Finland’s Culture and Kalevala Day – February 28

On the journey toward Finland’s independence as a nation, the epic poem Kalevala played a central role in creating a sense of national pride and identity. The first edition of the Kalevala appeared in 1835, compiled by Elias Lönnrot from folk poems collected in Finland and East Karelia.


Death of Lemminkainen – Gallen Kallela

This poetic style and its stories had been part of the oral tradition of speakers of Balto-Finnic languages for 2000 years. Its unique poetic metre was subsequently used extensively by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

At the time the Kalevala appeared, Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy under Russia for a quarter of a century. Prior to this, until 1809, Finland had been a part of Sweden.The independence movement that resulted in Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 was strongly influenced by the emergence of the Kalevala as a symbol of national identity.

The Kalevala also inspired the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his music, as well as generations of poets and artists to this day.

It marked a new beginning for Finnish culture, and brought a small, unknown people to the attention of other Europeans.



The Battle of Raate Road: January 1940

One of the most important battles of the Winter War, the Battle of Raate Road, FinnishSoldiersreturning from Raate Roadwas fought Jan. 1–7, 1940. It was a part of the larger Battle of Suomussalmi. The Russians aimed to cut Finland in half at its narrow  ‘waistline’, from Suomussalmi in the east to Oulu on the west coast.

The Soviets brought two divisions and one tank brigade to the theater of Suomussalmi. In anticipation of a victory parade in Oulu, they also brought a brass band.

Heavily outnumbered, the Finnish 9th Division nevertheless decisively defeated the  Red Army on Raate Road during the first week of January, 1940. The battle proved the effectiveness of Finnish “motti” tactics, where the enemy is encircled, entrapped and decimated.

The 9th Division had already encircled the Soviet 163rd Division in the village of Suomussalmi when it was ordered to destroy the Soviet 44th Division. The 44th was stalled on the narrow, forested Raate Road, 12 kilometers south of Suomussalmi, and was systematically destroyed by the outnumbered Finns.

Russian troop strength totaled 48,000 men, 335 cannon, 100 tanks, and 50 armored cars. The Finnish defenders, reinforced from a few thousand, numbered 17,000 with 11 cannon under the command of Colonel Hjalmar Siilasvuo; his only hope was to defeat the Russians in detail. And he did.

Of the Russians who escaped, many were wounded. In the dark arctic winter, temperatures plummeted to -40C , rare even by Finnish standards, and only 5,000 made it back.

The Finns captured 85 tanks, 437 trucks, 20 tractors, 10 motorcycles, 1,620 horses, 92 artillery pieces, 78 anti-tank guns, and 13 anti-aircraft guns plus thousands of rifles, machine guns, and a wealth of ammunition.

The Soviet 44th Division was formed nearly entirely of soldiers from Ukraine. A Ukrainian veteran of the battle, Sergeant Pyotr Andrevitch Morozov, was interviewed in 1991 by Finnish writer Leo Karttimo. According to Morozov, Finns returned prisoners of war, but none of them made it back to Ukraine as the Soviet secret service NKVD executed them all in the summer of 1940.

Raate Road was one of the first battle sites the Finnish authorities allowed foreign war correspondents to view. There is a first-hand account in my novel Lost Ground.

Photos                                                                                   from Finnish War Archives 



ON DECEMBER 6, 1917, the Finnish parliament declared independence from Russia. After 700 years of Swedish rule and 100 years as a Russian Grand Duchy, the sovereign state of Finland took shape.

Over the next 100 years, the young nation fought hard for its independence, fending off the Soviet Union in the Winter War and the Continuation War at the cost of precious lives and precious ancestral lands. Finland emerged from World War II as an independent state and survived the Cold War Years despite its difficult geographical position between Russia and the West. In 1994 it joined the European Union and today is a thriving, modern democracy with a solid economy and solid democratic institutions,  leading edge technology and world class educational systems, and of course,  its saunas and sisu intact.

Finland’s first 100 years in pictures:

The Winter War: November 30, 1939

November 30, 1939, began like any other winter Thursday in Finland. For many families, it was pea soup and pancake day. Daylight hours were short; the darkness came early. There was concern over the international situation, of course, but it seemed far away. There had recently been negotiations with Stalin concerning his territorial demands on Finland, but the crisis seemed to have abated. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, Finland found itself in a life-and-death struggle for its existence as a nation.

Martha Gellhorn, famed American war correspondent and wife of Ernest Hemingway, had arrived in Helsinki on November 29, 1939. She was awakened at 9 AM the next morning by the drone of bombers and the crash of bombs. Rushing to the window of her room at the Hotel Kämp, she looked down on the Esplanaadi, a boulevard that ran to the South Harbour, and saw well-dressed citizens hurrying to the timber-lined air raid shelters in the centre of the park.

A Soviet bomber was flying low at about 1000 meters, dropping not bombs but paper leaflets. The leaflets said, “Finnish comrades! Put down your arms. We come not as conquerors but as liberators. We have bread.” The last line brought sardonic quips from the Finns, who began to call the bombs “Molotov’s breadbaskets.”

