Women incarcerated in the Santahamina prison camp survived the Finnish Civil War – for several reasons

In the summer of 1918, in the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War, about a thousand women representing the Red side in the war were held in the Santahamina prison camp in Helsinki. Compared to other camps, the camp’s mortality rate was substantially lower due to many factors that promoted survival.

A day in May 2018: the island of Santahamina located approximately five kilometres southeast of Helsinki’s city centre basks in sun and tranquility. A building that used to serve as a maternity hospital has fallen into decay, while the old prison garrison houses the Recon Company. Today, nothing but the grave mounds are left at a cemetery shadowed by trees. Voluntary repairs are coming up.

A hundred years back, there was a prison camp in the same spot, housing some thousand Red women. In April, the Red Guard had lost a brief but bloody civil war fought against the Whites supported by the government and the Germans. During the summer of 1918, a barge made daily trips from the nearby Suomenlinna fortress island carrying the dead from the camp located there. The prisoners of Santahamina could not have avoided seeing these crossings, the bodies and their burial, perhaps attempting to find a familiar face among the departed.

Santahamina’s prisoners, however, fared much better compared to those of other camps: only four prisoners lost their lives. According to the War Victims of Finland database, 1,324 prisoners died in the Hennala prison camp and in the prison accommodations at Lahti, while in the camps located in Helsinki, primarily at Suomenlinna, the total number of deaths was 1,468.

From victims to victors

“Graves can be dug up and bodies can be counted endlessly, but there is also interest in looking at those who lived, the survivors,” says Virva Liski, a researcher.

Red prisoners, women in particular, are often imagined as passive victims. Liski wishes to tell another story where female prisoners are active agents, survivors, even winners.

“There were a lot of them, and they kept on living, had children, and worked in various sectors of society. They are our grandparents and great grandparents,” Liski points out.

Liski wishes to tell another story where female prisoners are active agents, survivors, even winners.

Virva Liski’s master’s thesis Maitoa, verta ja merisotilaita (“Milk, blood and naval forces”, thesis in Finnish only) falls within the category of modern military history, a research field that gained ground in Finland in the late 1990s. Its focus is on groups that were ignored earlier, such as women, children and civilians. Tools of the field include those of cultural studies, psychology, gender studies and comparative literature.

The scholar’s acute ear also picks up on those voices unheard during research, reading also between the lines: what is left unuttered also matters.

Santahamina – a prison camp for teenage girls

One the prisoners at Santahamina was Elin Janhunen, born in 1891 in Asikkala, southern Finland. Elin worked at a factory of Kone ja Siltarakennus, a Finnish engineering company, and was active in the labour movement, at one point serving as the chair of the women’s branch of a local metal workers’ trade union.

When the Civil War began, Elin completed a course organised by the Red Cross and was already in late winter serving as a nurse in the Battle of Antrea (now Kamennogorsk) on the Karelian Isthmus. During the worst times, her apron, soaked in blood, froze stiff.

Janhunen was taken prisoner in Kotka, from where she was transported to Hamina and further to the infamous Tammisaari (Ekenäs) prison camp. Her memories are stored in the Labour Archives.

“But then, in late June, there came new orders to take all the women away. We were once again loaded up in those boxcars, taking us away. We didn’t know that time either where they were taking us.”

Officially, the Santahamina prison camp began operating on 17 June 1918. Prisoners were transported from the prison camps at Tammisaari and Liisankatu in Helsinki, as well as from other cities, such as Turku and Sortavala. Most of the prisoners were originally from the Uusimaa region in southern Finland or from the province of Vyborg.

Red women who had participated in the Civil War were very young: approximately half of the prisoners were under 21 years of age, or underaged according to the legislation at the time, and no fewer than 80% were under 30.

In addition to the warden and treasurer, the permanent staff of the prison camp consisted of four foremen, a supervisor, a housekeeper, two craft instructors and two farming assistants. More than half of the 23 civilian guards, recruited through newspaper advertisements, were women, in addition to whom guard duty was performed by conscripts from the regiments of Northern Savo and Karelia.

