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The Winter War
December 2, 2013 - Stephen Browne
Last Saturday, Nov. 30, was the 74th anniversary of the beginning of a forgotten war, the Soviet invasion of Finland, called the Talvisota in Finnish, and the Zimnyaya Woyna in Russian.
The Red Army, which possessed three times as many soldiers as Finland, 30 times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks, poured across the border in 1939, three months after the beginning of World War II.
The ostensible goal was to take a strip of border territory the Soviets regarded as essential for their security. Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg) was only about 25 miles from the border. Some claim the goal was to totally absorb Finland into the USSR and make it a province of a Great Russian state again.
The Soviets demanded the territory and offered some in exchange. The Finns refused, the Soviets attacked without warning as they had Poland.
The Finns, though vastly outnumbered, had the home field advantage and high morale. The Soviets were hampered by Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937 when the officer corps of the Red Army had been virtually wiped out, leaving only loyal or terrified subordinates in command.
Volunteers from Sweden, Estonia (where the language is essential a Finnish dialect) and America came to fight for Finland. They learned to improvise to make up for lack of materiel. Few now remember how the home-made gasoline bomb came to be named for Vyacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars.
But after four months of hard fighting superior numbers told. Finland had to cede the territory the Soviets demanded, and more.
The peace lasted 15 months. After dividing Poland between them the German’s turned on their former ally and attacked the Soviet Union. Finland saw this as an opportunity to regain lost territory and renewed hostilities, fighting alongside Germany.
This led to one of the greatest ironies of the war. Finnish Jews fought alongside the Wehrmacht, the grandfather of a Finnish friend among them. Several were nominated for the Iron Cross, but refused.
The way my Finnish friend put it was, “When the bastards are coming at you shooting, you don’t inquire too closely about the man next to you shooting back.”
Finland walked a tightrope throughout the war. Their war policy was to make it plain they were fighting the Soviet Union as co-belligerents of the Third Reich, not allies. They generally stopped military operations at their pre-war borders, they declined to advance to Leningrad to complete the encirclement of the city, and ceased operations that threatened the Murmansk route of American aid to the Soviets.
The Finns also flatly refused demands by the Nazis to take any anti-Jewish measures.
The end of the war saw concessions of territory by Finland, reparations paid to the USSR, and the lease of a naval base with right of passage to the Soviets. It also saw brief fighting with the Wehrmacht to expel them from Finland.
But they kept their independence and maintained it throughout the Cold War. They were not a satellite state like the countries of Eastern Europe, and though they had a communist presence in their parliament I can testify from personal knowledge their attitude towards the Soviets was one of open truculence.
When my parents traveled from Finland to Russia back in the 1980s their Finnish tour guide told them, “Some things are better in the Soviet Union. They have a better neighbor than we do.”
One sign of Finland’s commitment to being Western is that virtually all young people in Finland are fluent in English, far fewer in Russian though Russia is next door.
It’s significant also that private gun ownership in Finland is the fifth highest in the world, and in Europe neck-and-neck with Switzerland.
Since I was reminded of this anniversary I’ve been trying to think of lessons that might be learned.
One is of course, that life is complicated. The hammering the Red Army took from the Finns in the Winter War forced them to make significant reforms that put them in better shape for the next round. Their relationship with Germany went from enemy to co-belligerent to enemy again within the space of a few years.
Another is that sometimes you have to hold your nose and do something that stinks to survive, but you always have to draw the line somewhere.
But most of all I think, is the virtue of what the Finns call “Sisu.”
It’s hard to translate without being wordy, but it means: guts, toughness, strength of will in the face of adversity, never giving up or giving in despite repeated failure, resilience, grit.
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