He did not expect them to fight. Faced with such overwhelming might, the Russian dictator felt sure that the leaders of the small country on his western border would simply hand over the territories he demanded. But they did not. Displaying a quite exceptional courage, they refused to capitulate and, instead, prepared to resist the Russian juggernaut.
Over the next three months—from November 30, 1939, to March 13, 1940—the Finns surprised and inspired the world as their Lilliputian army held off Stalin’s invading force of nearly half a million men and 1,500 tanks.
Far from being greeted as “liberators,” as their superiors had assured them, Soviet soldiers were met by snow-camouflaged ski troops, slipping like ghosts through the birch forests of Karelia, and flaming petrol bombs—the eponymous “Molotov cocktails,” named after the Soviet foreign minister who, even by Bolshevik standards, surpassed the limits of the grotesque when he claimed that the Red Air Force was not bombing Finnish cities but dropping humanitarian food parcels.
Within weeks the Russian body count was in the tens of thousands and the West was in raptures over the heroism of the Finns. “Finland, superb—nay sublime—in the jaws of peril: Finland shows what free men can do,” declared Britain’s then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. “We cannot tell what the fate of Finland may be, but no more mournful spectacle could be presented to what is left to civilized mankind than that this splendid Northern race should be at last worn down and reduced to servitude.”
The parallels between that “Winter War” and the current Russian invasion of Ukraine are continually striking. Working in the Library of Congress last week, I came across a letter from the then U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Laurence Steinhardt, to a colleague in the State Department, dated December 23, 1939. In it, Steinhardt writes:
It is the general consensus of opinion in Moscow that the attack on Finland constitutes a major blunder on the part of Stalin. According to rumour, it is apparent that he was thoroughly misled by his advisers as to the efficiency of the Finnish army and the extent of Finnish resistance which might be encountered. We have many indications … that Stalin confidently expected that Finland would be completely subjugated in a week or ten days.
The attack on Finland, so Steinhardt continued, had strained or broken relations between Moscow and “every other country in the world,” while the almost incredible stories of Soviet incompetence and inefficiency in the field were surely causing serious tensions in the Kremlin.
He was not wrong.
When senior members of the Politburo gathered for dinner at Stalin’s dacha in February 1940—by which time the Red Army, though finally overwhelming the Finns, had lost more than 150,000 men—the despot turned on Defense Commissar Kliment Voroshilov.
According to the party boss for Ukraine, Nikita Khrushchev, the porcine commissar gave as good as he got. “You have yourself to blame for this!,” Voroshilov yelled at the dictator, the vodka coursing through his veins. “You’re the one who had our best generals killed!” With that, he picked up a plate of suckling pig and sent it crashing against the table.
“You have yourself to blame for this! You’re the one who had our best generals killed!”
But the differences between the Winter War and the current situation in Ukraine are no less revealing. Although Stalin’s actions aroused the indignation of the world, the sympathies of the West failed to translate into positive action. True, Roosevelt called on U.S. firms to enact a “moral boycott” of strategic exports to the Soviet Union, and offered Helsinki a $30 million credit line. But in a race against time, it was men and arms the Finns needed, not money. For these they could turn only to Britain and France.
The ensuing failure of the British and French to support the Finns—wavering over the dispatch of planes and an expeditionary force until it was too late—has been the object of censure, both by contemporaries and revisionist historians. In France, the Daladier government fell, while, in Britain, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain acknowledged the defeat of Finland as a major blow to the prestige of the democracies.
And yet it was understandable. Already engaged in a war for national survival against Nazi Germany, it made little sense for the Western powers to add the Soviet Union to their list of belligerent enemies.
This is not the case now. After two decades of weakening and undermining itself, the West has recognized a common danger and united to meet the challenge. The support may be imperfect—certainly it is incomplete—but no one can say that it is mere window dressing. And that support has, in one of the many ironies of the present conflict, galvanized support for not only Finnish but also Swedish membership of NATO.
The fact is, and here we return to the parallels, that though the Finns were eventually worn down and forced to the negotiating table, their defiance yielded appreciable results. Yes, they were compelled to make significant territorial concessions to Stalin (some 9 percent of their territory and 30 percent of their economic assets), but they preserved their independence and prevented the Bolshevization of their country.
Thanks to their heroic resistance, the Ukrainians have already achieved as much and, with continued Western support, may do much more.
Tim Bouverie is the author of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War