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Stalin, Molotov and the Finns August 6, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

A brief post to celebrate a WIBT (wish I’d been there) moment from the margins of the Second World War. November 1939 and western Europe has plunged into internecine conflict. However, the non-combatant Soviet Union is enjoying itself. Indeed, it has decided to use this precious period to put the record straight with some of its smaller neighbours. The class bully, in short, has just got out the knuckle dusters and, God help, those little boys with glasses while the teachers are not around.

Part of Poland had already been gobbled up in the September War: the crimes at Katyn have been committed. The Soviets are planning for the ‘incorporation’ of the Batlic Republics: something that will be carried out in the Summer of 1940. And then there is also that annoying little country somewhere up near Sweden – the Soviet planners can never remember its name.

Pity Finland. From anschluss and with more urgency from the beginning of the Second World War Soviet communiqués were sent threatening and coaxing by turns. The Soviets wanted bases on Finnish territory. They wanted Finnish islands. They wanted the Finnish border to be moved backwards. They wanted defensive lines to be abandoned. True, by the normal standards of Soviet negotiations this was tame stuff – the Soviets even offered a land exchange: but Finland was in the ‘western sphere’ and it was not of any particularly strategic importance bar its southern approaches.

However, the ‘stupid’ Finns just didn’t get it. Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister and a man with the blood of hundreds of thousands dripping from his grotty fingers, was sent in to negotiate a deal. But the Finns argued points of international law at him! One might as well have read the Torah to Hitler or quoted the Geneva Convention at a serial killer.

Many years later Khrushchev summed up the bemused Soviet reactions to this little northern power charmingly refusing to accept the rules of geopolitical physics: ‘All we had to do was raise our voices a little bit and the Finns would obey. If that didn’t work, we could fire one shot and the Finns would put up their hands and surrender. Or so we thought.’

The Soviets were, by their own piss-poor standards, remarkably patient. But by early November negotiations were breaking down. 3 November Molotov lost his patience: ‘Since we civilians don’t seem to be making any progress, perhaps it’s the soldiers’ turn to speak’. However, still the Finns smiled and refused to take the Soviet demands seriously: the fact that the Soviet army was bigger than the Finnish population seems to have escaped them.

Finally, the Russians rolled out the heavy artillery – Stalin himself was brought in to argue the Russian case to the Finnish democrats. This was the meeting that Beach would have done anything save eat celery to have been at. The Finns explained that the Finnish government had decided to reject all the Russian proposals. Stalin, by all accounts, gently argued the case and kept trying to negotiate, refusing to believe that he was being brushed off. But the scrupulously polite Finns stated that their leaders had nothing else to add and apologetically left. The Soviets were so shocked that they forgot to be angry. Molotov actually waved at the Finns and said ‘au revoir’ and Stalin wished them good luck! The implication was, of course, that they were going to need it.

Back at home Mannerheim, Finland’s mythic military leader, was, to borrow a British phrase, ‘having kittens’. He knew full well that the Finns could not resist a full out Soviet attack. He begged his political leaders for negotiations to be reopened. But nothing was done. Typically modern historians present the democratic Finns as unreasonable in these negotiations and stress that aristocratic Mannerheim had a better grasp of totalitarian realities. They are almost certainly right: in fact, Mannerheim’s position was more nuanced and intelligent than can be easily presented here. But if Finland had been forced to give up some of its best defensive positions and then the Soviets had renewed their threats six months later demanding still more…

In any case, the school bully now proceeded to use his knuckle duster in what has come to be remembered as the Winter War. How satisfying to report that before he even landed a punch little Finland kicked the Soviet Union in the gonads with a force normally only given to fly backs. ‘Au revoir’, indeed…