Quite a few commentators were surprised last year when both Sweden and Finland — historically neutral countries — decided to apply for membership in NATO. Twentieth-century history explains this major move. This history — the unprovoked mauling Russia inflicted upon Finland at the outbreak of WWII — is the subject of a fine if not widely known documentary from a few years back, Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia. (Full version available from International Historic Films.)
First, some quick historical background. Up to the early 1800s, Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden. From early 1808 to late 1809, the Russian Empire went to war against Sweden on the pretext of protecting St. Petersburg, the Russian capital. The Russians were able to conquer and annex Finland, and it became the Grand Duchy of Finland — where it was allowed broad autonomy within Russia until the end of the 19th century. At that point, the government of Russia tried to unify its empire by Russification — forcing its language and culture on the nations it had earlier conquered. Usually, the attempt failed, as it did in Finland.
The Russian Empire collapsed in World War I. In November 1917 the Bolshevik government declared that national minorities had the right to form separate states, and three weeks later Finland announced its independence. Only three weeks after that, the Soviet government recognized Finland’s independence. After a four-month civil war of its own, in which Finnish White (traditionalist) forces fought and defeated the socialist Reds — and expelled Bolshevik troops — Finland became fully sovereign. But relations with the Soviet Union remained unstable.
The government of Russia tried to unify its empire by Russification — forcing its language and culture on the nations it had earlier conquered. Usually, the attempt failed.
Stalin was displeased with Finland’s independence and its possible threat to the Soviet fleet’s movements in the Baltic Sea. When he achieved absolute power in the Great Purge of 1938, he started to pursue the reconquest of Finland. In 1938, the Soviets approached Finland, demanding that it cede strategic islands in the Gulf of Finland. The Finns insisted that the country was completely committed to a policy of neutrality and refused to cede the islands.
In August 1939, the Soviets and the Nazis signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. By its secret protocols, the Soviets and the Nazis divided Eastern Europe into spheres of interest. Finland was to be part of the Soviet sphere. The next month, the Nazis invaded Poland, and the Soviets invaded Eastern Poland and the Baltic States.
In October, the Soviets and Finns started negotiations, with the Soviets demanding that the border with Finland be moved westward, that Finland cede its islands, and that it let the Soviet Union lease the Hanke Peninsula for 30 years and establish a military base there. In exchange, the Soviets offered some forest land in the East. The Finns made a counteroffer, but the Soviets would not accept it or negotiate further. Instead, they invaded.
Fire and Ice opens with scenes of simulated battle (members of a reenactment club regularly put on vivid and realistic reenactments of the Winter War). It then cuts to black-and-white photos of the original fighting. We learn that on November 30, 1939, four Soviet armies with over 400,000 troops crossed Finland’s border, accompanied by thousands of tanks and aircraft. This invasion force was nearly three times the size of the Allied D-Day invasion force — to invade a country of 3.7 million people! It was an intense, bloody war, fought in the bitter cold.
The Finns made a counteroffer, but the Soviets would not accept it or negotiate further. Instead, they invaded.
One of the nice features of this documentary is its interview with elderly survivors of the event. Eeva Kilpi, novelist and poet, tells us that all the Finns realized that the fight was a fight for their existence as a people. Also fascinating is John Hasey, an American who volunteered to fight on behalf of the Finns. He headed the “Iroquois Ambulance Corps.” Hasey relates that the Finns have the attitude of “never give up; always fight for what is right.” Here the narrator reads from the diary of Nikita Khrushchev, who said that all the Soviets needed to do was “raise our voices” and the Finns would “put up their hands and surrender.” Accordingly, the Soviet Army brought only 12 days of supplies.
We hear a quote from news correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who describes the initial bombing of Helsinki at the outbreak of the war. The Soviets, using mass formations of tanks, at first made swift progress against the outmanned and outgunned Finnish Army. The Finns had never fought against tanks, and did not know how to deal with them. Major Mauno Uoti points out that Finland had only 32 combat worthy tanks to field against the vast Soviet tank forces, and only one of these was actually ready to use. In the air, the Finns were equally disadvantaged: they had a few old English biplanes that could do 160 kilometers an hour, in the face of Russian fighters that could do up to 370. Worse, there was a shortage of ammunition for the soldiers in the trenches.
The Soviets attacked from the North in several different thrusts. The order of battle is explained by the film. The Soviet 14th Army was to take the capital of Lapland and cut vital northern sea and land routes. The Soviet 9th Army attacked in the middle of the country, aiming to cut it in half. The Soviet 7th Army attacked in the south, aiming at taking down Finland’s main defensive line — the Mannerheim Line — and move on to the most heavily populated cities, including Helsinki. And the Soviet 8th Army aimed at stopping rail traffic. When the Soviets conquered the first Finnish town, Terijoki, it immediately set up a puppet regime under exiled Finnish Communist Otho Kuusinen, to rule the country when the Soviets had defeated the legitimate government.
This invasion force was nearly three times the size of the Allied D-Day invasion force — to invade a country of 3.7 million people.
