Soviet crimes compensated

  • 2002-05-16
  • Paal Aarsaether

Irja Stenberg's voice cracks and her eyes well up with tears as she recalls the day almost 60 years ago when Soviet troops burst into her home and killed most of her family - an atrocity for which the Finnish government is finally preparing financial compensation.

"First the soldiers came into our house to get food," Stenberg said. "Then they entered again and started firing at us, killing my father, older brother, grandparents, uncle, aunt and cousins," she said.

Only 4-year-old Stenberg and her younger brother, who was sitting on her lap, survived the 1943 attack in the northern Finnish town of Suomussalmi, she with a bullet wound to the head.

Six decades later, Irja Stenberg and 1,000 other Finnish civilian victims of Soviet atrocities are finally set to receive financial compensation from the Finnish state, and with it acknowledgment of the suffering they endured.

In more than 20 massacres carried out during World War II, Soviet soldiers killed 176 Finnish civilians, aged 18 days to 93 years, according to Tyyne Martikainen, whose 1998 book "Stories of the Partisans' Civilian Victims" brought the events back to light after being hushed up for decades.

Martikainen has since published a second book and set up a lobby group for victims to pressure authorities to award compensation and bring the guilty to justice.

The Finnish government, worried about upsetting its relationship with its eastern neighbor, over the years repeatedly turned down the victims' requests for justice and compensation.

"We've set aside 1 million euros ($900,900) (per year) for this. It isn't much, it's more to say we are sorry," former Finnish Health and Social Affairs Minister Osmo Soininvaara, who sponsored the move, said.

The issue is still sensitive, however, as evidenced by the fact that most Russians reject the Finnish claim that the victims were innocent civilians.

"The Finns are raising the wrong question, and I cannot agree with them," Stanislav Stastsinski, a Russian historian in Murmansk who has researched the issue, said in a telephone interview.

"Why did they leave civilians near the border? Everybody was given a gun in these areas, so what is the difference when they shot 8- or 28-year-old people? If they could shoot you, you'd try to shoot first," he concluded.

During World War II, the Soviet Union attacked Finland and occupied 10 percent of the country.

Stalin sent elite soldiers in to wreak havoc behind Finnish lines, but Finnish historians have found no answers as to why civilians were targeted.

"Their orders were to sabotage and destroy garrisons and military objects, not to kill civilians. But behind Finnish lines there were not many military targets," said Ohto Manninen, history professor at Finland's Defense College.

During the war, the press covered the massacres widely, and on July 20, 1944, the Swedish daily Haparandabladet published a report of a massacre in Savukoski, Lapland, where 11 women and children, from 6 months to 52 years old, were killed. An autopsy witnessed by neutral Swedish medical personnel found that eight victims had been shot in the head, two were killed by bayonets or knives, while the baby had died after being hit against a wall or rock, the daily wrote.