On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland by land, sea, and air, with no declaration of war. Despite being badly outnumbered and short of everything from shells to anti-tank guns, the Finnish army held on for 105 days. The David-and-Goliath story caught the attention of the world and hundreds of foreign correspondents converged on Helsinki. The Finns sought help from Britain, France, and America, and their Scandinavian neighbours. Help did arrive in the form of volunteers, medical personnel, and offers to take in Finnish children, but the expeditionary force planned by Britain and France was too late, and Finland bowed to an armistice with Moscow in March 1940, forcing her to cede large parts of Karelia to Russia. 450,000 Karelians had to be evacuated and re-settled.

A map of the bombing raids on Helsinki on November 30:


This is how the beginning of the war felt to Tina, the young heroine of Lost Ground:

Out of the rubble, the stark reality emerged that they were alone at war with the Soviet Union…Shock turned to anger, and all the old Finnish divisions–working class and upper class, Swedish-speaker and Finnish-speaker, rural and urban–vanished overnight. For the first time in the history of the young republic, every heart beat as one heart. For Tina,the first days of the war fused into colours–the blackness of their solitude, the ice-white certainty that they would never give in, and the searing red rage that made warriors of them all.

The Winter War in photos (pictures courtesy of the Finnish War Archives, unless otherwise marked).




The Unfinished Finnish Question: Molotov in Berlin, November 1940

The Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939, and the Winter War began. The groundwork for this had been laid in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of the previous August, when Stalin and Hitler agreed on spheres of influence in Europe and placed Finland in the Soviet sphere.  The war ended in a bitter armistice in March 1940 that forced Finland to cede the Karelian Isthmus and other parts of its eastern provinces to the USSR.

Some post-war historians have argued that what Stalin got from Finland in the end was all he had really wanted to begin with. This viewpoint may still be held by those who see Stalin with rose-coloured glasses. The best way to refute it is to point to the words of Molotov himself in his meetings with Hitler in Berlin on November 12-13, 1940.

These meetings were held as a follow-up to the August 1939 pact and an attempt to confirm that its provisions were still in effect.

It is clear that Molotov’s primary (although not sole) concern was that, despite the Russian gains from the Winter War, the pact remained ‘unfulfilled‘ with regard to Finland. Time and again during the two days of meetings he returned to this theme, and sought assurances that Germany would not intervene if the Soviet Union finished the job.

Anyone who doubts that the goal of the Soviet Union was to occupy all of Finland need only read the transcript of these meetings. Molotov repeatedly seeks Germany’s blessing to complete the job in Finland. Hitler, who by then was planning his invasion of Russia, declared that he did not wish another war in the Baltic.

Finnish leaders knew of Molotov’s requests to ‘solve’ the Finnish question and understood what they meant. This played a leading role in  driving Finland into Germany’s arms in the conflict with Russia that began in June 1941.

Excerpts (translated) from the transcript of the November meetings:

November 12, 1940, Molotov to Hitler:  “The German-Russian agreement of last year could therefore be regarded as fulfilled, except for one point, namely, Finland. The Finnish question was still unsolved, and he asked the Führer to tell him whether the German-Russian agreement, as far as it concerned Finland, was still in force. In the opinion of the Soviet Government, no changes had occurred here. Also, in the opinion of the Soviet Government the German-Russian agreement of last year represented only a partial solution.”


Source: (full transcript available here)


A Grim Anniversary: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Today, August 23, is the 78th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that paved the way for World War II to begin.

Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and two weeks later the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland.  These events had been set in motion on August 23, 1939, with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin.  This was a deal agreeing to stay out of each other’s way while each carried out his own agenda. The pact included a secret protocol carving Europe into two spheres of influence.  Finland was in the Russian sphere.

After the invasion of Poland, Hitler put his plans on hold, but Stalin rushed to fulfil his side of the deal. In October, Moscow issued demands to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and to Finland.  When negotiations with the Finns broke down, he said “It’s time to let the soldiers do the talking.”

As a result, Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and the Winter War began, the backdrop for my novel Lost Ground.

The David-and-Goliath struggle caught the imagination of the world.  Support poured in from all over the globe, although not the military support the Finns needed. Until now Finland had been almost totally unknown, even in Europe. Now the eyes of the world were fixed on its life and death struggle.

And it was indeed a heroic struggle. Stalin’s generals had told him the war would be over in 2 weeks, but the Finnish army stopped their advance. The Finnish people united behind their army under Marshall Mannerheim. Former differences were put aside and everyone pitched in. Special mention must be made of the role of Finnish women. Some worked as Lottas (the women’s auxiliary) and others ran the home front in the absence of their men, taking on unprecedented roles.

In the end the tiny Finnish army was forced to bow to an armistice, after inflicting huge casualties on the invaders. The result was the loss of most of Karelia, including the city of Viipuri. The armistice was signed on March 12, 1940.

Here is a gallery of pictures and images of the Winter War. (Photos from SAKuva Finnish War Archives unless otherwise noted).

Is Russia planning to repeat its Finnish Winter War strategy in the Ukraine?

