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Does the story rhyme? Lessons from Russia’s 1939 Winter War against Finland | International

The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows once again that memory can become a weapon of war. The mythologized memory of World War II by Vladimir Putin’s Russia serves as a justification for its aggression: it would be about freeing its Slavic brothers from a puppet government of NATO and in the hands of neo-Nazis, which preaches historical revisionism and it denies the immense Soviet sacrifice of 1941-45, exalting in the process a few thousand pro-fascist collaborators. This message fits very well with the vision of the Great Patriotic War that has spread in the Russian public sphere for two decades: a just war, carried out by the Russian/Soviet people against an external aggressor, beginning on June 22, 1941 .

It is a narrative with shadows and interested oblivions. Among them, that the USSR was also an aggressor power between September 1939 and June 21, 1941, under the German-Soviet pact. Stalin first occupied eastern Poland, which then comprised territories now belonging to Belarus and western Ukraine. Between July and August 1940 he occupied the three Baltic republics, after imposing an ultimatum on them. The authoritarian presidents of Estonia and Latvia perished in Soviet captivity, one in an insane asylum and the other deported to Turkmenistan. But if the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland cost the Red Army few casualties, and none in the Baltic states, the story in Finland was very different.

Finland, whose leaders announced on Thursday their willingness to break their traditional neutrality and join NATO, had been a peculiar case. For reasons still unclear, Lenin decided to grant independence to the country shortly after the Bolsheviks took power. He hoped that the Social Democrats (pro-Bolsheviks) of the hitherto autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland could thus seize power, applying a strategic premise of the Russian revolutionaries: favor nationalist demands and place themselves at their head wherever they could contribute to destroying the bourgeois state.

However, after a short but bloody civil war (January-May 1918), the reds They were defeated by the whites Finns, led by a soldier belonging to the country’s Swedish-speaking minority, Carl GE Mannerheim. This was a general of the counterrevolution, pro-Tsarist at the time, who accepted German help, but benefited from the inhibition of the Russian Bolsheviks, busy on other fronts. Mannerheim, appointed regent, could have become an authoritarian president, like that of his Hungarian contemporary, Admiral Horthy. However, after the Constitution was approved and he lost the presidential elections, he withdrew into the background. He was anti-communist and was not averse to fascism; but he did not support his comrade Kurt Wallennius in the attempted coup of 1932.

Finnish democracy suffered from divisions between whites Y reds, Conservatives and Social Democrats. Perhaps for this reason, sensing that a part of the country’s population would support them, Stalin decided to attack Finland on November 30, 1939. His objective was to annex the entire country, with the excuse of claiming the annexation of the multiethnic and bordering Karelia, in whose Soviet part his regime had repressed Finnish culture in previous years. The real plan was to seize rich mining resources, and thus make amends for Lenin’s “mistake”.

The world expected a quick victory for the Red Army. But the military mobilization of Finnish society, under the command of the recovered Mannerheim, joined an intelligent defensive strategy, which took advantage of the knowledge of the terrain. The Red Army demonstrated serious structural deficiencies, premonitory of what would happen to it a year and a half later: lack of experienced commanders as a result of the massive Stalinist purges in the officer corps, interference by political commanders that generated confusion, and inadequate tactics in a field forest against a motivated and accurate enemy, who attacked with groups of skiers and retreated. David suffered, but resisted against Goliath.

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The wave of solidarity with the attacked country in much of the world was considerable. The famous Finnish Olympic athletes were received by crowds in New York, to the astonishment of exiled Spanish Republicans. Small contingents of volunteers flocked to Finland; even the Falangist SEU wanted to send combatants. And, with few exceptions, the communist parties, bound by the German-Soviet pact, were silent.

A proud nation defending its independence

The Winter War, concluded with the Treaty of Moscow on March 13, 1940, ended with a victorious defeat for the attacked. Finland lost more than a tenth of its territory. All of Karelia and its resources were annexed by the USSR, but the country preserved its sovereignty. In addition, the nationalist mobilization against the “hereditary enemy” helped to heal many of the wounds of the 1918 civil war. The representations of the war henceforth extolled the unity between peasant volunteers and workers, former reds Y whites: a proud nation that defended its independence with its blood.

That memory legitimized the subsequent participation in the German-Soviet war from June 1941. Finnish troops, again led by Mannerheim, invaded the USSR from the north, to recover the territory lost 15 months earlier. They stopped, except in a few places, at the old border. Despite pressure from Hitler, the upstart Finnish marshal refused to penetrate further into Soviet territory, or to take a more active part in the encirclement of Leningrad. After four years of static war, the Soviet offensive in the summer of 1944 forced the Helsinki Government to sign an armistice with Stalin, to expel the German troops stationed in Lapland from its territory, and to start negotiations which, again led by Mannerheim, made possible the subsistence of Finland as an independent, although neutral, state, reduced to the borders stipulated in March 1940.

Finland was the only democratic state that participated on the German side in the German-Soviet war. And after 1945 it was also the only aggressor who maintained a positive official memory of the war, seen as a second part of the Winter War. The monuments to those who fell in the so-called Continuation War overlaps those of the Winter War, often inscribed “1939-45″, which includes the sparse fighting against the Germans. Dozens of statues and cenotaphs in memory of the fallen in the two wars preside over the country’s cemeteries. works like unknown soldiers (1954) by the writer Väinö Linna, and its various film versions, are obligatory references in Finnish popular culture to the present day, as is the work winter war (1984), by Anti Tuuri. With nuances, these and other works and films reproduce a patriotic and positive narrative of the wars against the Soviets. Mannerheim, who died in 1951, was revered by almost everyone as a patriotic statesman and military man. The memory of him took even trivial forms in popular youth culture.

History does not repeat itself; but it rhymes An army confident in its superiority in arms and numbers, incapable of overcoming a tenacious and motivated resistance. A foreign aggression that unites more than ever a country divided by the aftermath of a civil war. The Helsinki government did not give in to authoritarian temptations, and Mannerheim’s earlier fame as a “butcher of Tampere”, the crackdown on reds in that city in 1918, she was obscured, also for the Finnish left, for her role as a defender of the country’s independence. A very conservative Mannerheim, but who did not want to be an autocrat; ex-tsarist and Swedish-speaking, and who spoke Russian better than Finnish. Interesting paradoxes.

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