The People’s Delegation led by Kullervo Manner acted as the Revolutionary Government in Finland in 1918. It controlled the largest Finnish cities – Helsinki, Tampere, Turku and Vyborg – and almost a third of the Finnish territory.
Officially, the highest decision-making body in the Red Finland was the Workers’ General Council, and the People’s Delegation acted as the government. The General Council was nominally entitled to elect and dismiss members of the People’s Delegation and to revoke its decisions. Of the Council members, fifteen were selected by the SDP, ten by the Finnish Trade Union, ten by the Red Guards and five by the workers’ associations in Helsinki.
In practice, the highest decision-making power in the Red Finland was exercised by the People’s Delegation, led by the former Speaker of Parliament, Kullervo Manner. The Delegation initially consisted of 13 members and a procurator. As the rebellion started, the Delegation assumed the highest authority in the Red Finland. It mainly dealt with civil matters. Decisions concerning military matters were made by the Finnish Red Guards Headquarters under the leadership of the Commander-in-Chief Eero Haapalainen and, later, by a trio of Adolf Taimi, Eino Rahja and Evert Eloranta. In principle, the People’s Delegation was above the Red Guards but in practice it was not able to prevent the unruly behaviour of the troops.
The Delegation was supplemented twice. In March, two women were appointed as members. They can be considered the first women ministers in Finland. Members of the Delegation with the most experience in politics included, in addition to Kullervo Manner, Otto Ville Kuusinen and Yrjö Sirola, Finland’s leading social democratic theorists, and Oskari Tokoi, who had been Prime Minister in 1917.
The People’s Delegation fled Helsinki in April before the arrival of the German troops. In Vyborg, the Red government reorganised. It worked in the city for about two weeks before fleeing to St. Petersburg.
The rebel government sought support from the people
Immediately after the start of the rebellion, the People’s Delegation passed a law which declared “tenant farmers and crofters independent of landowners.” The goal was to get the widest possible support for the revolution among leaseholders. The repeal of the remuneration rule of 1865 for farm work had the same objective. The People’s Delegation decided that a person employed on the basis of the remuneration rule “is entitled to terminate his contract with a fourteen-day period of notice.” More than two-thirds of the population in Southern Finland lived in rural areas.
The area controlled by the Red Guards was afflicted by unemployment, which the People’s Delegation sought to alleviate by launching industrial production. In February, the Delegation offered assistance to those who had been unemployed for at least a week. However, the payments stopped in Helsinki on the demand of the Red Guards because the rebel government needed men on the front. Those who joined the Red Guards received wages, which made recruiting easier.
The People’s Delegation and other revolutionary bodies seized 163 industrial plants during the civil war. Their aim was to keep the factories running. Production in the nationalised factories accounted for almost 10 per cent of all industrial production in the Red Finland. Many of the factories continued to operate under the leadership of their owners.
The Red Government also nationalised company-owned farms, as well as any farms whose owners had fled or otherwise left the farms unattended. The revolutionary administration mainly seized large estates.
Tokoi turned to Russia for solutions to the grain shortage
The food shortage in Finland required immediate action from the People’s Delegation which on 31 January decided that half of the rye seeds reserved for the next autumn would have to be seized in the provinces of Häme, Turku-Pori, Uusimaa and Vyborg. If some locality had food grains in excess of four months’ need, they should be seized and “surrendered to areas which had run out of food.” The People’s Delegation also managed to import some grain from Russia. However, the food shortage grew worse and rationing needed to be tightened.
The situation was made more difficult by the fact that in the more densely populated Southern Finland there were more consumers dependent on rationing than in Northern Finland held by government troops. The Red Finland needed to create its own distribution organisation. The task was made more difficult by the producers’ resistance.
In addition, grain needed to be imported from Russia, which itself suffered from a serious food shortage. Thanks to the efforts of Oskari Tokoi, Helsinki received 30 railway carriages of cereal on 30 March. The amount was enough to meet the Red Finland’s needs for up to two weeks. When the train arrived, the Red administration was already about to collapse. For the most part, the Red Finland had to arrange its food supply on domestic stocks.
Extremely democratic draft for a constitution
At the end of February 1918, a proposal for a constitution was drafted under the leadership of Otto Ville Kuusinen, stipulating that the legislative power belonged to a parliament elected by the people. Any “people’s initiative” signed by at least ten thousand citizens would have to be dealt with by the parliament without delay. If an initiative was rejected, a referendum should be held if requested by one third of the representatives.
A referendum could also be requested by a group of people the size of which was no less than five per cent of those who had voted in the previous parliamentary elections. The decision of the referendum was to be binding.
According to the proposed constitution, the People’s Delegation was to govern the country, chaired by a “Superior of the Republic of Finland” elected for a three-year term by the People’s Parliament. The same person could not be the Superior of the Republic twice in a row.
The People’s Delegation flees to the Soviet Union
The revolution and the civil war ended in the Reds’ defeat. At the end of the civil war, the members of the People’s Delegation – all except one – fled to Soviet Russia.
The ideological core of the People’s Delegation, i.e. Manner, Kuusinen, Sirola and Gylling, co-founded and launched the Communist Party of Finland (SKP) in 1918. Most of the members of the People’s Delegation who had fled to Soviet Russia joined the SKP. Eight of the members of the People’s Delegation were killed in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, among them ex-chairman Kullervo Manner. O. V. Kuusinen made a remarkable career in Comintern and in leadership positions in the Soviet Communist Party.
Having fled to Russia, Oskari Tokoi was given a leadership position in the Murmansk Legion set up by the British. He could not return to Finland, but emigrated to the United States via Great Britain. In February 1944, the parliament passed a bill called Lex Tokoi to pardon the members of the People’s Delegation. The purpose of the law was to enable Tokoi’s return. He did not move back to Finland, but visited his former country several times.
Film The Red Finland (Krasnaya Finlyandiya). A short film on the Red Finland directed by Mikhail Koltsov and photographed by Petr Novitsky, “Finlyandiya v gody revolyutsii” (Finland in the year of the revolution). Collections of the National Audiovisual Institute.