh

The theory that Sandarmokh may hold the graves of Soviet prisoners of war killed in Finnish concentration camps was put forward in 2016 by Yury Kilin and Sergey Verigin of Petrozavodsk State University. In 2018, RVIO initiated excavations in Sandarmokh, purportedly finding the remains of Finnish camp prisoners and Red Army soldiers. Experts believe that the expedition was aimed at discrediting Dmitriev’s findings by diluting their value, thereby allowing the Russian authorities to downplay the scale of the tragedy in Sandarmokh.

In 2019, RVIO sent a second expedition to Sandarmokh. The archaeologists discovered the remains of 16 people wearing homemade footwear, which of course was not sufficient to prove that they were WWII combatants, rather than victims of repressions. And of course, the discovered cartridges could have belonged to either the NKVD or the Finnish army. Frustrated with utterly inconclusive evidence, RVIO tried to conceal its findings, but Memorial activists learned about them and alerted the press.

A new dig in Sandarmokh, 2019
A new dig in Sandarmokh, 2019

In 2020, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation initiated a criminal proceedings on the grounds of genocide of Soviet citizens in Karelia during World War II. According to the committee’s press release, the Finns “buried prisoners of war alive and burned them in gas chambers.” The accusation caused no small amount of astonishment among Finnish historians. In mid-May of the same year, the official press release of Russia’s Investigative Committee was taken down from its website.

The authors of the exhibition also assert that the USSR became Finland's main trading partner in the 1970s, ostensibly sparing Finland the travails of unemployment and cyclical crises associated with spikes in world oil prices.

“The Finns both lived well and drank well at the expense of the Soviet Union. For many Leningrad residents in the 1970s-1980s, Finns were associated primarily with ‘vodka tours.’ They would come to St. Petersburg in groups on weekends, would get drunk on cheap alcohol, and lie in stacks on buses that sent their senseless bodies home. They came to the Soviet Union in droves because booze at home was too expensive.”

According to RVIO historians, the current Finland presents a physical threat to Russia, as increasing numbers of Finns would apparently like to “see their borders further east, all the way to the Ural Mountains.” The Russian exhibition adds that, “Finland is hosting NATO military exercises on its territory. Its actions are undermining international security and increasing the threat of a global war. Could Suomi's thoughtless leadership be reviving the dream of ‘a great Finland’ once again, under the wing of NATO?”

Vladislav Oleynik, an activist of the Karelian National Movement, told The Insider that the RVIO's propagandist exhibition “echoes the [Soviet] 1930s” and aims to “irrevocably destroy the centuries-old ancestral ties of the Finno-Ugric peoples inside Russia with those who have already formed independent nation-states: Finland, Estonia, and Hungary.”

Oleynik points out that Finno-Ugric peoples, many of whom led traditional rural lifestyles, were among the first victims of repression following the onset of Soviet collectivization. Many Finno-Ugric peasants were accused of being kulaks — “wealthy” peasants who made use of hired labor — and were thus sent to Gulag camps. In the 1930s, the Soviet government moved to close national schools in Karelia and other regions containing a Finno-Ugric presence and persecuted teachers who taught in their native languages. Literature and media resources in Finno-Ugric languages were censored, and teaching in national languages was eventually abolished in favor of Russian-language education. The Soviet authorities also worked to eradicate traditional rites and religious practices, condemning these artifacts of national identity as “obscure” and “obsolete.” Finno-Ugric peoples were traditionally engaged in farming, hunting, fishing, and crafts, but Soviet industrialization and collectivization destroyed these traditional lifestyles and livelihoods, the activist says.

Oleynik emphasized that among the thousands killed in Sandarmoh during Stalin’s “purges” of 1937-1938, there were many Finno-Ugric intellectuals, writers, and political activists. Many of them were accused in the highly suspect SOFIN (Union for the Liberation of Finno-Ugric Peoples) case.

“The SOFIN case was fabricated by the Soviet security agencies to destroy national movements and activists on the pretext of their alleged engagement in anti-Soviet activities,” Oleynik says. “The repressions in the SOFIN case took a heavy toll on Finno-Ugric intellectuals, causing serious damage to the cultural and social development of their peoples.”

During World War II, Soviet Finno-Ugric peoples, like several other ethnic groups, were subjected to mass deportations. Even after the war, they were forbidden to return or to settle at a distance closer than 101 kilometers from major cities.

Oleynik also said that “Moscow prefers not to remember these blood-soaked pages of history.” He noted that ethno-activists of the Pan-Ugric movement Suur-Suomen Sotilaat had submitted an official letter to the international community to recognize the facts of ethnocide, linguicide, and ecocide of the Finno-Ugric peoples.

In November 2023, Finland completely closed its land border with Russia. In April 2024, it announced an extension of this decision, as the situation between the two states had not changed for the better in the meantime.

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