Kaarlo Kurko and ataman Bulak’s soldiers

When Kaarlo Kurko arrived in Warsaw in February 1920, he found the Polish capital full of political intrigue. While the Polish-Soviet negotiations were still underway, the Russian Whites and several nationalist leaders had set up representations in Warsaw and were seeking Polish support for their own goals. The leading Russian White commanders from admiral Kolchak to general Yudenich and general Wrangel maintained their legations in Warsaw, usually with the financial support of the Entente. Kurko didn’t have a high opinion of the Russian White representatives he observed in Warsaw:

“None of these gentlemen were interested in front-line service, but instead they wanted to remain in Warsaw, enjoy the good life, get their hands on as much loot as possible and make lots of money – just as it had been in the times of the Tsars. The foreign subsidies ended in the pockets of these bigshots, and the men on the front never saw a penny of it. To put it short, the atmosphere among the Russian émigrés was dominated by confusion, greed, meaningless political bickering, cowardice and a firm belief that foreign powers would intervene in the Russian situation on their behalf.”

There were a few exceptional characters. Some of the private warlords, regardless of their motives, were also genuine men of action who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield over the years, gaining substantial popularity among their men. One such figure – portrayed here on the right, in a photograph originally from the Estonian War Museum – was the enigmatic and ambitious ataman Stanislau Nikadzimavich Bulak-Balakhovich, a Byelorussian-Polish agronomist and a former Tsarist cavalry captain, who had literally fought his way through the Bolshevik lines to Poland, and eventually set up a recruitment agency at Hotel Savoy. After his first weeks in Warsaw, Kurko met two other Finns, who had already enlisted to Bulak’s newly-arrived forces. Without thinking the matter too much, Kurko followed the example of his countrymen and also joined Bulak’s operational group – a “division”, as it was generously called at the time – which was being organized in Brześć. The 20-year old Finnish volunteer was immediately accepted as an ensign to a cavalry reconnaissance company.

The exact number of Finnish volunteers who served in Bulak’s division is unknown. Kurko claims that as many as eighty Finns, thirteen of whom were officers, joined the division in the spring of 1920. The division included a special Finnish company commanded by major Stenberg and lieutenant Hagman; most of the men in the company were veterans of the Finnish Civil War, the Estonian War of Independence and other campaigns of the revolutionary years. Sulo Nykänen, who was an Ingrian Finn, served as the chief of Bulak’s espionage section. Before his association with the Poles and the Byelorussian nationalists, ataman Bulak had served with general Yudenich’s White Russian forces in Estonia, and had apparently developed a high opinion of Finnish soldiers. The Finns were, of course, not the only foreign soldiers in Bulak’s forces; a large number of German soldiers also served in the division.

Whether Bulak’s good impression of Finnish military virtues was actually warranted, is another question. As expected, the company included all sorts of personalities. One of the officers, ensign Väinö Koponen, had fought in the government forces in the Finnish Civil War, committed a small embezzlement while serving as the head of the local Civil Guard near the town of Lahti and eventually, after further questionable activities, escaped to Estonia, from where he had drifted to Poland. Other comparable characters were Julius Tiihonen, a deserter from the Karelian Cavalry Regiment, and sergeant major Edvard Niemi, a multiple thief who had escaped from the punitive battalion of Sveaborg, and who had visible Red sympathies.

As the Polish-Soviet war continued, the number of Finnish soldiers in Bulak’s division increased still further. According to Kurko, there were eventually two hundred Finns serving in the company. Interestingly, these new Finnish volunteers may have been recruited from among the Soviet prisoners-of-war. The Red Army units that fought against Poland in 1920 included also the “480th Finnish Sharp-Shooter Regiment”. Originally known as the “1st Finnish Red Regiment”, this unit had been formed by a notable Finnish communist Eino Rahja, a close friend of V. I. Lenin himself, and consisted of Red Finnish exiles and Ingrian soldiers. The regiment and its 1’500 men had played an important part in the battles against the Whites and the British intervention troops on the Archangelsk front, but in the massive army which the Bolsheviks assembled against Poland in 1920, it was only one small unit among the many. During the heavy fighting against Poles in the summer of 1920, many of these Red Finnish soldiers of the 480th Regiment ended up in Polish captivity. It’s possible that the espionage chief Nykänen was touring the prison camps and managed to persuade some of his former countrymen who had served on the Soviet side to defect and join Bulak’s division. Kurko does mention that one former Finnish Red soldier, a man named Kuusela, eventually served as Bulak’s personal orderly.

Józef Piłsudski himself called Bulak-Balakhovich a “useful brigand”, and the Finnish soldiers of the Byelorussian ataman were not much different. As noted above, the volunteers were a very colourful group. Some, such as Kurko, were adventurers, who were looking for action, adrenaline rush and one more chance to fight against the hated Russian Bolsheviks. Others, such as the Ingrian spymaster Nykänen, were opportunists looking after their own interest and treating the war as a chance to make business. Some of the officers such as Hagman had shady personal dealings with their White Russian colleagues. People such as Koponen and Tiihonen had joined the division because of their past misdeeds, and because they had nowhere else to go. Red sympathizers such as Niemi enlisted because they wanted to hide their past, and Red prisoners-of-war such as Kuusela enlisted simply because they had no other choice. Much like the men on the Soviet side who were portrayed in Isaac Babel’s famous novel “Red Cavalry”, the Finnish volunteers in Bulak’s forces were also a company of idealists, mercenaries, criminals and outcasts – true soldiers of misfortune.

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