The Last of the WPC Mohicans…or, Ghost Ship of Lonnrotinkatu, Part 3
Russian Peace and Democracy - an interview – quite long – done in the early 1990s with Mette Spence – Publisher of Peace Magazine, in Canada. I had forgotten all about it, but apparently just recently it was published by Spence. It is transcribed here with a few errors, but I do think it gives a good sense of what was happening in the WPC in the late 1980s.
Note…Parts One and Two of the Ghost Ship of Lonnrotinkatu, my impressions of the collapse of the World Peace Council (WPC) which was headquartered on that street (Lonnrot Street) in Helsinki Finland, were written long ago – in 1992 if I am not mistaken. They were published in the Canadian magazine `Peace’ whose publisher is Mette Spencer. I had no intention, none at all, of writing a `Part Three’.
I hardly think about Lonnrotinkatu or the World Peace Council any more. True enough, there has been an occasional inquiry from people aware of the small archive at the University of Colorado in Boulder I put together on the WPC. They are, in the main, either writing books (that no one wants to buy) or doing graduate theses (that few want to read). That and an occasional bit of gossip, over the years becoming ever more stale, are about all that is left. I’ve long ago moved on with life
But I’ve just returned from a visit to Finland that included meeting a few former WPC contacts, friends with whom I worked at the WPC office. Piecing together the different anecdotal tales they had to tell, made me change my mind. I would imagine, that while some of the details might vary, that the collapse of the WPC – and more generally of the USSR – in some ways parallels the collapse of the different Arab regimes today, especially where it concerns the rejection and corruption of the old order, its undemocratic nature, mysterious financial transfers and the like.
Still, last I heard, the organization exists in some skeletal form, a shadow of its former self now that it is not primarily Soviet funded. It is housed – perhaps mothballed would be a more apt term – in Athens where it is hosted by the Greek Communist Party. When the Soviets pulled out of the WPC with the collapse of the USSR, a dispute broke out between the Greeks and the French C.P, over what was essentially fax machines, mailing lists and who would `win’ control of the `brand name’ as if it meant anything anymore. It seemed a case of `the lower the stakes the more bitter the feud.’
Why the need to keep the WPC afloat in the post Cold War era? Other than NATO, I can think of no other organization that is as historically obsolete. It is a pity, its participants did not have the foresight, courage to simply bury the thing – celebrate its few early contributions to peace, acknowledge its mostly skewed and cynical record and let it die in peace. Had it the political courage 20 years ago to close shop, dissolve itself, the WPC would have at least died with a bit of dignity.
But no, it presses on, more irrelevant and isolated than ever. The world has moved on….so what follows is little more than a footnote about a dead social movement. Indeed in retrospect, one could argue that it was already long brain dead when I arrived to work in its Helsinki office in March of 1986, but then that is another story.
It sits atop a shelf of books in the same building that has been its home for almost half a century – Lonnrotinkatu 25A in Helsinki Finland, where the World Peace Council (WPC) had its headquarters on the 3rd, 5th and 6th floors for several decades. `It’ is a size-able vase or water jar, perhaps 2 foot (650 cm) tall with a series of folk themes on its outside.
If I remember correctly – I might not, as I was still suffering from jet lag when I saw it – the vase comes from Bulgaria. It is a funny looking thing to my tastes and I would, if I owned it, probably give it away to a garage sale, or more likely just toss it in the trash, except for one little detail: printed on the bottom, is the following: `the property of M. Joliot Curie’.
Frederic Joliot-Curie, the Nobel Prize winning French physicist was the WPC’s first president. There was one brief shining moment – at the time of the Stockholm Peace Appeal – when the World Peace Council actually did something more than hold gala conferences, issue irrelevant declarations, when it was more than the Soviet front organization that it soon became, when it attracted a wide array of political and intellectual superstars of their day – from the USA the likes of W.E.B Dubois, Paul Robeson, Howard Fast, from France, Picasso, just to name a few. It was during that period that Joliot-Curie, an active participant in the French resistance against the Nazis during WWII, was president.
In his name, the WPC would, over the years, grant its highest honor `the Joliot-Curie’ award. Although Joliot-Curie cannot be blamed, some of the recipients are embarrassments today. They include such luminaries as Nicolaus Ceaucescu, Saddam Hussein, Hafez al Assad, Mohammar Khadaffi. (Adding his own personal touch and in gratitude for receiving his Joliot Curie award, Khadaffi offered each of the participants attending the Tripoli peace conference a rolex watch, which included a special touch: with a twist of the wrist, Khadaffi’s face would appear on the dial.) More often than not, the award was granted in return for a sizeable contribution, the willingness to hold a major international conference, etc.
