As Stanford scholar Stephen Kotkin said recent biography of the soviet leader illustrious, Stalin barely concealed his desires. “We can’t do anything about geography, and neither can you,” Stalin told a Finnish official. “Since Leningrad cannot be moved, the border must be moved further.” (Not that Finns have any misconceptions about Stalin; as Kotkin writes, “For the leaders of Finland’s parliamentary democracy, Stalin was a gangster.”)
Predictably, diplomatic efforts failed, not least because of Stalin’s intransigence. “Is it your intention to cause a conflict? the Soviet Foreign Minister asked Stalin, puzzled. Stalin only smiled in response. The answer quickly became clear.
But one question remained: how to fabricate a reason for invasion. The Soviets and Finns, after all, maintained a non-aggression pact, and no one would credibly view the Finns – with a population of just 4 million, compared to the Soviet Union’s 170 million – as aggressors. As state propaganda outlets spread anti-Finnish propaganda and Soviet Kremlin officials purred that Soviet troops would conquer Helsinki in as little as three days, Stalin spied a solution.
On November 26, five shells and a pair of grenades destroyed a Soviet position along the Soviet-Finnish border. Four died, including several Soviet soldiers, along with nine others wounded. Although a Finnish investigation quickly identified the Soviet troops as those who had fired on – and killed – their own troops, the Soviets acted just as quickly. Claiming that they were coming to the defense of the “democratic forces” against a “fascist military clique” ruling Helsinki, Stalin immediately announced his support for a new “people’s government”, led by a hand-picked Finnish communist. Over 100,000 Soviet troops arrived, taking on a country with no air force, barely any armored vehicles, and not even any wireless technology at its disposal. Left adrift by Western partners, the Finns were alone. And Stalin was ready to carve up the country as he wished.
It was, writes Kotkin, “Stalin’s first real test as a military figure since the Russian Civil War.” And it was a test he would fail, spectacularly.
The first signs that the Soviet incursion would not be as easy as the Soviet leaders had promised.
Following the formation of a puppet government, Stalin assumed that he could rally the Finnish working class to the Soviet banner – an assumption that almost immediately fell apart. (As a Soviet journalist wrote, “this [Soviet-backed] government only exists on paper. ”) Instead of bowing to a new puppet regime, Finns from all walks of life rallied around a national identity that had coalesced in response to the Soviet incursion. Rather than a war over Moscow’s specific border claims, the war, for Finns, suddenly turned to the question of Finland’s national existence.