In the war movie epic, The Winter War, brothers Martti and Paavo Hakala are called up as reservists when in October 1939, the Soviet Union lays claims to parts of Finland’s territory and threatens an invasion. After having spent their lives as family farmers and with only limited military experience, when war breaks out, Martti and Paavo are sent to the Karelian Isthmus in south-east Finland. Once there, they fight in the Battle of Taipale against the Soviet Army, a military force more powerful than anything Finland could ever muster. While Martti and Paavo are fictional, the war they fought is real.
Known as The Winter War, the war between Finland and the Soviet Union was fought in the deep of the Baltic winter from November 1939 to March 1940. During these months, in knee-deep snow and temperatures as low as –45 degrees Fahrenheit, the significantly smaller Finnish army caused the Red Army such heavy losses that the Soviet invasion of Finland failed.
While Russia’s war against Ukraine often draws parallels to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, a better comparison would be The Winter War. Not only because the Soviet Union attacked Finland on similar made-up pretenses like Russia gave for its invasion of Ukraine, but because it is another example of where the underdog may end up on top.
On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a mutual non-aggression pact, commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact after the men who signed it: the Ministers of Foreign Affairs for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov. In the secret protocols to this pact, Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union split Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence with the border running straight through Poland. As a former grand duchy of the defunct Russian Empire, Finland ended up within the Soviet Union.
Two weeks after this, Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west and famously sparked World War II. On September 17, the Soviet Union followed suit and took the other half of Poland from the east.
With Poland erased from the map of Europe, the Soviet Union turned its attention to Finland. With the intention of reestablishing the borders of the Russian Empire, Soviet leader Josef Stalin labelled the Finnish government fascists and accused Finland of posing a threat to the security of the city of Leningrad, today’s St Petersburg.
The Soviet Union demanded that Finland give up its border territory closest to Leningrad and hand it to Russia. In return, Finland would be compensated with territory elsewhere. Finland refused. In response, the Red Army ramped its mobilization along their joint border, which had been going on since the previous year. While the Finnish Army began its own mobilization, as attempts at a diplomatic solution failed. Following a false flag operation at the village of Mainila, near the Finnish border, the Red Army entered Finland on November 30, 1939. The Soviet Union never issued a formal declaration of war.
When the Soviet Union crossed the border into Finland, they did so in the belief that Finland would roll over and surrender, just as the Russians thought Ukraine would earlier this year. Like the Ukrainians, the Finns fought back.
What followed was a three-and-a-half-month-long war between David and Goliath, and just like David, the Finns prevailed because of their smarts, their creativity, and because they fought to protect their home while the Soviet soldiers had no real skin in the game.
This is the war when the Molotov cocktail got its name. Homemade bombs made from bottles with highly flammable liquids and strips of fabrics set alight are first documented during the Spanish Civil War, but it was the Finns who came up with the name as an insult to Vyacheslav Molotov.
The Finns also developed a tactic known in Finnish as “motti.” Motti, literally meaning encirclement, is where the highly mobile Finnish soldiers camouflaged in white moved through the winter forest on skis, trapping the Red Army vehicles and convoys that could only be driven on roads. Once the Russian vehicles were cut off from one another, the Finns picked them off, one by one, similar to what happened to the forty-mile-long Russian convoy that supposedly was headed towards Kyiv.
Outmanned and outgunned, the Finns lived through indiscriminate bombings of the capital city of Helsinki while fighting simultaneous battles at Suomussalmi in central Finland and on the Karelian Isthmus, where Martti and Paavo were sent to fight. With the use of Molotov cocktails, motti, and sheer determination, the Finns stopped the Red Army from breaking through the front lines.
The Winter War ended on March 13, 1940, with the signing of the Treaty of Moscow. As a result of this treaty, Finland lost the Karelian Isthmus, but remained an independent nation, quashing Josef Stalin’s dream of reestablishing the borders of the Russian Empire in the process.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, this time the Ukrainians are the David against the Russian Goliath. Once more, a totalitarian leader in the Kremlin makes unsubstantiated territorial claims while accusing a democratically elected government of being fascists and fantasizing about the Russian Empire.
But just like the Finns during The Winter War, the Ukrainians are using their intelligence, creativity, and fortitude to bring the Russians to bear. Once again, Russia has underestimated its neighbors.