Actually I had hoped that perhaps that the Khadaffi photo was still floating around somewhere in Helsinki, but like most everything else in the office, the WPC’s photo collection had been destroyed. Gifts – there were many -, photos, much of the documentation that was housed at the Lonnrotinkatu headquarters were simply thrown out or shredded, although the story of how and when the archives were eliminated is nuanced and not without interest. All that is left now a 2 foot vase with a green snake running up and down its length surrounded by patterned flowers.
Although it was based in Finland for a good thirty years, today there is virtually no trace that the WPC there today. For much of its time in Finland, the organization was not popular. Little effort was made to connect with the country or its peace movement, although that movement was one of the strongest and most politically diverse (and sophisticated) in Europe at the time.
Even during the WPC’s heyday, not many Finns even knew of its existence, although there was nothing secret about its presence in the Finnish capitol. Many of those who did know resented its presence. At best there was an uneasy peace. The Finns tolerated it for political reasons related to Finnish-Soviet relations but were always uneasy about its presence in their capitol. It was viewed, and not without good reason it turns out, as little more than a Soviet intelligence operation based in Finland that did little or no serious peace work.
During the years I was there (1986-1990) some feeble attempts were made to improve the organization’s relations with the Finns, but with little success. The fact that during those years, the Soviets humiliated and purged the WPC’s general secretary, himself a Finn, did not help the organization’s standing.
Odd as it might seem, the history of the Lonnrotinkatu building is worth reviewing. At the end of World War II, Finland found itself in an interesting position. Earlier in the war, the Finns had sided with the Nazis. Finnish units had participated in 900 day blockade of Leningrad which had left 1.5 million dead from bombing, starvation or just plain freezing to death. But after the Nazis lost the great battle at Stalingrad, the winds of war shifted to the USSR and the Finnish leadership had a change of heart (and personnel). Seeing the proverbial writing on the wall, the Finnish leadership, hat in hand and tail between their legs, went to Moscow and negotiated a peace with Stalin. History suggests that it might well have been one of the smartest political decisions Finland made in the 20th century.
In exchange for peace with the USSR and no Soviet troop occupation, the Finns were forced to cede large tracts of land in the eastern section of the country, Karelia, to offer the Soviets a naval base on the Gulf of Finland (to protect St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad), and to pay significant indemnity for damages inflicted by the Leningrad siege. Part of the deal included expelling the Nazi’s from Lapland, in Finland’s north which was done only with great difficulty. All this was agreed by the Finnish side. While it did not exist in 1943, (founded only in 1949 in both Paris and Prague), the World Peace Council’s presence in Finland was a direct consequence of those negotiations.
Then when World War II ended, with the Nazi defeat, all German property in Finland was expropriated. It included considerable holdings in Helsinki. To partially pay down its post war debt to Moscow, Finland offered the Soviets some of this property, and the Soviets accepted. The Soviets turned around and offered the properties to different organizations of the Finnish left. The Finnish Peace Committee was offered a property said to have been the former headquarters of the Nazi SS in Finland.
Lovely building. I used to cringe thinking of what transpired there during the war, only to be relieved that it had been spiritually cleansed through its postwar peace work. The Finnish Communist Party also benefited from such an offer.
One of the buildings turned over to the Soviets had the address of Lonnrotinkatu 25A. 3 of its 6 floors were sold to private concerns; three of the floors, as mentioned above, remained in Soviet hands, which was managed by the Soviet Peace Committee. These floors were turned over to the WPC. I do not know the precise financial arrangements between the WPC and the Soviet Peace Committee but I believe that the WPC got the space for its offices there free of charge. While originally after its founding, the organization was headquartered in Vienna, for a number of reasons both economic and political, in the early 1960s an agreement was reached – as the story goes, in a sauna – between Finland’s then President Urho Kekkonen and Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, that led to a Finnish invite. The WPC moved to Lonnrotinkatu (Lonnrot Street)..
While the left parties and the WPC undoubtedly benefited materially from such arrangements, the relationship made the organizations even more beholden to the Soviet Union (if that was possible) than they might have otherwise been. Given the financial support (and this was only a part of the picture), it was unlikely that the WPC or the Finnish Communists would `stray from the fold’ or in any way seriously criticize the USSR. It is not clear that they would have anyhow, but biting the hand that fed them would have been at the very least impractical. Thus this combined with the fact that the Soviet Union funded at least 90% of the WPC’s budget essentially assured the WPC’s allegiance to Soviet policy.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991 and the largest of the former Soviet republics became Russia, the titles of former Soviet property in Finland passed into Russian hands. The Soviet Peace Committee morphed into what became known as the International Federation For Peace and Conciliation. If the name changed, very little else did. The nameplate on the Soviet Peace Committee’s Moscow headquarters changed. Wasn’t much of a face lift. The organization, its administration, cadre remained virtually unchanged. Same players, same backroom and often corrupt politics as in Soviet days. The ownership of Lonnrotinkatu 25A passed from Soviet to Russian hands. Indeed to this day, one of the floors of the building, the fifth floor I believe, remains the property of the President of the Russian state.
I don’t remember if it is 8 or 9 languages that O.K. speaks fluently among them flawless English and French, but including Russian, German, Finnish, Italian, Spanish. There is one or two missing. I have a vivid memory of a Helsinki party in 1988 or 1989 at which there was no more than 25 people in attendance, young professionals virtually all. At some point it struck me that many languages were being spoken in the room. Nancy and I counted 17. There was not the slightest affectation about it; no one was trying to impress anyone. It was just how it was, a multi-lingual multi-cultural environment. No one symbolized this cosmopolitan and humane environment more vividly than O.K. I went around following O.K., watching as he easily shifted from Russian to Finnish to German to French to English, going back and forth between the different languages depending upon with whom he was speaking. It was humbling.
After 21 years, I saw O.K. in his Lonnrotinkatu office a couple of weeks ago. He greeted me joking `I guess I’m the last of the Mohicans.’ I didn’t ask him to elaborate, I understood.
O.K. worked as an interpreter-translator at the WPC at the time. He was one of a number of extraordinarily competent interpreters from around the world working at the Helsinki office. Together they made up an impressive team. O.K.was also something of an unofficial `employee rep’, always doing what he could to improve the lot of his fellow employees and often running up against this or that bureaucratic barrier standing in the way.
By late 1988, early 1989, the situation in the Helsinki Secretariat had gotten what the British might call `a bit dicey’. There were tensions between more old guard types and those seeking, however naively, to reform the dead horse that was the WPC. Some of the same conflicts that infected the last days of Soviet political life had their echoes in the WPC Secretariat making working there something less than pleasurable. Although the details were not clear, the dates, how it would happen, the impression that the WPC ship was sinking, that it had no future in a changing world, was aleady widespread among the staff.
Reading the signs quite accurately and with some sense of the future, in 1989, O.K. quit the WPC and immediately set up his own independent translation service. It still exists today and if it is not thriving, it has done well enough to provide a decent living for O.K. and it seems, for many of the others who worked at the WPC after it imploded. The WPC was already in financial straights and turned around to offer O.K. office space, which he rented from his former employer. 22 years later, O.K.’s company is still located in the building, having outlasted the WPC.
O.K.was still renting space from the WPC when politically and financially the roof fell in on the organization in the early 1990s. In February of 1990, at the Athens Session of the WPC, WPC President Romesh Chandra from India was not so gently pushed aside and pressured into retirement. He did not go willingly. Chandra had become more of a liability than an asset and was seen in Moscow, correctly I believe, as a part of the old guard whose power base Gorbachev was trying to undermine.
With Chandra gone, the WPC lost much of its remaining vitality. A series of mishaps followed. Seeing the writing on the wall and believing that the WPC might still have some use, in one of its last acts before the name change, it has been reported that the Soviet Peace Committee gave the WPC a one time gift of $2million or there abouts, the interest of which at the time would have produced an income for the organization of between $100,000 -$150,000 a year (or so it was related to me)
One would think that with the USSR collapsing, that the Soviets would have more important matters to deal with than the fate of the WPC. After all it had run its course long before as any kind of legitimate peace organization. It was perceived, as mentioned above, not without reason, as little more than a Soviet/Eastern European spy nest, its representatives from different communist countries working for their nation’s intelligence agencies `reporting’ on the activities of peace movements in the West. I would imagine that the quality of the intelligence thus gathered was not worth much, but still, as a result, the WPC remained, even in its decrepit state a source of information flowing from West to East.
If information flowed from west to east, money coming out of the collapsing USSR – passed in the opposite direction. It flowed out of the dying Soviet Union into banks, real estate and other financial assets in Western Europe and the U.S. Finland was not the only country involved. But it played a role, made much easier at the time by Finland’s strict rules of banking secrecy which made it impossible, or nearly so, to trace the money flows. Other countries, Switzerland, Austria, the UK and perhaps the USA were involved. Nor was the WPC, the sole conduit for this financial exodus from the U.S.S.R. There were many other channels, organizations involved in what was nothing short of one of the most massive thefts of public resources in modern history. It was the people who ran the show who committed most of the theft. It was similar to the insider theft that U.S. legal scholar William Black would detail in his exposes of the Savings and Loan debacle in the U.S. taking place, ironically at about the same time.
Whatever Soviet intentions in these last days, the situation of the WPC in Helsinki quickly deteriorated. In quick order the organization went through 2 `general secretaries’, one Ray Stewart from New Zealand and Sadham Mukerjee from India. One of Stewart’s first acts in the now financially tight WPC was to adorn his office with new Persian rugs and a fancy desk. Both Stewart and Mukerjee left Helsinki after brief stays in office and in somewhat mysterious circumstances; in Mukerjee’s case, he disappeared shortly after his son committed suicide. While to my knowledge no charges were filed, still with the departure of the two general secretaries the organization’s bank account and Stewart’s Persian rug also disappeared. Shortly thereafter, now bankrupted, the organization’s headquarters relocated to Athens.
But the property – the 3 floors of Lonnrotinkatu 25A – still belonged to International Federation of Peace and Cooperation, alias, the Soviet Peace Committee. If the headquarters had moved to Athens, 52 years of WPC archives remained behind in the now former Helsinki headquarters.
Sometime in the early 1990s, a representative of the International Federation for Peace and Cooperation, let’s call him by a pseudonym, Sasha Svinya, came to Helsinki in a van to sort things out. Svinya had already shown his metal having organized a `Baltic Peace Cruise’ several years prior. With a sailboat acquired (somehow) through the Soviet Peace Committee, the project was meant to touch base with peace movements throughout the Baltic to coordinate their activities. Neat idea. But Svinya had other ideas. He loaded the boat with liquor and got the services of several Soviet Peace Committee friends and female employees and had himself a three week vacation of debauchery floating on the Baltic…in the name of peace.
Several years later, on a more serious mission, he was sent to Helsinki to tie up
loose ends. By then there was no one left working at the WPC to talk to. The last employee, an interpreter, had found himself out of work, when the bank account was emptied allegedly by one of the organization’s general secretaries. But O.K. still had his office in the building and indeed was still paying rent to the WPC. With no one else left, Svinya approached O.K. and asked if he would, in exchange for reduced rent, manage the property. This meant paying the electric bill, overseeing repairs and the like. O.K. agreed.
Svinya then went through the remaining WPC documents still housed at Lonnrotinkatu. Much was destroyed at that time that would be considered of historical value. It including the posters, gifts, photo collection housed on the fifth floor, home of what was the WPC Information Center. He cleaned out and packed up the political files housed in what used to be Chandra’s office (and then Stewart’s and Mukerjee’s), loaded them on to the van and took them back to Moscow. One can presume, for those seeking WPC archives, that they are today housed in the old Soviet Peace Committee headquarters (unless the Russians have moved or destroyed them).
Curiously enough, though, Svinya left more documents in Helsinki than he took to Moscow. These included all of the financial records of the organization going back to 1949 as well as personnel files – records on everyone that had worked in or for the WPC Secretariat over the course of its history. A potential gold mine for researchers interested in the history of the organization, the papers sat in the Lonnrotinkatu building gathering dust for more than a decade.
Having gotten what they wanted, the Russians appeared no longer interested in anything concerning the WPC. They would have rather that the WPC slip quietly into oblivion such was their embarrassment. Then in 2006, the Russian government decided to sell off a part of its Lonnrotinkatu holdings. It sold its shares in 2 of the 3 floors – one remaining floor remains Russian property to this day. With the sale of the property the question about the fate of the remaining documents came back into focus. At this point O.K. decided to do something he had avoided all these years: to go through the remaining papers.
This he did. The shock was immediate.
The financial records were probably incomplete, but still not without interest. The WPC had long resisted sharing its financial records with the Finnish government and much of the record was hidden. In the late 1980s however, the WPC was forced, a few years prior to the collapse, to turn over its finances to the Finnish authorities. It seemed that the Soviets did little at the time to counter this move, an indication already that in their minds the organization was expendable.
Then there were the personnel files. They were an encyclopedia of information, mostly on WPC staff and Secretariat members. If WPC intelligence on Western peace movements didn’t amount to much, its spying on its own employees, including yours truly, was far more thorough and impressive. Every action was recorded. When a person came and went from the office – exact times; when and where she/he traveled; telephone conversations both at the office and at home were tapped. Personal relationships were noted. The files went back to the organization’s beginnings and only ended in 1991. Rather thorough on the one hand, in most cases profoundly irrelevant on the other. Very little of any importance went on there. Still it was pretty chintzy to put it mildly.
It took two young men two full weeks to do what amounted to generous act of solidarity for those of us that the organization had spied upon: shred all the documents, both the financial and personnel records. They no longer exist; they cannot be used as such documents often are for whatever – to threaten, blackmail, smear or intimidate. On hearing the news that all the personnel files had been destroyed – she was unaware of the fact despite living in Finland – an old WPC colleague now liberated from fear haunting her all these years, commented with relief, `Maybe now I won’t have those awful WPC dreams anymore.’
And when it was all over, all that was left of the WPC in Finland is vase from Bulgaria with an inscription on its bottom, stating that it was the property of M. Joliot Curie.