Camp or Gulag? A Wartime reckoning in Finland

 

 

           

When Finland’s so-called Winter War against Russia began in November 1939, the world assumed that Finland would be subjugated as quickly as Poland had been by Hitler, in a blitzkrieg. But climate and terrain meant the Finns had a much more defensible area than the Poles, and so began a three-month “David and Goliath” struggle, for which the Russian army was quite unprepared. Finnish ski patrols wiped out Red Army divisions; bottlefuls of kerosene – dubbed “Molotov cocktails” by the Finns – stalled Russian tanks. In the end Russia won, but Finland retained its sovereignty. The Winter War was not only a war about Russia’s border claims on Finland; it was a war about Finland’s right to exist.

 

Land of Snow and Ashes, the debut novel by the Finnish writer Petra Rautiainen, begins at the moment when the Winter War turned into the Continuation War, the three-year conflict during which Finland aligned itself with Nazi Germany and allowed Hitler’s forces to fight against Stalin in the north of the country. Some Russians today still see this as evidence of collaboration, even though Finland immediately reversed its allegiance to the Nazis in 1944, following an armistice with the Soviet Union. Land of Snow and Ashes, in David Hackston’s capable translation,  seems particularly timely, given the current war in Ukraine and its impact on Russia’s relationship with its other neighbours including Finland. Originally published in Finnish in 2020, the novel is partly narrated, in diary form, by a Finnish soldier who works as an interpreter in a Nazi-run camp in the Lapland town of Inari, in the heart of reindeer country. He is present at the interrogation of prisoners who are deemed to be “ideological and racial enemies” by the German Security Police. The soldier’s diary entires alternate with the story of the Helsinki photographer, Inkeri Lindqvist, who has come to Lapland after the war, ostensibly to document the erosion of local Sámi culture; in reality, she is looking for her husband, who disappeared during the Continuation War, either in a Nazi camp in Western Lapland or somewhere in the Gulag. Inkeri’s story, narrated in the third person, is electric with tension as the past impinges eerily on the present.

 

In pages of densely evocative prose, Rautiainen conjures the Finnish north as a snowbound immensity, where the Sámi dress in reindeer hides and their babies wave swan-bone rattles.  Inkeri photographs the comings and goings in a new local school, where Finnish and Sámi children do not always get on, due to cultural differences.  Armed with a supply of alcohol and cigarettes, she follows a lead on her husband, only to arouse the suspicions of the Sámi, who suffered grievously in the war. To the Nazis, the Sámi were a Finno-Ugric “evolutionary anomaly”, who had not developed beyond the hunting and gathering phase. Any sexual relations between them and a “pure-blood” German were to be regarded as “race betrayal”, punishable by death. In the course of her investigations, Inkeri befriends a Sámi schoolgirl, Bigga-Marja, who may not be aware that her school stands on the site of a former Nazi camp.

 

Central to the plot are the aims of Finland’s nationalist Greater Finland movement, which, during the Continuation War, sought to incorporate into the Finnish “fatherland” all the Finnic peoples living on the Russian side of the border, among them the Finnish-speaking Ingrian Finns, who had been subsumed into independent Estonia in 1920. Greater Finland ideologues worked with the Germans during the Continuation War to imprison or execute Russians and other Slavs; wittingly or not, they assisted Hitler in his ambition to rid occupied Europe of social “undesirables”. The novel, with its noirish atmosphere and painterly evocation of Finland’s far north, builds to a disturbing conclusion as Inkeri finally learns the truth about her husband. Finland’s wartime battles and allegiances with Russia and Germany are explored in an amalgam of detective story and history, which absorbs the reader from start to finish.

 

 

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 18 March 2022