The island of Santahamina also served as a base for German naval forces who had fought on the fronts of the Great War. The Germans and the camp staff disputed each other’s authority, but to the prisoners, the Germans provided an opportunity for human contact and assistance.

Work as a saving grace

Everyday life at the camp revolved around penal labour.

“Work was used for both covering the camp’s maintenance costs and gaining income for the government. The duties included carrying water and firewood, herding cattle, cooking, cleaning, washing laundry and butchering,” explains Liski.

Work was also considered to have educational effects, through which, in addition to spiritual guidance, prisoners would be integrated back into society.

The prisoners themselves wanted to work, since working meant additional meals and, often, made it also possible to steal food. Due to the gendered division of work at the time, women were already familiar with housekeeping and animal husbandry.

As in other prison camps, the provision of sufficient and high-quality food was at times impossible at Santahamina. All things considered, the women prisoners were in relatively good condition, and even many of those transported from the squalor of Tammisaari gained strength. All extra food did not end up directly in the prisoners’ own mouths: some of it was successfully passed on to confined or sick prisoners, as Elin Janhunen also reminisced.

“I myself got some milk, and every now and then things were brought into the garrison for the weakest ones, whenever the guards at the gate looked the other way.”

The ability for compassion also played a role, for example when the cattle tender simply averted his eyes so that prisoners were able to milk the cows they were herding. The treasurer of Santahamina wondered about the milk waste during morning milking aloud to his colleague at Suomenlinna, but the truth never came out. As for the prisoners working at the slaughterhouse, they pilfered blood. Janhunen’s memoirs tell how cheese was made in secret from milk and blood. She was one of the prisoners who was appointed to the sought-after position of herder, able to milk the cows secretly.

“That’s when I also cooked that kind of cheese by mixing blood with milk, but it was so thick that not much of it could be eaten at one go.”

“Independent acquisition of food, collaboration and resourcefulness were important for survival,” summarises Liski.

Naval forces in the mix

Encounters between the prisoners and German sailors caused concern for the camp management.

“The Germans had a great impact on the dynamics at Santahamina. It was feared that their presence would lead to inappropriate behaviour among female prisoners,” notes Liski.

The propaganda disseminated by Whites portrayed Red women as morally decrepit and oversexualised. The White camp staff members had a gendered and politically biased view of the women.

The Germans, on the other hand, were young men hardened on the fronts of the First World War, themselves from the working class, and at Santahamina against their will just like the prisoners. They had been sent to fight the Bolshevists, yet they came across teenage girls in poor condition. The faceless enemy now had a face, awakening compassion. The same compassion may have been the underlying cause for those camp guards who allowed women to visit the German garrison without permission.

The women prisoners themselves stay silent about sexual encounters in their reminiscences, but Liski believes such things did actually occur.

“Interaction between the prisoners and the German sailors was probably based on a trade-off: in exchange for human contact the women were given food, bread and, for example, sugar. Just another strategy for survival.”

In addition to food, the women were helped by the Germans in their escape attempts, gaining an ally against the prison camp system: the German garrison was out of limits for the prison camp staff. According to Liski, positive attention and interest also had an empowering effect on the prisoners.

No memory of sexual violence

The threat of sexual violence was part of the experience of the camp’s female prisoners. That threat was present every day, even though no direct references to rape can be found in the official documentation of the camp or oral histories.

The threat of sexual violence was part of the experience of the camp’s female prisoners.

The camp’s underlying composition was conducive to violence: a large group of women subjugated to men in authority. Liski believes that the cases processed within the camp’s internal punishment system, such as a male guard who had abused women, most likely represent only the tip of the iceberg.

The forceful dehumanisation of Red women engendered cruel humour and sexual harassment verging on subjugation. Due to their sensitive nature, matters related to sexuality are exactly those where researchers must take into account the subjectivity of oral history while also looking for that which is left unsaid, Liski points out. References to sexual violence come from the oral histories of male prisoners.

