Henrik Meinander: Winter War is still understood as the existential experience and symbol of our independence will in the Finnish memory culture
Finnish historian, a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences the biographer of Mannerheim Professor Henrik Meinander talks with Alexander Stykalin on the Finnish national memory issues
See on Russian the books of Henrik Meinander:
История Финляндии. Пер. со шв. М., Весь мир, 2008, 238 p. (new edition - 2017). Translation by Zinaida Lindén;Финляндия, 1944: Война, общество, настроения. М., Весь мир, 2014, 395 p. Translation by Zinaida Lindén.
A.S. How Finnish historians assess nowadays the period of Finland's presence in 1809 - 1917 as part of the Russian state while maintaining a special, autonomous status? Could we say about any continuity between the “Swedish” and “Russian” periods of Finnish history? How favorable were in the 19th century conditions for national cultural development? And how strongly the mood in Finnish society, its aspirations for independence, were influenced by the policy of Russification, more intensive since the end of the 19th century? We know the fact that today Finland in all respects takes one of the first places among the most prosperous countries in the world. Maybe its more than 100-year stay under the scepter of the Russian crown did not slow down its national development too much?
H.M. Yes, the so-called Russification naturally intensified the Finnish attempts to defend the autonomy of the Grand Duchy, but this process of a gradually growing emphasis of the own nation and its specific nature took place in all parts of Europe. The 108 years as a Russian Grand Duchy had a decisively positive impact on this development. Had Finland remained a part of the Swedish Kingdom a similar strive for independency would never had got as much support as under the Russian rule, since Finland was and is still crucially as society with Swedish features with its Lutheranism/Social Democracy/Social liberalism, rule of law and strong civic society.
A.S. How do Finnish historians explain the fact that in 1917 it was not the Russian provisional, but the Bolshevik government that granted Finland complete independence?
H.M. Lenin granted Finland its independency in order to get the Finnish Social Democrats to start the revolution, not to create an independent Finland. The provisional government and white Russia would never have accepted a such agreement. Therefore the victory of the Bolshevik rule was favorable for Finland, but not for the Russian people and long-turn development of its society.
A.S. Do Finnish historians today pay attention to the Finnish civil war that took place in January-May 1918 (at least 35 thousand people died during it)? Is this war considered today as the result of expansion of Bolshevism, as an attempt to export the world revolution and the response of Finnish society to this attempt? And how is today seen and estimated by scholars not only the red, but also the white terror in Finland during the civil war? (about 80 000 people were arrested, deported to concentration camps, more than 7000 were executed as a result of white terror, many died in camps and prisons)
H.M. Yes, the war is today increasingly understood by Finnish historians as a chain-reaction of the World War and its Russian consequence, the revolution. The white terror has been thoroughly sorted out in a large national project, see the English website:
A.S. How Finnish historians assess today the interwar period of national history, was this period successful as concerns economic growth, the development of national-state institutions? How they assess the measures to limit left movements, noisy trials of Communist Party activists (for example, the case of Toivo Antikainen, which had an international response)? And other question: how the news of mass Stalinist repressions in the Soviet Karelia, which touched also the Finnish communist emigration, influenced domestic politics in Finland?
H.M. The fear of a new red revolution and war with Soviet Russia had a strong impact on the Finnish society up until the outbreak of Winter War. The same kind of anti-Communist measures took place also in the other new states born out of the former Russian empire. But contrary to them, Finland could due to its cultural heritage (rule of law, strong civic society, Scandinavian contacts) and more peripheral position maintain its parliamentary democracy. The Stalin terror was naturally noticed in Finland and had a crucial impact on the Finnish defense will.A.S. What place does the Winter War of 1939-1940 occupy in Finnish national memory? We don’t justify Stalin of course but do Finnish historians recall that the Soviet attack was preceded by lengthy and unsuccessful negotiations, during which the Soviets initially proposed Finland to agree on a joint rebuff in case of Hitler’s troops landing in Finland, and then requested a number of islands for rent, offering some territories of Soviet Karelia as compensation? And that in September 1939, after the conclusion of the Soviet-German pact, Finland was proposed by the USSR to conclude a non-aggression pact, which implied the creation of Soviet military bases on Finnish territory?Negotiations on the base of new Soviet demands (including the removal of the border from Leningrad with certain territorial compensations) continued further. Does Finnish historiography raise the question: may be it was preferable for Finland to accept the conditions of Stalin in order to avoid an attack by the USSR?(We know meanwhile that no country expressed its readiness to provide direct military support to Finland in the event of an attack by the USSR. By the way, after all, even Mannerheim called on the government to seek a compromise solution). Do Finnish historians also take into account, when speaking of Soviet pressure, the factor of ensuring the security of Leningrad in the conditions of the outbreak of World War II? And in the same connection: was it the pressure of domestic public opinion that played a decisive role in the fact that the position of Finland turned out to be so uncompromising?
