When moonshine flowed into Helsinki
One hundred years ago, the Prohibition Act enabled the widespread smuggling and bootlegging of spirits in Helsinki. Although small-timers were caught, professional smugglers of German origin reaped great revenues.
Ninety years ago in December a referendum was held that led the Finnish Parliament to repeal the Prohibition Act. Public opinion had turned against the law that had been in force for twelve years. Crime had risen, and general respect for the law had decreased.
Prohibition supporters had sincerely wanted to sober Finns up, but their mission had backfired. People had switched from beer and wine to spirits, because moonshine was a compact form of alcohol and therefore easier to smuggle.
Smuggling began as soon as the Prohibition Act came into force in summer 1919. Customs, whose duties included preventing smuggling, found it impossible to control Finland’s long coastline with all of its archipelagos. Their boats were old and slow, and dated back to when Finland was a Russian Grand Duchy.
The smugglers on the other hand had fast new motorboats, which they used to collect their cargos of moonshine from vessels anchored in international waters. These “mother ships” were usually of Estonian, Polish or German origin. Moonshine was packed into 10–20-litre canisters that could, if necessary, be tied to a boat and towed under the surface of the water, or loaded into metal tubes called “torpedoes” that could hold several dozen canisters. Several bottles of the finer stuff were often packed at the tip of a torpedo as dealmakers – cognac, whiskey or wines for refined ladies.
If the smugglers were surprised by a customs agent or coast guard, the towline could easily be cut to sink the torpedo or canisters, which could then be retrieved later. Although there were some losses, these apparently remained quite minor. Few seizures were made, particularly during the early years of Prohibition: according to Customs, only 4,000 litres of spirits and 3,600 litres of other strong drink were seized during the first year. No one knows how much got past Customs, but the seized goods are estimated at no more than a few per cent of the alcohol that was successfully smuggled into the country.
Smuggling centred on the Helsinki region, as there were stop-off points and storage areas available in the local archipelago, such as on the islands of Eestiluoto and Villinki. Many fishermen, for example, would go there to retrieve cargoes in smaller batches – and then resell the moonshine to restaurants, street traders or profiteers. Indeed, the typical police seizure was from bootleggers who could not resist the temptation to tuck into the load themselves.
They attempted to prevent smuggling by seizing transport equipment, such as boats and cars, that had been used for smuggling. But this met with very little success, as the boat or car had usually been “borrowed”. In practice, it was only the grassroots distributors who were convicted. No owner could ever be found for the larger cargoes captured by the authorities. And if several suspected smugglers were nabbed at once, there was always a minor or first-timer who could “own up” and get away with a much smaller penalty.
In the late 1920s, surveillance improved when both Customs and the Coast Guard were given faster boats. Although this resulted in more seizures, smuggling did not end even after the Prohibition Act was repealed. Finland’s high alcohol tax kept prices high, and the money that could be made from smuggling was extremely tempting. And people had also developed a taste for moonshine.
Finns known as “Moonshine Emperors” built lavish villas in the archipelago, and most of them were never once caught for smuggling. Many people who earned money from moonshine were able to invest it in legitimate businesses. Lack of evidence meant that the “smuggler barons” could not be brought to justice. According to Customs,
most smuggling before the Second World War was in the hands of professional organisations of German origin.
When smuggling resumed in the 1950s, it was mainly on merchant ships when they began to frequent Finland’s harbours in growing numbers.
Eero Haapanen: Sörkan rysäkeisarit –kalastajia, ajureita ja salakuljettajia, SKS 2016