“Women themselves don’t talk about these issues, while men often remember accounts of horror: rumours about what the enemy is doing to ‘our women’ even as we speak.”

Limits to prisoner activity

Even though Virva Liski is examining women at Santahamina as active subjects, their activity was limited by strictly confined surroundings and conditions.

“Women lived in a forced, limited, unequal prison camp environment that required constant coping,” Liski stresses.

Most of all, the prisoners strived to survive in a subordinate position to which the rules of regular life did not apply. For reasons of ethics alone, researchers must be careful when investigating sexual violence and the abuse of power in camp communities, and drawing conclusions on their prevalence. 

Prison camps, concentration camps included, have also been studied internationally. Studies indicate that the factors supporting survival in camps include friends, cooperation with captors, the young age of prisoners, good health and luck. The women held at Santahamina were also a rather uniform group in terms of background and age, which according to Liski roused mutual compassion and a desire to work together towards a common goal.

“Instead of internal competition, the Santahamina women channelled their resources into cooperation and solidarity by, for example, sharing food. They were flexible and inventive, also in their relations with the staff of the prison camp and others at the camp. These were the traits that helped them survive.”

“Instead of internal competition, the Santahamina women channelled their resources into cooperation and solidarity by, for example, sharing food."

The fact that women were better than men at making it out of the prison camps was also due to their lower caloric requirement and better readiness to manage hygiene and food acquisition. It was also easier for women to get appointments to duties that provided opportunities to acquire extra food. Not considered as dangerous as men, they were often treated better.

The Santahamina prison camp was shut down in August 1918, after two and half months of operations. The camp’s movables, remaining prisoners, staff and cattle were transported to Suomenlinna from where Elin Janhunen was released the same autumn. She was incredulous.

“The judge said that you are free and may go. I asked whether I was really completely free, I couldn’t believe it the first time. Yes yes, you are completely free, off you go.”

Trauma transcends generations

The history of the survivors haunts the researcher. Virva Liski is currently completing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki, with mental health effects caused by the Civil War and transcending generational boundaries as her topic. She is helped in her research by an extensive dataset on Red prisoners and members of the White Guard who lived at least until the 1970s and their children.

“I am interested in transgenerational trauma, a concept familiar from the stories of the descendants of Holocaust survivors. I am investigating what kind of effects prison camp experiences have on former prisoners and their offspring later on in life.”

The study is possible thanks to Finland’s exceptionally accurate archives, the preservation of which in the aftermath of war is rare. Sisällissodan pitkäaikaiset ja ylisukupolviset vaikutukset (“Long-term and transgenerational effect of the Civil War”), a project begun in 2014, is conducted by scholars of history, as well as economists and population scientists.

A decree granting amnesty issued in December 1918 by P. E. Svinhufvud, the highest authority in Finland, acquitted those who actively participated in the war on the White side of legal responsibility. Liski believes that regardless of any potential pricks of conscience, the freedom fighter myth and the ethos of nationalistic uprightness of the victorious Whites may have prevented discussion about traumas caused by executions.

After the war, part of the surviving Reds returned to workers’ associations and to a familiar community where matters could be processed together. The time spent imprisoned may have caused permanent feelings of shame, affecting employment opportunities and starting a family, but according to Liski membership in a community may also have helped in overcoming the trauma.

“Through research, we can shed some light on the meaning of the Civil War and the consequences of traumatic experiences.”

“I thought that this life of mine is no more valuable than that of others, but I seem to have survived well,” pronounced Elin Janhunen when recalling the Civil War. After her release, Elin returned home to Asikkala, but the landowner did not want her there. Finally, the supervisor at Kone ja Siltarakennus took her back: more important than her having been a Red was her status as a good employee.

“I think this was the best acknowledgment I have ever received.”

In the 1920s, Elin Janhunen moved with her daughter from Helsinki to Lahti. For the rest of her life, she was active in the labour movement. Elin passed away in December 1980.

Read moreFin­land was already di­li­gent about its debts after its Civil War