top of page
  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

The Periphery's Civil War: Memory, Monuments and Battlefields in Karelia

Alexander Osipov


The confrontation between the Reds and the Whites was the main plot of the Civil War in Russia, although a comprehensive understanding of the process is impossible without considering other actors and regional features. National movements in Asia and the Caucasus, peasant uprisings in the Volga region and Central Russia, and Allied intervention from the Far East to the Baltic Sea formed a complex picture of the Civil War, and therefore the war on the periphery did not always coincide with the main plot. Karelia, to choose just one region, is an illustrative example of its own, peripheral Civil War, the memory of which is intertwined with the memory of the Second World War and with the idea of fighting an external enemy.


The features of the Civil War in Karelia could be explained in many ways by its geographical location. Karelia, inhabited by Russians and Karelians and located between Petrograd and Murmansk, was a typical Russian province that found itself at the epicentre of the opposing forces in 1918. Despite the official establishment of Soviet power, the position of the Bolsheviks was not strong enough, as White and Allied forces advanced from the north along the Murmansk Railway. Across the province, the peasantry, dissatisfied with the agrarian policy of the Bolsheviks, staged uprisings. The main factor, however, was Finland, which gained independence from the Russian Empire in December 1917 and supported some of the peasant uprisings and even sent volunteers to Karelia. Formally, the Finnish authorities did not participate in these events, however, the government knew that Finnish officers were sent to Karelia and that timber merchants and public organizations financed them.


Acting behind the backs of the great powers, Finland pursued its own goal of creating a “Greater Finland”, which was supposed to unite “kindred” Finno-Ugric nations: Finns, Karelians, Ingrians, Vepsians and Estonians. The Finnish factor was not only White. Many Red Finns fled to Russia after being defeated in the Finnish Civil War in 1918 and entered the military service of the Bolsheviks. One of these Red Finns was Toivo Antikainen (1898–1941), who was born in Helsinki but made his career in Soviet Russia. He successively participated in the suppression of several anti-Bolshevik uprisings, and then led the Communist Party of Finland.


In the autumn of 1921, an extremely difficult economic situation developed in the Karelian Labour Commune. The poor harvest of 1921, food shortages, high food taxes (prodnalog) and forced labour mobilization led to the largest peasant uprising in Karelia during the entire period of the Civil War. Finnish officers took on the role of organizers, and soon the rebels captured the northern and central parts of the region. The forces of the parties turned out to be unequal: a thirty-thousand-strong group of the Red Army acted against about three thousand rebels, and the Red Finns under the command of Antikainen played a decisive role. His detachment made a long ski expedition past the flank of the rebels and attacked them from the rear, which came as a complete surprise and led to the rebels’ defeat. After that, more than ten thousand people – participants in the uprising and local residents – fled to neighbouring Finland.


Aleksei Katseblin, Ski Raid in Karelia, 1933.

Source: cyclowiki.org, https://cyclowiki.org/wiki/


The fate of the participants in the Antikainen raid was tragic. Antikainen worked in the Comintern; he was then sent to Finland, where he clandestinely led the Communist Party of Finland. The Finnish authorities arrested him near Helsinki in 1934 and, after a lengthy legal process, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. This probably saved his life, because most of the participants in the ski raid were murdered during the Stalinist purges. After the end of the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939–1940, Antikainen returned to Karelia and was even elected a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, but he died in a plane crash in 1941. His death has given rise to various conspiracy theories, as it is believed that, after returning from prison, he asked Soviet leaders uncomfortable questions about his missing comrades in arms.


Toivo Antikainen

Source: The National Archive of the Republic of Karelia.

