Encyclopaedia Fennica

Vaasa prisoner of war discipline camp

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The city of Vaasa on the west coast of Finland stayed far from any frontlines of the Winter War of 1939-1940 and the Continuation War of 1941-1944 (although it still saw six Soviet bombing raids in Winter War). However there still is a number of grim reminders of the past war, and one of the less obvious ones is the monument to 75 Soviet prisoners of war who died in the 24th Vaasa discipline camp in 1942-1944. It is located at the small Kappelinmäki Orthodox Cemetery at the very edge of the city. Although I’ve seen this cemetery once, I didn’t notice the actual monument then (it looks a lot like a regular grave, especially in winter and from afar), and read about it only very recently in the Vaasa ennen ja nyt (Vaasa Before and Now) blog about Vaasa, maintained by Vaasa Inner City Residents Association (Vaasan kantakaupungin asukasyhdistys ry).

The camp no. 24 was initially set up on 25.6.1942 in a completely different part of the country, at Riitasensuo Mire near the town of Kerimäki, rather close to the city of Savonlinna in East Finland. However in early 1943 it was moved to Vaasa. Camp barracks were built in the Court of Appeal Forest (Hovioikeudenmetsä) in the Old Vaasa (Vanha Vaasa) area on the outskirts of the city, an old wood which has seen quite a few events over centuries. The camp was designated as a discipline one, meant for “hooligans”: prisoners who had attempted escape, had refused to work, politruks and suspected spies and saboteurs. From the initial population 427 of the Old Vaasa camp and its branches in Helsingby/Tölby and Isokyrö its number of prisoners rose to over 1000 by 1944, and made a short quick leap to 3500 in the last months of the war. As a discipline camp it was meant only for actual prisoners of war and only for adult men; women and underage boys were never sent to such camps.

The conditions in the camp were extremely harsh, as expected for a discipline camp. Prisoners weren’t tortured or killed indiscriminately, but nasty public beatings (25 lashes over the back, with a bundle of copper or steel wire at the end of a stick) were commonly dealt for the slightest misbehaviours, like hiding a piece of bread or not saluting an officer. Care was generally taken to ensure no one gets actually crippled in this way; prisoner labor was used to build an airfield nearby (which nowadays is the Vaasa airport) and roads in the area. Only 12 people were shot, but many more died of hunger, sickness and exhaustion from the back-breaking work, most of them in 1942. Some prisoners however managed to get work as farmhands with the local farmers though; this was a very lucky lot, and the conditions of such work were hugely better.

Much much later, when it became possible to talk about these things more freely, a former prisoner of Vaasa camp whose name was Nikolai Dyakov published a book about his experiences. Someone has scanned it and put in up online, in Russian of course. The book is actually a very fascinating read. The author was wounded and captured in Viena Karelia as early as August 1941, and had a wealth of experience as a prisoner in Finland (hospitals in Kuusamo and Kokkola; camp in Karvia; mine work at Hämeenkyrö; camp in Karvia again; farm hand at Karvia; camp in Kemi; prison in Rovaniemi; camp in Kemi again; escape attempt through the woods of Peräpohjola; capture and camp in Vaasa and its Helsingby branch; end of the war and return to the Soviet Union, where the author, as he hints heavily, had to spent more time in Soviet prison camps as a former prisoner of war). He describes life stories of quite a few people he met, including fellow prisoners, Finns, and, notably, surprisingly many Russian emigrants who moved to Finland or stayed there after the October Revolution, of their own will or because they didn’t have a choice.

