Mannerheim’s Silk Road photos on display at Ankara exhibition

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The Finnish Embassy in Ankara on Tuesday opened an exhibition of rare photos clicked by the country’s former president and military leader Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim during his horseback journey along the Silk Road between 1906 and 1908.

The exhibition of 48 photographs from Central Asia to China will be open to visitors until November 14 at the CerModern art center in the capital Ankara.

Photos taken in the early 1900s capture the visitor’s attention for their extraordinary vividness, detail and stories.

Photos illustrating Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim’s journey through Central Asia are seen at CerModern, Ankara, Turkey, October 12, 2021. (Photo by Dilara Aslan)

Mannerheim, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time, used a heavy 9 x 12 centimeter field camera that was difficult to use and difficult to transport on horseback, and took 1,200 negatives in total. Some of the photos were taken for military purposes while others were for anthropological records. As a result, we can see photos taken of the same person from the front as well as from the side.

The natural life, expressions, feelings of the locals and their culture can be seen in detail in Mannerheim’s photos, as some of the locals he met had their photo taken for the first time and saw a camera for the first time. Some of the people he encountered along the route included Uyghurs, Kalmyks, Torghuts, Yugurs, Kyrgyz and Tangut.

Life as it was over 100 years ago is depicted in these photos, from daily chores to festive occasions. Mannerheim encountered haughty mandarins, beggars, opium smokers, soldiers, tribal leaders, as well as nomads.

The photos are accompanied by a photo journal that documents each shot, providing a colorful reportage of a bygone world.

In the spring of 1906, 39-year-old Mannerheim from the Grand Duchy of Finland, then an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, received an army assignment. Tasked with gathering up-to-date political and military intelligence for the Russian military, he posed as an explorer throughout his undercover adventure.

Curator of the exhibition, Peter Sandberg talks about one of Emil Mannerheim's photos at CerModern, Ankara, Turkey, October 12, 2021. (Photo by Dilara Aslan)

Curator of the exhibition, Peter Sandberg talks about one of Emil Mannerheim’s photos at CerModern, Ankara, Turkey, October 12, 2021. (Photo by Dilara Aslan)

A few years earlier, Russia had suffered a humiliating defeat against Japan in Manchuria and a complex game was underway throughout Central Asia, involving Russia, Japan and Britain, as well as spies, agents and investigators from several countries.

During this two-year trip, Mannerheim traveled about 14,000 kilometers, mostly on horseback, in various circumstances, as the photos he took show. We see many photos of his caravan traveling through rivers, steep mountains, steppes and deserts while interacting with local people.

Mannerheim took measurements, drew maps, and documented his experiences along the journey. He had studied the area, previous trips and discussed the scientific objectives of the trip with the Finnish scientific community before leaving for the expedition.

Exhibition curator Peter Sandberg expanded on the stories behind each of the 48 photographs at the opening on Tuesday, in the presence of several ambassadors and members of the media.

Finland’s Ambassador to Turkey, Ari Maki, gave an opening speech, informing the guests about the exhibition and Mannerheim.

Attendees had the chance to try Vorschmack, one of Mannerheim’s favorite dishes, consisting of salted minced fish or meat, and Finnish drinks.

On the former Finnish president

Swedish-born Mannerheim was a Finnish military leader and statesman who defended Finland against Soviet forces during World War II (1939-1945) and later served as the country’s president.

Standing out as a successful lieutenant in the Russian army, Mannerheim went to Finland after the Russian Revolution of October 1917. By December, Finland had already declared its independence from Russia and the Finnish Civil War broke out between Finland White or Whites (anti-Bolshevik) and the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic (FSWR), more commonly known as Red Finland, during the country’s transition from a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire to an independent state.

Mannerheim was the leader of the anti-Bolshevik forces which defeated the Finnish Bolsheviks and expelled the Russian forces.

After the civil war, a republic was declared in Finland and Mannerheim became the chairman of the national defense council. During his tenure, he commanded the defensive fortification line on the Karelian Isthmus, later called the Mannerheim Line. This fortification was built against any aggressive attack by Soviet forces.

And when the Soviets finally attacked Finland in 1939, now known as the Winter War, Mannerheim was the commander-in-chief. He achieved considerable success against the numerical superiority of the Soviets through brilliant war strategy, but the war ended with the relatively harsh Moscow Peace Treaty on March 13, 1940.

When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, Finland sided with the Germans in an effort to regain lands annexed by the Soviets 15 months earlier. However, cooperation between the Finns and the Nazis was limited, and previous Soviet aggression helped shape world opinion more favorably for Helsinki than for the rest of Germany’s allies.

On his 75th birthday, June 4, 1942, the government granted Mannerheim the title of Marshal of Finland. He is the only person to have received the title to date. Mannerheim was appointed President of the Republic of Finland in 1944 and held this post until 1946, having brought his country out of the war on relatively favorable terms and preserving Finland’s sovereignty.

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