Seven Years Sailing
Written by beaufortmagazine – 11.8.2014
Tage Söderström, 84, has sailed his entire life. His first boat was a low, five-meter wooden skiff. To this day, he has no idea what happened to it, since his first-ever long sailing expedition ended abruptly in Porkkala.
Text: Reetta Heiskanen
Translated from Swedish: Zoe Robertson
When you sail westward from Helsinki, you cannot avoid rounding the Porkkala peninsula. It lies just 35 kilometers from Helsinki and forms the thinnest strait in the Finnish gulf. Porkkala has nevertheless come to symbolize humiliation and weakness, since after the Continuation War (1941-44) the region was leased to the Soviet Union as a military base. The Soviet Union could have, if necessary, used the region for political pressure.
Shots fired by Soviet artillery practices in Porkkala could be heard as far as Munkkiniemi in Helsinki, where 17-year-old Tage Söderström lived. After the war, Tage and his friend Nils Randell devoted all their energy to sailing. When they sailed, they easily forgot the painful war years.
The whole winter Tage planned how, early next summer, he would sail to Stockholm to meet relatives.
“The war was over and sailing felt like a good idea,” recalls Söderström.
It was Monday, May 13th, 1946, when Tage and Nils set off. Their sailboat waited at Munkkiniemi beach. The boys met by the boat and loaded it with food.
“The night before, I’d told my mum that I would take the train to Turku to visit my uncle. In reality, Nils and I had far more exciting plans. On the way to Stockholm, we would stop in Turku and only then would we reveal to our parents that we were already on our way.”
The boat glided out toward billowing waves and wind caught in its old sail.
“In that moment, Nils and I felt that the entire world was waiting for us. The wartime had been so long and upsetting.”
The weather, however, quickly worsened. Winds increased and rain began to lash at the small boat. A few hours later, the boys sailed ashore a small island and decided to stay there until the following morning.
By the third day of their voyage, the boys could distinguish the Porkkala peninsula on the horizon. They also soon noticed three Finnish warships 500 meters from the shore. The ships tried signalling something, but Tage and Nils didn’t understand what it meant. They decided either way to keep as great a distance as possible from the Russian border the following day.
The boys set up camp on a nearby island, but in the middle of the night they woke to a scream. It sounded like a woman’s cry.
“We were sure it was a maniac or something. You could hear cries from different directions.”
The boys decided to leave the island in the middle of the night.
“It was very beautiful and the sea was completely still when we started to row away,” says Tage.
The boys rowed carefully along the Porkkala peninsula, as it was far too dark to travel further out to sea. Tage and Nils feared they would lose their course and end up even closer to the Soviet border. In less than an hour, they had rounded the Porkkala peninsula and could finally steer westward. It was the third day of the voyage.
The boat hadn’t managed to glide forward an especially long time before the boys heard the sound a motorboat from the direction of Porkkala. It quickly caught up to them.
“Three Russians had their weapons aimed at us while a fourth hopped into our boat and tied it together to theirs. Then we were tugged in toward Porkkala.”
From Potato Cellar to Interrogation
Tage tells about how he and Nils were forced to lie in a potato cellar in Porkkala for three weeks. During that time, they were repeatedly questioned by Soviet soldiers.
“We were in a potato cellar. It was cold and awful. We got a little fish soup and nothing else.”
The Russians thought that 16-year-old Nils and 17-year-old Tage were spies. After many weeks’ interrogation, the soldiers asked them to sign a document for their release. Tage and Nils signed. Soon they were on a train back to Helsinki.
“I recognized all the stations up until we arrived in Helsinki so I thought we were going home. And then I would see mum and dad again. It would be so nice to come home,” tells Tage.
The train stopped approximately 200 meters from the Helsinki railway station. There was a strange and tense atmosphere in the compartment. The Soviet soldiers aimed their rifles toward Tage and Nils and the doors remained closed.
“Nils sounded desperate and asked me why we weren’t allowed to get off the train and why nothing was happening. We were so tired of this hell.”
The train began to roll again. Nils started to cry. They were en route to the Soviet Union.
“We didn’t really understand anything. It felt strange to travel on Finnish soil but to be captive on a Russian train. We hoped the whole time that the Finnish authorities would stop the train and that we would get out,” says Tage.
But the train did not stop. In Leningrad, Nils and Tage were put in jail. They were separated from each other and the interrogations continued for three months.
They tried to get the boys to admit that they actually were spies.
“I only told the truth. I didn’t say anything other than what had happened.”
The Russians didn’t believe them and they were sentenced: Tage and Nils were sentenced to three years hard labour at a labour camp in Siberia. The two Finnish-Swedish boys’ lives were turned upside down and a seven-year-long struggle for survival began.
