The 1st of May, also called May Day or Vappu in Finnish, is one of the biggest holidays in the Finnish calendar. It’s a day filled with celebration, parades, eating munkki (Finnish doughnuts), tippaleipä (Finnish funnel cakes) and drinking sima (mead). It is also the day that Socialists and Communists have chosen for International Workers’ Day and so throughout Finland various memorials to the Reds (Socialists and Communists of the Finnish Civil War) will be remembered with wreaths, flowers and ribbons. It was during this festive day that a memorial I had passed many times on my way to work caught my eye.
Raatisaari Prison Camp
In the aftermath of the Battle of Oulu, the victorious White forces found themselves with around 850 prisoners and nowhere to house them. At first, they were placed into various buildings around the city, like the Lyseo (Secondary School), the theatre, and the State Provincial Office. However, these accommodations were not ideally suited for long term holding and so a new, centralised institution was needed. In several areas, like Raahe and Kokkola, small camps had been constructed to house Red prisoners and so idea was to copy these but on a larger, more permanent scale.
The discussion of where to build this new prison camp was over quickly. Raatinsaari was home to an Imperial Russian Coast Guard Station, which had been manned by Russian troops tasked with guarding the coastal area during the First World War. Turning the barracks and station into a prison camp would be an easy task and work started on 20th March. The camp contained several barracks with between 40-140 prisoners were assigned to each and the whole facility was surrounded by barbed wire.
Like in other camps across the country, treatment wasn’t of the best quality but due to the need for volunteers at the front, Oulu’s camp saw most of their guards as ‘unfit’ conscripts. These conscripts were often described as ‘Red Hearted’ which isn’t all that surprising as Oulu was an industrialised Workers’ city at that time. Also, unlike in some camps, Oulu’s prisoners were used as labour in the area; this allowed them to have more freedom, better rations and generally a better lifestyle than other prisoners elsewhere. All these things contributed to Oulu having the second-lowest mortality rate out of all the camps of the Civil War.
The mortality rates of Finland’s Civil War camps are well known in Finland, some had a rate of more than 20%, but out of the around 2,100 prisoners who were housed there from its opening in March to its closing in August, only 46, 49 or 51 died (depending upon the source used). Out of this number, 9 were executed and the rest mainly succumbed to the disease.
The Raatin Punavankileirin Muistomerkki (Raati Red Prisoner Camp Memoria) was created in response to Oulu City’s Council request to the Oulu Arts Council to mark the 70th anniversary of the Prison Camp’s operation in 1988. It is part of the overall attempts in Finland to help build solid relations between the two main divisions in the country, that despite years of outward unity, still displays the scars on society.
Jouko Toiviainen was chosen to produce the sculpture. He said he was inspired by an incident that occurred when a prisoner was hunting a frog to eat but a guard thought he was trying to escape and proceeded to shoot him. He described the memorial as a broken shell of a man on top of a slab cracked in half with something fallen from the man’s grip in the middle. He also goes on to say that he doesn’t see heroism in the Civil War but the human tragedy during that time has touched him.
On one half of the slab, there is the text “PUNAVANKILEIRI RAATISSA 1918” which translates to Red Prison Camp Raati 1918.
Even at, or even because of, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, there is still tension surrounding the event. People still search for reconciliation and understanding and it is only in recent years through open and diverse research and discourse that we have seen the wounds start to heal. The building and maintaining of these memorials is a part of this reconciliation and can only be a positive development.
Ala-Häivälä, Kai: “Vankina valkoisten – Oulun vankileiri 1918” Suomen historian pro gradu -tutkielma (Helsingin yliopiston historian laitos, 2000)
Haapala, Pertti, Tampere 1918: A Town in the Civil War (Tampere Museums, Museum Centre Vapriikki, 2010)
Red Guard Memorials