C.G.E. Mannerheim charted the course of Finnish history and was voted greatest Finn of all time.
The news that an exhibition on the life of Mannerheim, former supreme commander of the Finnish army and thereafter president of Finland, had opened at the State Hermitage in St Petersburg may have seemed puzzling for many who know who Mannerheim was.
Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim became the symbol of the Finnish struggle against Soviet Russia during the Winter War of 1939-1940. He was hailed as a champion of liberty throughout the western world during those 105 days of stubborn resistance against a vastly superior enemy.
This was not the first time that the stately representative of Finland’s Swedish-speaking aristocracy had been the supreme commander in a war against Russia.
The War of Liberation in 1918 – later also called the Civil War – had been fought against Soviet Russia and against its allies, the Finnish “Reds”. And the Winter War was not the last war in which Mannerheim fought against Russia.
The period of combat known as the Continuation War, 1941 to1944, during which German forces fought alongside the Finnish army, was even more exacting for Finland and Russia than the Winter War had been.
Moreover, in the Continuation War, Finnish forces even advanced into Russian territory with the intention of annexing Eastern Karelia, a region which had never belonged to Finland.
Admittedly, Finnish policy towards the Russians and Finland’s methods of warfare substantially differed from those of the Germans. Finland declined to launch a ground attack on Leningrad or even to bomb it, despite German pressure to do so.
This notwithstanding, Mannerheim, the war hero of Finland and the symbol of its struggle against Russia, does not look like a plausible candidate for hero worship on the part of Russians.
Remarkable career in Russia
What exactly did the Russians find in Mannerheim to warrant an exhibition in their most prestigious museum in early 2005, in the very city whose leaders looked with trepidation at the possibility of a Mannerheim-led attack in both 1919 and 1941 and ’42?
First of all, the key to the puzzle is Mannerheim’s own Russian past. He happens to have spent no less than thirty years in Russia, mostly in St Petersburg, serving in the Russian Imperial Army.
During this period Mannerheim not only reached the rank of lieutenant general and was appointed Commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Imperial Army, he was also known personally to the emperor and became a member of his suite.
Mannerheim’s record as a soldier was impressive. He fought for Russia on the battle front in both the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and in the First World War between 1914 and 1917. General Mannerheim was decorated with the St George’s Cross for gallantry and was famous for his military skill and efficacy.
Mannerheim was also an able sportsman whose horsemanship won prizes. This was evidently one of the reasons why he was chosen for the formidable task of undertaking a a reconnaissance mission on horseback through Asia that lasted two years.
To the list of Mannerheim’s merits one might add his courteous manners, which contributed to the progress of the young cavalry officer in high society and at the imperial court itself.
A non-Russian officer in the Imperial Army was no rarity. There were in fact thousands of them. Many of these “inorodtsy” or “non-orthodox” subjects of the emperor serving in the Russian army came from the Baltic provinces, spoke German as their mother tongue and were Lutheran by religion, as was Mannerheim.
However, Mannerheim’s background differed from that of his Baltic brother officers. He came from the Grand Duchy of Finland, which sent more than 4,000 officers to serve in the Russian army between 1809 and 1917. Almost 400 of them reached the rank of general or admiral.
Most of the officers from Finland spoke Swedish as their mother tongue, Finnish being used mainly as a second language, if they knew it at all. Mannerheim’s Finnish before 1917 was far from fluent.
But, in common with the Baltic German officers, the Finnish officers served the emperor impeccably. In fact, there are no records of disloyalty among the Finns, even during the period from 1899 to1917 when Russia began to pressurise Finland by undermining its juridical status. In lieu of disloyalty, some of the officers chose to retire from active service.
Mannerheim did not retire. He remained a faithful soldier even though he privately deplored the emperor’s policies, which he regarded as unwise. Even when his own brother was exiled to Sweden, Mannerheim’s loyalty to the emperor remained unshaken. His relatives understood his position.
It was only when the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 crushed the old order that Mannerheim realised his ties of loyalty to Russia had been cut. After the revolution he became a champion of the White Finnish cause.
His loyalty towards his native land was now total and he always respected its democratic institutions even though he was hardly a true democrat by conviction.
Mannerheim’s career in the service of two states is an intriguing story that excites curiosity. To Russians – as the director of the State Hermitage says in his foreword to the exhibition catalogue – Mannerheim is above all the cultivated young officer of the Chevalier Guards who stands by Nicholas II in the latter’s coronation procession.
In Finnish eyes Mannerheim stands tall as the elderly Marshal, the man of honour, the fatherly figure whose moral integrity and intelligence could always be trusted.
Perhaps it is not, after all, in any way unnatural that both Finns and Russians have rediscovered their own Mannerheim, now that the nightmare of communism has passed.
In life, Mannerheim was always a leader who came between Finland and the Soviet Union. In death, he is a figure who brings together Finns and Russians.
By Professor Timo Vihavainen, February 2005