The parallels between Finland and Ukraine are uncanny. Both countries were part of Russia. Both of them broke off from the Russian Empire in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Both of them suffered civil war as a result. And both of them fought on the side of the Nazis in the Second World War.
The similarities end there. The single biggest factor that differentiated Finland from Ukraine was essentially the leadership of one man. Field Marshal Gustav Mannerheim. Now forgotten everywhere except in Finland, it was this man’s hand on the wheel from 1918 to 1945 that saw Finland fight off the communist threat not once, but thrice.
Finland is a very young nation. Until 1809 it was part of the powerful Swedish Empire which dominated Northern Europe especially around the Baltic Sea. Towards the East was the rising Russian Empire, with its relatively new capital in St Petersburg. In 1808 war broke out between the two Empires and ended in a Swedish defeat. Finland was the prize for the Russians – a dirt-poor country, hard to live in, and the source of cheap labour for wealthy Swedes.
Now the Russian Tsar did something very wise. He made Finland a semi-autonomous part of the Russian Empire and called it a Grand Duchy. The Tsar became the Grand Duke of Finland, and he appointed a Russian Governor General. But the local language of education and administration continued to be Swedish and Finnish – with local noblemen very often speaking no Finnish at all. Finns could move to Russia, and find employment or join the Russian Armed Forces.
One such person who went to Russia to find a living was Carl Gustav Mannerheim. Born in 1867, he came from a genteel but impoverished Finnish noble family who were more Swedish than Finnish. He managed to get into the best cavalry school in St Petersburg and when he graduated in 1887, he joined the Chevalier Guard Regiment, the Praetorian Guard for the Tsar himself – the smartest, fittest, most attractive unit in the Russian Army.
To serve in the Russian Army one needed to be fluent in Russian, which Carl Gustav was. And as a smart Chevalier Guard, he was part of the Russian elite and the toast of St Petersburg society. Tiring of his largely ceremonial duties, he volunteered to serve with a cavalry unit in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, in which he learnt a number of lessons from the Japanese.
In 1905, he volunteered to lead a small Russian spying expedition across Central Asia into China, accompanying the French linguist and sinologist Paul Pelliot who acted as his cover, to map the area and study the state of the Chinese Army. He learnt Chinese, met the Dalai Lama, and stumbled on the caves at Dunhuang – but did nothing about them. His companion Paul Pelliot stopped, as had Aurel Stein a year before, and Pelliot gained fame as the man who brought the Silk Road manuscripts to the Western world.
He came back to St Petersburg with a successful expedition behind him and regaled the Tsar with stories of his adventures. He gained promotion to Major General. This was Tsar Nicholas II, who came to the throne in 1894, and had a reputation for being quite dim and obtuse.
When he came to the throne, Tsar Nicholas made the mistake of trying to Russify Finland by banning the Finnish language and forcing all Finns to learn Russian. Disaffection against the Russians started to grow in Mannerheim’s homeland. And elsewhere in Russia, feelings against the Tsar were increasing fueled by the disastrous defeat Russia suffered against the Japanese. It lead to the 1905 Revolution.
When the Great War began in 1914, Mannerheim commanded divisions of the Russian Army in Poland that were facing the Austrians. Mannerheim did very well, scoring some spectacular successes against the Austrians. The Tsar was pleased and he was promoted to General. Elsewhere the war was going very badly for the Russians. The Tsar then made the mistake of assuming personal command of the army. That simply made him the target of the resentments of Russian troops fighting against superior German forces.
The Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, and Mannerheim realised that being a General in the Russian Army of the Tsar was not wise. He was in St Petersburg when the army mutinied, and he had the narrowest of escapes from the Bolsheviks. He made his way to Finland. Finland, meanwhile, was split between the Finnish Socialists (or Reds) and the anti communist Whites. The Red included the Russian garrisons in Finland. The Red were allied to the Bolsheviks and wanted a closer embrace with the new Soviet movement. The Whites were Finnish nationalists who wanted independence. A civil war broke out.
