We have reached the final episode of the story of Kaarlo Kurko, a Finnish adventurer who fought as a volunteer in ataman Bulak-Balakhovich’s forces in the Polish-Soviet war in 1920. The previous episodes can be read from the archives of this blog. Above, you can see a photograph of the passport which was issued to him by the Finnish legation in Warsaw.
While the Polish-Soviet armistice negotiations were underway, ataman Bulak continued his activities with new vigor. During the autumn, he plunged into fresh political intrigue with Boris Savinkov, the former assistant war minister of Kerenski’s provisional government, who had settled in Warsaw after the October Revolution. At the same time, he established contact also with the Byelorussian independence movement of Vatslau Lastouski, and already in August, Bulak’s rag-tag forces were renamed as “National Volunteer Army” (Narodnaya Dobrovolcheskaya Armiya). Kaarlo Kurko, who had continued his service in Bulak’s forces, subsequently described these new machinations with cynicism:
“Money and promotions were handed out, and even I was given – without my request – a lieutenant’s commission and a stack of banknotes. Many other Finns were also promoted as officers, even though they could not act as commanders because of their nonexistent knowledge of Polish or Russian. Even still, no more than three hundred men could be raised, one hundred of whom were officers. The commanders were ready to recruit all sorts of drifters and vagabonds, and eventually, two thousand Bolsheviks were released from the prison camps and drafted to the army. I was dispatched with another lieutenant to Grodno, with a mission to persuade the local Byelorussian partisans to join us in Brest-Litovsk.
I was guided to a wooden house, where a group of patriots were holding a meeting. There were thirty people, men and women, many of them in old Tsarist Russian official uniforms. One dedicated young lady was holding a lecture of Byelorussia, with a fire in her eyes, eloquently trying to prove how this country was completely different from Russia. After that, there was a vigorous discussion of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the self-determination of nations. One lieutenant claimed that their country would soon be free of the Bolshevik oppression, and that a national army was already being created. An estimated strength of the Byelorussian armed forces was fifteen hundred men, but the populace simply did not understand the independence movement and remained very cool towards this goal.
Based on all that I saw and heard, my conclusion was that the independent Byelorussia was an illusion and a dream that only existed in the imagination of a few dedicated, but powerless patriots”.
Although Kurko eventually seems to have lost faith in Bulak-Balakhovich, the Russian Whites and the Byelorussian independence movement, his belief in the ability of Poland to resist the Soviet Russia remained high. In his memoirs, the Finnish adventurer repeatedly praised the organization, discipline, morale and skill of the Polish regular forces, in contrast to Bulak’s unruly troops. During a short holiday in Warsaw, Kurko saw Marshal Piłsudski driving in a carriage on the Marszałkowska, and in his memoirs he records his feelings of admiration for the Polish chief-of-state. Simultaneously, his own position as a soldier in a foreign army emphasized Kurko’s national pride still further, and he boasted “how a regiment of Finns could do wonders here, and conquer even the Holy Moscow!”
In October, two months after the decisive defeat of the Red Army, Poland signed an armistice with Soviet Russia, and the “Byelorussian National Republic” became a stillborn entity. Bulak-Balakhovich, however, decided to continue his fight for Free Byelorussia alone, launching a daring incursion in November. Kurko and the other Finnish volunteers joined the fight, participating in the new attack on Mozyr and also in the final battle on the banks of the Pripyat, where Bulak’s forces were destroyed by the 12th Soviet Army, which included also Red Latvian Riflemen. Kurko’s description of the battle is once again a prime example of his talent to reconstruct his wartime experiences as a vivid narrative.
“Lieutenant Filipov arrives to me and curses: “Don’t you think that this is madness? The Reds will cut us to pieces. The Poles have abandoned us, and we shall not forget that betrayal. Look at those poor people, going insane with pain! What for? Let me tell you, no one here knows what we’re fighting for. Everyone is playing politics. Hell, I’m going to leave and go to Crimea, at least Wrangel knows what to do. Long live Russia!”
I pay no attention to Filipov’s talk, because I can see that he’s drunk. After a while, he does pull out a bottle of vodka, takes a gulp and hands it to me. “Isn’t it good? I took it from one Jew over at the village. We hanged him, because he was an enemy informant. To hell with this rabble!”