In any case, Antikainen has become perhaps the most important figure in preserving the memory of the Karelian Civil War. Streets in the cities and towns of Karelia are named after him, and starting from the mid-1930s, local authorities organized a ski tour of the battlefields of the Antikainen detachment. The Antikainen ski track, known officially as youth military and sports competitions, became a mass phenomenon in Karelia in the 1960s. The teams participating in the competitions were called battalions, and were formed in schools and colleges, universities and factories. Each participant of the competition had to ski from 100 to 1000 kilometres through the winter forest. The best and fastest teams were awarded diplomas and badges. The skiers had to adhere to the principles outlined in the Soviet Union’s standardised physical fitness programme known as “Ready for Labour and Defence of the USSR” (gotov k trudu i oborone SSSR). An important part of the campaign was not only sporting achievements and survival in the winter forest, but also meetings with veterans, as well as visiting and tending to battlefields.[1] The Antikainen ski track ceased to exist in the 1990s, but was revived by local authorities in 2021 as a tool for the development of tourism.[2]


Today in Karelia there are more than 60 monuments, mass graves, commemorative signs and plaques dedicated to the memory of the Civil War and, more precisely, the memory of the Reds who died in the Civil War. The main memorial of the Civil War was created in Petrozavodsk back in 1919, when, by the decision of local authorities, deceased Red Army soldiers were buried in a mass grave. The location of the burial site in the centre of the city opposite the government buildings was supposed to remind the citizens of the ongoing Civil War. The buried Reds (including some unidentified soldiers) were a call to struggle, in which the struggle itself was important, and not its heroes.[3] Later, a number of prominent state and party figures of Soviet Karelia, as well as officers and soldiers who died in the Great Patriotic War, were buried in this memorial. The memorial complex acquired its final form in 1969, when the opening of the eternal flame took place on the site. Thus, the memorial became a common resting place for the Red Army soldiers who died in the Civil War and for those who died during the Second World War.


The Eternal Flame Memorial in Petrozavodsk-1 and 2.

Source: Marina Molkova.


The memorial in Petrozavodsk is not the only one in Karelia that combines the Civil War and the Great Patriotic War. There are four other memorial sites in the Karelian republic, which were originally created in memory of the Civil War and then later were modified to commemorate both wars. These and other monuments convey two main meanings: the fight against invaders and liberation. These concepts again refer to the Finnish factor in the Civil War in Karelia. In 1918–1922, Finnish volunteers and officers organized three campaigns on the territory of Karelia with the goal of creating a Greater Finland comprised of “kindred nations”. In 1941–1944 most of the territory of Karelia was occupied by Finnish troops, who fought in the Second World War on the side of Germany.


It is thus not surprising that in representations of the war of Whites and Reds in Karelia, the Finns play the role of Whites or White guards (belogvardeitsy), White Finns (belofinny), or White bandits (belobandity). The latest example of this framing was the installation of a monument on the shores of Lake Ladoga in 2019 in honour of the centenary of the defeat of the Finnish volunteer detachment by Red sailors.[4] The inscription on the stone speaks of the defeat of the “White Finnish interventionists” on the site in 1919 – of course, without mentioning that some local residents were part of the Finnish volunteer detachment and fought against the Soviet regime.


In such representations, everything becomes oversimplified – there is a legitimate authority and there is an external enemy, common to both the Civil War, the Winter War and the Great Patriotic War. Thus, there is no place for the main hero of the Civil War – the peasantry, which at the beginning of the twentieth century accounted for more than 90% of the population of the region. Even today, it is hard to imagine that the Karelian authorities would approve a memorial to the participants and/or victims of the Karelian uprising of 1921–1922. The fact that the victims were on both sides is obvious, as is the fact that the hero of the Civil War, Antikainen, was convicted in Finland not only for treason, but also for the murder of a prisoner in 1922.


The Monument to Red Guards and Sailors in Vidlitsa.

Source: Oona Ilmolahti.


The image of White officers and the White movement has been revived in Russia through monuments, films and the publication of memoirs since the 1990s. Of course, visually, these commemorations of the Whites lose to the memory of the Reds, especially if the memory of the Reds includes the fight against an external enemy. Monuments to the Whites or victims of the Civil War are rare, although there are some exceptions. In 2021, the former President of Russia Dmitrii Medvedev opened a monument in Leningrad Region dedicated to the hundredth anniversary of the Kronstadt uprising. At the opening of the monument, the suppression of the truth about the uprising in the Soviet era and about the victims of the Civil War in general was discussed.[5] Interestingly, the aforementioned Antikainen participated in the suppression of this uprising as well.


