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Mannerheim memorial raises hackles in Russia

Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim might be a Finnish hero, but he spent a large portion of his early life in Saint Petersburg as a loyal soldier in the tsarist army before Finland became independent. Recently his old barracks in the city erected a plaque honouring the Marshal of Finland, and that's not been to everyone's liking.

Mannerheim-laatta punaisen maalin peitossa
A memorial to Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim has been vandalised in Saint Petersburg. Image: Sergei Kozhanov / Yle

Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim is one of the giants of Finnish history. Born under Tsarist rule, he rose to become an officer in the Imperial army before leading White forces in the Finnish Civil War—and then returning to lead the country's armed forces in the Second World War.

His cosmopolitan back story reflects the man himself. He spoke six languages and in Tsarist service was sent to explore the Russian far east and central Asia.

Now he's the focus of a controversy in Saint Petersburg, the city in which he was based as a cavalry officer before Finland became independent. The barracks in which he lived has put up a plaque to commemorate his time there—and that's not to everyone's liking.

'Secret' plaque

"The plaque was put up in secret," said Andrei Jasov, the local youth secretary of a Leninist organisation in Saint Petersburg, while holding a placard depicting Mannerheim as a ghoulish skeleton.

Some of the more extreme communist and nationalist factions have thrown red paint at the memorial, with regular protests held since it was unveiled in June.

The problem is Mannerheim's contested role in the Second World War. Many Russians remember Mannerheim's role as commander in chief of Finnish forces in the conflict, when Finland allied with Nazi Germany during its invasion of the Soviet Union.

They view Mannerheim as partly responsible for the siege of Leningrad, a brutal battle in which some 640,000 people died over the course of some 900 days. Some historians Mannerheim was a reluctant participant in the siege, but had few options when the two belligerents were totalitarian military regimes.

Siege anniversary

Unveiling the Mannerheim plaque just before the 75th anniversary of the siege was regarded by some of these groups as an insult. Even so Andrei Dmitriev, an activist with the "Another Russia" group says that the demonstrators have nothing against Finland.

"We're not against Finland, but against the Russian leadership who created this monument to Mannerheim, without realising that he led the siege in the north," said Dmitriev.

The plaque was not instigated by Finland and the Finnish government did not attend its unveiling--so cooling down this controversy is a problem for the Russian government. Activists say they will continue to demonstrate—in even bigger groups—if it isn't removed.

Re-evaluation?

That could be difficult for the Russian authorities. The Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and Sergei Ivanov—often seen as President Vladimir Putin's right-hand man—attended the unveiling in June.

Finland's consul-general in Saint Petersburg, Mikko Kivikoski, is reluctant to second-guess Russian motivations in putting up the memorial now.

"Maybe they want to re-appraise Mannerheim's role in Russian history," said Kivikoski.

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