Causes, Events, and Repurcussions of the Russo-Finnish War
Endnotes and Bibliography located at
bottom of page 2
In the spring of 1938, a minor Russian diplomat approached the Finnish
foreign minister, with the intent of opening secret discussions to “improve
relations” between the two nations in light of the worsening international
situation. A year and a half later, after multiple rounds of negotiations
in Helsinki and Moscow, on November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union, the “Goliath
of the East”, was at war with Finland, the “David of the North”. Though
it took nineteen months for the situation to come to a head, the events
leading up to war whirlwinded past the participants. Neither side wanted
war, but somehow they both ended up in a struggle that lasted months,
and cost thousands of lives. Beyond the war itself, the effects of the
events were felt for decades after the outcome was decided.
Before the outbreak of World War II, the Soviets were convinced (and
rightly so) that Germany had plans for military aggression against Russia.
Even after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, each nation knew that
war was inevitable. Fascist Germany was ideologically opposed to Communist
Russia, and not even the title of "honorary Aryans" bestowed upon Russia
by Hitler could hide that fact. That incompatibility of the two systems
of government, combined with Hitler's insatiable appetite for conquest,
meant that it was only a matter of time before the two powers clashed.
Knowing this, the Russians were deeply concerned with securing their
borders for defense, and also for obtaining "buffer zones" to absorb German
attacks. They secured a buffer zone by invading and annexing the Eastern
third of Poland, and by swallowing up small Baltic and Balkan states.
The one place where they were dangerously vulnerable, however, was in
Their weakest point was on the Russo-Finnish border, which stretches
for over eight hundred miles. They were especially worried about Finland
because the city of Leningrad lies a mere twenty miles from the frontier.
This was not normally a cause for great concern, but with war imminent,
it became a matter of grave danger to the Soviets.
Not only was the border heavily fortified by the Finns, but artillery
pieces stationed at the border could easily strike Leningrad. And Leningrad
was more than just a major city and population center; it was a cultural
and scientific center as well. More importantly to the Soviets, it was
the birthplace of the Revolution. Clearly, a city of such importance that
lies within artillery range of a bordering nation is cause for concern.
But it was not the Finns who concerned the Russians - it was the Germans.
The Russian government wished to respect
Finland's independence, but Moscow was wholly convinced thatGermany
entertained such extensive plans of aggression against Russia
that the objective of the extreme left wing of the German armies
would be to effect a landing in Finland and then plunge their
attack into Russia. 1
Accordingly, the Soviets wanted a military alliance with the Finns.
An alliance however, would be "'in conflict with the policy of neutrality
which Finland follows,'" 2 and therefore completely unacceptable
to Finland. After seeing that the Finns would not budge in their commitment
to neutrality, the Russians decided to try another approach. The Russians
requested to know what the Finnish response would be in the event of German
landings in Finland with the intent of springboarding to Russia. The Soviets
If Germany were allowed to carry out these
operations in Finland unopposed, Russia would not passively await
the German forces at Rajajoki but would throw its armed forces
as far into Finland as possible, whereupon the battles between
German and Russian forces would take place on Finnish territory.
If, however, the Finns would oppose German landings, Russia would extend
vast economic and military aid to Finland. The Finns, of course, welcomed
any economic assistance that Russia would offer, but remained wary of
Russian military aid. They assured (and warned) the Russians that Finland
would resist any armed incursion into Finland by any nation. But
this promise of Finland's was not enough for the Russians.
They wanted, and they demanded guarantees that Finland would resist
German incursions, and more importantly, that Finland would not help Germany
in a war against Russia. Finland, of course, because of their neutrality,
had no qualms about pledging this. They would resist any invasion of their
sovereignty, they would just not ally with or against any other nation.
They assured the Russians of this fact, but the Russians remained wary.
They demanded "concrete guarantees" that Finland was in fact no threat
to Russia. These "guarantees" included:
- A written commitment to ward off possible attacks and accept Russian
military aid in the warding off of any attacks.
- Permission to help arm fortifications in the Aaland Islands, and
the permission to station a secret observer on the islands, so that the
Soviets may keep watch over the fortifications.
- Permission to erect a fortified air and naval base on Suursaari
The Finnish government, of course, found all of these requests unacceptable
for various reasons. The first request, if complied with, would compromise
Finnish neutrality. The last two requests, while also compromising neutrality,
would also be compromising Finnish sovereignty. Even though the Russians
were prepared to grant concessions in return for the acceptance of the
requests, the proposal was found completely unacceptable by the Finnish
government. But the matter did not rest here.
