05 December 2006

Tuiran Paloasema

I have mentioned in previous posts that I live in a neighborhood called Tuira, which is just across the Oulu River (Oulujoki) from the city center (keskusta). Ordinarily, I walk back and forth through a series of parks lying on islands separated by rivulets that form part of the river’s delta. In Scotland these rivulets would be called “burns”; as a matter of fact, Finland is a lot like Scotland (starting with the light, or lack of it).

I have written, too, that my block of flats (kerrostalo) is situated on a street called Koskitie, which translates as Rapids Road. Yes, the river used to get pretty wild just at this point, which is why there is a power station across the street from my flat. The Merikosken power plant looms large here in Tuira. I bike or walk down Koskitie every morning past the power plant to Merikosken Street (Merikoskenkatu), where I catch a bus to the university, or else I run into friendly drunks (see the post called “Hyvää Matkaa!”). In the afternoons, I might stop at the Merikosken Grilli for some takeaway stir-fry. In any case, I will give a wide berth to the Merikulma Pub and the rowdy fellows who tend to spill out of it at all hours.

I have written, too, about the museum in the park, the Museum of Northern Ostrobothnia, that contains a huge and highly detailed model of the city of Oulu as it was in 1938, and which I have used to form a mental image of what had been “a traditional ‘wooden town’ in the late 1930’s, a ‘white city’ which had a dreamy air about it on a Sunday afternoon in summer, when a gentle breeze fanned the people as they sat in the lush parks alongside the stream, on the islands of Hupisaaret or beneath the lilacs or rowans on their own gardens.” The source of this passage is Olavi K. Fält, “From an Idyll to a New War,” in Oulupolis: The History of Oulu as an International City (Oulu: Oulu City Council, 1999, pp. 89-108 at 99). All subsequent references are to this valuable essay.

Laying a modern map next to the model in the museum, one can easily perceive that Tuira was completely rebuilt after World War II. The Merikosken power station was the centerpiece of this project. A channel was dug and a dam was built to feed the river into the power station, and land was reclaimed to accommodate Toivoniemi, a suite of modernist high-rises that were built on a ground plan attributed to the great Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, who also gets credit for a set of fountains that transformed the river into an urban amenity. Officially (i.e., on the maps), this area is called Koskikeskus, Rapids Central, in other words.

I also have written about the footbridge that I ride my bike or walk across when I’m headed for the city center. Actually, it’s part footbridge, part dam. The dam in turn explains why in recent years they have installed a kalatie (fish road) here; we would call it a “ladder” that allows salmon and other species to make the journey upriver to spawn.

“I knew all that,” you’re thinking to yourself. Of course you did, since you are a conscientious, not to say compulsive, reader of this blog. But there are some things you probably didn’t know, because I didn’t know them either. First of all, there is the matter of the “Second World War.” People don’t call it that, because here it was a drama that played out in several discrete acts. The first was the Winter War, during which the Finns covered themselves in glory by repelling a massive Soviet invasion. Those old clips you’ve seen of soldiers in white parkas and skis, rifles slung over their shoulders—that’s the Winter War, which formally ended on March 13, 1940. What followed was a period during which Finland attempted to chart its own destiny while being moved like a pawn in a high-stakes chess match between the Soviet Union and Germany.

The second act was the Continuation War, which followed hard upon the German attack on the Soviet Union that began on June 22, 1941. The Finns now began carefully to do business with the Germans, whose occupation of Norway and whose opening of the eastern front invested Finland, especially the northern part of the country, with strategic importance. Meanwhile, the Soviets metamorphosed into allies of the Allies—that is, of Great Britain, the United States, and “Free France.” And that complicated things for all parties, not least for Marshall Mannerheim, the Finnish Commander in Chief.

