Oleg Kiselev: “The USSR was not going to fight the Finns”

A series of interviews to the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Part 14: The Soviet-Finnish war

Realnoe Vremya continues a series of interviews with scientists-historians, dedicated to the period of the beginning of the Second World War. Eighty years ago, in November 1939, the USSR began military operations against its northern neighbour — Finland. Earlier, the parties failed to agree on a number of issues of their security, which led to what is known as the Winter War. Read about why it became possible in the interview of Realnoe Vremya with military historian Oleg Kiselev.

“Finland was never tasked to expand its territory”

Mr Kiselev, how tense were the relations between the USSR and Finland before the war?

The relations between Finland and the USSR throughout the independence of Finland (from the end of 1917) were not that difficult but rather cool, and military tensions between the two countries arose only in the first years of Finnish independence — from 1918 to 1921, when these countries were fighting in some parts of their territories. There were was cool, not too friendly relations.

How true is the statement that Finland wanted its expansion at the expense of neighbouring territories?

Many history buffs tend to talk about the idea of “Greater Finland”, but “Greater Finland” was not a Finnish ideology, and Finish was never tasked to expand its territory. Yes, in Finland, there was a large number of different radical societies, with different degrees of influence on the political elite of the country, but the Finnish state did not have any serious dreams and preparations for the conquest of Soviet territories. Here you need to understand the very sentiments of the Finnish elite — at that time, it was a very young nation, just received its state independence (which was akin to the modern Baltic countries, whose independence is not even 30 years), and such nations are characterized by excessive ambition, a little misconception of their capabilities and abilities. And in the autumn of 1939, the territories that the USSR requested from Finland (lease of the Hanko Peninsula for a military base to control the Gulf of Finland, the withdrawal of the border 90 kilometres from Leningrad, the receipt of a number of islands in the Gulf of Finland — editor’s note), were difficult conditions for the young nation.

But such conditions were quite expected for Finland, weren’t they?

As soon as Finland became an independent state after the civil war ended in Finland, there was an attempt in 1918 to conclude a treaty between Soviet Russia and Finland, experienced politicians understood that the situation with the passage of the border 32 kilometres from Leningrad was not very normal. The negotiations on the treaty were held in Berlin, and Germany offered Finland to exchange a small plot on the Karelian Isthmus for some favourable territory for them — for example, to get access to the Barents Sea, thus to close the issue in the bud. Of course, many Finnish leaders understood that the strong state such as Russia — no matter with the Bolsheviks in power or without, would not tolerate such border, and at the slightest threat, the question of how to move this border would inevitably arise. But the way of moving this border — it was a question concerning the security of Finland. In 1918, as I have said, Finland was offered to close the issue so as not to jeopardize their independence, but a young nation is always a bold nation, and such nations are not inclined to look far into the future to satisfy some momentary political ambitions.

It is already clear that the USSR cared only about its security, and did not realize Stalin's thoughts about the same world revolution, is it true?

Of course, no world revolution was not planned — Finland was not, so to speak, the direction from which it would be possible to start a world revolution. All this fuss about Finland was clearly defensive in nature — it was the actions to impede a war. The question was not at all about Finland as such — in place of Finland there could be Romania, Poland and anyone — the main role was played by the border near Leningrad. People often misunderstand the issue and ask: ‘Was the Soviet Union was really so afraid of little Finland?’ No, of course, the USSR was not afraid of Finland — the Soviet Union did not care about Finland during the 1920s and almost throughout the 1930s — it was worried about the prospect that Finland voluntarily or not would be the territory from which the USSR could be attacked by some third great power. No one in Europe considered Finland as a state that for a long time could defend itself against anyone, hence the actions of the USSR in the diplomatic field. Besides, in 1939, no one in the world wanted to sell weapons to Finland — yes, England and France sympathized with Finland, but they believed that it was pointless to sell weapons to Finland because it would hold out for a month at most. Therefore, when Finland won its first major victories at the front, this situation in the eyes of Western politicians began to play out in fresh colours, and conditionally large-scale assistance with weapons and everything else began.

“Stalin and Molotov were discouraged by the refusal of Finland”

The USSR started a military campaign against Finland in three directions — in the north near Murmansk, on the Karelian Isthmus and in Soviet Karelia, from where it wanted to go to the Gulf of Bothnia, depriving the Finns of military support from the Swedes. Does this mean that Stalin wanted to annex Finland to the USSR?

