The general and the bear
Pauli Jänis photographed Mesikkä, the pet bear of Major General Raappana.
Photographer Pauli Jänis (1911–1984) of the 10th Information Company took several photographs of the bear cub Mesikkä, the pet of Major General Erkki Raappana, the commander of the 14th Division. The photographs were taken in front line conditions in 1944, and they have suffered damage over the decades. However, they convey the relationship between Mesikkä and General Raappana well.
The journey of General Raappana and the bear Mesikkä together began in the direction of Rukajärvi in the late winter of 1944, when a hunting expedition of the division shot a she-bear in its nest. One of the cubs was gifted to the division commander, who was known for his love for animals.
During the trench warfare phase, Raappana had plenty of time to devote to raising Mesikkä. In fact, the General said in a letter sent to his wife that “if that bear cub (or should I say, a girl) wasn’t here, I’d often be at a loss and wouldn’t know what to do.” The little teddy bear brings much joy and it is so interesting to watch. It is very funny and develops quickly.”
No compromises were made on cleanliness, despite the wilderness conditions. Even Mesikkä cleaned up every morning by swimming in the nearby Lake Novinka before the service started. The bear clearly liked to be photographed, too.
In the summer of 1944, the fighting became more intense, and in the conditions of defensive combat, it was thought best to wean Mesikkä off and release it back into the wild. But despite several attempts, the bear followed the Finnish troops persistently, and even swam across the waters to get back to her own people. Finally, the only option left was to send the bear in a crate to Helsinki Zoo.
After the war, Raappana, who had been appointed as the Chief of the Border Guard, was arrested for participating in the Weapons Cache Case. A remand imprisonment of eight months followed. The General had been imprisoned despite his innocence, and his stay at prison became tedious. To relieve his depression, he papered the walls of his cell with photographs of Mesikkä taken by Pauli Jänis. Major Eero Kivelä, who was also accused in the Weapons Cache Case, has talked about meeting Raappana in his cell. Kivelä had wondered why the General had pictures of a bear on the wall. Raappana told the story of Mesikkä to the Major. Kivelä asked the General if he had visited Mesikkä in Helsinki Zoo. “No lie, I saw a teardrop as big as the tip of my little finger in the corner of Raappana’s eye when he told me: ‘I couldn’t stand to go and visit Mesikkä – see, Mesikkä is a prisoner.’”
In October 1947, the Military High Court released Raappana from remand imprisonment with a provisional decision, but it was only in March 1949 that the Supreme Court finally dropped the charges. Major General Erkki Johannes Raappana, Knight of the Mannerheim Cross, died on 14 September 1962. In addition to the Mesikkä photographs, the kuvakokoelmat.fi service of the Finnish Heritage Agency has close to 2,500 photographs taken by Pauli Jänis during the Continuation War years of the 14th Division.
Mesikkä having a morning bath at lake Novika in 1944. Photo: Pauli Jänis / Picture Collections of the Finnish Heritage Agency (HK7744:408)