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Local View: Finland’s freedom story, sisu provide hope for Ukraine

In 1939, Finland engaged in a bloody, but successful, fight to retain its sovereignty against Soviet aggression.

Robert Moilanen.jpg
Robert Moilanen
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“History repeats itself. That’s one of the things wrong with history.”

— Clarence Darrow, early 20th century American lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union

Finland’s application to join NATO has put that country in the news. For many Americans of Finnish descent, visions of Finland’s blue-and-white flag emerge when a Sibelius symphony plays or when one basks in a sauna or dons the purple and green in honor of St. Urho.

However, the country that flag represents nearly did not exist. In 1939, Finland engaged in a bloody, but successful, fight to retain its sovereignty against Soviet aggression. That struggle provides lessons and hope for Ukrainians.

Just like Ukraine, Finland shares a lengthy border with Russia, and its history includes declaring independence from Russia while attempting to maintain an uneasy neutrality. In December 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland and the Winter War began. The Winter War lasted three and a half months and enjoys certain similarities to the tragic Russian-Ukrainian conflict occurring today.

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In 1939, the Soviet Union was ruled by Joseph Stalin, known as a ruthless leader who routinely crushed internal dissent while mastering the art of disinformation. Finland enjoyed the strong, motivational leadership of Field Marshal Carl Mannerheim. After Finland refused Stalin’s prewar demands to annex certain Finnish territory, the invasion took place.

While Stalin claimed to only want limited Finnish territory, scholars state Stalin’s actual goal was to take over all of Finland.

To justify the 1939 invasion, Stalin staged a false-flag operation, claiming Finnish troops attacked Russian border guards. His government then labeled Finnish parliament members as “fascist.” Russian planes engaged in indiscriminate bombing of Helsinki while falsely asserting they were dropping humanitarian aid.

In poaching Stalin’s playbook, Vladimir Putin professed Russian interest to be protecting only certain territories in eastern Ukraine before amassing troops around Kyiv to purportedly decapitate the Ukrainian government. Further parroting Stalin, Putin propagandized Russia’s mission in Ukraine as denazification and distributed fallacious videos purporting to show attacks by Ukrainians on Russians.

To invade Finland, Stalin assembled significant military forces. The Soviet Union began the Winter War with three times as many soldiers, 50 times as many tanks, and 30 times as many aircraft as Finland. Stalin’s initial incursion into Finland involved approximately 450,000 troops. Because Stalin arrogantly believed Finland would be overrun in a matter of days, the Soviet troops were not prepared for winter warfare or the Finnish terrain. Many died of frostbite. Like reports coming out of Ukraine today, Stalin’s ill-supplied troops suffered from low morale.

Stalin’s initial military campaign employed heavy artillery, which failed, given Finnish guerrilla-like defense tactics. Approximately six weeks into the Winter War, Stalin changed strategies and commanders. Like weary prize fighters not capable of coming out for another round, the parties negotiated a resolution.

By the end of the Winter War, the Soviets experienced more than five times the number of casualties as the Finns with some estimates exceeding 250,000 soldiers killed or wounded. The Finns gave up nearly 10% of their territory but kept their sovereignty and independence.

Military analysts and historians say that sisu was a significant factor in explaining the Finnish success against Stalin’s superior forces. Sisu is a term capturing Finnish hard-edged traits like doggedness, perseverance, tenacity, stamina, and courage. As reported by Time Magazine in 1940, “The Finns gave the world a good example of sisu by carrying the war into Russian territory on one front while they withstood merciless attacks by a reinforced Russian Army.”

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Capturing Finnish sisu, President Franklin Roosevelt hailed the Finnish people for their “strong resistance in the face of overwhelming armed forces.” Winston Churchill praised Finland for “showing what free men can do.” In 1948, years after the Winter War, Stalin conceded, “Nobody respects a country with a poor army, but everyone respects a country with a good army. I raise a toast to the Finnish army.”

Like the Finns in 1939, the Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland, freedom, and independence against a much larger, better equipped enemy. President Joe Biden has commended Ukrainians for their “fearlessness,” “courage,” and “determination” — in essence, their sisu, which is no longer the sole province of Finnish culture and character.

Since 1917, Finland has remained an independent democracy despite the Winter War, World War II, the travails of the Cold War, and sharing an 830-mile border with Russia. Even against great odds, the independence of a citizenry with sisu will not be taken away. Finland’s blue-and-white flag continues to wave — as will Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag.

Robert Moilanen of Minnetonka, Minnesota, is a retired attorney and commentary writer. He wrote this for the News Tribune because of the significant population of people of Finnish descent in Northeastern Minnesota.

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