Home - Tuesday 22.10.2002
JAAKKO HAUTAMÄKI / Helsingin Sanomat
Two Soviet WWII pilots exhumed from resting place of 60 years
Skills acquired under grisly circumstances in Bosnia and Kosovo put to use in Finland
By Jaakko Hautamäki
"Those are some of the lumbar vertebrae leading to the pelvis", provincial forensic scientist Kaisa Lalu says as she stands over the opened
grave in the rural community of Valkeala in Southeastern Finland, staring down at
the remains of two Russian pilots shot down during the Second World War.
"Now that the grave's been opened, let us honour the deceased with a
moment's silence", adds Det. Sgt. Matti Oravisto immediately afterwards.
Lingering smoke from a nearby open fireplace adds to the solemnity of the scene
as the police and military officers present remove their hats and squeeze them between their hands.
Both Kaisa Lalu and Matti Oravisto have been accustomed to opening newer, nastier graves than these while working for the
UN War Crimes Tribunal in Bosnia and Kosovo. The two pilots resting in this grave were buried over 60 years ago.
- On the 25th of June, 1941 - the very first day of the so-called Continuation War between the Soviet Union and Finland - Heimo
of the Finnish Air Force shot down a Russian bomber piloted by
35-year-old Major Fedor Panjushini. Rather later in life, Lampi went on to
become Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal.
Panjushin, for his part, had achieved a certain notoriety amongst Finnish fighter pilots already from the days of the Winter
War in 1939-40. He and his crew became some of the first casualties of what was to be a three-year conflict.
Panjushin's bones were exhumed under the watchful eye of the Russian
military attaché Valeri I. Molostov, from a piece of lakeside land
owned by the Finnish Karelian League Chairman and MP Markku Laukkanen (Centre Party).
As the landowner, Laukkanen had requested the
removal of the pilots' remains. Molostov was present to ensure everything
was done according to an agreement on respecting the memory of fallen
soldiers. The reciprocal agreement between Finland and the Russian Federation was negotiated by the former Minister for Foreign
Affairs Paavo Väyrynen, now a MEP in Strasbourg.
According to the agreement, the party whose soldier's remains are to be
exhumed has the right to send a representative to supervise the operation.
The lakeside peninsula where the graves were located was last this busy when the Russian soldiers were laid to rest here,
some 60 years earlier.
- On June 24th, 1941 there was still technically peace in the country, but because of the ongoing mobilisation the schools in the area were packed
The aerial battle on the 25th changed everything. Russian Tupolev SB-2 bombers rumbled across the sky on their way back from
a mission to bomb bridges across
the River Kymi in the Heinola area. The planes belonged to the 201st Bomber Regiment. The 201st lost six planes in combat
Heimo Lampi was alerted at 7:15 in the morning. He had planned on taking his
American-made Brewster up for some target shooting, but ended up in a dogfight
instead. As the Russian plane opened fire on him, Lampi made the sound assumption that peacetime had apparently ended. Despite
his lack of practice, Lampi then attacked Panjushin's Tupolev.
After the Brewster's guns had done their work, the Tupolev carrying Major Panjushin and his co-pilot Lev Karasev and flight-sergeant Vladimir Trofimov plunged into the small lake. According to eyewitnesses, two of the men attempted in vain to jump from the plane before it
was too late.
Finnish soldiers buried the bodies of two of the ill-fated Russians the same
day. The third body didn't surface until a month later. It was buried on the
other side of the lake.
The remains of the plane are still in the lake and partly on the shore. Only
the turret-guns have been taken into a museum.
- On a frosty October Monday, no one seemed to know exactly where to look for the grave. Soldiers with mine detectors had been
called in to help. Maybe a button or a belt buckle would give the needed
signal to locate the bodies.
A unit from the criminal investigation unit of the Kouvola Police Department,
together with a police security team, a squad of army engineers from the
Karelia Brigade, plus a few war historians approved by Orasmaa were present at the scene.
An air combat enthusiast Leevi Tolvanen had brought Major
Panjushin's Communist Party membership card with him. Someone had removed
it from the dead man's pocket 60 years ago.
Orasmaa and his assistants had made inquiries in advance concerning the
possible location of the grave. There were no signs left to indicate where
the pilots might have been buried. The police dug in several different
locations, levering out large rocks - but they found nothing.
Finally Markku Laukkanen remembered how a nearby neighbour Juhani
used to tell him about the grave. Sipari was called in to act as a guide.
The crowd waited in silence as the elderly man examined the terrain.
"Somewhere around here there used to be a big wooden cross back in the 1940s. I remember it, because we used it as a high
bar for pull-ups", Sipari said. He
also commented on how much trees tend to grow over a period of 60 years. Finally Sipari stopped and pointed at a small, flat
clearing in the middle of a group of short pine trees.
Within half an hour, Orasmaa's group had found the first vertebra at a
depth of less than a metre. It soon became clear that there were two bodies
in the grave. They had been buried crosswise. One arm had stayed in a
vertical position pointing upwards. Apparently the Finnish soldiers had
buried their Russian counterparts in some haste on the first day of
the Continuation War.
- As of now, the bones of the pilots are in the cold
storage of Kouvola police station. Soon they will be sent to an
anthropologist at the Department of Forensic Medicine of the University of
With DNA samples taken from the bones, the identity of the deceased can be
verified. Teeth from one of the skeletons will also be examined. The other
one's head was missing. "Samples are always taken just in case", Orasmaa explains.
So far, the Russian Embassy has not commented on whether Russia would be
interested in taking possession of the pilots' remains, finding a new grave
for them, and possibly contacting the living family members.
If not, they can be buried in the Russian Military Cemetery in Utti a short distance to the south, which is maintained by
the police out of a small annual fund.
MP Markku Laukkanen, on the other hand, can now freely decide on the future
use of the Pitkäniemi headland where the pilots were buried. He can, for
instance, build a smoke sauna there if he so wishes.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 15.10.2002
- Previously in HS International Edition:
- Finnish forensic team to Kosovo (3.8.2000)
- Brewsters to Finland
- The Finnish Karelian League
- Tupolev SB-2 Katyuska
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