The Winter War and what it might mean for Ukraine today

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The Finnish Residence
13 March 2014

“This is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.” (Talleyrand)

During the night of the 12th and 13th of March 1940, Prime Minister Risto Ryti, under colossal pressure, signed in Moscow the Peace Treaty that ended the Winter War. The Finnish Army was still fighting and Vyborg had not been lost, but the army was bleeding and there were no reserves left.

In his novel Talvisota (The Winter War), Antti Tuuri looks into the mindset of the exhausted Finnish soldiers upon hearing of the truce. Puzzled, they ask their officers after the fighting ceases where they were supposed to go. When they realize the Finnish army must withdraw to newly drawn borders far behind their positions, they are understandably angry. They knew they had prevailed.

My wife’s uncle was killed in action during the very last days of the war. When his body was brought home for burial the relatives discovered that his right shoulder was black and blue. The nineteen year old lad had been killing tanks with a Swedish anti-tank gun called the “Elephant gun” until a sniper caught him. There was a small blue hole in his forehead.

This short war of only 105 days has been all but forgotten in the West, but not in Russia. I was struck by Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s reaction to the defeat of the Russian ice-hockey team in Sochi against Finland with President Putin in attendance. Zhirinovsky is a clownish character,

but nevertheless a fixture of Putin’s political system. In his hockey outburst, he claimed the Finns hate Russians because of the Winter War. An astute comment, but maybe not as he meant it. The Winter War and the fact that Finland was not occupied in 1940 or later remains the foundation of Finland’s relationship with Russia.

I vividly retain the words of a famous Russian author to whom I showed the historic ambassador’s office in the Finnish Embassy in Moscow, where the future President Paasikivi, the man who had negotiated with Stalin and Molotov in the fall of 1939, had worked after the Winter War. My friend looked at me and said: “Мы победили, но вы выиграли! ” (We claimed victory, but you won!)

Unlike Poland, Finland is not an ancient country with a proud history reaching far back into the Middle Ages. Finland did not exist when Alexander I conquered it and created the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. Count Curt von Stedingk, Sweden’s Ambassador to the Court of Catherine II, Paul I and Alexander I recalled that Prince Potemkin told him, after the final failed Swedish attempt to regain lost territories from Russia, that the only solution to the “Finnish problem” was to lay waste to the country and deport the entire population!

You cannot understand why Finland exists if you have not seen the great city of St. Petersburg.

Potemkin’s point was clear. As long as the Swedish fortress Sveaborg outside of Helsinki threatened St. Petersburg’s security, there could be no peace. But Alexander’s decision to create a Grand Duchy with large autonomy changed history. In his pledge to the Finnish  estates, he promised to uphold the Swedish laws, the Lutheran faith and the Swedish language. He had conquered a third of the old Swedish realm and was now in possession of a new entity, a sort of “Russian Sweden.” It was a peculiar sort of Russian Sweden. Most of the peasant population spoke a language nobody understood.

The autonomy granted to Finland was broad. Most importantly, it included fiscal autonomy unlike the privileges given a hundred years earlier to the Baltic nobility. Only the Kingdom of Poland had a more prominent status than Finland in Alexander’s empire. The tragedy of history saw Poland rebel twice and Finland prosper. Under Alexander II, in particular, important reforms were introduced to modernize Finnish society. Despite attempts to undermine the autonomy under Nicholas II the Russian revolution in 1917 liberated a full-fledged state that becomes the Republic of Finland.

Post World War I saw many new states, something the Germans contemptuously called Kleinstaaterei, the creation of smaller and smaller entities. Molotov even called Poland “a bastard of Versailles.” By the time Molotov and Ribbentrop signed their treaty on 23 August 1939 in Moscow, Finland alone retained its parliamentary democracy. All other states that had emerged after WW I had turned authoritarian and Czechoslovakia was no more.

A decisive factor behind Finland’s resilience was that it enjoyed a robust democracy and had a strong government with an exceptionally broad backing in 1939. This Government had no room of maneuver when faced with Stalin’s demands and Molotov’s threats during the negotiations in Moscow in October 1939. The population was not ready to neither give in nor accept border changes. Many thought that Stalin bluffed. One of the few who advocated accepting border changes was Marshal Mannerheim; he knew that the army was not ready.

The rest is history. There is an important Polish footnote to the Winter War. Waiting for a swift success, Beria ordered camps to be prepared immediately for 26,500 Finnish prisoners of war relying on the proven Katyn modus operandi. The execution of up to 30,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest took place during the Winter War. The camps prepared for Finnish officers came in handy when the Soviet POWs captured by the Finnish Army had to be dealt with.


The Winter War and the ability to fight a second war (what in Finnish historiography is called the War of Continuation) established Finland as a nation and state. It had survived.

I accompanied the retired President Mauno Koivisto of Finland during a visit in Moscow in 2002 where he presented his book, “The Russian Idea, after it had been published in Russian. In a live interview on radio conducted in Russian, he was asked what the Finnish idea was. Without hesitating a moment, he answered: “Выжить” (to survive).

Talking today in Warsaw about the Winter War might sound odd, but Poles well understand that history is constantly present. When then Prime Minister Putin came to Gdansk on the 1st of September 2009 to mark the day World War II started seventy years earlier, this was an important event for Finland, too. For Poland and Finland, World War II did not start in June 1941.

