Kaarlo Kurko; war, inhumanity and humanity

On April 1920, ataman Bulak’s division, the Finnish volunteers included, joined the Polish offensive against the Bolsheviks and attacked from Mozyr to the Dniepr, fighting side by side with the Polish forces of colonel Józef Rybak in Polesie. Kaarlo Kurko embraced the savage nature of the war with enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment. As mentioned in the previous episodes of this story, Kurko had already witnessed the White terror of the Finnish Civil War, and was consequently not the least shocked by the vicious character of the Polish-Soviet War. His memoirs make laconic comments on the Bolshevik terror, massacres, looting and rapes. He’s equally frank of the Polish response of occasionally shooting the captured Soviet commissars and hanging the agents of the Cheka outright.

As expected, the behavior of Bulak’s irregular forces was often particularly brutal, and in his memoirs, Kurko openly speaks of the atrocities and even of his own participation in them without hesitation. As one example, Kurko tells the story of how he and his men turned their machine-gun against a synagogue during a firefight in the small Byelorussian town of Luninets (Łuniniec). During his service, Kurko seems to have adopted the anti-Semitic attitude which was widespread among Bulak’s soldiers. For a young, 20-year old man from a country where Jews were basically an invisible minority, he proved to be remarkably prone to the anti-Semitic propaganda which was all too common among the White Russians and also among certain segments of the Polish society. In his memoirs, Kurko repeatedly describes the “children of Israel” as greedy, opportunistic, drug-dealing Bolshevik agents and collaborators, who were continuously sabotaging the Polish war effort. Ironically enough, even though ataman Bulak himself was an equally violent anti-Semite for whom pogroms were standard operational practice, his quartermaster, captain Elin, was – at least according to Kurko – also Jewish. As another testimony of hatred, Kurko’s memoirs portray the Jewish captain as a “lecher with a short figure, a greasy face and two small Jewish eyes, twinkling with deceit”.

Although pogroms and anti-Semitic atrocities were a common feature of the Polish-Soviet war, the Polish command was certainly not indifferent towards such actions. According to a later testimony by Kurko, he was also eventually charged by a Polish court-martial for his actions at Luninets. He avoided the sentence only because he was able to show a written order from one of the local commanders, ordering him to “crush all resistance without mercy”.

In spite of his nonchalance, Kurko was apparently still able to maintain some basic part of his humanity. The fate of the civilians who had to flee their homes seems to have moved him deeply. During the retreat from Kiev, he and his men helped three Ukrainian refugees, two women and a small boy, to reach a Red Cross station. One time, they also met a Finnish woman among the refugees, the ex-wife of a Red Finnish officer named Huhtanen. After her divorce in St. Petersburg, the woman had worked in a hospital in Minsk, and ended up serving as a field nurse in the ambulances of the Red Army. During a battle, she had escaped and made it to the Polish side. Sensing their obligation as compatriots, Kurko and his men provided Ms. Huhtanen with food and money; eventually, the woman made it to Warsaw, where she found work as a nanny and married a Polish lancer.

The story of Ms. Huhtanen was not unique. Another, an even more complicated wartime Finnish example not mentioned in Kurko’s memoirs was Viljo Heinonen, who originally fought on the White Russian side, but ended in Bolshevik captivity and was forcibly drafted to the Red Army. He was sent to the Polish front, and eventually ended up in internment camps in East Prussia and Bavaria. Upon his return to Finland in 1924, Heinonen also published his memoirs under the title “Kaksi vuotta kuolleena” (“Dead for two years”).

By the summer, the Polish forces had to fall back as Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army (Konarmiya) launched its attack. Bulak’s forces withdrew together with the main army, joining the Polish counteroffensive during the “Miracle of Vistula”. As the Polish army began to push the invading Soviets back, Bulak’s division was involved in heavy fighting against the Red cavalry north of Lwów. Kurko’s memoirs describe the battle as a chaotic inferno of artillery and machine-gun fire, revealing the stress of the men who, even in the middle of the fighting, attempt to drown their fear in alcohol. Simultaneously, Kurko’s recollections also reveal his wild, absolute delight in killing. The intensity of his experience is emphasized by the fact that Kurko’s narrative shifts from the past tense to the present, as if he was once again personally living through these wartime events:

“Orders are shouted, and our machine-gun starts its concerto, together with the rifles in the neighboring foxholes. Our rapid fire sends Budyonny’s Cossacks back to meet their ancestors. The ground trembles beneath the hoof-beats. Budyonny’s troopers charge, the Cossack caps and gleaming sabers visible from behind the mist, and we can already hear their crude Russian curses. We throw grenades, and our machine-gun continues its steady chattering. There are three men left in our foxhole; the German, Schultz, is dying after getting a bullet through his mouth. Crossing his hands and whispering something, he collapses. Rage takes over the survivors. Let’s kill as many enemy men as possible. From behind, we hear a savage war cry. Suddenly, Polish cavalrymen rush past us, and behind them, the infantrymen. One of them throws us a bottle of vodka, which we finish immediately.”

“We capture a small village, with nearly all of the buildings wrecked. From one garden, we find bodies of dead civilians, a few women among them. Many of them are horribly mutilated, showing the humanity of the Red Kingdom of Heaven. The Poles bite their teeth together and swear revenge. I’m hungry, and decide to go to the basement of one house to look for potatoes. There’s a long howl, and I prepare to defend myself, but I notice that it’s only the dog of the house, hiding in the basement… Outside, I meet a Polish soldier eating bread and American canned meat. He promises half of his rations to me, and they instantly disappear in my hungry mouth.”

By the mid-August, the Polish counteroffensive started, and within a week, all the Soviet armies were in full retreat, with the entire front of the Red Army completely routed. As the tide of the war turned once again in Poland’s favour, Bulak’s division and the Finnish volunteers participated in the conquest of Pińsk. Finally, in September, Lenin sued for peace, and the Polish-Soviet armistice negotiations began. For Kaarlo Kurko, however, the war was not over yet.

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