H.M. Yes, starting with the last question, the Finnish government felt a strong pressure from the domestic public opinion in 1938-1939 and saw therefore even small compromises with Moscow as impossible. The trust in the Soviet Union was simply too small after 20 years of a rather hostile relationship with it. Mannerheim was for military reasons prepared for a retreat strategy, but did not get support for his opinion. In the short run a deal with Soviet Union in Autumn 1939 would have been successful. But in the long run it would have ended as with the Baltic states, that is, with three occupations and disastrous consequences for the civilians. Therefore Winter War is still understood as the existential experience and symbol of our independence will in the Finnish memory culture.
A.S. How seriously did the USSR pursue the goal of Sovietization in Finland in 1939, creating the puppet government of Kuusinen? Can we say that the Soviets already in 1939 pursued towards Finland the same goals that were realized in 1940 towards the Baltic states? Or maybe the creation of the Kuusinen government was some kind of improvisation measure taken only in view of the resistance of the Helsinki government, and this was no more than one of the instruments of pressure on Finland? Other words, maybe it was more important for the Soviet Union not to export communism, but to persuade any Finnish government, even anticommunist, to make concessions? Or maybe Stalin abandoned the plans of Sovietization, making sure that the country's population fully supported their legitimate government, and fearing, moreover, interference in the conflict of the Western powers and, in fact, the outbreak of war with Great Britain and France? And why did the USSR not dare to Sovietize the country in different conditions, in 1944-1945? It was real assessment of the balance of domestic political forces in Finland? But in Poland, Hungary or Romania, this balance was just as unfavorable for the Communists. Or maybe it was just the awareness of the Winter war experience that played a decisive role in the Soviet choice in 1944-1945?
H.M. The main source for any analysis of this matter is the secret appendix Molotow-Ribbentrop pact, which clearly indicates that Stalin planned to re-establish Finland as a Russian buffer zone. Why should he have allowed Finland to keep its liberal democracy and independency? In 1944-1945 the Red Army was forced to focus on the war against Hitler. This made later a crucial difference between Finland and all the other small states between Russia and Germany. Finland was not occupied by the Red army and was therefore also much better prepared for a potential guerilla warfare, which of course made Moscow less eager to test the Finnish defense will.
A.S. Is the determined armed confrontation of Soviet military expansion considered as a matter of national pride for the Finns? And by the way, is it possible, according to Finnish historians, to consider the Winter War of 1939-1940 as an integral part of World War II or was it some kind of isolated conflict? And what role did outside aid (armament supplies, volunteers) play in successfully repelling aggression? And how real, according to Finnish historians, would be the creation by the Western powers the front against the USSR to support Finland in early 1940?
H.M. Yes, the successful defense of the Finnish independency is still a crucial part of our national identity. I belong to those Finnish historians who would prefer to see the wars in one larger context. The foreign support was rather important, especially the one from Sweden. The Western powers were actually not aiming to support Finland but to occupy the Swedish iron ore fields, which were crucial for the German war industry. According to my colleague Kimmo Rentola, Stalin was misled by his spies in Great Britain, who claimed that the British had plans to bombard the oil fields in Caucasia, and was therefore willing to end the Winter War.
A.S. How is the personality of Mannerheim, his historical role both in 1918 and in 1939-1940, estimated today in Finnish historical literature? And what role did the famous Mannerheim line play in the country's defense in 1939-1940? Could we say or not that it became the subject of some myth-making?
H.M. I can not give you a short answer to this question. Read my Mannerheim-biography, which will published in Russian by Ves Mir in 2020.
A.S. How is assessed today by Finnish historians the Soviet-Finnish War of 1941-1944 (according to Finnish historiography, the "continuation war")? Were any attempts made to maintain neutrality in the World War II? And how is evaluated the very fact of Finland’s participation in the World War as an ally of Nazi Germany, coordinating its military plans with it, its occupation of vast territories of Karelia and its participation in the blockade of Leningrad, which caused huge civilian casualties? We remember also that the attempts of the Finnish troops to cut off the strategic road to Murmansk led to the declaration of war against Finland by Great Britain, although at first London was sympathetic to Finland's desire to restore the borders of 1939. And do historians touch the uncomfortable question of the brutal attitude of Finnish troops towards the civilian population in occupied territories and towards prisoners of war (thousands of people died of starvation)?
