A few years ago I was in Tampere for work. After attending the work-related event, I found myself with a few hours free before I needed to get the train back to Oulu and so thought what better way to use my time than explore the city for memorials.
With this in mind, after some quick googling, I found an interesting memorial to the Finnish Red Guard.
The Pispala Red Guard
During the upheaval in the Russian Empire in 1917, many paramilitary groups were formed to protect certain interests. Finland was not immune to such political uncertainty and with a World War raging, numerous strikes took place across Finland to protest the many shortages the people were suffering from. Unfortunately, where there is protest and strike, there is also violence and soon clashes between various groups ensued. In light of this, numerous Workers’ Guard were formed throughout the country.
In November 1917, the Pispala Red Guard was formed with the intention to protect the largely working-class population of the area. Aatto Koivunen, a construction worker and founding member of the Pispala Workers’ Association, became its Chief of Staff. The unit used the local Fire Station as a training ground and by the time of the Battle of Tampere (16th March), it consisted of 800 men and about 50 women, formed up into 5 companies. It is important to note here that while the majority of the Red Guard, especially before the Civil War, were volunteers, at least a notable number were coerced into joining as can been seen from the following announcement published in Kansan Lehti on the 2nd February 1918 from the leaders of the Pispala Red Guard:
“All organised male workers living in Pispala, Tahmela, and Epila are urged to come to the office of the Pispala Red Guard in order to join. This invitation must absolutely be followed.”
The Pispala Red Guard mobilized at the outbreak of the Civil War on the 28th January and while the Fire Station-come-Headquarters was being turned into a strong point, men from the Pispala Red Guard went to fight on the front lines of Ruovesi. Pispala men were also present for the battles of Vilppula, Eräjärvi, Kuhmalahti and Ikaalinen. When the White Forces encircled Tampere and the battle opened up upon the city, the Pispala Red Guard took main responsibility for the Western line, with Aatto Koivunen taking overall command.
Under Koivunen’s leadership, the Western Line was reorganised and turned into a sturdy defensive position. From the 26th of March, White Forces attacked the Western Line with artillery and infantry assault in an effort to break through but the line held with few losses whilst the Whites suffered heavy casualties. As the main city of Tampere fell in early April, Pispala was still holding out and the area became choked with refugees and falling back Red Guards from other areas. The fighting was so fierce that even the Women’s company took up arms to help add weight to the fire from the ridges and trenches. On the evening of the 4th of April at the Pispala Workers’ Hall, a decision was made for an attempt to break out from the encirclement across the frozen Pyhäjärvi lake. By the morning of the 5th around 400 individuals had escaped and joined up with the Red forces at Vesilahti.
Another break out was conducted on the evening of the 5th of April, upwards of 700 people took to the ice, led by Koivunen, as well as some of the other Red leaders and headed north. They evaded the White forces that were along the banks of the Näisjärvi and joined up at Vesilahti. On the morning of the 6th, White Forces launched a devastating assault against the remaining Red Forces, in light of this, as well as having few commanders left, those left in charge decided it was better to surrender. At 0830 a white garment was attached to the flag pole at Pyynikki tower and the fighting died down. In the aftermath, the remaining Pispala Red Guard, along with about 10,000 others, were marched to the former Imperial Russian Barracks, which now served as a Prison Camp.
The Pispala Red Guard Memorial
In the years after the end of the Second World War, many Finns wanted to help put into memory the sacrifices of their ancestors, regardless of their allegiance. Across the country, many memorials were erected in memory of those who had fought and died for the Reds during the Finnish Civil War.
In 1982 a black granite sculpture was unveiled in a small park overlooking Pispala and the two lakes of Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi. The work of Merja Vainio, she had won the competition put out by the Pispala Red Guard Memorial Association. The simple monument is designed to immortalise the bravery and stubbornness of the Pispala Red Guard, which held the Western line for 12 days without collapsing.
At the base is the words:
“Täällä Pispalan harjulla työväen joukot Tampereella viimeksi seisoivat ase kädessä asiaansa puolustaen vuonna 1918”
“On this Pispala Ridge the red guard in Tampere last stood with weapons in hand defending their cause in 1918”