It is not always easy to understand how Finland survived and prospered and became rich in the shadow of the Soviet Union. It is important to underline the psychological significance of the fact that Finland was never occupied. A Finnish mother, or grandmother or a young girl never encountered a Red Army soldier.

The losses of men killed in action during the years of 1939-45 were substantial for a country with less than four million people. But only some 2,000 civilians were killed in the course of the war, mostly in the air raids against Helsinki in the winter of 1944. All in all, 85,000 men killed, 150,000 wounded and 500,000 refugees from Karelia who had to be settled. But the country, and its parliamentary democracy, survived intact. Two facts remain crucial. A Peace Treaty was signed in Paris in 1947 and no Finns, not a single person, was left on the other side of the border. Thus, Karelia never became a Finnish irredenta. All of this together explains why there is no hatred today. Time has healed the wounds. The relationship of the Finns to Russia and the Russians fundamentally differs from sentiments found on the other Russian borders.


Why does Finland get mentioned when Russia invades a neighbor like Georgia in 2008 or now with the crisis in Ukraine?

It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand it should be seen as a compliment for a country that has established a balanced and working relationship with its great power neighbor, but on the other hand it is all a big misunderstanding. There just is no way you can compare protestant Finland with orthodox Ukraine or Georgia. Their histories and societies are so different.

Although never occupied, Finland was a frail, impoverished country after the war. Peu à peu the economy picked up and exports started to grow. In hindsight, the most important achievement of those post war decades remains the fact that at the end Finland did not miss a single step of integration in Western Europe. We joined the Nordic Council, became an associate member of EFTA, reached a free trade agreement with the EEC, and after the end of the Cold War, joined the EU in 1995. Without these steps, each requiring arduous diplomatic efforts to convince the Kremlin that the economic well-being of Finland was in the long-term interest of the Soviet Union, Finland would not have developed into the prosperous Nordic country it is today.

In many ways, Finland was forced to play by Soviet political rules. But the fact that Finland was a market economy, or “capitalist country” in Soviet parlance, meant the economic rules remained Finnish. I remember from my time as a young attaché at the Embassy in Moscow in the mid-1970s when Premier Alexei Kosygin wanted to sell Soviet airliners to President Kekkonen. Kekkonen could not convince Finnair to buy them and that our government lacked the means to subsidize a deal like that.

The most telling example of Finland’s sophisticated trade relationship with the Soviet Union remains nuclear power. Again it was Kosygin who sold the reactors to Finland. But Kekkonen, backed by industry and the academic community, only supported the deal on condition that reactor safety standards would be Western, including the steel containment of the reactor. En plus the scientific community were given guarantees of the establishment of a strong and independent nuclear safety and regulatory authority, which today enjoys worldwide respect among its peers. Finally, Kekkonen promised Finnish industry that the next set of reactors would be bought from Sweden.

The irony remains that STUK, as Finland’s nuclear and radiation regulatory authority is known worldwide, which was created to check the Soviets, has become the nemesis of Areva of France in the ongoing construction of Finland’s fifth reactor at Olkiluoto.

So much for the economy. Let me provide another angle into the very delicate Finno-Soviet relationship.

The history of the Finnish counterintelligence was reviewed by Sir Paul Lever, the former Head of the British Joint Intelligence Committee in a British journal in 2010. He notes: “The Security Police had one claim to fame during the Cold War. As far as is known, not one of its officers was ever, despite many attempts, subverted or bribed. In the Lubyanka gallery where the photos of Philby, Ames, Tiedge and others attest to the success of KGB penetration of other countries’ intelligence agencies, no Finnish face appears.”

Not only because of historic reasons are all claims of zones of influence or zones of special interest unacceptable to Finland – a view shared by Poland and the rest of the EU. The drama of Ukraine is often defined as geopolitics. But it is more. What started as popular protest, turned into a popular uprising creating a revolutionary situation in Ukraine.

Let me quote President Putin from 4 March:

“In my opinion, this revolutionary situation has been brewing for a long time, since the first days of Ukraine’s independence. The ordinary Ukrainian citizen, the ordinary guy suffered during the rule of Nicholas II, during the reign of Kuchma, and Yushchenko, and Yanukovych. Nothing or almost nothing has changed for the better. Corruption has reached dimensions that are unheard of here in Russia. Accumulation of wealth and social stratification – problems that are also acute in this country – are much worse in Ukraine, radically worse. Out there, they are beyond anything we can imagine. Generally, people wanted change, but one should not support illegal change.”

Yanukovich was not ousted by a coup. He fled after a revolution had turned the tables on his regime.

The Russian position has hardened and Moscow does not recognize the interim government in Kiev. In other words, Russia still cannot admit that what suddenly happened in Kiev after Yanukovich’s security troops, the “Berkut,” surrendered. It was in fact a revolution, not a coup. And a revolution in Ukraine weakens and largely obviates Moscow’s influence in Kiev. This is the core of the crisis. The occupation of Crimea by troops without insignia is a sideshow wrecking Russia’s relations with the rest of the world. But it is still only a part of a larger game. Who controls Kiev, and its political orientation, is the key. Will Ukraine emerge unshackled and free to choose its orientation remains the question. Let’s hope for the best!