Parenthesis (noun)(Greek) : An interlude or interval. To put something beside.
Between 1939 and 1944, the Finns fought 3 wars. They lost twice, won once, and via a series of dramatic events, succeeded in maintaining their independence as a sovereign state.
Finland is one of the very few countries that fought both with the Allies and the Axis during World War 2, occasionally finding itself formally at war with both. It’s an incredible wartime story : A tale of bitter fighting in the harshest cold, tactical brilliance, tenacity, desperation, survival and ultimately, redemption.
Despite putting up fierce resistance against Soviet aggression, in 1944 Finland was forced to cede several territories as a pre-requisite for peace : The arctic territory at Petsamo, Finland’s only access to the Arctic Ocean and a considerable source of nickel. The prosperous Karelia, accounting for 1/3rd of Finland’s industrial output before the war, as well as its second largest city, Viipuri (Vyborg). Part of the territory of Salla close to the Kola peninsula, and a number of islands in the Gulf of Finland. The Finns were also asked to pay reparations to the tune of $3.4 billion (in today’s money). These were onerous terms for a country that successfully defended itself twice in the course of 5 years, first in the Winter War, and then in the subsequent Continuation War. And they did so in the face of terrifying Soviet superiority, by inflicting heavy losses through tenacious small scale combat, and utilizing astonishing resource management and innovative defensive technology and techniques. I am planning to relate the fascinating history of these conflicts in detail through my Winter War Series of articles this year.
But in this post I begin from the end, discussing the events that led to the country’s post-war survival as a sovereign state. Because in addition to the above terms, and adding insult to injury, Finland was also forced to lease the entire Porkkala peninsula to the Soviets for a period of 50 years. Located at the narrowest point of the gulf of Finland at just 36km across to Estonia, Porkkala was a key strategic location for the control of USSR’s most direct sea route from Leningrad to the Atlantic. At just 20km from Helsinki, this was also about exerting military pressure close to the capital. Soviet artillery would be in position to shell Helsinki, or any ship traversing the Gulf of Finland at will : it was colloquially referred to as “a pistol against Finland’s head”. The evacuation started immediately after the cessation of hostilities on the 19th of September 1944. According to the terms of the Moscow Armistice, the region’s 10.000 Finnish inhabitants were displaced, and given just 10 days to evacuate along with their movable goods, summer harvest and domestic animals. They were given meagre compensation to relocate, at a time when Finland was already burdened with relocating another 440.000 Finns displaced from the ceded territories. The Soviets moved in, building a military base in Kirkkonummi, a naval base at Porkkala, two airfields, and up to 700 bunkers to fortify the area. Over the next decade, the area was to become one of the most secretive Soviet raions : a militarized administrative subdivision like the ones found today in Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria. This has been perhaps the first Cold War Soviet region of such scope. Stalin called it Район Порккала-Удд (Rayon Porkkala-Udd). The Finns called it The Porkkala Parenthesis : the dramatic 11 year period of enforced occupation of a sizeable part of the Finland’s sovereign territory.
I’ve spent an entire day – and some of the night too – inside the Porkkala Parenthesis, searching for clues and relics from this fascinating Cold War period. I went out together with the legendary Urbanex Ninja , a renowned Finland-based urban explorer. The Ninja turned out to be a hugely experienced, professionally equipped, and daring explorer. He is also a great guy to hang out with, and his knowledge of the region was crucial if we wanted to make the most of the short winter daylight of Finland, given the abundance of locations we aimed to visit.
The Finnish Army and civilians are leaving Porkkala in 1944 (© British Pathe)
Exploring a Soviet Bunker
Since I am a confirmed military buff and concrete aficionado, it’s easy to guess the first locations we headed towards – we wanted to check out some of the nearly 700 hundred bunkers estimated to have been built by the Soviets to seal, fortify and control the region after 1944. It wasn’t an easy mission, simply because the bunkers are not really there any more ! Upon their withdrawal in 1956, the Soviets set about destroying every single one of them with explosives, and then covering them with earth and rubble. Most of the bunkers are nearly impossible to spot even when you’re standing next to them, and many still remain undiscovered. But one can guess their approximate locations : near train tracks and motorways, communications and power plant installations, airfields, factories, or entrances to cities. And thanks to The Ninja , on this occasion we knew exactly where we were heading to : an unassuming, snow covered field next to a motorway.
