Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Saarijärven Vallihaudat/The Fortifications at Saarijärvi

If you head a couple of kilometers south from Saarijärvi you will see a sign on the left directing you to the vallihaudat.

During World War I, Finland was still a part of the Russian Empire (see Grand Duchy of Finland). At the time, a German invasion of the empire of Finland was considered to be a possibility, so lines of defense were constructed along the southern coast of the country as well as in Åland.

The old Vaasa-Kokkola-Jyväskylä road which went through Saarijärvi, eventually led to Saint Petersburg. In case a landing of enemy troops were to take place on the western coast, fortifications were made along the road throughout the Grand Duchy, including Central Finland.

The construction took place from 1915 to 1916. Over three thousand laborers from the Saarijärvi area were involved in the project. On similar projects throughout Finland over 100,000 people were put to work. Finland received independence in 1917. The system of trenches and bunkers in the Saarijärvi area were never used.

Sections of the old fortifications were restored in 1983.

The sign neglects to mention the over 3000 Chinese, Kyrgyz, and Tatars transported to Finland by the Tsar to assist in this project. (article in Finnish - Who Built the Fortifications?) I suspect they must have made some small impact in the genetic makeup of the local population in the areas where they worked. I wonder what happened to them after the events of 1917? Did they get a ride home? (There is a small Tatar community in Finland, although they seem to have arrived mostly in the late 1800's, prior to the construction project.) Does anybody out there know what happened to these foreign workers?

A restored section of trench running through the forest near Saarijärvi.

A partially restored bunker.

Most of the trenches have been left unrestored.

Jyväskylä publisher, writer, and all-around renaissance man Martti Pulakka just sent me a link to an article which discusses the foreign workers in detail (link here, article in Finnish). The following bits of information have been gleaned from said article. Sorry, but I'm not about to translate the entire thing. If someone wants to pay the standard rate, I'd be happy to undertake the project, but for now, unfortunately this will have to do.

At the time "Kyrgyz" generally referred to Kazakhs. Their job was to guard a large number of the Chinese who were captured bandits from the Amur region, - prisoners brought to Finland under contract by a St. Petersburg entrepeneur. These bandit chaps caused some problems, mainly theft, but also on occasion murder.

There was another group of Chinese who apparently were more well-behaved, working for pay, and living under fairly brutal conditions. They were friendly with the local children, and some Finns later recalled learning how to count to ten in Chinese. It seems that the Chinese were also pretty friendly with the local ladies and these feeling were mutual. The article quotes an article published in Vaasa Lehti from 1934 that some of the local women liked the Chinese men so much that they ended up with reminders of their relationships "that can speak for themselves and have already been through confirmation". Those children would have been in their teens in 1934.

Most of the Chinese were sent back "home" after they were no longer needed, although some seem to have remained. At least one Chinese man remained in Nuuksio, but disappeared during the Civil War. According to the same article, Kansan Lehti mentions the 1918 capture of a group of "butchers" that included a "slant-eyed" Chinese man who was fighting on the side of the Whites. The Reds seemed particularly incensed that the Whites would allow an Asian to fight for the "Fatherland". I'm guessing like so many of the POW's from both sides during this tragic period of Finnish history this patriotic immigrant either took a bullet to the head or starved to death in a prison camp.

Thanks again to Martti for sending me the link to this highly informative article.


  1. How interesting! There were some similar fortifications where I used to live in Helsinki. Sadly, none of them had been restored so they were mostly quite dingy and more than a little bit dangerous. Thanks for the article link!

  2. Wow, that was really interesting.

    The unrestored trenches look very innocent; I wonder if people walking on them nowadays know that they are stepping on fortifications from the WWI.

    I wonder what happened to the Finnish-Chinese halfcasts. They might have been persecuted for their slant-eyes and being illegitimate.

  3. I always thought Lauri Saukko looked a little bit Kyrgyz, but that could just be me.