The Finnish defense was under the command of Field Marshal C.G.F. Mannerheim. In the earlier civil war, Mannerheim had put down a rebellion by Finnish communists against the liberal Finnish government. He had convinced the Finnish government in September 1939 to set up a line of defense, having soldiers dig and fortify trenches and start intensive training. Mannerheim had been in favor of finding a compromise because he knew the Finnish Army was grossly outnumbered and outgunned.
We learn that during the opening week of the war the Soviets made solid gains, especially using their tanks. The Finns had a few new Swedish antitank guns, but they wound up using Molotov cocktails and satchel charges. Both these tactics required that troops run up close to a tank. Even riskier was the tactic of jamming the tank’s tread with logs.
The Soviets expected that the Finns, generally a poor people, would rise up against the Finnish government and side with the “liberating” army. Stalin — here, the history is eerily similar to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 — was surrounded only by people who told him what he wanted to hear. He was convinced that the country would fall in at most two weeks. The Soviets dropped propaganda leaflets urging the downtrodden Finns to rise up against their wealthy, greedy rulers. This propaganda convinced Finns that Stalin wanted to control the country completely, if not to erase it. As historian Ohto Manninen noted, every Finn knew what Stalin said in a moment of anger in 1939, that there were fewer Finns than people living in Leningrad, so they could all easily be shipped to Siberia.
The carnage started to mount. In one battle, the Soviets sent wave after wave of their troops in frontal assaults against Finnish lines, only to get mowed down. Finnish veterans recalled that the Soviets fought bravely. But the Finnish lines held. Fighting reached a crescendo on December 19 and 20, in the battle against Taipale, with seven Soviet divisions devastated and over 250 tanks destroyed. Eeva Kilpi puts it well: “We fought like animals when they are defending their nests.”
They wound up using Molotov cocktails and satchel charges. Both these tactics required that troops run up close to a tank. Even riskier was the tactic of jamming the tank’s tread with logs.
The film shifts to talking about the unique methods the Finns used in fighting. The winter of 1939–40 was exceptionally cold, with temperatures as low as -45°F. The Finns used the forests, the snow, the cold, and the long nights to their benefit. They dressed in white, while the Soviets still wore olive khaki uniforms. In the battle for Tolrajaarvi, one Finnish regiment skied in to attack the vastly more numerous Soviets from the rear, then slipped away. The battle raged for weeks, but in the end, the Soviets lost this battle, heartening the Finns, who started defeating the Soviets elsewhere.
The Finns were used to the bitter cold and knew how to survive it. Among other things, the Finns knew that you have to feed the troops high-protein, high-fat meals to combat the cold. The Soviets were fed mainly tea and bread. In one battle, called the “Sausage War,” a Soviet regiment attacked the Finns by surprise but broke off the attack to run for the smell of the sausage soup being made by the Finnish cooks. This gave the Finns the time they needed to regroup and stop the attack.
In another battle, the Finns took on the elite Ukrainian 44th Division. The Ukrainian troops entered Finland, at Suomussalmi, and their armor and troop lines were strung out along a narrow logging road for about 20 miles. In a maneuver strikingly similar to the events in February 2022 in Ukraine, the Finns blew up vehicles at the front and rear, thus blocking the entire column. Finns would emerge from the forest at points along the line and kill the Soviet troops, after which Finnish engineers would widen the breach, leaving the remaining Soviet troops in isolated pockets, which were easier to attack. Especially useful were the Finnish snipers — called by the Russians “The White Death,” who were able to hide in the snow and pick off many troops.
The weather was so cold that when a soldier was shot his body froze in the posture it had when he was hit. And the Soviets suffered tremendously from frostbite and malnutrition. Jack Hasey recalls the intense visceral hatred the Finns showed for the Soviets, and one memorable method they used to attack them. The Finns would tie knives to the ends of skiing poles, ski past Soviet troops at high speed, and slash their throats. He remembers seeing a group of Soviet soldiers who were ambushed this way. They bled out so quickly that they froze standing up.
By the end of January 1940, the war quieted down as both sides regrouped. The Soviet army in particular needed time to do so, as Stalin’s purges had killed off so many of the top Soviet officers — 90% of its generals and 80% of the colonels — that it was rendered ineffective. Stalin appointed a new top general, Semyon Timoshenko, and let him refurbish the Soviet forces with an additional 750,000 soldiers, 3,000 artillery pieces, 2,000 tanks, and hundreds of fighter aircraft. They were now to be focused on crushing the Mannerheim line. But Stalin also started backchannel diplomatic efforts to find a way to end the stalemate.
The Finns would tie knives to the ends of skiing poles, ski past Soviet troops at high speed, and slash their throats. They bled out so quickly that they froze standing up.
On February 11 the attack resumed, opening with the largest artillery bombardment since Verdun in WWI. By the end of February, the Soviets had pushed the line all the way back to Vyborg. By March 12, the Finns were almost out of ammunition. Yet on March 13, word spread among the troops on both sides that an armistice had been declared. The bloody 105-day war was at an end. The Finns had held out at great cost, but in the end they prevailed. The film quotes from the memoirs of a medic for the Soviet troops, Georgi Prusako: “What do I remember most from that war? The incompetence of our army. It could not even deal with a handful of Finns. They showed us how to fight a war.”