Is Russia preparing to use the same strategy in the Ukraine that the Soviet Union used in the 1939-40 Winter War in Finland? A noted Israeli analyst believes so and that the first steps are already being taken.

Avraam Shmulyevich presents this theory in Tallinn’s Postimees newspaper. Citing the recent proclamation by Moscow’s agents in Ukraine of plans to establish the state of Malorossiya, he sees parallels with tactics against Finland in the Winter War.



Americans for Finland

When the Soviet Union attacked Finland in November 1939, one of its first actions was to set up a puppet regime across the Finnish border.  Stalin claimed that a communist uprising against ‘the Whites’ had occurred in Finland and set up a regime called ‘the Finnish Democratic Republic,’ headed by exiled Finnish communist Otto Kuusinen.  This republic, like Malorossiya, was based in Finnish territory seized by Soviet forces. In order to assist ‘our Finnish brothers,’ the Red Army launched an attack along the entire Finnish border from the Gulf of Finland to the Arctic Ocean on November 30.

Continue reading

Farewell to President Koivisto.

Former President of Finland (1982–1994) Mauno Koivisto (1923– 2017) was buried today in Helsinki.

It was the first time Finland had buried a president in thirty years and huge crowds followed the ceremony in Helsinki and on television.

This moving rendition of Veteraanin Iltahuuto was performed by Jorma Hynninen and the boys’ choir Cantore Minores, as well as the Guards orchestra, at the funeral. It is a memorial hymn to veterans of the Winter War and World War II and was requested by the family.

Finnish Veterans’ Day, April 27

Finnish Veterans’ Day is on April 27 every year.  Here is a brilliant rendition of “Veteraanin Iltahuuto” (Veterans’ Last Post) by soloist Jorma Hynninen, the Navy Orchestra, Veterans Grand Choir and combined choirs from the Turku area, performed at the Turku Conference Centre.

The song is a tribute to all those who sacrificed and fought for the survival of the nation and a plea to keep their memory alive.

The Winter War ends: March 13, 1940

By early March 1940 the final act of the Winter War between Finland and Russia was underway. A new and massive Russian offensive had been launched on the Karelian Isthmus.wintwar11
Twelve Soviet divisions along with five Soviet tank brigades—approximately a quarter of a million men—were about to hurl themselves in the Viipuri area against two understrength, ammunition-poor, bone-tired Finnish divisions of less than twenty thousand.” (Gordon F. Sander, The Hundred Day Winter War, University of Kansas Press, 2013, p. 296)

In the face of this onslaught, the Finns were forced to retreat from the Mannerheim Line for the first time. By early March, although victories continued north of Lake Ladoga and the eastern end of the Line stood firm, the Russians stood at the gates of Viipuri on the western Isthmus.

Meanwhile, France and Britain had an expeditionary force ready to march to Finland, but there were obstacles. Neutral Sweden refused to grant transit rights. While negotiations continued, the situation of the Finns grew dire. Finnish reserves were almost totally depleted.

Reluctantly accepting the reality that Western aid would not arrive in time, the Finnish government signed an armistice with Russia on March 12, 1940. A ceasefire came into effect all along the front the next day, March 13. This was the Peace of Moscow.

When the terms of the peace were announced, flags in Finland flew at half mast.

Helsinki juhlii rauhaa.

The peace was just as traumatic as the attack had been on November 30.

The ceded area included Finland’s second largest city of Viipuri and much of Finland’s industrialized territory–11% of the territory and 30% of the economic assets of pre-war Finland. Twelve percent of Finland’s population, some 422,000 Karelians, had to be evacuated and re-settled.kokosuomi_sx

One Soviet general remarked: “We have won just enough ground to bury our dead.”

The estimated number of Russian dead has changed over the years and may never be known. The generally accepted figure is 230 000- 270 000.
Finnish dead numbered approximately 25 000.

The Finns had lost so much and paid such a great price that at first the peace felt more unbearable than the war. That was before they knew how desperate the military situation on the Isthmus had been, how close they had come to catastrophe. Gradually, they understood. The peace was cruel, but there had been no other choice; and they still had their country and their freedom. 
Most of the foreign correspondents conjured themselves out of Helsinki as quickly as they’d appeared. The glamour of the war dissipated overnight and the Finns were left alone to clean up the mess—resettling half a million Karelian evacuees, rebuilding shattered cities and towns, learning how to live again as a nation.
And there was the return of the soldiers. The survivors, men from the abyss who had given everything and found it was not enough. Exhausted and silent, they trickled back to their homes. They sat on their porches during the long spring evenings, trying to remember the routines of civilian life. Each in his own way and his own time tried to put the war to rest. Some never did.
From Lost Ground

The last word goes to the man who led Finland’s tiny army through the war, Marshal Mannerheim:


Soldiers! I have fought on many battlefields but never have I seen your like as warriors. That an army so inferior in numbers and equipment should have inflicted such defeats on an overwhelmingly powerful enemy is something hard to find a parallel for in the history of war.
It is equally admirable that the Finnish people were able to resist giving in to despair, and instead to grow in devotion and greatness.
Such a nation has earned the right to live.