Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Before the Ukrainians, It Was the Finns Who Kicked Russia’s Ass

The largely forgotten Winter War of 1939-40.
April 1, 2022
Before the Ukrainians, It Was the Finns Who Kicked Russia’s Ass
1st October 1939: Finnish infantry on skis, the famous 'phantom troops', who inflicted heavy losses on the Russians. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, it seemed apt to compare it to the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, when those states sought to throw off Moscow’s yoke and go their own way. The Soviet army needed barely a week to extinguish the last breaths of the Hungarian resistance, and it took only a day to put down Czechoslovakia’s.

But Ukraine is not Hungary, and it is not Czechoslovakia. Five weeks in, the Ukrainians have killed thousands of Russian soldiers, destroyed entire enemy columns, downed planes, sunk at least one ship, captured more than a thousand prisoners, towed abandoned tanks off the road, pushed Russian forces away from Kyiv, and liberated the occupied cities of Makariv, Irpin, and parts of the larger city of Kherson. Russia, clearly humiliated, now declares that its military objective is limited to the “liberation” of the eastern Donbas region rather than regime change, nationwide occupation, or state death.

The apt comparison then is to Russia’s botched invasion of Finland in 1939. Before the Ukrainians established themselves as Europe’s fuck-around-and-find-out crew, that honor went to the Finns.

Not two months into World War II, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union made the fateful decision to declare war against Finland. The Russians had some of the usual reasons for invading one of its neighbors. Finland had been a tsarist possession that stalked off in a huff after the Bolshevik Revolution. And Stalin, paranoid as always about land borders unbuffered by vassal states, feared that Finland could be used as the launch pad for an invasion that would immediately endanger Russia’s cultural capital, Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg. It is immediately adjacent to the Karelian Isthmus, half of which belonged to Finland in 1939, placing the center of Russia’s second-largest city barely twenty miles from the Finnish frontier.

Securing Russia’s border south of Saint Petersburg had been easy enough. Stalin cajoled the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to agree to “mutual assistance” treaties with Moscow, thus gobbling them up into the empire. He attempted to do the same thing to Finland, but Finland told Russia to pound sand.

Stalin then asked for territorial concessions near Saint Petersburg in exchange for less strategic (uninhabited) land elsewhere. Finland told Russia to pound sand again.

Stalin then demanded a territorial swap, but Finland kept saying no, knowing it could lead to war but not entirely believing it would. But it did, and the Soviet Union, with its two-million-strong Red Army, invaded on November 26, 1939, using a false-flag operation as a pretext.

Baron Gustaf Mannerheim led Finland’s war effort as commander-in-chief of its defense forces. And what an effort it was. Finland’s army was barely a tenth the size of Russia’s. The Finns had no antitank guns, barely a dozen fighter planes, and unspeakable communications equipment that weighed hundreds of pounds and exploded in frigid temperatures.

Pretty much everyone on the Russian side assured themselves that the war would be over in a flash, that Finland had but a toy army, that a nine-hundred-pound gorilla can sit wherever it wants, and that the Finnish working class would rise up and greet Red Army soldiers as liberators from its bourgeois oppressors. “All we had to do was raise our voices a little bit,” former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told Life magazine in 1970, “and the Finns would obey. If that didn’t work, we could fire one shot and the Finns would put up their hands and surrender. Or so we thought.”

The Russians thought wrong.

Finland’s armed forces outmaneuvered, out-thought, and outfought the Russians with guerrilla tactics powered by blistering morale and the total dedication that free people nearly always have when defending their families, their homes, and their land.

The Finns abandoned their own villages near the border, set houses ablaze so the enemy couldn’t find shelter in them, booby-trapped the ruins, and poisoned the wells. They didn’t have sophisticated weapons, so they invented some of their own, including an undetectable wooden mine capable of disabling tanks, water mines to shatter frozen lakes as enemy troops attempted to cross them, and Molotov cocktails (tauntingly named after Russia’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov), which were better than their Spanish precursors for including not only gasoline but also kerosene, tar, potassium chloride, and sulfuric acid.

