15 April 2008

Hella Wuolijoki: An enigmatic celebrity

By Tapani Lausti

Erkki Tuomioja, Häivähdys punaista: Hella Wuolijoki ja hänen sisarensa Salme Pekkala vallankumouksen palveluksessa. Tammi 2006.

This book was originally written in English with the title A Delicate Shade of Pink, although the English edition does not, as yet, seem to be available. Anyhow, this book is a good introduction to Finland's political history through the life stories of two Estonian-born sisters who got deeply involved in the political events of the first half of the 20th century, Hella Wuolijoki in Finnish-Soviet relations and Salme Pekkala (later Salme Dutt) in the British Communist Party. (Hella and Salme's maiden name was Murrik.)

The writer of the book worked as Finland's foreign minister from 2000 till 2007. He is also Wuolijoki's grandson. The latter fact in no way diminishes the impartiality of the writing. Tuomioja has already in the past proved to be a good historian.

The two sisters were very different in character. Whilst Salme was a dogmatic communist most of her life, Hella was politically more pragmatic. She was a business woman, playwright and political schemer. She never became a member of the Communist party. However, in spite of her independent mind Hella never criticised Stalin's policies.

Wuolijoki's adopted country had harsh historical experiences with its great eastern neighbour and being fluent in both Finnish and Russian she was often deeply involved in major events. She kept a distance, however, from the Finnish civil war of 1918.

Finnish independence in 1917 had been welcomed by all social classes but this could not stop the deepening class polarisation. Both the white and red forces took up arms and a bloody civil war broke out in January 1918. After ten weeks of fighting the reds were expelled from Helsinki. The civil war left deep tensions in Finnish social and political life. This was aggravated by the severe repressive measures adopted by the winners. It took decades to heal the psychological wounds.

During the civil war only the most radical red guards, however, had supported a social revolution. After the defeat of the reds, Hella's husband, Sulo Wuolijoki was imprisoned although he had not fought for a revolution. Hella did all she could to help Sulo, even if their marriage was already practically over.

Later, in the 1930s, when her business efforts started to fail, Hella Wuolijoki concentrated on her writings and became one of Finland's best-loved playwrights who reached even wider audiences with the filmed versions of her plays. The plays most often described strong women in traditional country house settings. Wuolijoki's contribution to her friend Bertolt Brecht's Puntila and his servant Matti was important, although Brecht failed to honor his promises about shared royalties. (Wuolijoki was fluent in seven languages, German among them.)

Wuolijoki had a behind-the-scenes influence at many crucial junctions of Finnish-Soviet history. This is why hitherto secret archive material would be of immense help to assess her real role in many historical episodes. In spite of his high-level connections — including meetings with the Russian president Vladimir Putin — Tuomioja has not been able to see all the relevant documents. Whatever those archives might have revealed, the book is a riveting read even without them.

The question whether Wuolijoki was also a Soviet agent has not been definitely answered either way. She did have connections in the Soviet intelligence community. These had started already in 1905 with a close friendship with a Bolshevik agent who later became a leader in the Soviet secret police.

The Finno-Russian wars of 1939-1940 and 1941-1944 were personally extremely difficult for Wuolijoki and she did her utmost to help stop the fighting. She had been aware of the secret negotiations to prevent the war and later contributed to the cessation of hostilities in March 1940.

The Finns still debate whether the Winter War was inevitable or whether it could have been prevented. Tuomioja cautiously notes that the Finnish negotiators had perhaps not taken seriously enough the threats of what would happen if Finland didn't agree to the territorial concessions which the Kremlin was demanding. The Russians attacked in November 1939 and bombed Helsinki and other Finnish cities.

Wuolijoki's role in all these events was intriguing and its importance difficult to assess. Be that as it may, it was painful to her to witness a war between two countries to which she was personally attached.

After the war her most prominent job was as the director general of the Finnish Broadcasting Company. She was enthusiastic about political debates and often took part personally in them. She did not purge the staff of right-wing commentators although some of them left voluntarily.

Hella's sister Salme Pekkala's life took her first to Russia, then to Finland and finally as a representative of Komintern to Britain. There she married the Indian-Swedish communist leader Rajani Palme Dutt. Salme remained mainly in the background but her influence on party policies was notable. She was less well known to the Finnish public than Hella, who despite her Estonian accent was a prominent figure in Finnish cultural life.

In recent times the eastern Baltic area has become a popular tourist route. In the early 20th century, this area was also a region with busy contacts between the major cities St. Petersburg (or Petrograd in 1914-1924 and Leningrad in 1924-1991), Helsinki and Tallinn. Hella and Salme's lives manifested the closeness of the cultures in this north-eastern corner of Europe. Tuomioja notes that before war broke out between Finland and the Soviet Union, Hella Wuolijoki tried to prove her patriotism towards all three countries, Estonia, Finland and the Soviet Union.


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