In another case, an example from Karelia shows another side of Civil War memory. In 2021, the National Museum of the Republic of Karelia organized an exhibition dedicated to the Karelian uprising, which turned into a scandal. The organizers of the exhibition admitted that they faced a shortage of exhibit item and photographs: indeed, very few artefacts from the Civil War era remained.However, an appeal made by one of the visitors to the exhibition to the prosecutor’s office reveals how contentious the memory of the Civil War can be in the region. According to this person, the exhibition “insulted the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland from separatists, bandits and terrorists” and posed a threat to Russia. The visitor accused the organizers of the exhibition of having sympathy for the participants in the uprising, who they claimed acted with bandit and terrorist methods against the Soviet government.[6] The museum was forced to explain the exhibition, and a discussion about this began on social networks and news sites. The discussion revealed that the main issue was not the Civil War and the reasons for the uprising, but simply who was right and who was wrong, the rebels or the Bolsheviks.[7]


In 2021, a monograph on the Civil War in Karelia was published, and the authors received a lot of feedback from people who were trying to find information about ancestors who took part in the Karelian uprising.[8] The fate of these people turned out to be different: some died during the uprising, some fled to Finland and some returned to the USSR and ended up in Stalin’s camps. The attention paid to the book, museum exhibitions, new monuments and the relaunched Antikainen ski track show that there is interest in the topic. Obviously, in addition to historians and family tree diggers, a powerful external factor influences the situation. Modern Russian foreign policy and the search for external and internal enemies are inevitably projected onto historical events. The essence of the Civil War fades into the background and the war itself becomes more important. In this representation of the Civil War, there are no specific heroes, but only the fight against enemies. Therefore, it is unlikely that the authorities are ready to present more nuanced perspectives on the Civil War period that simplistic representations, which so conveniently fits into the framework of fighting an external enemy.


Alexander Osipov graduated from Petrozavodsk State University in 2006 with a Candidate of Sciences degree in general history and received his PhD from the University of Eastern Finland in 2022. His research focuses on the Russian Civil War and environmental history in the post-Soviet space. His current research project concerns the role of nature in state building in Kazakhstan in the 1990s.


[1] Anna Dzhaparidze, “Istoria voenno-sportivnykh sorevnovaniĭ ’Lyzhnia Antikaĭnena,” Uchënye zapiski Petrozavodskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta 1, No. 146 (2015): 30–33. https://uchzap.petrsu.ru/files/issue/n146.pdf [2] Larisa Maksimova, ”Parfenchikov predlozhil vernut’ marafony po lyzhne Antikaĭnena, February 23, 2020, Petrozavodsk bezformata. https://petrozavodsk.bezformata.com/listnews/vernut-marafoni-po-lizhne-antikajnena/81771326/

[3] Valentina Volokhova, “Istoria bratskoĭ mogily kommunistov v kontekste politicheskoĭ zhizni Petrozavodska s gody grazhdanskoĭ voĭny. Uchënye zapiski Petrozavodskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta 3, No. 164 (2017): 20–25. [4] IUriĭ Shliakhov, “Vidlitsa spustia 100 let,” Respublika, June 28, 2019, https://rk.karelia.ru/social/vizit-glavy-karelii-v-vidlitsu-vse-po-teme/.

[5] “Medvedev otkryl pamiatnik k 100-letiu Kronshtadtskogo vosstania,” RBC, December 3, 2021, https://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/61aa26009a7947dcbbe731d6. See also: Alexander Herbert, “Thinking like an Anarchist: Exploring Anarchist Perspectives of the 1921 Kronstadt Uprising,” Peripheral Histories, May 13, 2020, https://www.peripheralhistories.co.uk/post/thinking-like-an-anarchist-exploring-anarchist-perspectives-of-the1924-kronstadt-uprising.

[6] “Turist pozhalovalsia v prokuraturu RK na vystavku v natsional’nom muzee,” PTZgovorit, January 21, 2022, https://ptzgovorit.ru/news/turist-pozhalovalsya-v-prokuraturu-rk-na-vystavku-v-nacionalnom-muzee. [7] See for example: https://vk.com/stolica_na_onego?w=wall-29378821_2188091, but comments have been hidden by the news site. [8] Marina Vitukhnovskaia and Alexander Osipov, V puchine grazhdanskoĭ voĭny: Karely v poiskakh strategiĭ vyzhivania (Moscow, Saint-Petersburg: Nestor-Istoria, 2021).





299 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page