The Winter War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The winter war that the Soviet Union launched against Finland in 1939 grew out of territorial disputes that had existed between the two nations for more than two hundred years. Their common border extended for eight hundred miles from an area west of Leningrad to Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe, and northward to the Arctic Ocean and seaport city of Murmansk on the Soviet side of the boundary.

Russian-Finnish political involvements date back to before the time of Peter the Great, the Russian czar from 1682 until his death in 1725. The eight-hundred-mile border that the two countries share has always been a bone of contention.

In the early eighteenth century, Czar Peter, in an alarming statement whose subtext suggested that sex-starved Finnish barbarians were on the verge of invading St. Petersburg and raping its women, warned that “[t]he ladies of St. Petersburg could not sleep peacefully as long as the Finnish frontier ran so close to our capital.” He used this fear, ungrounded and irrational, as a means of justifying his invasion and conquest of Viipuri and Karelia. The tensions between the Russians and the Finns were ever palpable during the two hundred fifty years separating Czar Peter’s warning from the 1939 invasion of Finland by the Soviets.

Just as Peter feared for the safety of St. Petersburg, Joseph Stalin, two hundred years later, had similar fears for the city, under the Soviets renamed Leningrad. Twenty years before the winter war, Stalin produced a document that called for six provisions that would presumably assure the safety of Leningrad. His document called upon Finland to lease the entire Hanko peninsula to the Soviets for thirty years so that they could establish a Soviet naval base there. Fortified by artillery, this base would, in essence, seal off the Gulf of Finland and all the entrances to Leningrad by sea.

Stalin called upon the Finns to permit the Baltic fleet to use the Lapvik Bay as an anchorage and to cede the Gulf islands, as well as Björk, to the Soviet Union. Stalin demanded that the Soviet-Finnish border on the Karelian Isthmus be altered in such a way as to place it further from Leningrad than originally sited. He also called for the dismantling of the Finns’ fortifications on the isthmus and for Finland to cede the western reaches of the Fisherman’s peninsula to the Soviets.

Stalin’s confiscatory proposals incensed the Finns, who were building their nation into an economic utopia during the globally bleak years of the Great Depression. Finland was the only European country that prospered during the1930’s: With the country’s brisk foreign trade, Finland had paid off most of its World War I debt, the only European country to do so, and it had a manageable unemployment rate of slightly more than 2 percent. It spent as much on education as it did on defense, achieving a literacy rate approaching 100 percent.

As war clouds gathered over Europe in the late 1930’s, Finland was poised between the Nazis, who were clearly aligned with the political right and fascism, and the Soviets, their untrustworthy neighbors, who were aligned with the political left and socialism. Adolf Hitler and Stalin clearly distrusted each other. Finland, whose populace included substantial numbers of supporters on both sides of the political spectrum, attempted to observe the Nordic neutrality that had served the country well during the early 1930’s.

With Germany’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939, a glaring violation of the nonaggression pact that Great Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, signed with Hitler just months before, it became clear that Hitler could not be trusted. Chamberlain, soon to be replaced as prime minister by Winston Churchill, had lost credibility by attempting to deal diplomatically with Hitler’s fascist tactics.

Meanwhile, the Finns were enduring pressure from the Soviets, a development closely monitored by the German minister to Finland, Wipert von Blücher, who kept the Germans informed of Finland’s looming threat from the Soviet Union. As Soviet pressure on the Finns increased, they were faced with a Hobson’s choice in which no alliance would be to their advantage. Their preferred course of neutrality was no longer viable. Tension between the Soviets and the Finns quickly reached a boiling point, and in November, 1939, the winter war between the Soviets and the Finns began as more than a million Soviet troops were...

(The entire section is 1833 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 13 (March 1, 2008): 46.

Kirkus Reviews 105, no. 6 (March 15, 2008): 283.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 16 (April 21, 2008): 47.