However, the peace terms were harsh. The Finns ceded to the Soviets Eastern Karelia — about 12% of Finland. Interviews with surviving Karelians show how bitter that price was to Finns. More than 400,000 Finnish Karelians left their homes, refusing to become Soviet citizens. But the Soviets also paid a price. Stalin’s propaganda machine made the incredible claim that only 350 Soviet soldiers had died. The Soviet army just left the bodies of tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers to rot on the battlefields. When Khrushchev took control of the Soviet Union after Stalin died, he did a more realistic accounting and estimated that upwards of one million Soviet troops had died in the three months of the war. While most historians doubt that estimate, they unanimously agree with Khrushchev’s savage assessment of the war’s impact: “A victory at such a cost was actually a moral defeat . . . It was a dangerous defeat because it encouraged our enemy’s conviction that the Soviet Union was a colossus with feet of clay. In short, our miserable conduct of the Finnish campaign encouraged Hitler in his plans for . . . Operation Barbarossa [the invasion of Russia].”
Ironically, when Hitler invaded Russia, his army came in through Poland and the Baltic States, not Finland. But the film quotes two military historians who suggest that the Soviet Army learned valuable lessons about its strengths and weaknesses, which served it well in the fight against the Nazis. As for the Finns, the film concludes with a comment by Mannerheim: “The people of Finland have shown that a united nation, small though it may be, can develop unprecedented fighting power and thus withstand the most formidable ordeals that testing brings.” The Finns’ will do fight kept them free.
Fire and Ice premiered in Marquette, Michigan, the heart of America’s Finland. It was well received and achieved a number of critical awards. The accolades were well merited. This innovative documentary deftly combines original archival footage, film of recent reenactments, interviews with veterans and other participants, readings from memoirs and journals of participants and others, and footage of contemporary Finland. The result is a vivid and clear exposition of a relatively forgotten war. Understanding this war helps explain why Finland became eager to join NATO and help Ukraine in its current war with a revanchist, neoimperialist Russia.
By March 12, the Finns were almost out of ammunition. Yet on March 13, word spread among the troops on both sides that an armistice had been declared. The bloody 105-day war was at an end.
Let me conclude by discussing how we can judge whether a documentary can rightly be called propaganda, using this film as an example.
The normal meaning of “documentary” is a nonfiction or purely factual narrative film, using real people rather than actors. Typically, a documentary is shorter than a feature film, produced on a much lower budget than a feature film, and presented as a truthful account of some aspect of history. And typically, documentary filmmakers present themselves as observers or journalists providing facts in an unbiased way.
So almost by definition, documentaries shouldn’t be propagandistic. Propaganda, as such, is never unbiased. After all, propaganda is messaging or rhetoric aimed at getting the target audience to support a political figure, party policy, or ideology. Actually, of course, documentaries more often (if not usually) propaganda to some degree. To take a famous example, I can’t think of a Michael Moore documentary that isn’t blatant propaganda — and usually quite deceptive propaganda at that.
In fact, the documentary format is well suited to deceptive propaganda. It can be filled with falsehoods, partial truths, manipulation, and illogical reasoning, but the audience — unless it is antecedently opposed to or skeptical about the message — will tend to take it as basically truthful, because it is a documentary. To put this in another way, one characteristic of propaganda that marks it as deceptive or irrational is lack of transparency, lack of indications that the audience is being targeted for persuasion. Furthermore, the power of film to simulate reality — its inherent verisimilitude — gives it dramatically more persuasive power than most other propaganda media possess.
These caveats being stated, I would not characterize Fire and Ice as propaganda, much less as deceptive propaganda.
The documentary format is well suited to deceptive propaganda. It can be filled with falsehoods, partial truths, manipulation, and illogical reasoning, but the audience will tend to take it as basically truthful.
To begin with, the film shows the bravery of both armies. It reports Stalin’s defense of his actions as well as Khrushchev’s critique of Stalin’s handling of the war. And what is it trying to persuade the audience to do or support? The movie was made 15 years after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, so it doesn’t appear to be some kind of Cold War propaganda.
What about the film as propaganda for Finland joining NATO? This hardly seems plausible. The film was produced at a time of fairly amicable relations between Russia and Finland. True, Putin was in power in 2005 — he was elected first in 2000 and reelected in 2004. But the Putin of 2004 was quite different from the Putin of today. He was still a fairly moderate leader. Finnish public opinion was against joining NATO. It was only with the invasion of Ukraine that public opinion in Finland swung the other way. I would suggest that it was the memory of the Winter War that shifted the Finnish mood.
All this brings to mind the famous remark of Samuel Johnson: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The war against Ukraine — a war that bids fair to expand this year — concentrated Finnish minds wonderfully.
Review of Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia, directed by Ben Stroud. MasterWork Media/WFYI, 2006, 80 minutes.