The cavalry regiment, with Bulak-Balakhovich in charge, bursts on the enemy ranks, with sabers raised, shouting their battle cry. The Latvians try to shoot and thrust the men and the horses with their bayonets. Bulak takes a hit from an enemy bullet, but continues fighting, like a foot-soldier. The Latvians try to flee to the nearby forest, but the last assault reaches them. The horses trample on the wounded men, blood flows on the field, and the cavalrymen shout: “Balakhovich! Bulak! Our Ataman! Just say the word, and we’ll follow you to the fire!”
With the destruction of Bulak’s forces, Kurko and his comrades had no choice but to retreat and make their way back to the Polish frontier. According to the terms of the Polish-Soviet armistice, the Polish authorities interned most of Bulak’s soldiers, the Finnish volunteers included, at a refugee camp east of Pińsk, but Kurko and some of his friends managed to enlist to captain Boris Peremykin’s forces operating in Ukraine. The short incursion to Ukraine ended in an even more miserable fiasco, and in his memoirs, Kurko describes with disgust how Peremykin’s soldiers turned against their own officers and defected to the Red side already during the first battle. The Finns and the other foreign volunteers managed to make only a narrow escape.
Kurko ended his campaign on the Romanian border, and by the end of 1920, he had returned to Helsinki, where he delivered a report of his exploits to the Finnish Security Police. Having gained experience from foreign battlefields, he tried to apply for a position in the Finnish army, but quickly noticed that officers’ ranks were reserved for the former veterans of the Finnish Jäger Battalion. Angry and unwilling to accept merely an NCO’s position in the armed forces of his own native country, Kurko left his homeland again and joined the French Foreign Legion. He continued his adventures in the Rif War in North Africa, and also in Indochina. The photograph below portrays Kurko in the uniform of the Foreign Legion, complete with his French military decorations:
After ten years of service in the Legion, Kaarlo Kurko returned to Finland in 1931. Having started his military life as a 19-year old teenager, he now settled down as a 32-year old man, as a veteran of five wars, four of them fought in foreign ground, having spent his early adulthood entirely on the battlefields.
The return to the peaceful civilian life seems to have posed no difficulties to Kurko. During the inter-war era, he began a reasonably successful career as a popular author, writing a series of books describing his adventures – “travel books”, as he liked to call them. The first edition of his memoirs from the Polish campaign, titled “Puolalaisten mukana bolsheviikkeja vastaan” (“Together with Poles against the Bolsheviks”) was published in Finland in 1933 and the second one in 1939, right at the eve of the Second World War. In the foreword of the second edition, Kurko praised the Polish patriotism, stated his opinion of the historic significance of the “Miracle of Vistula” and reminded of the debt of honour that Europe owed to Poland, a country that was now threatened both by the Third Reich as well as the USSR.
Although his personal archives were partly destroyed in the Soviet air raids on Helsinki in 1944, Kurko continued his career as a writer still after the Second World War. Some of his books did end up on the black list of the Allied Control Commission, and although they soon returned to the libraries, no new editions of his memoirs were issued, until this year.
Kurko’s former commander from the Polish-Soviet War was not quite as fortunate. Ataman Bulak-Balakhovich continued his fight in general Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War and returned to Poland once more in 1939. After participating in the last defense of Poland, Bulak ended up stranded in the German-occupied Warsaw, where he was eventually murdered in 1940 – according to the most common interpretation, by the Gestapo, although there are some sources which also claim that the assassination was orchestrated by the NKVD.
Kaarlo Kurko, however, lived until 1989, the same year when the communist rule in Poland finally came to an end. During his last years, he was already able to see the upheavals in East Europe and the impending collapse of communism, commenting how “everything that I have fought for is now finally happening”. As a suitable ending to this story, it might perhaps be best to quote one more paragraph from Kurko’s memoirs, which captures the very essence of his personality:
“I admired those men. They didn’t even think anything. War was in their blood. It was their work, they had forgotten everything else. Death seemed easy for such men, even though they probably did not hope for it. All that they talked about was pretty girls, fat pigs, booze and Russians.”