H.M. These are also huge questions, which I partly answer in the article enclosed to this letter (see in the attachement the fragment from: Joining Hitler’s Crusade. European Nations and the Invasion of the Soviet Union, 1941. Cambridge University Press, 2017). After the Winter War the Finnish government tried to keep out of the war by seeking an alliance with Sweden, but neither Moscow nor Berlin accepted such an arrangement. The only realistic choice for Finland to maintain its independency was therefore the alliance with the Germany, especially since the Finnish leadership was informed by Berlin that Molotov in November had required that the Soviet Union should get a stronger grip of Finland. The harsh treatment of the Soviet POW and civilians has been thoroughly investigated in a large research program, see the English website:
A.S. Let's talk about the new Paasikivi-Kekkonen course that Finland pursued for several decades, building special relations with the USSR and distancing itself from NATO. How is it estimated by historians today and what considerations stood behind this course? Was it based on the desire to neutralize the potential Soviet threat by paying a certain price for it? Or maybe there was, to some extent, also economic calculation? (as we know, the Soviet leaders always perceived Finland as a reliable economic partner, not to mention the use of Soviet-Finnish relations as some kind of showcase for demonstrating to the world the USSR’s openness to the development of fairly friendly relations and close economic ties with a non-communist country). Do you think such kind of course could be useful for Your country even today? And were there any alternatives to this course in the 1950s –1980s? (We know of course that special relations with the USSR were fully combined with active European politics, the role of Finland in initiating the pan-European process was really remarkable, and the first OSCE meeting was held in 1975 in Helsinki, where Basic European Treaty was signed). And yet, do some historians today affirm that Finland has made too large concessions to the USSR? And do Finnish politicians today consider this foreign policy experience of the second half of the 20th century relevant?
H.M. Also a very large question that has resulted in numerous investigations and public discussions. Yes, the new pragmatic relationship with the Soviet Union was a necessity, which in economic and societal terms was clearly favorable for Finland, although the Soviet influence on Finnish domestic politics was sometimes problematic. Some politicians (especially former Communists) claim and believe that Finland could maintain its Cold War relationship with Russia, but in practice Finland is so strongly connected through EU and Sweden to NATO that such an order is not possible. Finland is following the Swedish path. It is not formally a member of NATO, but has since 1994 systematically strengthened its military capacity in co-operation with USA and its European NATO-partners. This is all well known by the Russian government.
H.M. There is a more particular question in the same connection. How is estimated today by scholars the political role of the Finnish Communist Party in the 1950s – 1980s, which almost completely preserved the legacy of Kuusinen (we know of course about his role in 1939-1940), and received direct advice from him till the last days of his life in 1964? Were the Finnish communists only the agents of Moscow or also a positive factor that contributed to the establishment of normal interstate relations with the neighbor USSR? Do Finnish leftists distance themselves from this legacy now? And is it possible to say that the favorable trend in the development of good neighborly relations between our two countries in the years of Soviet communism was to some extent violated in the 21st century?
H.M. The Finnish Communists maintained their close connection to Moscow up until the late 1980´s, even if the majority within the party had no illusions of how the Soviet Union in practice functioned. The domestic trust in the Finnish communists could therefore never be complete. Most leftists have since 1990’s distanced themselves from their Cold War legacy, but some of the Finnish hardliners who were educated at the party school in Moscow have probably maintained their opinion. The more troublesome questions of the Finnish-Russian relationship are all connected with the friction between Russia and EU. Yet generally speaking, Finland has been able to maintain a rather good relationship with Russia despite the EU-sanctions and its deepening co-operation with USA and NATO.
A.S. The history of some territories which were part of Finland and now are part of Russia does occupy some place in the Finnish historical memory? And is the idea of Greater Finland being cultivated now in some political circles? And does any of the Finnish historians study the processes of national construction in the Soviet Karelia? If does, to what conclusions have come the researchers?
H.M. The loss of Karelia is naturally still remembered in those families that had to leave their homes, but otherwise it is not anymore an issue in Finland. A few number right-radicals might still dream of a Greater Finland, but certainly not average Finns. The cost of recovering the badly damaged infrastructures in Karelia would be enormous.
A.S. Is there a response today in Finland to speculations in nowadays Russia (the pro-government Russian military-historical society is also involved) regarding Sandarmokh in Karelia, where allegedly not the victims of Stalinist terror, but Soviet prisoners of war shot by Finnish troops are buried?
H.M. The question has got some notice in the Finnish media, but is understood by Finnish historians as part of the Russian history politics. The deaths and killings of Soviet POWS and civilians, as well as where they took place, has been thoroughly sorted out in the research project mentioned above: