Leonid Bershidsky

My Grandmother Was in the Winter War. It Was as Ugly as This One

Ukraine and Finland have little in common and 21st-century warfighting is new and different. But the parallels are still hard to miss.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators are reportedly getting closer to a deal that would end the Russian invasion. The deal, if and when it arrives, likely will resemble the Moscow Treaty of 1940, which crowned the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland. Ukraine will sign up to a version of Finland’s neutral status that resulted from that treaty, and some of its territorial losses will likely be sealed, if not recognized. Just as Finland did, however, Ukraine will keep its independence and its military, rather than become a Russian puppet state.

The discussion appears to be headed in this direction because the invasion also is developing similarly, in some important ways, to the Winter War. Though Ukraine and Finland have little in common and 21st-century warfighting is as different as can be from the 20th-century kind, the parallels are hard to miss.

My grandmother, a doctor, was in the Red Army’s medical service during the Winter War. She froze her nose off: The red spot at the tip of her nose stayed with her until she died, aged 92, in 1999. The injuries she treated mostly had to do with frostbite rather then bullet or shrapnel wounds. It was a miserable campaign she hated to remember and, to the end of her days, had no idea why it had been fought. Unlike many Russians who didn’t share her experience, she never had the slightest desire to travel to Karelia — the part of Finland the Soviet Union ended up annexing — to enjoy the nature and the sights.

Grandma owed that red spot to Joseph Stalin’s hubris.

The Red Army had an overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment over Finland, a relatively poor province of the Russian empire until the latter’s 1917 collapse. Stalin was counting on the support of a strong fifth column, known as the Red Finns, who had nearly broken the young country in two but lost a civil war.

All this, of course, invites facile parallels with today’s Russia and Ukraine. It, too, is a young country until recently in Russia’s orbit. Russia has, at least on paper, an enormous military advantage. Putin was clearly hoping that pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, politically defeated and militarily contained in 2014 and 2015 after nearly splitting the country in half, would facilitate the invasion.

But the most striking similarities are to be found in how the two invasions unfolded.

In late November 1939, the Soviet troops marched in blithely without proper clothes or much understanding of the terrain. Mikhail Novikov, in the Red Army’s medical service like my grandmother, left a memoir of the Winter War that closely matches the stories she told me. He wrote:

In the early hours of November 30 or December 1, I don’t remember exactly, my company was roused and put on alert. As a recent recruit, I didn’t know anything and nobody explained to me what was going on. But I saw a general lack of confidence and competence, it was all somehow un-military, not at all like what we’d been taught by the commissars and our dear commanders. As our unit turned onto a main road, we suddenly came under gunfire and a panic arose. Soon, though, we figured out that our own side had been firing on us by mistake. It all turned out fine. At that time, it was already freezing but the men were dressed in autumn clothing. The units marched along the road platoon after platoon, as if they were going to the shooting range, not to the front lines.

Novikov’s account could almost have been written by one of the young Russian soldiers who rode into Ukraine in late February and early March, 2022. The lack of clear goal-setting and preparation, the disorganization, the shortage of warm clothing and rations — these features of the Winter War’s reckless initial onslaught are there again.

In the words of Franz-Stefan Gady, a military expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Russian military has always been a good second-half football team, making lots of mistakes at the outset but then learning and adapting. But it’s one thing to be a slow starter and quite another to be unreasonably overconfident.

Stalin’s hopes of Red support and a warm welcome were dashed when most Finnish leftists sided with the government against the invaders. The most pro-Russian of mainstream Ukrainian politicians, Yuriy Boyko, leader of the Opposition Platform party, also has taken a firm stand against Russia’s aggression. The Kremlin has been hard put to find any Ukrainians capable of attracting popular support in the event of a regime change.

Though no third country intervened militarily on Ukraine’s behalf, just as no country fought with Finland, both put up stiff resistance based on the total defense principle, mobilizing their entire societies against the invading force. Both attacked the Russian military’s tangled supply lines, both waged propaganda campaigns to demoralize and exhaust the enemy. Like the Ukrainian government today, the Finns offered Russian soldiers cash rewards for surrendered equipment.

Many of the details, of course, differ vastly — there’s nothing in the current conflict that could compare with the Finns’ tactic of attacking on skis from forested areas while the Soviet troops had to stick to roads, or to the invisible Finnish sniper phenomenon. But the essence is similar: Both Finland in 1939 and early 1940 and Ukraine in 2022 fought skillfully and with determination to slow down the occupation. And in both cases, the dictators in Moscow resorted to the punitive bombing and shelling of civilians.

Ukraine has no figure equal to that of master strategist and statesman Carl Mannerheim — but Ukrainians have rallied around President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has been surprisingly effective during the worst crisis in Ukraine’s history.

One hears that the Soviets got bogged down in Finland during the Winter War. That’s not strictly true — the war only lasted 105 days, not long as wars go, and technically, the Red Army won after breaking through the famed Mannerheim line. But its losses, more then 300,000 total casualties, made it a Pyrrhic victory, and the peace terms, while painful for Finland, which lost its most developed industrial areas, were also honorable for the underdog. Ukraine, it appears, is capable of fighting at least as long as the Finns did: The Russian military’s progress is slow after three weeks of fighting; whether it has the numbers or the stomach for the gruesome urban fighting that would be required to take Kyiv is unclear.

One reason is likely that, when they talk among themselves, Russian solders struggle to understand what they’re fighting for — as they did during the Winter War, too. Novikov recalled how, after the war ended, he whispered about it with a friend on the train home:

Did our beloved motherland need such a war? I’ll tell you what I think: It probably did. It was an eye-opener for the party and the government that the Red Army is completely unprepared for a big war, and we saw real, specific evidence of that in the snowy fields of Finland. I’m no strategist, but I learned the hard way that we didn’t know how to fight. And if we win a big victory, it’s at an unjustifiably high price in blood, and doesn’t come as cheap as we were assured.

Russian soldiers and civilians alike are already having such discussions, and likely drawing similar conclusions. The longer the war goes on, and even if the Russian military manages a hard-fought, costly victory, Russia as a nation is not winning, cannot win this war — just as the Soviet Union didn’t win the Winter War despite its territorial gains. A realization that the Putin regime can barely hold its own against a much smaller, but much more determined nation, let alone the entire Western world, will be the most important outcome of the invasion even for those Russians who did not oppose it.

The Winter War, of course, was soon followed by Adolf Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union — it likely helped convince the fuehrer that he could easily beat the Soviets. Nobody is likely to attack nuclear-armed Russia after some kind of peace deal is made in Ukraine. Russians should recall, however, that their grandfathers managed to overcome the failures of strategy, logistics, inferior training in what is now known as the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis because it was a just, defensive war against a brutal occupier. This time around, as in Finland, the war Russia is fighting is unjust and dishonorable. When peace comes, it will not be kind to the war’s instigators and to the entire Russian nation.