Eastern Bloc Unrest Casts Different Light on Finland’s ‘39 Winter War With Russia


Finland this month remembers its short but bitter Winter War with the Soviet Union, mindful of the fate it could be sharing with Moscow’s restive Baltic republics.

The fighting began on Nov. 30, 1939. At the armistice 105 days later, Finland had suffered 25,000 dead. It had to seek peace and lost vast tracts of territory.

However, it had also bloodied Stalin’s armies, which by Finnish estimates lost between 200,000 and 250,000 dead, and Finland had survived as an independent nation.

“When you look across the Gulf of Finland and see what is happening in Estonia, you can’t help thinking that there, but by the grace of the Winter War, would be Finland,” said Max Jakobson, former Finnish ambassador to the United Nations.

In August, 1939, the Soviet Union, led by Josef Stalin, and Hitler’s Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact with a secret protocol that divided Europe into Soviet and German spheres of influence.


Finland and the Baltic states fell into the Soviet sphere. One by one the small nations on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland acceded to Soviet demands to station troops on their soil, a presage to lost independence.

Finland was told in early October that it must agree to host a Soviet base. The border on the Karelian Isthmus, just 20 miles from Leningrad, had to be moved back 24 miles.

Finland refused. Talks broke down in mid-November and the war began two weeks later.

As the “phony war” at the start of World War II simmered in the rest of Europe, Helsinki was bombed from Soviet bases in Estonia, which with Lithuania and Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

The three Baltic republics have since condemned the 1939 pact and there has been agitation for autonomy.

Jakobson said that by retaining its independence, Finland has saved Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from one more headache.

“They don’t have to feel threatened. Essentially, it’s a consequence of the fact that . . . we were not occupied. Our system was not destroyed and we retained our independence.”

Professor Tuomo Polvinen of the Academy of Finland said Soviet intentions for Finland at the time will remain unknown until researchers had access to closed archives.

“We still do not know what were Stalin’s final aims regarding Finland,” he said.

Until this year, Soviet commentators had blamed Finland for the war, historians said. But it is now being reassessed in the light of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness.

“The Winter War was the first open reaction against the pact,” Helsinki University history professor Jukka Nevakivi said. “Nobody knew about the protocol at the time but many people had an idea those two devils had shared the world.”

He also has no doubt that the Soviet plan had been to occupy Finland.

“We would now be about 50% Russians, like in Estonia,” he said.

He said documents show that the Soviet commanders expected a rapid victory. But fighting was fierce along the front, which stretched from the isthmus to the Arctic Sea.

According to Nevakivi, troops fought hand-to-hand with knives in the permanent Arctic night around the port of Petsamo. Ski-borne Finnish commandos, dubbed “white ghosts” because of their camouflage, harried the Soviet forces.

Many Soviet soldiers, ill-prepared for war in temperatures 50 degrees below zero and lacking even boots and winter camouflage, died of cold, Nevakivi said.

Despite being outnumbered--126,000 Finnish troops faced up to half a million Soviet soldiers--the Finnish lines held until a Soviet offensive in February, 1940. But finally, the overwhelming Soviet strength ground down the defenders and the Finns decided to seek peace.

The price was far higher than the original Soviet demands. Finland conceded the naval base and lost about 10% of its territory, including the Karelian Isthmus.