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Nothing new: Russia bullying a neighbor

If You Ask Me

I was a six-year-old first grader when the Robert Fulton Elementary School in North Bergen, New Jersey, held its first air raid drill in late 1939 or maybe early 1940.

The fire alarm bell rang and we marched out of Miss Phelps’s classroom and lined up in rows along the inside wall of the hallway. I can pretty well pinpoint the date because of a question I was asked by the little boy standing next to me:

“Who are you for,” he said, “the Russians or the Finns?”  And I quickly replied, “the Finns.”  He agreed, as did nearly every American.

We were talking about the brief, so-called Winter War between Russia and Finland, which began on Nov. 30, 1939, when the then-Soviet Union invaded its  smaller neighbor and ended on March 13, 1940, with the Finns agreeing to cede 9% of its nation, mostly border territory and offshore islands,  to the Soviets.

Russian dictator Josef Stalin claimed the land had been wrongly awarded to Finland after the 1917 communist revolution and was needed to defend Leningrad, 20 miles from the Finnish border, in the event of a war with Poland.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Russia expected to settle the dispute to its satisfaction within three days, but the Finns had other ideas. They mounted a fierce resistance, forcing the Russians to pay an unexpectedly high price for their victory, with roughly 150,000 Russians dead or missing to 25,000 Finns.

Before the invasion of Finland, communist Russia and Nazi Germany had signed a non-aggression pact that contained secret protocols creating specific spheres of influence in eastern Europe for each of the dictatorships. The goal was to allow each nation to conquer their neighbors without interference from the other, giving Germany Poland, for example and Russia, Finland.

So Russia went into Finland believing it would be able to replace its democracy with a puppet communist government while its partner, Germany, did the same to Poland.

But the Russian Army performed so badly against the determined Finns, Adolf Hitler decided to break the treaty and invade Russia by way of Poland, thereby extending the Third Reich’s influence across Europe’s greatest land mass.

The Ukraine-like courage of its people was not the only reason Americans greatly admired and rooted for Finland as it defended itself.

Throughout my childhood, I often heard my elders remarking that “the Finns always paid their debts.” We children were taught that this was an admirable practice, not only for individuals, but also nations.

Finland’s debt paying stood out following World War I when almost every Allied country emerged from the war seriously indebted to the United States for loans to finance their war efforts.

But when the Depression plunged nearly the entire world into a state of financial ruin, President Herbert Hoover decided to grant our former allies a one-year debt moratorium for 1932.

There’s no doubt the gesture was greatly appreciated, so much so, that in 1933, not a single country, except one, resumed its debt payments — from that year forward.

The exception, of course, was Finland because “the Finns always paid their debts.” The final payment was made in 1976.

Today, Finland’s border remains 20 miles from Russia’s second largest city, Leningrad, since renamed St. Petersburg. And Vladimir Putin is no doubt as fixed on that border as Stalin was in 1939. But Finland’s position in modern Europe is far different today.

Finland’s been in the European Union since 1995 and, for the first time in its history, strong public support is emerging for joining NATO. The same is true in more determinedly neutral Sweden.

They fear they may be next.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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