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This week in history: USSR began Winter War by invading Finland

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On Nov. 30, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded its neighbor Finland. Stalin ordered the attack, what would come to be called the Winter War, in the hopes of gaining better geographic security for the USSR. Not up to the task, the Red Army took tremendous losses in a humiliating campaign.

In August of that year, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler had entered into a nonaggression pact in which the two dictators agreed to divide up Poland between them. Additionally, Hitler recognized Stalin's right to expand his borders throughout Eastern Europe. Both men secretly believed that war between their two states would eventually come, and Stalin sought to prepare the USSR for the coming showdown.

Engulfed by paranoia and believing his military leaders were plotting against him, Stalin had purged the Red Army only two years earlier, in 1937. Three of his five marshals were executed, along with hosts of division and corps commanders. One of the marshals, the brilliant Mikhail Tukhachevsky, had anticipated the coming “blitzkrieg” tactics of the Germans, and his loss seriously hurt the Red Army's ability to prepare for war.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. A few weeks later, on Sept. 17, the Soviets invaded eastern Poland, and Red Army officers shook hands with their Wehrmacht counterparts along the new border. By the time of the Soviet involvement, Poland was already smashed, its army defeated under the weight of Hitler's panzer divisions. Germany's swift victory over Poland gave Stalin cause to worry, and the Soviet dictator believed it imperative to expand the USSR's western borders as soon as possible.

In his book “Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945,” historian Richard Overy wrote: “Having absorbed half of Poland and temporarily averted the German threat, Stalin was eager to press on with fulfillment of the terms set out in the German-Soviet protocols. The Baltic States were asked to sign treaties of mutual assistance in the two weeks following the Polish defeat. … A few weeks later, on Oct. 5, similar demands were made of Finland: a naval and air base at the mouth of the Baltic at Hanko and cession of the Karelian isthmus north of Leningrad to provide a better defense of that vital city.”

Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg) was roughly 130 miles from the Finnish border. Stalin feared that in the event of war with Germany, the Finns would side with Hitler and provide the Wehrmacht with a perfect jumping-off point to take the USSR's second-most important city. He desperately wanted a larger buffer zone between Leningrad and his potential enemies.

In exchange for their ceding that buffer zone, the Soviets offered the Finns large areas in Karelia to the north, though the Finns had no interest in the region. On Nov. 13 the Finnish government of Aimo Cajander rejected the Soviet offer and the Soviets ended the negotiations. Though he no doubt favored achieving his ends peacefully in this case, Stalin nevertheless concluded that tiny Finland could not be seen to stand up to the powerful Soviet Union. Stalin, with the full support of his favorite military officer, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, decided Finland would be invaded and incorporated into the USSR.

The Red Army at this time existed in several military districts, geographic regions with their own command structures responsible for regional defense. In theory, once war had begun, each military district would be coordinated through Stavka, the Red Army high command. Stalin, however, saw no need to mobilize the entirety of the Red Army.

In his book “Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War,” historian Chris Bellamy wrote: “The invasion of Finland was to be conducted by the Leningrad military district, on its own. The general staff was 'not to have a hand in this; it is to concern itself with other matters.'”

A few artillery shells were fired near the border on Nov. 26, almost certainly by the Soviets themselves. Using the shots as a pretext, the Soviets demanded that the Finns pull their military 25 kilometers behind their border. Though the Finns reluctantly agreed in the hopes of forestalling a conflict, the Soviets severed diplomatic contact on Nov. 27.

On Nov. 30 the Red Army crossed the border into Finland. The Finns, long fearing conflict with the Soviets, had expertly prepared a defensive system. Anchored between the nation's many lakes, the Mannerheim Line, named for Finland's military commander Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, proved too much for the limited resources of the Leningrad military district and its commander, Kirill Meretskov.

This series of fortifications measured roughly 80 miles long and 50 miles deep and boasted tank traps, land mines, machine-gun pillboxes and trenches. The Mannerheim Line acted as a force multiplier and allowed the relatively small forces of the Finns to inflict severe punishment on the Red Army. And, of course, the winter did not help the Soviet cause.

Overy wrote: “Soviet soldiers fought stubbornly but took exceptional casualties. ... Their frozen corpses lay in grotesque heaps where they fell. The troops were untrained for storming fixed defenses; there were shortages of automatic weapons and winter clothing; the food-supply system soon broke down and transport was poorly organized. Frostbite and hunger added to the casualties inflicted by fast-moving Finnish ski troops and snipers.”

Another problem hampering the Red Army was Stalin's insistence on political officers, Communist Party officials who shared command with Red Army officers. These political commissars, whose loyalty to Stalin was theoretically without question, could also veto an army officer's orders, or issue their own, resulting in a scattered, confused command system that only aided the Finns.

Eventually, after suffering immense casualties and making little progress, Stalin dismissed his crony Voroshilov from his duties and appointed the capable officer Semyon Timoshenko to lead the effort in January 1940. The Mannerheim Line was breached not long after, and by March the Finns sued for peace. Stalin, now unwilling to continue the fight after his appalling losses, agreed to negotiate.

In his book “Stalin: A Biography,” historian Robert Service wrote: “The realistic Finns gave up much territory and several military bases. The Soviet frontier with Finland was moved hundreds of miles to the north of Leningrad. Stalin had achieved his ends but at a terrible price. One hundred and twenty-seven thousand Red Army soldiers perished. More importantly for Stalin (who cared nothing for the number of deaths), the military might of the USSR had been exposed as weaker than the world had thought. If the Soviet armed forces could not crush Finland, what would they be able to do against the Third Reich if ever war broke out with Hitler?”

Indeed, the Red Army's weakness during the Winter War was a factor in persuading Hitler to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. The Finns joined Germany in their struggle against the Soviets, in what they termed “The Continuation War.”

For the Finns, however, this war was a conflict simply to reclaim those territories the Soviets had taken during the Winter War. Hitler was infuriated when his Finnish ally refused to advance further into the Soviet Union and help him surround Leningrad. Finally, when World War II began to turn against Hitler in 1944, the Finns and the Soviets made a separate peace, in which the Finns returned their lands once again to the Soviets.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com