‘How Finland Survived Stalin’ by Kimmo Rentola review - 6 minutes read

During the Second World War, Anthony Eden reportedly had an illuminating conversation with Joseph Stalin. ‘Hitler is a genius’, Stalin told Eden, ‘but he does not know when to stop.’ ‘Does anyone know when to stop?’ Eden asked. Yes, said Stalin: ‘Me.’

One place where Stalin did indeed stop was Finland. In fact he stopped pursuing his original intentions for the nation on Russia’s western border three times: in the Winter War of 1939-40; in the closing days of the Second World War, as the map of Europe was being redrawn by the Allies; and again in the late 1940s when there were plans for a coup to install in Finland a communist government with close ties to Moscow. How did a small state like Finland  manage to avoid Stalin’s predations where others did not? That is the question answered in Kimmo Rentola’s book, a detailed account of the challenges Finland faced in its relationship with the Soviet Union and of the ways that its leadership dealt with them. The country’s postwar president Juho Kusti Paasikivi believed that the survival of a small state ‘required much stronger political skill than leading a great power’. These are words that will resonate in many parts of the world now consumed by conflict as Europe was in the middle years of the last century, not least in those countries with reason to fear renewed Russian aggression. In Finland, Stalin backed down. Why?

Russia’s experience of the Winter War seems to have given Stalin an enduring admiration for the Finns as soldiers. As Rentola argues, the success of Soviet-Finnish relations after the Second World War was largely based on the Finns’ performance as Russia’s adversaries after the invasion of November 1939. The military feat had domestic consequences in Finland, too. Rentola cites some astonishing figures to explain why. ‘When a foreign historian is informed of the total number of Finnish soldiers killed in the war (a little under 100,000) and asked to guess the civilian death toll, the estimates are invariably in six figures. The correct answer – 2,000 – is difficult to believe, as it is so exceptionally low.’ One consequence, as Rentola persuasively argues, is that having largely escaped the killing, rape and destruction suffered by others during the war, the Finns also escaped the ‘lingering bitterness and distress’ felt elsewhere in Europe. There is perhaps a comparison to be drawn with the fate of another Nordic country, Denmark, whose army Prussia had crushed in 1864. As Knud J.V. Jespersen has written, for decades afterwards Danish historians concluded that ‘things always went wrong when the Danes tried to box above their weight’. The experience of 1864 does seem to have been a factor in Denmark’s decision not to offer any serious or sustained resistance to the German invasion of 1940. Both in 1864 and in the Winter War, the smaller nation was defeated by its bigger neighbour, but Finland having, in the words of a character in Väinö Linna’s 1954 novel The Unknown Soldier, ‘crossed the line a respectable second’, gave the Finns a confidence that deserted the Danes after their devastating defeat. The Soviets won the Winter War, but at a price: the deaths of more than 120,000 soldiers – greater losses than they would experience in ten years in Afghanistan.

It is not only smaller countries that miscalculate. In the latter stages of the Second World War, Stalin pushed for Finland to sign a statement that it was ready to surrender to the Soviet Union. It was a blunder, as he later realised. Instead it pushed Finland into an unequivocal union with Germany – and led to a continuation of war. As Rentola argues, Stalin was already suspicious of the Finns, feeling that he had been tricked into making mistakes during the Winter War. To that end, his intelligence reports were used to simply confirm his own preconceptions, putting ‘more store in secretly obtained back-channel information than in claims voiced over a negotiating table’. Stalin’s spy-obsessed police state came to infect foreign policy making. Echoing events from a more recent war launched by the Kremlin, reports from Finland were often shaped by what intelligence officers thought their superiors wanted to hear. Soviet expectations of more than 25,000 Finnish prisoners of war was, says Rentola, one of the factors pushing forward the process towards the Katyn massacres of the Poles in 1940, the grim implication being that the mass executions were hastened to free up space in the camps.

Ultimately Finland survived Stalin because it demonstrated the political skills that Paasikivi argued leaders of small states required: knowledge of history, geography and foreign languages. Perhaps he felt that Stalin, as the leader of a great power not facing the same challenges, fell short. To Paasikivi’s list Rentola adds ‘timing and a dose of fool’s luck’. Finland also stayed out of NATO, at least during the Cold War. It took a Russian attack on another neighbour, Ukraine, to change that.

How Finland Survived Stalin is an engaging study for the general reader but will also interest Rentola’s fellow scholars, largely due to the author’s language skills (as, for example, when he points out that the Russian equivalent to ‘carrot and stick’ is the more extreme ‘knout (whip) or gingerbread’.) Sadly, the book is also timely for all the obvious reasons. As Rentola argues, with reference to the 2022 escalation of Russia’s war in Ukraine, ‘while it is futile to expect history to neatly repeat itself, it cannot be denied that the Winter War, in particular, offers many similarities’. One thing that the Kremlin might be considering is that, after carefully learning to ‘survive’ one leader of its bigger neighbour in a Europe at war, Finland has now placed itself firmly in the Western military camp and joined NATO. From a scholarly perspective, Rentola’s valuable access to Russian archives is a reminder to those of us who also study that country that those doors are, for now, firmly closed to Western historians. No one can say when they might reopen.

  • How Finland Survived Stalin: From Winter War to Cold War
    Kimmo Rentola, translated by Richard Robinson
    Yale University Press, 304pp, £25
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)

James Rodgers is the author of Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin (Bloomsbury, 2023) and a former BBC correspondent in Moscow.

Source: History Today Feed