There was no bunker to be seen in the traditional sense. The “entrance” was nothing but a barely noticeable rabbit hole into the snow covered ground. But at closer inspection, I was able to illuminate what looked like a concrete corridor beyond the narrow, frozen muddy gap I was now invited to crawl through… a sacrifice worthy of the excitement of new discovery ahead.
Once inside, it becomes evident that the installation has been irrevocably ruined by what appears to have been a massive explosion. The L-shaped corridor is almost entirely land filled on both ends. There are two square ventilation hatches just above what might once have been floor level – I am saying once, because the floor now is full of rubble and garbage from a landfill that once existed on top of the destroyed installation. Bunkers are notoriously difficult and forbiddingly expensive to remove, but I understand how locals might have encouraged this creative new usage for the now abandoned Soviet guard posts.
To the left, through a blasted out steel door frame, there’s a large chamber, leading into another of about equal size. It is a bit of a drop, since the floors have collapsed entirely as a result of the explosion. There’s cracked concrete and warped rebar everywhere : This is positively where the detonation happened. At the far end of the second chamber, there’s a huge round steel frame on the outer wall. It looks like a large calibre gun port, and comparing my sources indicates that this might have been the business end of an anti tank gun emplacement. Although it appears reasonably intact, it has been welded shut with metal sheets. Once again outside, I go around the hulking mound to check for any external signs of the anti tank emplacement port, but no joy. Although I can make the outline of the concrete frame’s top, the rest is buried in rubble, well out of view and beyond reach.
It was an interesting find. We tried to visit another two bunkers with the Ninja, but decided we needed additional equipment, and perhaps better weather conditions to attempt those ones (it was -8 degrees out there, although I felt cosy inside the concrete tomb, perhaps by virtue of sheltering from the merciless wind outside). At any case, I don’t recommend to do this on your own. Most of Porkkala’s former bunkers are totally ruined. There are many sharp steel bits and exposed rebar, some high drops and the walls are bowing inwards – so a bit dangerous, if exciting, places to visit. But there is a small number of bunkers in the region that have been made more accessible (including wooden platforms and electric lighting), allowing visitors to peek inside in relative safety.
Exploring the Russian warehouses and old military Airfield
The Porkkala countryside is littered with signs of the Soviet presence – if you know where to look for these, and especially if you know what you’re looking at once you find them. We’re now driving on Kabanov Road (Kabanovintie / Kabanovsvägen), a snowy provincial road outside Kirkkonummi. I understand it is named after Lt. General Sergei Ivanovich Kabanov, the Red Army officer who commanded all Soviet presence in the Porkkala Parenthesis.
Although today it is laid with tarmac under the blanket of snow, this was originally a road made of fine stone blocks, purpose built for moving heavy artillery pieces through the marshy terrain. Under the leadership of Kabanov, an estimated 30.000 Soviet citizens lived inside the 380.000 sqm region : farmers, medics, teachers and bakers were stationed there, including an entire 10k strong Red Banner Naval Infantry Division. They’ve built a lot of infrastructure beyond military installations, such a residences, factories and municipal buildings. Life appeared to go on either side of the Parenthesis after peace broke out, but not without certain practical problems. The fertile farmland of Porkkala accounted for 1/3rd of the capital’s food supply needs, which would now need to be sourced elsewhere. The shipping lanes in the southern coast of Finland would come under Soviet interdiction, making navigation complex. And the important direct rail connection between Helsinki and Turku, was shut down soon after the Soviets moved in to seal their territory. Finnish trains would have to take a major detour to be able to connect the country’s major southern cities from east to west.
