Bungling the Prewar and First Moves in Finland 1939 and Ukraine 2022: A Comedy of Errors for Stalin’s Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia, Respectively
The staggeringly ridiculous parallels between the First Soviet-Finnish Winter War and the current war in Ukraine are both profoundly illuminating and especially instructive
(Ed. note: a small portion of this article was originally adapted as a standalone piece published on Brian’s news website Real Context News on May 23 and titled A Terrifying Comparison Between Putin and Stalin; see all his related Ukraine coverage here)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George Santayana famously wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Marx expanded on the thoughts of a fellow German when he wrote in an essay that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The ancients Aristotle and Polybius found history to be cyclical, as did Ibn Khaldun of the Middle Ages. The saying “the past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes” is attributed to Mark Twain. And Stephen Hawking gave us this zinger: “We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.”
Today, Russia is proving all of these, and rather pathetically. I have seen or heard some casual comparisons of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current campaign in Ukraine to the Soviet-Afghan War or the recent U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but such comparison are off when compared to a little known war within World War II that would be overwhelmed and dwarfed historically by the much larger conflicts of World War II, this sub-war being a relatively small sideshow.
I am writing of the so-called Winter War, or the First Soviet-Finnish War, which lasted from November 30, 1939, to March 13, 1940, especially apt to consider now as Finland seeks to join NATO in light of Russia’s recent imperialist aggression.
Just in the early pages of one of the definitive English accounts of this war—William Trotter’s A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40 (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, 283 pages)—the mind-numbing parallels are shocking, and will be dissected below (for sourcing, assume all uncited information comes from Trotter’s book but quotes will be given a page number or numbers in parentheses and anything from another source an external a link; in some instances, when I have written in detail about something, I may link to my own work, in which you can find many external sources backing up what has been stated. For a far brisker take on the big strokes of the entire war with a bit of comparison to Russia’s current Ukraine war and post-Soviet Russian-Chechen wars, see John Sipher’s smart summary in The Bulwark).
Location, Location, Location: Geopolitics in Eastern Europe for Stalin (and Putin)
Setting the Stage
On the first page of the first chapter, geography is, appropriately, discussed. Like Ukraine’s plains, the Karelian Isthmus that connects Finland historically to St. Petersburg—the tsarist capital since the time of Peter the Great, but renamed Petrograd during World War I, then Leningrad in the Soviet era, after Vladimir Lenin’s death—has been a pathway for invaders from both directions. In the case of the isthmus, this path was into and out of Russia and Asia on one side and Europe and Scandinavia on the other, and controlling such pathways was deemed vital to Stalin in the late 1930s as it is also by Putin in the twenty-first century. Even in the 1930s, driving across the Isthmus from Finland’s border to Leningrad was simply a matter of a few hours (just thirty-two kilometers to its limits).
With Hitler’s outright and frothing hostility to the ideology of communism and to the Slavic people as a whole, and, to Russia’s West there being Imperial Japan (also intensely hostile to communism and expanding near Russia’s Far East), Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin eyed ostensibly neutral Finland quite nervously: though the Russian tsars ruled over Finland for a little over a century after the Napoleonic Wars, in the waning days of the Tsarist Russian Empire, Finns looked to overthrow an increasingly repressive Russian rule during World War I, some 2,000 Finns collaborating with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Imperial Germany during the war I and serving in their own unit in the Kaiser’s Imperial German Army. Just days after the 1917 October/Bolshevik Revolution began in Russia—in which Lenin and his communists seized power in Petrograd—Finland declared independence and Lenin was too distracted by bigger problems to not acquiesce three weeks later. Despite the efforts of Finnish communist with newly-Soviet Russian help to hold and expand power in Finland, during the Finnish Civil War of 1918, the Finnish communists were crushed by the opposing Finnish Whites with the help of forces from Imperial Germany. Not long after, the Finns would allow anti-Bolshevik Russian and British forces to launch attacks against Russian communists during the Russian Civil War, though the communists under Lenin would prevail in the conflict. He and his regime were bitter about losing Finland and felt at some future point it could be brought back into the fold with little effort.