Instead of backing off on some of their demands, the Russians instead
began demanding more and more of the Finns. Although the main concerns
of the Soviets were still the safety of Leningrad and the possibility
of German attack through Finland, they put increasing pressure and demands
on the Finnish government. In addition to their previous requests, the
second round of negotiations brought additional demands, which included:
- The right to close the mouth of the Gulf of Finland through artillery
fire from both shores, in order to prevent hostile ships from sailing
on the Gulf of Finland.
- The right to prevent enemies of the Soviet Union access to islands
in the Gulf of Finland that are near to Leningrad.
- The right of Soviet naval forces to use Lappohja Bay as an anchorage.
- Affirmation and strengthening of the non-aggression pact, going
so far as to not allow either nation to join an alliance that is deemed
unacceptable by the other nation.
- A thirty year lease on the port of Hanko, and a roughly sixty-four
square nautical mile area around it. The Soviets would then have the right
to establish a naval base, complete with infantry, anti-aircraft defenses,
military aircraft, and tanks, in all not numbering over 5,000 men.
- Cession of several islands, peninsulae, and land areas to the Soviet
Union, in return for cession of lands from the Soviet Union.
- The Russo-Finnish border nearest Leningrad be pushed back away from
the city, so that Leningrad no longer lies within range of artillery fire.
- Complete destruction of the Mannerheim Line.
Knowing that the previous proposals were deemed unacceptable by the
Finns, it is painfully obvious that these demands were unacceptable as
well. Finland would not budge on any of the points, save for the cession
of a few minor islands. The foreign minister of Finland, Vaino Tanner,
said of the demands that, "'it is impossible for us [Finland] to go so
far as to meet the Russians as they require. . . . Disagreements are thus
still so great that we do not believe that we can reconcile them through
additional concessions.'" 4 Seeing that neither the Finns nor
the Russians were willing to back down from their position, it was clear
that something had to give. On November 26, 1939, something did.
Four Russian soldiers were killed, and nine were wounded when seven
artillery shells were fired near the Russian village of Manila. According
to the Russians, the shells had been fired by the Finns, and that it was,
"a hostile act which had already resulted in aggression against Soviet
troops and caused casualties." 5 In fact, the Finnish artillery
was stationed so far to the rear of the border, that it was impossible
for Finland to have fired these shots. The cannons had been pulled back
in order to prevent an incident like this from ever happening.
With hindsight, we can see that the Soviets were merely looking for
an excuse to go to war. When the situation first began, they were honestly
seeking a peaceful resolution to the matter, but at this point in time,
the security of Leningrad and the northern border was of such grave concern
that they felt compelled to resolve the issue by any means necessary.
The Finns, however, did not see this.
The incident was regarded as a serious matter, albeit a controllable
one, and Russian grievances were treated with the utmost of respect. They
offered to set up a joint committee to investigate the matter, but the
Russians flatly rejected the proposal. The Russians then demanded that
Finnish troops be pulled back some twenty-five kilometers from the border
to "defuse the situation." Finland refused, knowing that such a move would
seriously compromise national security. The Russians responded by severing
diplomatic ties. "Justified" by the infamous "Manila shots", on November
30, 1939, Russia invaded Finland. She used air, land, and sea units, and
initiated hostilities without a declaration of war.
"'Everyone in Moscow, from Stalin down, thought that the Red Army would
be in Helsinki in a week after the attack started. . . . The councilor
of the Soviet Embassy in Berlin told me a few days before the fighting
began that 'it will all be over in three days.''" 6 In fact,
the general consensus in Moscow could not be further from the truth. All
told, the war would drag out for one hundred and four days, much longer
than anyone, especially the Soviets, expected.
Russian troops made initially good progress, except in Karelia where
the Mannerheim Line slowed their progress. The fixed defenses were greatly
effective against infantry, but visibly ineffective against tanks and
armored vehicles. The line would have also been rendered useless against
infantry, if the Russians had coordinated their infantry with the tanks,
and made effective use of their artillery. Were it not for the ineptitude
of the Russians officers left after Stalin's purge of his officer corps,
the Mannerheim line would not have been such an obstacle.