Our next stop was at a mysterious depot in the middle of a forest. We take a quiet fork off the main road, and walk on a well trodden dirt road. There are deep tracks in the mud – the kind that heavy vehicles leave over time, at least 10cm deep at some points. Then the concrete warehouses emerge in the dim sunlight. They are built on the marshes on either side of the track, and are completely covered by colourful graffiti. They look hastily assembled, and currently crumbling. There’s evidence of this being some sort of materials storage facility – rotting wooden telegraph or electricity poles, some building materials , a wide concrete water vat nearby. Could this be where the construction materials for some of the Soviet infrastructure projects in Porkkala had been stored? The local youth seem to have adopted the abandoned warehouses : It looks like a great place to hang out or throw a summer party. I think it’s a pity the local council doesn’t do more to repurpose this place as an art or youth culture venue.
The sun is setting fast now, and we decide to skip the nearby Russian cemetery and other interesting, non-abandoned buildings from the era – they will have to wait until our next visit. It’s a pity, because I was looking forward to find out the names of some of the former residents. Little is known about the majority of them, their identities still hidden behind an iron curtain (see what I did here) of military secrecy and classified information. Perhaps the most famous Soviet resident of the Porkkala Parenthesis (after commander Kabanov) was Vladimir Kuts, an Ukrainian born Red Army sniper who served in the base. He distinguished himself as a long distance runner at Kirkkonummi stadium’s track, before he went on to break two Olympic records, winning the 5k and 10k Gold medals in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Talking about Olympic Games – these were held in Helsinki in 1952. But the USSR delegation didn’t stay at the Olympic Village on that occasion. They stayed 20km away, inside the Porkkala Naval Base, and travelled to and from the venue between events.
Leaving ghosts to rest, we’re driving towards Friggesby, site of one of the Soviet airfields in the region. It used to be an airstrip where fighters were based : I can’t see the airstrip itself in the dusk, but a bright red and white air sock at the edge of a snow covered open field signifies its existence. It is a sign that it’s still in use, perhaps for light aircraft or emergencies. But we’re looking for something else : The surviving old gate that once led to the headquarters of the howitzer artillery regiment stationed along the Kabanov Road near the airport. It is a very Soviet looking wrought iron contraption, with scroll flourishes and a big round space in the middle of the arch that once must have held a Red Star, I imagine. It is an excellent find, and a great sight to behold in the ever dimming light.
Exploring the Sjundby Manor and Kirkkonummi
It’s pitch dark by now, but me and the tireless Urbanex Ninja are not ones to give up easily. There’s one more location to check before we call the search off. It’s in nearby Sjundby, with its medieval manor still standing there since the 1560s. The imposing stone manor sits atop a hill : Soviet troops commandeered it during the Porkkala period, and there are rumours of them drilling holes to the floor and using these as toilets, thus turning it’s cellar into a septic tank. If this is true, it sounds completely uncalled for. It’s another affront by the occupying forces, the behaviour of young soldiers who often make history, yet without necessarily having a sense for it.
As we enter the village, the writing is on the wall : Russian writing, as it were, on the gable and walls of the village’s old dairy, exactly as left behind by Soviet troops and miraculously surviving to this day. The fading letters wrapped around a Soviet Star read :
“In model fashion we shall receive science and technology, improve the military and political strength, achieve new successes in the strengthening of the military discipline and organization. Be greeted, on the First of May”
There’s more propaganda written on the side walls of the dairy, but it’s becoming too dark and cold to stick around trying to decipher it. Here it is, and if you’re a Russian speaker and reading this, please pop me an email with the translation and I will owe you a big favour :
By now we are immensely excited, but also hungry and cold. We decide to retire to nearby Kirkkonummi, once the civic centre of the Porkkala administration. The Soviets built houses, shops, cinemas and other municipal spaces here, designed to provide a sense of the ordinary for those stationed inside the Parenthesis : The Kirkkonummi Church was reportedly used as a casino for the entertainment of the troops and civilians.
