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Last war reparation train crossed Finnish-Soviet border 50 years ago

 Vainikkala station to mark anniversary in September

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By Jaakko Pihlaja

On August 30 1952 Finnish State Railways switch operator Sulo Keskisaari, 78, was working at Vainikkala station when the last trainload of Finnish war reparations goods was delivered to the Soviet Union.
   
"I should have turned the switch the other way", laughs the veteran railwayman who has been retired for 20 years.
   
The efforts of Finnish industry to pay off the massive war reparations demanded by the Soviet Union as a condition of peace were now at an end, and the final sum of nearly 300 million US dollars almost paid off.
   
"I'm sure that the last carriages did not make it onto that train", Keskisaari says, recalling the composition of the ceremonial final train. It had been put together from two separate trains. According to the bill of lading it contained open carriages loaded with machinery.

Keskisaari saw many war reparation trains
cross the border en route to Lushaika, which was ten kilometres east on the Russian side. Known formerly by the Finnish name Nurmi, the station was where Finnish trains to Russia stopped until 1957.
   
There was always a rush to get the goods delivered, as the monthly, quarterly, and half-year deadlines approached.
   
Parts for some of the machines had to be ordered from abroad, and this would sometimes delay manufacture. At times the machines were still being painted when they were on the train, if there was a rush, or if the colour was not to the liking of the very demanding recipients.
   
Sometimes even the bindings of the waggons were not to the satisfaction of the Russians, and the carriages were returned for repairs. The attitude on the other side was "That's how it must be done - after all, you lost the war".

Occasionally, when the last trains
were hurried across the border just after midnight, there was nervousness about which date the Russian official would stamp on the papers. It depended on who was working there whether or not a penalty for late delivery would have to be paid. These fines were imposed whenever there was the slightest reason.
   
A painting by Hilkka Keskisaari on the wall of the meeting room of station chief Matti Hiiva shows that postwar Vainikkala was a much more modest border station than it is now: just a few tracks in the railway yard, a loading platform, a storehouse, and a building where the personnel lived. On the other hand, the busy traffic turned the village around the station into something of a boom-town. Keskisaari recalls that there were so many jobs in Vainikkala that the village actually suffered a housing shortage.
   
Now the rail yard has been expanded to the north and west, and has proper modern container cranes. The old station buildings have been replaced with new ones to keep up with the demands of growing passenger and freight transport.
   
Passenger traffic by way of Vainikkala to the Soviet Union began in 1949. In that year 2,512 passengers crossed the border.
   
The record year was 1990 when there were 276,000 passengers. The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought the number down to 93,000, but already last year it had again reached 240,000 passengers.

The Finnish national railway company VR
does not have statistics concerning war reparations transport, but it is estimated that if all of the trains carrying war reparations goods were linked up as one, the train would be 2,473 kilometres long. Nowadays the same amount of goods cross the border in less than a single year.
   
In the record year 1997, exports and imports passing through Vainikkala totalled 9.8 million tonnes. Now the figure is about 8.5 million tonnes a year. Of this, exports account for just under a million tonnes, and transit traffic has declined to between three and four million tonnes. About 1,000 waggon loads of goods cross the border every day.
   
A ceremony, and a seminar commemorating the last war reparations train are to be held on September 15 at Vainikkala station. Hilkka Keskisaari has collected material for an exhibition to be set up in the old railway storehouse.
   
She has also written a series of articles in the local newspaper, Uutis-Vainikkala, based on material she has collected about the war reparations and about postwar life in the village. The exhibition will contain a good deal of picture material from that time.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 30.8.2002

More on this subject:
 Last war reparation train crossed Finnish-Soviet border 50 years ago
 BACKGROUND: War reparations proved beneficial for Finnish economic development


JAAKKO PIHLAJA / Helsingin Sanomat
jaakko.pihlaja@sanoma.fi

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