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Mistaken Identity: Finnish Soldier Is Latest Odd Image To Grace A Russian Victory Day Poster

Johannes Halonen with a picture of his father, Klemet Jouni Jeremias Halonen, a Finnish soldier whose picture surprisingly ended up being used for a Russian Victory Day poster.
Johannes Halonen with a picture of his father, Klemet Jouni Jeremias Halonen, a Finnish soldier whose picture surprisingly ended up being used for a Russian Victory Day poster.

On May 4, officials in the city of Usinsk, in Russia's northern Komi Republic, hung a Victory Day banner featuring a photo of a sturdy, chiseled soldier holding a reindeer on a lead with the inscription: "During the Great War, people and reindeer fought north of the Arctic Circle. We honor them, standing in silence. May they have eternal glory!"

It took locals only a few hours to point out that the soldier in the photograph was a Finn who participated in the campaign against the Red Army.

The incident was the latest in a spate of similar mishaps in recent years -- some of which featured German soldiers adorning paraphernalia displayed for Victory Day, Russia's ceremonies marking the anniversary of the Nazi defeat in World War II.

The Usinsk administration pledged to "strictly punish" those responsible and the local prosecutor's office warned municipal officials about "the unacceptability of violating the laws against extremism."

"What kind of punishment might there be," the head of the Usinsk municipal Department of Culture, Oksana Gavrilova, told RFE/RL. "We have a Labor Code and, I imagine, something will be done within that framework."

'Please, Don't Punish Him'

The soldier in the poster was quickly identified as Klemet Jouni Jeremias Halonen, who was born in 1910 in a village near Finland's border with Norway and who died in 1974. He was drafted in 1941 and served in the supply troops, using reindeer to transport ammunition and supplies to the front lines and to bring wounded soldiers back to the rear.

Halonen's son, Johannes Halonen, said his family and everyone he knows immediately recognized the uniform and the weapon shown in the Russian poster as Finnish.

"Probably some young bureaucrat was looking for an appropriate photograph on the Internet -- a soldier with a reindeer," Halonen said. "And he had no idea what Soviet or Finnish soldiers wore at the time. And these days not everyone can recognize a Suomi automatic rifle, although that is really quite easy. I hope that he won't be too harshly punished. I'm sure my father wouldn't want that. My whole family is worried about that person. Please, don't punish him."

The picture of Finnish soldier Klemet Jouni Jeremias Halonen, a "soldier with a reindeer" that "some young bureaucrat" may have found on the Internet.
The picture of Finnish soldier Klemet Jouni Jeremias Halonen, a "soldier with a reindeer" that "some young bureaucrat" may have found on the Internet.

Halonen added that his father most likely would not have been pleased to find his face on the Russian poster because of the complicated wartime history of Russia and the Soviet Union. In 1939, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin launched an attack against Finland in what became known as the Winter War.

Although the Soviet Union forced Finland to surrender and annexed a swath of Finnish territory in 1940, the Red Army had a very difficult time against its much smaller rival. The conflict is believed to have bolstered Adolf Hitler's conviction that the Soviet Union could be easily conquered.

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Finnish forces reoccupied the territory it had lost after the Winter War and parts of Soviet Karelia in what Finns call the Continuation War. Most infamously, Finnish forces helped the Nazis carry out the siege of Leningrad by blocking the city from the north.

After the Continuation War was concluded by a separate peace agreement with the Soviet Union in the summer of 1944, Jouni Halonen served in the September-November 1944 Lapland War against Germany.

"After the war, many Finns feared some sort of retribution," Halonen told RFE/RL. "That is why they didn't want to talk about the war, even to their relatives. My father never really told me anything in particular about the war."

The photograph used in the poster was discovered in a Finnish archive in the early 2000s, Halonen said. His father never saw it.

Other Snafus

The Usinsk case follows several similar cases of historical snafus that seemed to undermine what observers say are efforts by President Vladimir Putin's government to develop a nationalistic cult of glorification of the Soviet war effort and of Russian military history more broadly.

Also this year, the Moscow Oblast city of Noginsk hung a poster that featured a medieval Russian fighter on the left and a World War II Red Army soldier on the right while, in the center, was a stern-faced officer of the army of French Emperor Napoleon.

In 2015, parents in Berezniki, in the Perm region some 1,600 kilometers northeast of Moscow, were shocked when their children brought home a Victory Day greeting card featuring a black-and-white 1943 photograph of a group of German soldiers moving a piece of military equipment.

The same year, a website posted a billboard in Moscow with the slogan "They Fought For The Motherland!" and a photograph of the Luftwaffe crew of a German bomber.

In 2006, officials in Moscow posted billboards to congratulate veterans on the occasion of Defender of the Fatherland Day that prominently featured a photograph of the American battleship U.S.S. Missouri. The same year, a newspaper in Kaliningrad printed a congratulatory message that featured an image of a German World War II-era Tiger tank.

'Military Censorship'

In fact, a Russian blogger in 2015 published a massive blog post with dozens of examples of historically (and grammatically) inaccurate Victory Day paraphernalia, including some with images of U.S. Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima, images of German dive bombers, and some with U.S. Sherman tanks.

On social media, some commentators have offered various reasons for such startling lapses. Nationalist politician and Soviet Air Force veteran Viktor Alksnis blamed the education system, writing on Facebook that the creators of such posters are "victims of the Unified State Examination," a reference to the test that all Russian students must pass to complete high school.

St. Petersburg activist and journalist Daniil Kotsyubinsky wrote that Russian officials use non-Soviet images for the banal reason that they are better. Soviet war correspondents "were blocked in by military censorship at every turn," he posted on Facebook.

And the popular satirical Twitter account under the name Prof. Preobrazhensky offered another explanation, indicating that Putin's obsession with glorifying Russian history has produced a population who actually knows nothing real about it.

"All these German, American, and Finnish soldiers on our Victory Day posters have a simple explanation," he wrote. "An enormous number of people in this country know nothing about the war. Many years of glorification have made real knowledge and real memory of the war worthless."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by Anna Yarovaya, a corresponded for the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service