The opposing Russian force was a bumbling, idiot slave army. While some Russian units consisted of competent, professional soldiers, others comprised conscripts who didn’t even know which country they were invading, let alone why, and whose officers routinely threatened to shoot them. The top of the chain was in no better shape. Stalin had recently purged 75 percent of his military leadership, either by shooting them or sending them to gulags in Kolyma and Siberia, and he’d replaced them with loyalist hacks.

Mannerheim, writes historian William R. Trotter in A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940, “had nothing but contempt for the kind of officers who had been moved up the promotion ladder to replace those killed or imprisoned during the purges, regarding them as working-class thugs in uniform, no matter what their rank. . . . [They were] groveling flunkies whose every battlefield decision had to be seconded by a political commissar before orders could go to the troops.”

The Russians had no idea back then how to fight with combined arms (and today they’re proving in Ukraine that they still don’t). Infantry and tanks usually proceeded in the same general direction but with little or no coordination between them, leaving foot soldiers exposed to machine gun fire from Finnish strongpoints. Invading Finland with tanks should have been easy. The Finns had no tanks to speak of. But the Russians brought antitank guns anyway—which the Finns promptly captured and turned against the Red Army’s columns.

Hoping to win hearts and minds in the only way he knew how, Stalin staged a political freakshow in the tiny and easily conquered town of Terijoki by imposing a totalitarian police state called “The People’s Republic of Finland.” An old Communist who had fled Finland after the Russian Revolution named Otto Wille Kuusinen was the “president.”

The world laughed, including Finnish Communists. “Even to the more radical factions of the Finnish proletariat,” Trotter writes, “the Kuusinen government looked exactly like what it was: a pathetic farce and a propaganda ploy of insulting crudeness.”

The winter of 1939–1940 was one of the coldest on record in Finland, with temperatures dropping to 25 degrees below zero, and the Russians weren’t outfitted for such conditions. Contrary to what those who live in perpetually warm climes sometimes believe, there’s no “getting used to” 25 degrees below zero if you don’t have warm clothes, a heat source, and heavy calories. While the Finns prepared hot protein-rich meals using tiny portable stoves, the Russians mostly subsisted on bread and tea, neither of which sustain men camping outside in a polar vortex.

Here’s Trotter in A Frozen Hell:

The Russians’ style of bivouac was hopeless. They lugged with them huge, cumbersome field kitchens, instead of the small multi-purpose stoves the Finns used for frontline units. These highly visible Russian devices were the invaders’ only source of hot food, and in arctic conditions, a hot meal could literally mean the difference between life and death. The high-hat stovepipe chimneys of these kitchens were hard to disguise. They gave off telltale plumes of smoke and were high-priority targets for Finnish snipers and mortar crews. Aside from the field kitchens, the invaders’ only source of warmth was campfires. The Russians were addicted to great roaring tree-trunk blazes around which they habitually gathered, even though the soaring flames outlined them like rifle-range targets and never failed to attract the attention of every Finnish sniper within range. . . . Finns lived and worked in shellproof dugouts roofed over with layers of logs and earth and completely camouflaged. Inside these dugouts the walls were lined with furs and skins. Men could rest in snug comfort when they returned from patrol duty or a period of combat.

In a famous incident informally known as the Sausage War, half-starved Russian soldiers mounted a surprise attack against a lightly defended Finnish camp only to abruptly stop in their tracks and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when they smelled the Finns’ sausage soup in the field kitchen.

Passing between roads through the dense Finnish forest buried in snowdrifts deep enough to swallow a house was impossible. Impossible, that is, for the Russians. Finnish soldiers on whisper-quiet skis moved like ghosts through the forests they’d known their whole lives while Russian armored columns were trapped on the roads, easy pickings for ambushes and what the Finns called “motti” attacks.

In the Finnish language, a motti is a stack of logs that’s ready to be chopped into firewood. The Finnish army treated those Russian columns like wood to be chopped. Finnish soldiers emerged from the howling wilderness, hurled themselves at weak points in a column, took out the whole segment, then vanished again into the trees on the far side. They did this repeatedly, carving the columns into pieces small enough to be easily dispatched.