Mannerheim took charge of the Finnish White Armies, and lead them to victory against the Reds. Finland became an independent nation, a republic, for the first time in its history in 1920. Mannerheim continued on in Finland, but he was now at odds with the Socialists who were half the electorate and remembered his brutal tactics in several of the battles he won in the Civil War. He was slipping out of national life, when in 1939 tensions arose with the Soviet Union.
The casus belli was the proximity of the Finnish border in the Karelian Peninsula to Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg). It was just 35 miles of flat country. Though the Soviets had concluded the infamous pact with Germany in August 1939, Stalin did not trust Hitler (he did not trust anyone for that matter). Stalin knew that the Finns had a lot of affinity with the Germans and pondered whether the Wehrmacht would, with or without Finnish support, attack Leningrad via the Karelian Peninsula. It would be a short cut.
Mannerheim had all along been warning the Finnish President that the Soviets will attack Finland at some point due to this very issue. He had advocated taking St Petersburg when the Soviet Union was weak but the Finnish leadership would not approve. Now he was being proved right.
On November 30 1939 the Soviet Army attacked Finland, expecting to overrun the country within ten days and welcome a new Soviet Socialist Republic to the USSR. Mannerheim assumed charge of the Finnish Armed Forces that very day. It was a mismatch made for the ages. Finland had barely 100,000 men at arms out of her total population of 3.5 million. There was no anti-tank weaponry, artillery, mortars or guns worth the name. The Finnish Air Force was a joke. Mannerheim was not discouraged. He had two advantages the Soviets did not have – his part-time soldiery were men of the woods, used to the cold, very hardy and naturals on skis. And they knew the terrain.
And so began one of the most unequal wars in history. The Soviets won, but some 400,000 Soviet soldiers lay dead and wounded and some 3500 Soviet tanks and 500 Soviet aircraft were destroyed. The Finns lost 70,000 dead and wounded, 25 tanks and 60 aircraft. It was a brutal conflict. The Finnish sniper Simo Hayha notched up some 500 kills, lying prone covered by snow and picking off clumsy Soviet soldiers at 1500 yards. They also invented the Molotov cocktail – so called because when Soviet aircraft bombed Helsinki, Vyacheslav Molotov – the Soviet Foreign Minister – claimed that they were just dropping food packets. So here are some cocktails Mr Molotov, they seemed to be saying. The tactics against heavy armour of the Soviets was low-tech but inspired. Finnish troops would scuttle through to the advancing tank and plant a Molotov cocktail on the tank tracks. Finnish riflemen would walk up as close as possible to a Soviet tank, and shoot right into the driver’s sight of the tank, killing the driver.
Mannerheim was a pragmatist. He was getting some aid from Sweden but no one wanted to get involved against the Russians. He realised that the war would have to end in a way that the Soviets would get some of what they want but leave the Finns alone. It was approaching March. The spring thaw would begin, negating the weather advantage. Second, the Soviet Army had learnt their lesson, and had begun to co-ordinate artillery, tank, infantry and air support to overwhelm the Finnish line. The Finns had started to fall back as their lack of numbers began to tell. And despite promises of British and French help, not much was going to materialize – and no one wanted to take on the Soviet Union.
Stalin was also keen to reach a settlement. He made a crucial concession – he would not insist on full occupation of Finland. This “police action” had now taken up a third of his armed forces, and forced seasoned generals like Marshal Voroshilov into retirement.
The Swedes opened a back-channel with the Soviet Union. While the Finns did their best to hold the Soviet Armies in check, a Finnish delegation made its way to Moscow where they were met by Molotov. On Stalin’s orders, he asked the Finns to give up nearly 18% of their territory – the Karelian peninsula and the northern port of Petsamo (which had anyway been occupied by the Soviet Union at the start of the war). The Finns were appalled.
While negotiations were going on, the Soviet Army surged forward against heroic Finnish resistance. The Mannerheim line – a set of Finnish defences near Leningrad where the Soviets had been held for nearly three months – was breached by the Soviets and tank divisions started to roll forward towards Helsinki.