Due to the lack of anti-tank guns, tanks were virtually unaffected by
the line, and the Finns were forced to find other means of carrying out
anti-tank warfare. The Finnish troops employed petrol bombs and explosives
to take out tanks at close range, usually under cover of darkness. These
attacks were quite effective at night, but also costly, because the cover
of darkness allowed Russian infantry to move forward nearer Finnish positions,
and retaliate against the exposed Finns. Still, to the dismay of the Russians,
Soviet attacks were stalled and in places thrown back with great casualties.
Encirclement battles were fought along the few roads leading from the
long Finnish border inland.
In several of these battles, whole Soviet divisions were dominated and
their equipment was captured (crucial to the otherwise ill and under-equipped
Finnish armed forces). Main contributors to these victories were the fighting
spirit of the Finnish troops and the skillful use of small unit tactics
in the forests on the road-bound attackers. The Finns, realizing that
the Soviets were relying on superior numbers alone to win the war, engaged
in harassment warfare, costing the Russians dearly, while suffering relatively
few losses themselves. However, lack of artillery, ammunitions and reserves
for the Finns made the breaching of the main defensive line inevitable.
Finland, of course, realized that it could not hold against such overwhelming
strength, and actively sought diplomatic means to end the war. The Russians,
foreseeing such a turn of events, had set up a puppet "Democratic Republic
of Finland" government, and refused to recognize the legitimate government,
saying that they had fled to an unknown destination. This People's Government
of the Democratic Republic of Finland, "headed" by Finnish old-guard communist
Otto Kuusinen, in fact had no real duties other than the publication of
a newspaper and propaganda. That, and to carry on the illusion of being
a legitimate government, in order to allow the Soviets to not lose credibility
altogether for not negotiating. By only recognizing the puppet government,
the Soviets could reject all proposals of peace talks, saying that
'the Soviet Union is not at war with Finland
and does not threaten the Finnish people. The Soviet Union maintains
peaceful relations with the Democratic Republic of Finland. The
[Helsinki government is] not the real representatives of the people
of Finland' 7
Because of this puppet government, all routes the Finns attempted to
take to peace were blocked by the Russians. The Finns attempted to use
the Swedes, the Americans, and the Germans as mediators, but the Russians
ignored their cries for peace. Having those avenues blocked, the Finns
next appealed to the League of Nations, where again they were given the
same response. In the League of Nations, however, the Russians were harshly
criticized for their actions. Nations not under the sphere of influence
of the USSR were quick to proclaim that they were sickened by the abuse
of power displayed by Russia.
So, for a time, the fighting went on, with no hope of a peaceful resolution
in sight. After Finland had beaten back the first attacks, the Soviet
Union changed the commanders leading the attack as well as the tactics
employed by the army. Utilizing their absolute superiority in air power,
artillery, and tanks, as well as sheer manpower, the Soviet attack gradually
wore down the Finnish defense, forcing the Finns to withdraw to secondary
On the Karelian isthmus the fighting resembled more of the First World
War massive frontal attacks than the fluid encirclement battles fought
elsewhere on the fronts. Both sides were suffering heavy losses, especially
the Finns, as the fighting grew more fierce and widespread. Finally, near
the end of January, Russia stated that it was not "opposed to concluding
an agreement with the Ryti-Tanner government," and if the Finns made "adequate
proposals," 8 then they would indeed enter into negotiations
Clearly, the swing in policy from ignoring the legitimate government
to recognizing it was not a factor of the military situation. It can therefore
only be attributed to the general world view of the situation. Countries
everywhere condemned Russia, actively sought peace, and in many cases,
supplied aid to Finland. Sweden and Italy provided both equipment and
volunteers, and the United States provided over one million dollars in
aid. In addition to the three listed above, countless other nations rushed
to the aid of Finland. The Allies (France, Britain, etc.), were in fact
seriously considering coming to the aid of Finland militarily by "invading"
Finland and fighting off the Russians.
With news of possible Allied activity spreading, Germany began putting
heavy pressure on the Soviets to make peace, for an Allied presence in
Scandinavia would pose a serious threat to the Third Reich. The pressure
of Germany, the knowledge that a supposed week long conflict had turned
into a Europe-wide war against Russia, and with world opinion turned sharply
against them, the Russians had little choice but to reenter into negotiations.
On January 29, 1940, the Russians stated that they would reopen negotiations
if the Finns would meet their original demands. The Finns, however, heartened
by their unexpected "success" against Russia, and the promise of Allied
military aid, stated that they would not make far-reaching concessions.