It’s simple — the USSR made offers to Finland proceeding from the question of safety of Leningrad. What was the plan of the USSR? First, it is full control over the Gulf of Finland — for this the Soviet Union wanted to get the Hanko Peninsula from the Finns for its base, which would, together with a similar base on the territory of Estonia (which had already been gained by the USSR at that time) would block the entrance to the Gulf of Finland to an enemy, and thus make the Gulf of Finland safe for the USSR, thereby covering the sea approaches to Leningrad. Second, moving the border on the Karelian Isthmus created a sufficiently deep foreground before the Soviet fortified line, built already back in the 1920s, and did not allow a sudden attack on Leningrad from the Finnish territory.

But here we should understand that what the Soviet Union wanted to achieve peacefully is not identical to what the Soviet Union wanted to get when it became clear that it would not succeed to reach an agreement with Finland. Let's take a simple example — the USSR did not agree with the Finns, attacks them and captures the territories of Finland, which it was interested in, and then what? The situation becomes precarious, which means that it is necessary to either wage further war or not, and then Stalin (I think that this was still his personal idea) comes up with an option with the Kuusinen government — so it turned out that we attack Finland, smash the Finnish army, put in Helsinki the government, which gives us what we want, and will continue to stew in our own juice, having a controlled government of Finland. This would immediately kill the question of revanchism — if the USSR took away Finland's territory, then in the conditions of a great war Finland would not be an enemy of the USSR.

Then, of course, you can guess whether Finland would have joined the USSR or not — such a probability was still high: but if the USSR wanted to put Kuusinen in Helsinki in case of war, it does not mean that he wanted it in the peace talks. If an agreement had been reached with Finland in the autumn of 1939, no attack on Finland would have taken place. Since the situation looks after the fact, people do not understand that from the point of view of the leadership of the USSR it had no sense to all this with negotiations for the sake of some little piece of Finnish territory, so that it was convenient to attack. And here's why: according to Soviet military plans, the breakthrough of the Mannerheim line took two or three days, and there was no sense in negotiating for a month to shorten these two or three days. Thus, the negotiations were initiated precisely for the sake of what the USSR openly offered Finland. As it failed to agree openly, the USSR regarded it impossible to leave the situation as it was and decided to seek this by militarily, and here there were already other tasks.

Was the Soviet leadership surprised by the intransigence of Finland? Did Stalin think otherwise?

The fact that Stalin and Molotov, who negotiated with the Finns, were a little discouraged by the refusal of the Finns, was written by the negotiators themselves on the Finnish side — in particular, Finnish Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner. The fact that the USSR was sure that the Finns would not refuse runs like a thread through Tanner's memoirs, and when the refusal followed, the Soviet side was not only discouraged but also confused. And already on the move the Soviet leadership began to come up with options to continue negotiations, some concessions — the situation for the USSR was really difficult because it was necessary to save face and try to solve the case in peace, because, frankly speaking, the Soviet Union was not going to fight the Finns. All military preparations for an attack on Finland began after the Soviet Union was refused at the second stage of negotiations — further negotiations with the Finns could drag on for six months or a year, which did not suit the USSR. Thus, at the end of October 1939, there began the redeployment of forces of the Leningrad military district to the border with Finland, and Molotov said his sacramental phrase that the Finns did not understand how important the Soviet Union's interests were for them, and therefore they had to fight.

After all, what are the reasons for the intransigence of the Finns 20 years later, after the reluctance of concessions to the young Soviet republic? The same ambitions of the nation? Or was the fear of losing sovereignty looking serious?

Of course, a loss of sovereignty was not threatened, and here it is quite possible to give an example of the situation with the Baltic countries, but the Balts were not initially in the mood to resist the USSR. But the Finns began to feel that the Soviet proposals threaten their security — in particular, the base in Hanko put under control all Finnish shipping in the Gulf of Finland, and for the Finns, it was unacceptable from a practical or moral point of view. Of course, there was also the desire to “give the Soviet Union the finger” — it was, and this desire heartened the Finnish political elite, but the Soviet offers were really difficult for the Finns to accept. Yes, it would be possible to continue the conversation about Finnish security here, but at some stage, the Finns themselves refused to talk about it.

To be continued

By Sergey Kochnev

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