Mannerheim immediately advised the Finnish President to sign. He told the President that defeating the Soviet Union was now impossible. The Finns did not have the numbers. The Red Army had absorbed the harsh lessons from the war and had completely revamped tactics. It was now a disciplined force. A full-scale military defeat was very much on the cards.
On March 11 1940 a cease-fire took effect. The Finns arose from their trenches, and along with Finnish civilians living in the Karel, they made their way back to the new border. Stalin kept his end of the bargain. Finland ceded the northern port of Petsamo, and the entire Eastern Karelian peninsula that included the historic Finnish town of Viipuri – now the Russian town of Vyborg.
Stalin, of course, knew that one day Germany and the USSR might be at war, and that at that time, Finland might side with the Germans. But there was no war yet. Inevitably, the Germans broke their pact with the USSR and attacked. As soon as hostilities began, the Germans reached out to Finland to ask if they would join them in the assault. Mannerheim was only too willing but with some stringent conditions. One – it was not an alliance, they were co-aggressors. Two – no anti-semitism.
A much modernized and re-armed Finnish Army invaded the Soviet Union in August 1941 and retook at the lands they had lost in 1939. They stopped outside Leningrad but did not move further inland, and did not join in the siege. Germany made representations to woo Finland closer into the German embrace, including a surprise visit by Adolf Hitler himself to greet Mannerheim on his 75th birthday.
Ever alive to the military situation, Mannerheim watched as the German war machine began to falter. In May 1943 he noted the defeat of German armour in the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet Army was beginning to counter-attack with vigour and the lifting of the 900-day siege of Leningrad was imminent. In January 1944 Soviet forces broke through to Leningrad, relieving the siege. The Germans were in retreat.
By this time, the Allies had also declared war on Finland and in fact, the RAF had mounted a raid on Petsamo. Churchill wrote privately to Mannerheim regretting that war had to be declared on a German ally because he held Mannerheim in high esteem. In return Mannerheim ensured all British subjects in Finland were safe and respectfully escorted back home via Sweden.
Finland soon began discussing peace terms with the USSR but abandoned these talks as they found the terms too onerous.But before the peace talks began, Mannerheim wrote directly to Hitler, asking him to understand that he had a duty to Finland and appreciating the fact that the “Germans in Finland were certainly not the representatives of foreign despotism but helpers and brothers-in-arms…nothing whatsoever happened that could have induced us to consider the German troops intruders or oppressors.”
In June 1944, the Soviet Union attacked the Finnish positions. This time, with concentrated combined artillery and tank assaults, they rapidly pushed the Finns back and re-occupied Petsamo and Viipuri (Vyborg). The Finns were not done – getting Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons from the Wehrmacht they fought Soviet tanks in fierce engagements. War raged on in July and August. By then the Soviets were throwing the Germans back in Eastern Europe and heading for the main prize – Berlin. Mannerheim judged this to be the right time for peace talks, assumed the Presidency of Finland, and sued for peace.
The peace terms came into effect in September 1944. Essentially, Finland was to disarm, cede all territories occupied in 1941, pay reparations and throw the Germans out of Finland. The Germans left relatively peacefully except in northern Finland. Henceforth Finland was to foreswear any alliances against the Soviet Union. There was no talk of occupation.
The deal struck then is still in effect today. There was talk of Mannerheim and other Finnish leaders being indicted for war crimes at Nuremberg but this did not last. Even the peace terms, in retrospect, were quite generous.
So why Stalin was so generous?
It appeared that Stalin really liked the old man. He knew Mannerheim had served in the Russian Armies, still wore all the medals from the Tsar with pride, and still had a portrait of the Tsar in his home, which he saluted on the Tsar’s birthday. He also knew that Mannerheim spoke fluent Russian (his Finnish remained rusty to the end). He liked (and was equally upset by) Mannerheim’s inspired defence of his homeland. He trusted Mannerheim to maintain neutrality. In fact it was Stalin who told the victorious Allies that Mannerheim was not to be arraigned in the Nuremberg trials. He had committed no crime – just mounted a passionate and principled defence of his homeland. And who could blame him for that.
Once Finland was safe, a tired Mannerheim died in March 1946.