The Allies were wholly ready to come to the aid of Finland, stating
that Finland need only to request their aid. This created a very delicate
situation for the Finns. In order for the Allied troops to reach Finland,
they would have to transport through Norway and/or Sweden. Norway and
Sweden, however sympathetic to Finland they were, would not allow this
to happen for one reason.
The Germans, wary of an Allied presence in Scandinavia, warned that
any "small nation, which under the circumstances now comes to Finland's
aid will suffer the fate of Poland." 9 This threat was clearly
aimed at Norway and Sweden, and it proved rather effective. Both Sweden
and Norway denied the Allies the right to transport troops through their
territory. With the hope of foreign military aid gone, the Finnish situation
worsened, and Finland was just barely able to hold the front.
Seeing that they were fighting a losing battle, the Finnish government
informed the Russians that they were ready to enter into negotiations
on March 6, 1940. The Allies were greatly dismayed at this, for to them,
peace on Russian terms meant victory for German diplomacy. No amount of
pressure the Allies applied on Finland, Norway, and Sweden, however, could
match the immense pressure on the Finns from Norway, Sweden, Russia, and
By this token, the acceptance of Soviet terms of peace was almost accepted
as fact. The conditions of the treaty hardly differed from those which
Moscow had demanded before the outbreak of hostilities. The terms of the
treaty state that
the entire Karelian isthmus with the city
of Viipuri, the whole of Viipuri Bay with its islands, as well
as the territory west and north of Lake Ladoga with the cities
of Keksholm and Sorrtavala, were ceded to Soviet Russia. . . .
In the region of Kandalaksha the border was also moved farther
west, and parts of the Rybachi and Sredni peninsulas and a number
of the islands in the Gulf of Finland were handed over to the
Soviet Union. 10
In addition to those demands, the treaty also established the 30 year
lease on the Hanko peninsula, for which the Finns were compensated eight
million Finnish marks. As stated in the earlier demands, the Russians
had the right to establish a naval base and garrison troops, along with
any armed forces deemed necessary. Finland was also banned from maintaining
any armed naval vessel larger than one hundred tons, and from maintaining
a total naval presence of more than 400 tons off the Arctic coast.
The Russians were also granted the right to build a railway connecting
the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Norway through Finland. The Soviets would
then have the right to transport goods through Finland by rail free of
tariffs, inspections, and fees. The treaty was signed in Moscow on March
12, and the cease-fire went into effect at 12:00 PM, March 13, 1940. Although
the terms of the treaty were terribly harsh for Finland, the Finnish government
was "'happy that the agreement does not limit Finland's sovereignty and
independence'". 11 For Finland, however, the worst was yet
With the treaty signed, and the new borders drawn out, Finland was
in a new dilemma. Who would be Finland's ally in case Moscow decided to
present new demands? Certainly, the Allies would not help, since Finland
had made peace directly against their wishes. With this in mind, Finland
turned to her neighbors. Norway and Sweden were both too small and too
scared to help, or be of any real assistance. Aside from that, the proposed
"Northern Alliance" was frowned upon by the Soviets, claiming that it
was anti-Russian, and prevented the Finns from entering it.
So the next logical step was to turn to Germany. When the Finns asked
the Germans to guarantee the borders of Finland through a military alliance,
the Germans agreed to do so. Although nothing was ever set down in writing,
"all indications point to Germany's having given some sort of a guarantee
to Finland." 12 Indeed, the peace treaty had brought about
a relationship between Finland and Germany that would later develop into
a full fledged anti-Russian military alliance. In fact, Finland would
play a rather important role in the remainder of World War II, both alongside
and against Germany.
The "Continuation War" is the war in which Finland fought alongside
Germany against Russia from June 25, 1941 to September 4, 1944. When Germany
attacked the Soviet Union, directly violating the Nazi-Soviet pact, Finland
allowed German troops to attack the Soviet Union through Finland. Although
the Soviets viewed this as an open act of aggression, Finland had not
declared war on the Soviet Union.
This changed when the Soviets began bombing Finnish cities on morning
of June 25, 1941. Finland then duly declared war against Russia, and joined
the attack on June 30. The prime objective of the Finns, understandably,
during this period was to liberate the areas lost to the Soviets in the
Teamed with the Germans, and better equipped than in 1939, the Finns
had little trouble driving the Russians back to pre-Winter War lines.
