Lightbringer: The Story Of Finland’s New Winter War Memorial

Finland's first national Winter War memorial combines history with modern technology to remember those who died in 1939/1940 conflict with Russia.

Artists impression of the new Winter War memorial in Helsinki's Kasarmitori / Credit: Pekka Kauhanen

A striking new sculpture lights up the dark skies this week, when Finland’s first ever national memorial to the Winter War of 1939 and 1940 is unveiled on Thursday.

Called ‘Valontuojia’ – or Lightbringer in English – the thoroughly modern monument will stand in Helsinki’s Kasarmitori near the Ministry of Defence.

For the people behind the project, it marks the end of a decades-long journey that not everyone would live to see come to fruition. For the artist, it’s a very personal reflection of his family’s involvement in the conflict, of the horrors of war, as well as a hope for peace.

And for the country, there’s finally a national symbol of the struggle and sacrifice that Finland went through in the face of Russian aggression.

Building The Whitelighter

At Pekka Kauhanen‘s studio in Espoo, sculptures and paintings cover the tabletops, walls and floor space.

Known for his work in metal, Kauhanen’s public statues include the other-worldly three-handed policeman directing traffic on a Tapiola roundabout; and a twisting tribute to former President Kekkonen in a Kajaani park.

But it’s the 1:10 scale model of Lightbringer that pulls the focus to one end of his workshop.

Lightbringer is not a shy sculpture. Standing more than ten metres tall, it’s Pekka Kauhanen’s largest piece of work to date, and it has something important to say.

Artist Pekka Kauhanen in his Espoo studio, in the foreground an earlier bronze version of Lightbringer sculpture / Credit: News Now Finland

The sculpture is made from polished stainless steel. The base is a shiny illuminated sphere with viewing holes so visitors can see 105 archive photographs inside – one picture for every day of the Winter War’s duration. A QR code lets smartphone users learn more about the history behind the photos.

Perched on top, a larger-than-life representation of a Finnish soldier, with holes cut into the steel, where light will shine like a torch.

“I tried to imagine the feelings of the soldiers in the cold and the dark and winter is quite rough. And that winter was particularly rough, like -40°C. So they really suffered because of the cold. But also the feelings of people here on the home front. It was quite a collective feeling” explains Pekka Kauhanen.

“My father was too young to go to the war, but I heard the stories of my uncles who fought there” he says.

The sculpture was first made in styrofoam and plaster; then a two metre version was produced; before being cast at a foundry and assembled in parts like a ship.

And it’s already received a warm reception from some of the people whose opinion Kauhanen values most highly: Finnish war veterans.

“When I won this competition, they took the model for several veterans to see, and I went to see this very famous veteran Hannes Hynönen in Mikkeli, he was 102 years old. He was a very funny guy and he liked very much about it [the sculpture]. All the response was very positive” says Kauhanen.

Delayed Memorial 

The Winter War plays such a prominent role in the history of Finland’s first 100 years, that it’s somewhat surprising there has been no movement to build a national monument until now.

The main reason is simple: nobody wanted to upset the Russians.

“While the Soviet Union existed, it would not have been prudent to have such a monument. The Winter war was a great disappointment for the Red Army, and also a great shame” says Christian Keil, from the Winter War Association, and one of the driving forces behind the new memorial.

The short but intense conflict saw Finnish forces vastly outnumbered by Russians, yet  inflict far higher casualties on the invading military from the east in what is widely regarded as a humiliating defeat for the Russians.

Finland is not short of war memorials – they can be found in every town in the country, in the form of graveyards. Unlike other countries, Finland transported as many war dead as possible back to their home cities, towns and villages, and buried them in church yards.

There are also regional monuments on both sides of the border, and in many Finnish towns there are markers where troops assembled to leave for battle.

But until now, there was no collective memorial.

“Time has elapsed and we thought the time had come for a national monument” says Keil.

“We had really thought of 75 years after the Winter War in 2015 but there were all kinds of delays and in the end it turned out quite handsomely with Finland 100 years” adds Keil, who explained that one of his friends at the Winter War Association who instigated the project, passed away before he could see his ideas realised.


The Winter War Association came up with a long wish-list of all the criteria a national memorial should include.

But in 2013, they decided to open up the design competition, in association with the Ministry of Education and Culture; the Ministry of Defence; Prime Minister’s Office; City of Helsinki, Finnish Defence Forces and war veterans, who were included on the judging panel.

“The jury received 258 anonymous submissions from which six where chosen to the second phase of the competition” explains Päivi Salonen, from the Ministry of Education and Culture, who are paying part of the €1.35m costs of erecting the memorial sculpture.

Pekka Kauhanen was the oldest artist to submit a design, and when the Winter War Association applied a litmus test of their ‘wish list criteria’ to the top six designs, Kauhanen’s was the only one which matched all 20 points.

Thursday’s Unveiling

The Finnish public will get their first glimpse of Lightbringer on Thursday, when an evening ceremony shows the work at its illuminated best.

“It doesn’t have to be explained, because it’s a powerful visual element. You can feel it” says Kauhanen.

The artist says he didn’t feel any pressure when faced with the challenge of designing a memorial that represented the whole country, and which would be standing for a very long time indeed.

“I gave them a playful guarantee it will last at least 500 years” he says.

“And after that, they can come and ask for more”.