It was late autumn when the train eventually stopped.
“It read Camp No. 103 painted in large red number above the high gate. Our names were called and one by one we walked through the gates.”
The difficult train trip had lasted a month.
“I was sure it was a nightmare,” says Tage.
After having survived the first winter in -40 to -50 degrees’ cold, Tage began to seriously wonder why the Finnish authorities had done nothing. He was sure they knew that two minor-aged Finns had been abducted from Finnish soil and relocated to Siberia.
“The Finnish authorities surprised me. I began to understand that our own government wasn’t acting for our cause.”
Tage began to suspect that the Russians wanted to kill him, since he had told them during the interrogations that he belonged to the youth section of the White Guard, a voluntary civil guard corps in Finland.
“They heard that I wasn’t a Communist and they hated White Guard members.”
During the second winter, Tage ended up in a death barracks. It was a camp that few made it out of alive; Tage believes he is the only person alive today who survived. The sick and incapacitated prisoners were sent to the death barracks to die.
There was no heating in the barracks and outside it was -40 degrees. Most died of the cold. Tage was forced to survive for two months.
“I understood that death was approaching, the nights were becoming harder to survive. I had lost a lot of weight and I was horribly tormented by the cold. I pressed my arms hard against my chest, wanted to create a little warmth.”
Two months later he was freed, or so it felt, in any case, for Tage to return to the regular camp. He still had a year and a half of hard physical labour ahead of him, in the heart of Siberia. Most of that time was spent building a railroad with the other prisoners. Slave labour and eight-hour shifts of strenuous work without food became many people’s downfall.
Tage describes that on the 18th barracks. Two soldiers stomped in and took him to a nearby village. Nils was waiting there. Three years had passed since they last saw each other.
“I couldn’t utter a word, but I went up to him and hugged him. He had survived and was probably as moved as I was,” says Tage.
Their survival was a miracle.
“I was in such bad shape after three years. I wasn’t well and I felt it. But I was strong, young, and optimistic, and I survived.”
Shepherds on the Crimean Peninsula
It was another four years until Tage and Nils made it out of the Soviet Union. They weren’t granted visas and had to work on a kolkhoz in Krasnodar near the Crimean peninsula. Working as a shepherd was a welcome change after their experience in the prison camp.
But Nils was not well.
“He didn’t speak with anyone else, only with me. I think he had been sexually abused. They had done something bloody awful to him during the years in the Gulag camp. He didn’t take a sauna with us either. I saw how nervous he became when I tried to ask, so I decided not to ask him anymore. He was destroyed. Such a pity about such a fine chap.”
The Finnish government still stood helpless before the Soviet Union, but Tage was sure that they knew of the boys’ fate.
“The Finnish state didn’t want to know what kind of hell they had sent us to, two young boys of 16 and 17-years-old.”
The boys had grown into men when they finally acquired visas to leave the Soviet Union. The journey by train from Krasnodar to Vyborg took two days. The Russian border guards questioned them carefully, and suddenly the impossible became possible – Tage and Nils had returned to Finland.
“I couldn’t grasp that I was on my way home.”
Tage’s mother and brother had moved to Sweden. They believed he was dead.
Very soon after their disappearance, the authorities had started a search for the boys but concluded it was a drowning accident, despite their bodies and their boat never being found.
From the train, Helsinki looked different, and much had changed since he’d last been there. Houses had been painted after the war, he thought everything looked well maintained and neat. He couldn’t help but compare the cityscape and the views with those of the Soviet Union.
Seven years had passed, but Helsinki’s railway station still stood. Tage’s aunt and uncle waited on the platform.
“We were warmly welcomed while they looked at us with curious interest. We probably looked most like two Russians.”
The following week, Tage travelled to Stockholm. Although the reunion was sweet, it was difficult for him to meet his mother.
“I understood what kind of a wait I had caused her.”
Tage accustomed himself in Stockholm and began to study at the Institute of Technology. Later, he married and had children. It took some time before he could start talking about his experiences.
“It took ten years or so before I told the story to my wife and my children. In some way it was too difficult to talk about.”
According to Tage, Nils Randell died later in Sweden due to mental illness. It affected Tage deeply.
“Of course I’m bitter. And I’ve been very sad about what happened to Nils.”
Tage Söderström didn’t stop sailing, despite his traumatic experience in the ‘40s. Although at first he tried a different kind of boat.
“I bought a rubber boat first. And then later a sailboat. It was named Inga. I sailed around the Baltic Sea and I never had the feeling that I shouldn’t sail.”
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