The Murman Railway Question

By Robert Crozier Long

[The Nation; August 31, 1918]

With the Russian questions nominally settled by the peace of Brest-Litovsk, to reconsideration of which the United States is pledged, must henceforth be classed the Murman Railway problem. For the moment this appears to be merely a question of strategy. The issue is whether the Allied forces now operating in North Russia will be able to use the ice-free port of Murmansk after the freezing of Archangel on the White Sea; or whether Germany in alliance with Finland will acquire a temporary submarine base on the Arctic Ocean. Behind these immediate issues lies a race and territorial question which needs permanent settlement, and which is much older that the Murman Railway, though it would probably be less acute to-day had the railroad not been built.

The Murman Railway is important because it terminates in the only ice-free port left to Russia after the seizure by Germany of Libau and the minor ports of the southern Baltic. The Black Sea ports, the present ownership of which is doubtful, may be left out of account. Murmansk is an interesting example of the relative unimportance of latitude in matters of climate. Whereas Petrograd, nearly a thousand miles to the south, is closed by ice from mid-December until late in April, the new port on the Arctic Ocean is open all year. The whole northern coast of the Kola Peninsula, on which Murmansk is built, is warmed by the North Cape current of the Gulf Stream. Russia's largest northern port, Archangel, on the White Sea, is closed by ice from October to May; and the minor White Sea ports, Kem, Onega, and Kandalinsk, are frozen for about the same time, and in other respects are even worse situated that Archangel from the point of view of development.

The advantages of the Murman coast were pointed out many years ago by a progressive governor of Archangel, Engelhardt, who urged Petrograd to develop the whole region. In Engelhardt's time the chief Murman port was Kola. Kola lies on an inlet forty miles from open ocean. Its harbor freezes; in winter it can be reached only by reindeer, and spring and fall produce five months of the roadlessness which Russians call rasputitsa, when communication by land is impossible. Lower down the Kola Gulf. About five miles from the mouth, is Catherine Port, which practically never freezes; and there Engelhardt founded in 1895 the little town of Alexandrovsk as a proposed naval station and administrative centre. The Petrograd Government tried to stimulate its growth by encouraging colonization and by sending annual scientific expeditions; but in 1904 Alexandrovsk had only 400 inhabitants. The late Count Witte gave the reason for this to the Council of the Empire. "An ice-free port without railroad connection with the Empire's main roads," he said, "is an anomaly."

The outbreak of the war made railroad connection indispensible. The Baltic was from the first in Germany's power' and, according to the former War Minister Suchomlinov, the Trans-Siberian Railway could carry only one-seventh of the supplies needed for the conduct of the war. Through Archangel until the winter of 1914-15 poured Russia's foreign munitions supplies. The old plan of building a railroad to an entirely ice-free port near the mouth of the Gulf of Kola was revived. The port chosen—known before the revolution as Romanoff, but now called Murmansk—has an excellent natural harbor, with thirty-two feet of water inshore and a high coastline giving protection against storms. The nearest railhead was Petrozadovsk, capital of the Government of Olonetz, about a thousand kilometres to the south. The preliminary surveys were begun in the autumn of 1914 and carried through in polar darkness; and the actual work was begun in the following March. The labor was enormous. The track runs largely through marshes, frozen hard in winter, in a sparsely people county, without any supplies except timber. A hundred thousand Russian laborers and an unstated number of German prisoners had to be brought to the spot and provided with housing. By November, 1916, the 1,000 kilometres of track were laid. Pessimists predicted that when ice melted in the spring of 1917, the track would disappear into the swamps; but this prediction was not fulfilled. In 1917 the railroad's carrying capacity was only 1,500 tons daily, and during the whole winter of 1916-17 only 100,000 tons were transported; but the Russian constructor, M. Goriatchkovsky, has reported that with increased rolling stock the railroad could carry 3,500 tons a day, the maximum handling capacity of Murmansk port.

The Murman Railway was built solely as a means of supplying Russia's army with munitions. It had no direct strategical significance. While it was being built the German armies were held on the front of Riga; and there was no probability that an independent Finland would soon be collaborating with Germany in Northwest Russia. To-day the situation is changed. As a means of supply the railroad is still important; but as an element of strategy it is vital. When Archangel freezes, it will be the only line of communication for any Allied force operating in North Russia. At present the Allied position is secure. By occupying Kem, which lies just half way between Murmansk and the terminus of Petrozavodsk, England gained control of the more important part of the road. But if the plans ascribed to Germany, and some of the plans admitted by Finland, were realized, the position of the Allies would be secure.

According to cables from Europe received soon after the German expeditionary force in Finland succeeded in crushing the Red Guard rebellion, Germany's aim was to reach Murmansk, seize the munitions stored there, and establish a base. At the end of May Germany was reported to be building two railroads, one towards Kem, aiming at a direct junction between the Finnish roads and the Murman road; and the other from an unnamed Finish railhead to Petchenga Bay close to the Norwegian frontier. A week later, a Stockholm newspaper announced the conclusion of a German-Finnish agreement under which Germany would "use Finland as a passageway to the Arctic." Germany did not confirm or deny these stories. The Finn's were franker about their designs. Their two aims, they declared, were to acquire the Petchenga district, thus getting an ice-free port on the ocean; and to annex parts of the Russian provinces of Olonetz and Archangel. These plans, apparently still pursued, are the essence of the Murman problem.

Finland's desire for Petchenga is easily explained. The Russian and Norwegian coats meet on the Arctic and cut Finland off from ice-free water. Finland is therefore restricted to navigation via the Baltic. Only at the expense of either Norway or Russia could she reach the ocean. The acquisition from Russia of a narrow belt of land at Petchenga would give her the outlet she needs. The Finns adduce three arguments in support of their plan. First, they allege, the Pechenga territory was promised to them long ago by Russia in exchange for territory ceded in South Finland. Second, the Bolshevik Government last winter agreed to cede Petchenga to the short-lived Finnish Red Government in exchange for Ino and Raivola, two districts on the Gulf of Finland which are necessary for the defence of Kronstadt. Third, the Petchenga population is mostly Finnish. The Bolshevik Government is apparently still willing to carry out this cession. In May, the Assistant Foreign Minister, Vosnessensky, defended the "deal" on the ground that the greatest width of the territory to be ceded is only forty-five miles, and that as the new Finnish stretch of coast on the Arctic would be seventy miles from Murmansk, Russia's port and railroad would be in no danger. In a later statement Vosnessensky declared that the Allies need not be nervous, as the Germans had no intention of establishing themselves on the Arctic. To this a group of Young-Finnish politicians who oppose the Helsingfors policy of too close with Germany replied that "as long as Finland and Germany are identical in Allied minds, the acquisition by Finland of Petchenga will inevitably be regarded as a threat, even if the Murman Railway is left intact."

The second Finnish claim—to part, of the Russian Government of Olonetz and to part, of the interior of Archangel—is inspired by Irredentist motives. The districts claimed are known as "Russian Karelia." The Karelians are the eastern branch of the Finnish race; and they inhabit both Finland proper and Russia. They differ from the west Finns—the Tavasts—by their livelier character and softer dialect; and they are Finland's poets. It was among Karelians that the Swedish-Finn Elias Lönnrot collected the epic fragments he later pieced together into the "Kalevala." The vast majority of Karelians, to the number of about a million, inhabit Finland proper, and compared with this already redeemed Karelia, the Karelian Irredenta in Russia is of little importance. In Olonetz, in territory adjoining Finland proper, are about 70,000 Karelians and Tchuds (another Karelian race); and in Archangel, mostly in the district of Kem, are about 20,000 Karelians. The northwest of Olonetz is not only ethnically, but also geologically, part of Finland. By pushing her frontier eastward from 50 to 100 miles, Finland would achieve her aim.

The Irredentist movement is purely an outcome of the Russian revolution. The Finns at home are all Lutherans, whereas the Karelians in Russia are Greek Orthodox. Of 70,000 Karelians and Tchuds in Olonetz, only 3,000 are registered as Lutherans, and these are immigrants from the former Grand Duchy of Finland. The whole population now claimed by Finland as Irredenta, however, does not number more than 100,000, and there would probably have been no annexation agitation at all had not Finland's national self-consciousness been strengthened by independence, and had not the Bolshevik régime given the Russian Karelians cause of complaint.

The Helsingfors Government seems determined to annex Russian Karelia. During the White-Red civil war, the White commander, Mannerheim, issued a proclamation declaring that Finland would come to the aid of her oppressed brethren. This might threaten the Murman Railway. The Karelian population in Olonetz extends as far as Petrozavodsk on the shore of lake Onega, where the railroad starts; and there are several Karelian settlements west of the lake. If Finland is not to annex territory through which the railroad runs, she would have to leave some of her Karelians unredeemed under Russian rule. Her proclaimed policy is to annex the Karelian districts without touching the railroad. This statement was made during an interchange of notes between the Finnish Minister at Stockholm and the French Minister, representing also the English Minister. The French Minister demanded that Finland should abstain from all undertakings "against the Russian provinces which are situated outside the Grand Duchy's present frontier." Finland's representative replied that his Government had already assured England that no aggression against the Murman Railway was contemplated; but that Finland "did not consider it just to put obstacles in the way of the realization of the Karelian people's efforts to unite with their brethren in the now free and independent Finland." "The Finnish Government," continued the note "holds that it cannot shirk its duty to liberate Karelia from the Bolshevik robber bands of Russian and Finnish origin which terrorize the peaceful population." Since this note was sent, the Finnish newspapers report the arrival of two deputations from Russian Karelia, both complaining of outrages by Bolshevik soldiers, and both asking for annexation.

Finland's argument is that as long as she does not annex any Russian territory traversed by the Murman Railway, her acts do not threaten the railroad, and have no particular importance for the war. The real issue is obviously not Finland but Germany. The Allied note protesting against annexation of any Russian territory implies that, with Finland at Petchenga on the Arctic Ocean, or within striking distance of Petrozadovsk, the whole Murman coast and railroad could be threatened at any time should Germany decide to move northward or eastward. In that lies the gravity of the Murman question.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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