In the final act, when Germany’s prospects were looking increasingly bleak, the Finns prudently make a separate peace with the Allied army that was at its gates—the Red army—the terms of which unfortunately required them to disarm any German troops remaining in Finland after September 15, 1944. In the unhappy “coda” to the Continuation War, practically everything north of Oulu was torched or leveled by the Wehrmacht as it retreated from the country. A well informed source with a mordant sense of humor explained to me that while the Soviets won the Continuation War, the Finns came in second.

The uniqueness of Finland’s role in the Second World War makes fascinating reading in any event. But for a political scientist practicing urban history without a license, and one who happens to be renting a flat in Tuira, the narrative is powerful enough to add a somewhat sinister overlay to an otherwise benign and familiar landscape. Olavi Fält writes that by the summer of 1942, Toppila, a port adjacent to Tuira proper, “was becoming the Germans’ main supply port in the whole of Finland. The Wehrmacht placed the office of its commandant and its transport headquarters, patrol battalion and centre for troops on leave in Oulu, and in the autumn the SS troops set up an extensive servicing and training centre in Tuira” (p. 103). On page 102 of Oulupolis, there’s a photo of German tanks rumbling down Tuira’s main drag, Valtatie, which is probably not more than 100 meters from my flat.

Fält writes that the most conspicuous German settlement in the Oulu region was right here in River City; in fact, Tuira was known locally as “Little Berlin,” and it “consisted of 275 temporary buildings and covered an area of 64 ha.” (p. 104). Most of these buildings were easily removed after the war, but one structure was built to last, and that was the German officers’ club, which survives today as the Tuira fire station (see photo up top), in a part of town that has been known ever since as Alppila, owing to the vaguely Alpine style of the club.

Adding an element of surrealism here is evidence that the Germans “brought a measure of affluence to the city. The high wages that they paid and the free food given to their employees attracted people to work for them, and both the City Council and private citizens obtained an income by renting land and accommodation to them and offering various services. All this increased the city’s tax revenues, of course, and reduced the need to raise the rate of tax during the war” (pp. 105-107). Fält observes that relations between the German and Finnish authorities in Oulu “remained good throughout the Continuation War” (p. 104). When it came time for the Germans to extricate themselves from Suomi, that operation, too, was orchestrated by their leadership in Oulu, and it seems to have been conducted in a manner that could fairly be described as courtly.

Completing the story of the alteration of the Tuira landscape during this period is the altogether extraordinary image of “Russian prisoners of war at work building the Merikoski Power Station in January 1942.” At times, there were up to 150 of them working on the project. In the photo that appears on page 105 of Oulupolis, the POWs appear to be rearranging Tuira’s landscape and riverscape underneath what looks like a foot of snow. Believe it or not, these were the lucky ones.

Recently, there has been a flap in Finland having to do with photos of the war in Lapland that have been suppressed for the past sixty years. The images have now been released, and they are not for the squeamish. Some show alleged Russian spies having a smoke with their executioners, and then, minutes later, facing a Finnish firing squad. Bloated corpses lie in the weeds, or are piled promiscuously on trucks. Most gruesome is substantial evidence that cannibalism, especially on the part of desperate Russian soldiers, was “not uncommon,” as the Helsingin Sanomat puts it. One photo shows a pile of human ribs artfully arranged next to a cast-iron skillet that was discovered in a snowbank. Click on the title of this post up top for a link.


Anonymous å,å said...

"A well informed source with a mordant sense of humor explained to me that while the Soviets won the Continuation War, the Finns came in second."

This is actually a quote from Väinö Linna's The Unknown Soldier, one of the most successful and best known Finnish novels. A movie adaptation (there are two of them) is shown on tv every year on the Finnish Independence Day.

6:49 PM  
Blogger fulbrighterinfinland said...

Kiitos, å,å. I guess my well informed source with the mordant sense of humor borrows lines from the very best.

I keep running into Väinö Linna. A friend in comp lit asked me about The Unknown Soldier. And over the weekend, I saw his name emblazoned on a factory in Tampere. I was told Linna worked there when he wasn't writing books.

11:48 AM  

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