Saturday, February 8, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Stalin, Mannerheim and Why One Side of a Leningrad Street was More Dangerous than the Other during the Blockade

Paul Goble

                Staunton, February 8 – Most students of modern Russian history are familiar with the sign which appeared in Leningrad during the blockade in World War II declaring that “during an artillery barrage, this side of the street is more dangerous” than the other, but far fewer know why that was the case or what its implications have been.

            As it turns out, both remain sensitive issues: Yesterday, Vladimir Malyshev posted an article about both on a Russian site, but today his essay has been taken down. Fortunately, it had been reposted elsewhere ( as reposted at

            The reason that one side of a Leningrad street was more dangerous than the other, Malyshev says, is that the street was at the dividing point between the sectors of the city German troops were responsible for shelling and those Finnish troops were. The Germans shelled frequently; thanks to Marshal Karl Mannerheim’s order, the Finns did not.

            “Was Mannerheim involved in the blockade of Leningrad?” Malyshev asks rhetorically. “Yes, to the extent that he turned out to be an ally of Germany. But he did everything that he then could in order not to storm or destroy the city on the Neva.”

            But not all Russians feel so positively inclined to the Finnish general, the Russian commentator observed. When a bust of Mannerheim was erected in St. Petersburg in 2007, “certain veterans of the war and those who had lived through the blockade were openly upset.”  How could Russia honor a Finn who had fought the Red Army and been on the side of Hitler?

            Mannerheim, however, was no enemy of Russia, Malyshev says. Instead, the Finnish leader “was a passionate devote of all things Russian and of imperial Petersburg. He deified the tsar, was married to a Russian, and, when Hitler proposed he storm Leningrad, categorically refused to do so.”

            Born in 1867, Mannerheim served in the Russian Army until the Bolshevik revolution, was close to Tsar Nicholas II, and worked as an explorer and tsarist representative in Peking – when he left that post, he sold his horse to another Russian officer, Lavr Kornilov, who later commanded anti-Bolshevik forces and who is also controversial in Russia today.

            When he left Petrograd to return to Finland and he did so in the uniform of a general of the Russian Imperial Army, Mannerheim urged Finns to support the White Army of General Nikolay Yudenich in the Baltics against the Bolsheviks. The Finns refused because Yudenich like most White commanders effused to recognize Finnish independence.

            After almost a decade in the Finnish political wilderness, Mannerheim in 1931 agreed to become chairman of Finland’s Defense Council and began to plan for the “inevitable” war with Moscow that came in 1940, a conflict in which the Finns inflicted enormous casualties on the Red Army but were forced to give up portions of their land near Leningrad to the USSR.

            What many do not know is that even though Mannerheim and his “line” is credited with Finnish success and became known as the “father of his country, the Finnish marshal in fact had urged his government before that conflict to shift the Finnish-Soviet border further to the West in exchange for compensation.

            And Malyshev stressed that it was no Mannerheim who took the decision for Finland to fight alongside Germany against the USSR. That “was done by the Finnish parliament and only after Soviet planes on June 25, 1941 attacked air bases in Finland as a ‘warning’ bombing strike.”

            Hitler did everything he could to win Mannerheim over, but the German leader did not succeed.  The Finns advanced toward Leningrad and formed one part of the blockade, Malyshev says, but they did not attack the city. And “when the defeat of Germany became inevitable, Finland began to search for a way out of the war.”

            Talks with the Soviet Union had achieved “definite successes,” the Russian commentator says. And in August 1944, Mannerheim became president of Finland, and the following month, he gave orders for Finnish forces to attack German ones. That change of course set the stage for Finnish-Soviet relations after the war.

            According to Malyshev, “Stalin did not forget 1939 but he viewed the Finish marshal with his own unique respect, personally crossing out his name among the list of those accused in Nuremburg” where many others wanted him to face justice as an ally of Hitler.

            In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin laid flowers on Mannerheim’s grave during his official visit to Finland, thereby becoming the first Russian leader who honored the memory” of the Finnish leader.

            Malyshev’s retelling of this story is important because it underlines just how complicated history is and how difficult it will be for the Kremlin to impose a single view of the past. But fate of his article highlights something equally important: when history is complicated, the authorities in Russia now appear to prefer for nothing to be said rather than for the complexities to be aired.

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