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Culture news, 02.02.2005 18:46

Exhibition for Mannerheim in St. Petersburg

Exhibition for Mannerheim in St. Petersburg "In spite of the Winter War he had a very positive view of Russia and did much good for Russia. To the chagrin of Hitler, he did not attack Leningrad during the siege, even though he could have. He did this out of love for Russia, where he had received his training and served as an officer."

These were the comments of Oleg Tihonov, who has just stepped out of the Hermitage Museum after seeing a Mannerheim exhibition that has recently opened here.

Tihonov, a 77-year-old retired sports coach, lived through the siege of Leningrad. His 100-year-old father fought the Finns in the Winter War of 1939-40. Still there is no bitterness toward the commander-in-chief of the enemy army.

"Everyone who knows anything about history respects him. Those who do not base their views on old propaganda."

Carl Gustaf Mannerheim has attracted considerable interest in his former home town of St. Petersburg. Even in the middle of a working day there are plenty of visitors to the exhibition, which covers eight large rooms of the museum.

The exhibition, the result of cooperation between the Finnish St. Petersburg Foundation and the Hermitage, is the most extensive collection of objects related to the life of Mannerheim (1867 - 1951). It is also the first comprehensive exhibition of Mannerheim ever on display in Russia.

The project, which has been five years in the making, has had the support of the Finnish state, cultural foundations, and the Finnish business community. After St. Petersburg the exhibition will tour Finland.

The very name of the exhibition emphasises the duality of Mannerheim’s life: Mannerheim. Russian Officer. Marshal of Finland. It has been set up, appropriately, in a part of the Hermitage which used to be part of the Russian Defence Staff, and was therefore quite familiar to Mannerheim.

The aim has been to present a "full-body portrait" of the warlord, politician, and personality, which focuses on three main themes: Mannerheim’s service in the Russian Army, his travels in Asia in 1906-1908, and his career in independent Finland. Objects on display include badminton racquets he used as a child, a menu from the coronation of Nicholas II, clothes that he brought with him from China, as well as material describing the Finnish wars.

Most of the objects in the exhibition are familiar to Finns from the National Museum and the Mannerheim Museum, for instance. Few objects have been found in Russia.

The Hermitage museum provided a uniform of the Chevalier Guard and the February Manifesto (a decree by the Czar given in 1899, under which Finnish legislation passed by the Diet of autonomous Finland would be subject to approval by Russia).

It is unfortunate that many of the themes, for instance the civil guard organisation and the Lotta Svärd women’s auxiliary organisation, which had swastikas as symbols (which were of a different origin than those of the German Nazis), are not explained thoroughly enough for a Russian visitor who does not acquire a booklet explaining the objects. Even a short film on Mannerheim’s years in Finland is in Finnish only.

The exhibition is perhaps not so much a rehabilitation as an honourable homecoming to a country that Mannerheim served for more than a third of his life.

"During the Soviet years an exhibition like this probably would not have been possible", says Kari Ketola of the St. Petersburg Foundation.

The symbolic nature of the opening of the exhibition on Tuesday was underscored by the presence of former President Mauno Koivisto, Chief of Defence Juhani Kaskeala, and Mannerheim’s aide-de-camp Rafael Bäckman.

"After the war it was necessary to adapt to the reality of the victor. Perhaps this exhibition will give the possibility to understand the truth more thoroughly", said Koivisto, who spoke in Russian.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 250-page book in Russian, Finnish, Swedish, and English. The Finnish Club in Helsinki has produced a CD-ROM in Russian about Mannerheim.

Mannerheim seems to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts in St. Petersburg. A small publisher specialised in war history has recently released three books on Mannerheim by Leonid Vlasov and Aleksei Shkvarov, which are to be translated into Finnish.

On Monday Eleonora Joffe, a writer who lives in Finland, published her Russian-language book based on Mannerheim’s letters on Monday.

"When my first article on Mannerheim appeared in 1992 I got into all kinds of trouble. Now the attitude toward history is completely different", says Professor Vlasov.

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