TAMPERE, FINLAND. Tampere, Finland’s second largest city, is known as the birthplace of the Soviet Union. That’s because that is where the two architects of the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, then on the run from czarist authorities, met in 1905 at the city’s Workers’ Hall.
The venerable hall used to be known as the site of the last survivor of what used to be a network of Lenin musea which stretched across the USSR and Eastern Europe. However nostalgic Marxist-Leninist pilgrims who are thinking of making their annual visit to the unusual tourist site are in for a big surprise. Instead of the dour shrine-like former museum they are familiar with, they will find a lively multi-media gallery which recounts the true, terror-strewn story of the founder of modern Communism’s legacy.
“We wanted a museum that tells the whole story of what Lenin wrought,” says museum director Kalle Kallio, the Finnish historian who oversaw the museum’s two year long renovation. Additionally, and just as importantly, Kallio, the museum director, points out, “we also wanted to tell the whole story of this country’s complicated relationship with the Neighbor to the East, as we like to call Russia, in a balanced way.”
Indeed, virtually the only thing that the revamped Lenin museum, which occupies the third floor of hundred year old hall, shares with its former incarnation, besides its locale, is its name.
It also has something which its musty predecessor lacked: a sense of humor. Thus instead of the large hagiographic sculpture of Lenin which was the museum’s former frontispiece, today’s visitors are greeted by the sight of a mannequin of a dapper, selfie-ready Lenin jauntily seated in the sidecar of a Dnepr 658 Soviet motorcycle.
There is horror, too, including a large tabletop model of one of the Soviet prison camps where million were imprisoned under Stalin’s rule, along with a map of the USSR with lights indicating the location of the larger units which comprised the so-called gulag archipelago. “It was important to focus on the negative side of Lenin’s legacy,” says assistant curator Teemu Amu, “especially the Soviets’ abysmal record on human rights.”
To say that Finland and the Soviet Union had a complicated history is an understatement. In 1917 the restive Russian grand duchy took advantage of the chaos of World War I and the Bolsheviks’ coup to declare its independence, a move which Lenin approved. It was his hope that Finnish workers, particularly those who he had met in “Red Tampere,” as the industrial city used to be known, would follow his revolutionary lead and seize power.
The result was the horrific Finnish Civil War of 1917-1918, which saw the Moscow-backed Reds fight the Swedish and German-backed Whites. An estimated 10,000 prisoners from both sides were executed during the struggle, which raged across the Tampere region. Ultimately, the Whites won and independent Finland, which celebrates its centennial this year, forged ahead on its democratic, capitalist path.
However tensions between Finland and the USSR, which had since devolved into an authoritarian regime ruled by Lenin’s even more ruthless comrade and heir, Josef Stalin, continued through the interwar period. Those tensions exploded in November, 1939, at the beginning of World War II, when Moscow invaded Finland in order to recouple it to Russia.
The result was the four month long, 1939-40 Winter War, when the recalcitrant Finns fought the Soviets to a standstill, before capitulating. There was little mention of the war in the former Lenin Museum. Not so the revamped one, which features numerous items from the hard-fought contest, including a snow suit worn by one of the famed Finnish ski soldiers, also known as the “white death.”
Another even longer, bloodier, somewhat less glorious war with Russia, the 1941-44 Continuation War, followed, after which the twice-thrashed, isolated Finns had to surrender yet again. Thereupon followed a rapprochement between the ex-warring neighbors. The Finns were allowed to retain their capitalistic system in return for favoring the USSR with trade and maintaining a “friendly” neutrality in international affairs.
“The original Lenin Museum, which was established in 1946, was the outgrowth of that forced friendship,” says Kallio. “Stalin personally approved of it.” Most of the items in the original museum, which celebrated the Russian bombthrowers’ fugitive Finnish days, came from the Lenin Central Museum in Moscow. The Tampere archive was the best-known satellitle of the “mother” museum.
A visit to the Finnish museum was considered de rigeur by visiting Soviet dignitaries. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev made a pilgirmage to the museum during his first visit to Finland in 1958. So did his successor Leonid Brezhnev and scores of visiting Soviet apparatchiks. The museum reached its peak attendance in 1986, at the height of the Cold War, when over 24,000 Lenin lovers visited the hammer-and-sickle adorned archive.
Oftentimes the Soviet visitors were accompanied by Urho Kekkonen, the long-time Finnish president (1956-1981), who presided over the still controversial Fenno-Soviet relationship, also known as Finlandization. Then in 1991, to the shock of many Finns, who had become used to their “special relationship” with the Neighbor to the East, the USSR imploded and dissolved.
Shorn of its reason for being, the Lenin museum went from being a place of homage to a curiosity. Attendance also plummeted, as did the government’s willingness to subsidize this awkward reminder of the “special relationship.” It was only a matter of time before it closed, like the rest of its museological ilk.
However Kallio was determined to save it. “I felt the museum was an important landmark,” he says. “At the same time I realized that the only way it would be a success is if it were given a rethink, as well as a new mission.” Local officials, as well as the Ministry of Culture, agreed and gave the young historian, the driving force behind the renewal, the funds, estimated at $1.2 million, he and his staff needed to realize his vision.
The first task, after reconceptualizing the new, unexpurgated museum, was to find the hundreds of new objects and items needed to fulfill Kalle’s new, critical vision for the institution. Unsurprisingly, Russian musea were not particularly helpful, so Kalle and his colleagues went to Russia themselves, including scouring flea markets in the former USSR, to find the requisite material.
The versatile curatorial team also produced a documentary about Lenin, featuring a beyond-the-grave narration performed by a local actor, in which the original Bolshevik reminisces about his life, including his fateful rendezvous with Stalin. The film includes a humorous drawing of Lenin holding a piece of local-made sausage. “The people who made this sausage deserve their independence!” he exclaims.
Another display contains a clip of Lenin playing with his cat. “We want visitors to the museum to come away with a three dimensional picture of Lenin, and not demonize him,” says Kallio. Still, the composite picture which emerges of both Lenin and Stalin, as well as the Soviet Union, is anything but flattering, particularly when one considers the barbed-wire gulag replica.
Too, the new museum also takes on the difficult Finlandization period. There is a conspicuous photo of Urho Kekkonen, acknowledging the cheers of the Soviets who lined the route of his motorcade during one of the dozens of visits he made to Moscow during his reign.
“The old Lenin museum was principally conceived to please Moscow,” says assistant curator Teemu Amu. “The new museum was conceived as a resource for Finns, particularly young Finns, who have a hazy notion of the ‘Soviet time’ to fully understand the Soviet Union, as well as Finland’s relationship with the USSR and in this way to better understand ourselves.”
In the event, Kallio’s and his team’s Great Experiment paid off. Over 12,000 people, predominantly Finns, including school groups, have visited the revamped museum since it reopened in August. “There have been a few complaints from old school Communists who miss the old museum, but by and large the reaction has been extraordinarily positive,” says Amu.
Perhaps Lenin might not have approved of the new edifice bearing his name, however the nation which gave the Bolsheviks their launching pad seems to. “Actually perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Lenin museum story,” says Kallio, “is that it survived at all.”
(The above is the original version of the article.)