The book shouldn’t be taken at the face value. Apparently it was published sometime around 1989-1991, and in a way is also a curious monument of the late Soviet era in itself; Dyakov doesn’t hesitate to criticize Stalin, Soviet purges, and tells about many ways Stalinist Soviet Union slighted him and his fellow prisoners before the war; he also mentions his religion several times, something that wouldn’t really have been allowed in earlier years. Yet at the same time he paints almost a comically propagandist picture of Finland. On one hand, there is evil fascist Finnish leadership (the bloodthirsty trio of Tanner, Ryti, Mannerheim), who are apparently solely responsible for the entire war, and their servants the brutal suojeluskunta White Guards. On the other hand there are regular poor oppressed Finns, workers and nurses and the like, and of course most of them are secret communist sympathizers. Winter War is mentioned only a few times in passing, and author’s verdict about it is that Soviet Union offered Finland a perfectly fair and reasonable deal, and Finnish leadership just refused it because they really wanted to go to war. But propaganda elements (which might be his genuine opinion or something added to placate the censorship) notwithstanding, most Finns in the book are rather sympathetic and Dyakov clearly has taken a liking to Finland in the end. Most factual parts seem very convincing, from what I know about these years, and geography elements are also reproduced very faithfully, to the degree I could easily find the mine and the farm where Dyakov worked on the modern map. His experience in these places (where he did basically just regular work) and in hospitals (where he was treated with much compassion) sharply contrasts with actual camps, with brutal guards, cold, hunger, filth, blood and prisoners dying like flies.

Getting back from Dyakov’s story to the Vaasa camp, prisoners who died there were buried at the Kappelinmäki Orthodox Cemetery some two kilometers away, a place where Russian garrison officers were buried in the Grand Duchy of Finland era, and Russian immigrants are still being buried today. A collective monument was set up instead of original modest graves in 1954; as far as I understood the current monument is actually an even newer version. It seems quite remarkable to me that not only such a monument exists, but even the names of all dead were recorded and known; most mass graves in Russia are not like that. For a long time however only 63 of 75 names were known; apparently the latest version of the deceased lists did not survive, and some were left out. Missing names have been recovered relatively recently, likely with some help from Russian historians or activists. The camp is well known to Finnish historians as well. For example, in 2000 some Petteri Syrjämäki from Jyväskylä University wrote a paper where he gathered rather comprehensive information about the history and the conditions of the Vaasa camp, and a more popular book was written about the camp by Arvo Myllymäki in 2013.

The mass grave is virtually the only remainder of the camp that still exists. Camp barracks foundations can still be found in the Court of Appeal Forest, but you need to know where to look (I don’t). Last year the forest (30.6 ha area) along with two other nature areas within Vaasa limits was officialy declared a protected nature area, for the 100 year anniversary of Finland. It will likely get an official nature trail with information boards about its history at some point in future.

Just yesterday the news came out that the list of the deceased in the biggest Finnish prisoner of war camp in Pieksämäki has been finally compiled. 2797 people are buried there. In total 64188 Soviet prisoners of war went through Finnish prison camps. 16700 of them died there.

The complete list of prisoners buried in the grave.

One more addition. The name is missing in the list, perhaps this is someone traced to this grave even later.

Kappelinmäki Ortodox Cemetery as seen from the street. This part of Vaasa is called Ristinummi (Finn. Cross Heath). There are two more graveyards nearby (a big Lutheran one and a rather tiny and a bit weird Muslim/atheist one).

About two kilometers away, the Court of Appeal forest. It is a rather beautiful forest, a kind of spruce wood with a great number of huge mossy rocks very common in the immediate surroundings of Vaasa.

The forest is named after the old Court of Appeal building. One of the oldest Courts of Appeal in Finland (dating from 18th century), it was one of the extremely few buildings that survived the great fire of Vaasa in 1852. Rather than to rebuild the (then tiny) city at the same spot, it was decided to move it 6 km to the northwest, to a place which at that point was a much better location for a sea harbor (as is everywhere at the Bothnian coast, harbor locations in Vaasa area shift and move over centuries due to rapid post-glacial rebound, which means that sea level drops by about 1 cm/year here). This is probably why the nearby old forest (and the ruins of Old Vaasa) still survives. The Court of Appeal also moved into the new Vaasa, and the older building was rebuilt into the church of Korsholm Parish. The Court of Appeal forest stretches to the east and to the south of it.

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