But nothing about this strange co-habitation was ordinary. Between 1944 and 1947, Finns were unable to travel by train between Helsinki and Turku as the main line went through the Soviet-leased territory. However, the huge detour required soon became unbearably impractical for the Finns, and tensions rose – before a compromise was agreed : In one of the most interesting episodes of this weird occupation, the Soviet forces allowed train travel through the Porkkala Parenthesis on condition that Finnish trains passing through the area should stop at the border stations at either end (near Inkoo in the west, and Kauklahti in the east), change to a Soviet locomotive, and then traverse the Porkkala Parenthesis under armed guard with their window shutters closed, before swapping back to a Finnish locomotive to continue the journey. It was forbidden to look outside – therefore this unusual arrangement was quipped “The World’s Longest Train Tunnel” at the time, and lasted until the end of the Soviet presence in January 1956.
Closing the Porkkala Parenthesis
Most Finns evacuating the Porkkala area in 1944 expected that they were never to return there in their lifetime. With the death of Stalin in 1953, however, the situation in Soviet Union changed rapidly. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, favoured a less repressive approach, and a foreign policy of cautious rapprochement. His time in office saw major cuts in conventional forces, and the focus of Baltic confrontation shifting to the south, where the fully acquired exclave at Kaliningrad (previously Königsberg) became a more forward, and much more preferred option for USSR’s strategy of control of the Baltic Sea. Modern advances in military and naval equipment meant that the use of coastal artillery to control the Gulf of Finland was becoming obsolete. Kaliningrad was also Soviet Union’s only Baltic port that remained ice-free all year around, and the development of more modern facilities in the exclave soon saw the Soviet Baltic Fleet based there permanently, effectively phasing out the strategic importance of the Porkkala Naval Base. Very importantly, Finland’s determined post-war policy of neutrality by not participating in the Marshall Plan, remaining unaligned to NATO powers, and otherwise not formally opposing Soviet Union’s foreign policy, has been sending out the right message to the Soviets. Gradually this stance accumulated certain mutual trust, resulting to Khrushchev proposing an early end to Porkkala’s 50 year lease, ultimately returning it to Finland in early 1956.
The Finnish Army re-enters Porkkala in 1956 (© British Pathe)
There was a number of unpleasant surprises for the first Finns returning to Porkkala after 11 years. As expected, the Soviets had evacuated their entire movable military and civilian apparatus from the area, but they had indeed gone beyond that : Entire swathes of forests had been cleared to use the space for military exercises. Much of the once fertile farmland laid abandoned and overgrown. Factories, houses, workshops, and even graveyards had been plundered for machinery and construction materials, and transported elsewhere in the Soviet Union to meet its severe post-war material shortages. Most remaining homes were found altered or part-demolished, rendered unrecognisable to their original owners. And what’s more, the area was littered with hundreds of ruined concrete bunkers and other military installations – whatever couldn’t be transported, was laid to waste.
It was a painful sacrifice. One, however, that was necessary for maintaining Finnish freedom and sovereignty. As further testament to its goodwill and integrity, Finland still remains the only country that has paid its World World 2 reparations in full, in the form of materiel shipments to the USSR : Among these, there were 525 locomotives, 52.000 electric motors, 619 sea vessels including 3 icebreakers, and wooden houses with a combined floor area of 840.000 sqm.
There is much more to be said and seen. For now, however, the fascinating story of the Porkkala Parenthesis is closed. I couldn’t have done this without the friendship and help of the legendary Urbanex Ninja – he has my heartfelt gratitude, and a promise that we will go out bunker-hunting again soon! Please make sure you check his awesome site, social media, and You Tube channel. Also, a very special thanks to Pertti Aarnio, who has lent us his car for this day trip – your support in this project has been invaluable !
Are you interested to visit the locations described in this post ? Join our expedition to Finland here.
- http://www.wikipedia.com (various articles/photos)
- http://www.porkkala.net (portal dedicated to the Porkkala Parenthesis)
- http://www.degerby.fi (site of the city of Degerby)
- http://www.topfoto.co.uk (for the black and white watermarked photos)
- Norden Travel Guide : Traces of the Cold War Period. The Countries around the Baltic Sea (2010) Johannes Bach Rasmussen
Unless where stated otherwise :
All images in this article © explorabilia. All videos in this article © Urbanex Ninja. Some old images are Author Unknown – please contact me if you have further information
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