In a few areas of the front, Finnish troops crossed the old border, but
it was solely in order to gain favorable defensive positions. This is
obvious because the Finns never advanced far into Russia, and they also
refused to join the German attack on the city of Leningrad.
This "attack phase" of the war lasted roughly until the end of 1941,
at which time the fighting more or less was quiet, and the lines remained
constant until the summer of 1944. At this time, it was clear to all (save
Hitler himself) that Germany was going to lose the war. The fact that
Germany had fought (and nearly won) a three front war against nearly every
major power in the world is amazing in itself. But the fact that Finland
was about to again switch sides in the war is one of the oddest happenings
in World War II. Once it became apparent that Germany was losing, and
losing quickly, the Finns opened negotiations with the Soviets. Nothing
came of these, however, and the two nations remained at odds.
The Soviet Union started an all-out attack on the Karelian Isthmus on
June 9, 1944 (it was coordinated with the D-Day landings in Normandy).
The massive attack was able to breach the Finnish defense in Valkeasaari
on June 10, and the front retreated rapidly to the secondary defense line
of the Finns, the Vammelsuu-Taipale Line (This line had been erected after
the Winter War as a defense against a possible Soviet invasion).
The fighting was furious as Soviet tanks and infantry supported by massed
artillery and ground-attack aircraft pounded the Finnish defenders into
the ground. Once again, the Finns fought valiantly, but the technological
and numerical superiority of the Russians was too much for the exhausted
Finnish defenders. The line was breached by a Soviet attack on June 14,
and after the failure of a major counter attack to repulse the attackers,
the defense had to be pulled back yet again.
Once again, the Finns engaged in a hit and run harassment war, engaging
Soviet columns and retreating before the Russians could mount an effective
defense. As valiantly as they fought, the Finns could not halt the Soviet
military giant. On June 20, 1944, the city of Viipuri fell to the Soviets.
Shortly after this time, however, the Finnish army had somehow been able
to concentrate enough artillery and troops equipped with new German anti-tank
weapons to actually present a formidable threat to the Soviets.
Between June 25 and July 6, the largest military battle ever fought
in Scandinavia went in favor of the Finns. Soviet losses in tanks and
manpower on this killing ground were so great that the Red Army was forced
to break off the attack and even retreat.
Having failed to penetrate deep into Finland by land, the Soviets next
tried an amphibious assault across the Gulf of Finland. It ended in disaster
when the Russians could not obtain a beachhead on the mainland. This attack
began on July 4 and fierce amphibious attacks and close range battles
continued until July 10. The third major effort by the Soviet armed forces
began July 4, this time attempting to obtain a bridge-head across the
Vuoksi river. This attack was pounded by Finnish artillery, and suffered
viscous counter-attacks at the hands of the Finnish infantry. Finally,
on July 11 as Soviet high-command ordered their troops to re-organize
At the end of summer, the front was stabilized, with the Finns actually
holding the upper hand. Finland, to her credit, saw that peace with the
Soviet Union was the only possible way to avoid going down with the Germans
at the time of their inevitable defeat. The Soviets, knowing that their
military position was weak, but their diplomatic position was extremely
strong, welcomed peace with the Finns.
The cease-fire with the Soviet Union began 07:00 AM on September 4,
1944. Finland lost roughly the same amount of territory as it did following
the first war with the Soviets, and things were more or less returned
to the pre-war status quo. The two greatest stipulations of this treaty
stated that Finland must pay huge reparation payments to the Soviet Union,
and they also must drive the remaining German forces out of Finland.
The "Lappland War" was fought against Germany after the cease-fire with
the Soviet Union. It was the effort on the part of the Finns to carry
out their part of the treaty and drive the Germans from Finland. Were
they not able to expel the Germans on their own, it was written in the
peace treaty that the Russians would be "obliged" to come to Finland's
This cause much apprehension on the part of the Finnish government,
for if the Soviets brought their troops into Finland unopposed, it would
surely mean the occupation and annexation of Finland. Spurred on by this
fear, the Finns fought well against a disheartened German army. The last
German troops were out of Finland on April 27, 1945.
Because of their unique situation, the Finns never surrendered, and
were never occupied by Allied troops. In addition to being the only nation
in World War II to change sides twice, Finland was also the sole country
on the losing side that was not occupied by foreign troops. While their
country was never occupied, Finland was raped economically by reparations
and concessions written into peace treaties.
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© 1994-2005 Stephen Payne