The Battle of Taipale was truly a charnel house—for the Russians. Here’s Trotter again:

The land surrounding the promontory was either flat or lightly rolling, with few trees. The last half kilometer of any approach to Finnish lines had to be made across wide sheets of open ice. The Russian attacks formed in the open, approached in the open, and were pressed home in the open, against an entrenched defender well supplied with machine guns. Moreover, at this stage of the war, the Russians had no snowsuit camouflage for their men and no whitewash for their tanks. The tanks moved in ungainly clumps, and the infantry attacked in dense, human wave formations. It was the Somme in miniature. To the Finns who witnessed these attacks, it seemed beyond belief that any army, no matter how fatalistic its ideology or inexhaustible its supply of manpower, would continue to mount attack after attack across such billiard-table terrain.

In some battles the Finnish machine gunners held their fire until the range was down to fifty meters; the butchery was dreadful. In a number of cases Finnish machine gunners had to be evacuated due to stress. They had become emotionally unstable from having to perform such mindless slaughter, day after day.

In three short months, the Russians lost 250,000 soldiers, twice as many as the United States lost in all of World War I. The Finns lost a tenth that number, just 25,000.

But the Russians, after getting their ass served up on a plate, finally got serious and managed to overwhelm the Finns with an effectively infinite source of fighting men and a contemptible disregard for their lives. Finland cried uncle and sued for peace. Stalin’s requirements for peace were even more severe than his prewar demands. The Finns had to cede the entire Karelian Isthmus to Russia. Finland also had to give up the (generally useless) Rybachy Peninsula in the Arctic, some territory in Salla, and some minor islands in the Baltic. Roughly a tenth of Finland’s population lost their homes.

But it was nevertheless a victory of sorts for Finland. Russia managed to consume all other Baltic states without mobilizing so much as one soldier. Finland alone managed to remain sovereign during the time of the Soviet Union, though Russia compelled it to pledge neutrality and stay out of NATO. And what of the land Russia had captured? Trotter quotes a Soviet general: “We have won just about enough ground to bury our dead.”

Some nations are indigestible, and Finland is one of them. After tasting two decades of freedom from the Russian Empire, it was not going back—especially not to Stalin’s totalitarian knockoff.

Had the Soviet Union racked up a few more “victories” of the sort it won in Finland, it would have expired. Russia’s leadership knew it, too, even if it dared not say so in public for decades. Here’s Khrushchev again in 1970:

All of us—and Stalin first and foremost—sensed in our victory a defeat by the Finns. It was a dangerous defeat because it encouraged our enemies’ conviction that the Soviet Union was a colossus with feet of clay. . . .

Even in these most favorable conditions it was only after great difficulty and enormous losses that we were finally able to win. A victory at such a cost was actually a moral defeat. Our people never knew [in 1940] that we had suffered a moral defeat, of course, because they were never told the truth. Quite the contrary. When the Finnish war ended our country was told, “Let the trumpets of victory sound!” But the seeds of doubt had been sown.

Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 led to fall of the Berlin Wall during the same year and later to the end of the Soviet Union. Its defeat of sorts in Finland could have produced a similar result, and it nearly did. Tiny Finland battered Russia so severely that Adolf Hitler convinced himself that the entire Soviet Union was a Potemkin contraption, a shadow on the wall that could be blitzkrieged from the map. It’s what inspired him to betray Stalin and mount Operation Barbarossa, his invasion of the Soviet Union and his attempt to incorporate it into his Reich.

The Russians have largely memory-holed the Finnish debacle in their history. Hardly anyone is old enough to remember it, and almost nobody talks about it. And as Russia’s botched invasion of Ukraine seems to be hurtling toward a similarly ambiguous outcome and a meager pyrrhic victory at best, it shows.

Michael J. Totten

Michael J. Totten is the author of nine books, including Where the West Ends and Tower of the Sun. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications. He lives in Oregon.