Europe in 1923 after collapse of WWI empires and postwar settlements- Wikimedia Commons/Fluteflute
Some two decades later, with Stalin firmly in power and Lenin long dead, the new Soviet leader and his circle were concerned about another German threat: Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and that the Nazi Führer would be able to coerce a weak, unaligned Finland into being a base for a German invasion of the Soviet Union (Soviet Russia had coerced other parts of what was Russia’s disintegrating Empire into a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: the USSR) aimed at nearby and very vulnerable Leningrad, one of the USSR’s indispensable urban centers. The World War I-/Russian Revolution-/Russian Civil War-era multiple direct collaborations between Finnish and German forces against Tsarist Russia and both Russian and Finnish communists only made this concern more acute in the eyes of the communist Soviets.
Rather than some obsession with dominating and controlling Finland, Stalin seemed mostly concerned with looming Nazi expansionism (hardly an unfounded threat, as history would prove) and saw Finland’s geography in relation to Soviet territory and especially the all-important Leningrad as an unacceptable risk under the status quo in 1938.
Thus, in April of that year, Stalin had his agents approach Finland with his security concerns. Unlike in 2022 with Putin and his “concerns” about Ukraine and NATO, Nazi Germany was one of the most evil regimes in world history and extremely expansionist as well as warmongering. And today, we know in hindsight (and, indeed, many at the time felt this too, including Stalin, who was off by just a few years) that Hitler very much had designs of conquest and subjugation for the Soviet Union and the Slavic peoples.
Considering all this, public professions of neutrality from Finland, even if sincere by the Finns, did little to comfort Stalin; he knew if Hitler were to try to force Finland into the Nazi German Reich, Finland would not be able to put up much resistance and Hitler could use Finland, then, as a base from which to attack the USSR, or, even without formal conquest, could compel Finland into an alliance with Germany and force it to support an attack or join in an attack against the Soviets.
But Finland possessed a number of worthless, unpopulated islands—used only by Finnish fisherman during summer—that provided excellent defensive positions for the naval approaches to Leningrad, and Stalin’s folks inquired about the possibility of Finland ceding or leasing the islands to the Soviet Union in order to expand its security perimeter.
Finland flat-out rejected the idea.
Almost a year later, in March 1939, the Soviets came back, offering some slightly-disputed Karelian borderlands in exchange for a thirty-year lease of five Islands near Leningrad. Considering the climate of 1939, this was quite a reasonable offer, based on realistic, pressing security concerns on the part of Stalin in light of a massive threat coming from, of all people, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Reich (again, contrast today with NATO’s defensive alliance led by U.S. President Joe Biden: needless to say, nowhere near equivalents; and Ukraine’s borders with Russia now are nowhere near as close as Finland’s was to a one of the largest and most vulnerable cities of concern for the Soviets, meaning there is nothing like a Leningrad-equivalent less than three-dozen kilometers away or even close to that distance).
The man who would come to lead Finland’s military through the war, Gustav Mannerheim, felt this deal was entirely reasonable, knowing how weak and ill-supplied his Finnish Army was (it did not have a single working anti-tank gun at this time). He was already a legend at the time: a distinguished veteran of high rank during World War I, the culmination of his service for the tsar in the last few decades of the existence the Russian Empire of which Finland was then still a part; the leader of the anticommunist Finnish Whites who led them to victory in their brief civil war against the Finnish Reds; and at this point in 1939, the head of the Finnish government’s Defense Council.
But Mannerheim was ignored by the Finnish political leadership, along with the Soviet Union’s offers. Still, the Soviets kept pressuring Finland over the ensuing weeks and felt themselves pressured in this spring of 1939, eyeing Nazi Germany nervously.
Hitler was indeed hostile but was more focused for the moment on Central Europe, so the two enemies were able to come to the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in in August 1939, Hitler gobbling up western Poland soon after followed by Stalin gobbling up eastern Poland. Seeing the writing on the wall, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—each responding to invitations from late September through early October from the Soviets—soon after arrived in Moscow and would sign separate agreements making them de facto vassal satellite states of the Soviet Union, their freedom reluctantly signed away to avoid bloodshed faced with what they saw as a foregone conclusion.