Russo-Finnish War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the Soviet Union forcibly annexed Finnish territory, emulating recent German expansion, the Finns resisted, launching the Russo-Finnish War. Staunch fighting by Finnish soldiers allowed Finland to retain its independence, albeit with a significant loss of territory.

Summary of Event

On November 30, 1939, the armed forces of the Soviet Union launched an invasion of Finnish territory. While the Soviet air force bombed Finnish cities, Soviet troops advanced into Finland on two fronts. Some units advanced eastward on a front bordered by the White Sea on the north and Lake Ladoga on the south, while a larger Soviet force advanced northward into the Karelian Isthmus between Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Bothnia. The Soviets deployed 470,000 troops, supported by 2,200 tanks and more than 2,000 aircraft against a Finnish force of 295,000 men with virtually no aircraft or tanks. This invasion resulted from a number of factors in the tumultuous history of the two nations. [kw]Russo-Finnish War (Nov. 30, 1939-Mar. 12, 1940)[Russo Finnish War (Nov. 30, 1939 Mar. 12, 1940)] [kw]Finnish War, Russo- (Nov. 30, 1939-Mar. 12, 1940) [kw]War, Russo-Finnish (Nov. 30, 1939-Mar. 12, 1940)[War, Russo Finnish (Nov. 30, 1939 Mar. 12, 1940)] Soviet Union;Russo-Finnish War[Russofinnish War] Russo-Finnish War (1939-1940)[Russofinnish War] Finland;Russo-Finnish War[Russofinnish War] Soviet-Finnish War (1939-1940)[Soviet Finnish War] Winter War (1939-1940) [g]Finland;Nov. 30, 1939-Mar. 12, 1940: Russo-Finnish War[10100] [g]Russia;Nov. 30, 1939-Mar. 12, 1940: Russo-Finnish War[10100] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 30, 1939-Mar. 12, 1940: Russo-Finnish War[10100] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Nov. 30, 1939-Mar. 12, 1940: Russo-Finnish War[10100] Mannerheim, Carl Gustaf Meretskov, Kirill Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Stalin, Joseph Stalin, Joseph;Russo-Finnish War Voroshilov, Kliment

The czars of Russia and the kings of Sweden long battled for domination of the area that later became Finland. Peter I of Russia (r. 1682-1725) incorporated most of Finland into his empire at the conclusion of the Great Northern War in 1721. During the Napoleonic wars, Alexander I of Russia (r. 1801-1825) declared Finland to be a grand duchy with himself as its grand duke. Although many Finns were unhappy with Russian rule, no opportunity presented itself to them to break away until the Russian Revolution of 1905.

With Czar Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917), the last Russian czar, distracted by revolt in his far-flung dominions, Finnish students led a revolt against the Russian ruler. Two revolutionary military forces, the Red Guard and the Nationalists, led armed assaults on Russian military garrisons. When the revolutionaries fell out among themselves over political issues, Nicholas managed to regain control of the grand duchy by granting its people nearly complete autonomy and the world’s first parliament elected by universal suffrage.

When the great Russian Revolution of 1917 came, many Finns opted for complete independence. Taking advantage of Russian preoccupation with civil war between the Communists and White (royalist and non-Communist) forces and the concurrent foreign intervention in Russia, Finnish nationalists declared Finland’s independence on July 18, 1917, and suppressed the Finnish Bolsheviks. The Red Army of the Soviet Union attempted to suppress the Finnish government, but was defeated by German troops and a Finnish army commanded by Carl Gustaf Mannerheim in May, 1918. Finnish and Soviet representatives confirmed Finland’s independence and settled the borders between their countries in the Treaty of Dorpat Dorpat, Treaty of (1922) in 1922. Relations between the Finnish and Soviet governments remained stable and friendly until the beginnings of German rearmament and territorial expansion in the mid-1930’s.

German dictator Adolf Hitler made it plain in his book Mein Kampf (1925-1927; partial English translation, 1933) that he planned to destroy communism and acquire living space for Germany’s excess population in the Ukraine. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin realized that Hitler could accomplish his ambitions only through a successful war against the Soviet Union. Stalin became increasingly anxious to strengthen Soviet defenses as Hitler became more aggressive in throwing off the territorial and military terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In planning the defense of their nation, Soviet leaders decided that they must garrison troops and ships in areas belonging to Finland. In 1937, Soviet emissaries proposed a military alliance between the two countries. The Finns turned down the Russian proposals because they wanted to remain neutral in the event of a new European war, which seemed likely.

By 1939, the Soviet proposals for an alliance turned into demands for military bases for their troops in Finnish territory. The Finnish government resisted these demands, thinking that the rivalry between Germany and the Soviet Union would guarantee their own continued neutrality. The Nazi-Soviet Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939)[Nazi Soviet Pact] Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939)[Molotov Ribbentrop Pact] nonaggression pact of August, 1939, shattered the Finnish hope that they could continue to walk a tightrope between the two great-power antagonists. Secret protocols of the pact divided Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. The Soviet sphere included Finland and the small Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as eastern Poland.





When the German army invaded Poland and defeated its armed forces in September of 1939, the Soviets occupied the eastern part of the country. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];outbreak The German invasion brought Great Britain and France into the war, which quickly escalated into a global conflict. While the European countries confronted each other, Stalin occupied and annexed the Baltic republics during October and November, 1939. On October 5, Stalin summoned Finnish emissaries to Moscow. The Finnish government sent the emissaries, but at the same time ordered the mobilization of the Finnish army. The Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, demanded of the emissaries that their government allow Soviet troops to establish bases on Finnish territory. As the Finnish representatives continued to resist Soviet demands, Stalin ordered a massive military buildup on the Russo-Finnish border. He also ordered general Kirill Meretskov to plan an invasion of Finland.

When Molotov reported to Stalin that the Finns would never accept the Soviet demands, the dictator ordered an invasion of Finland. On November 26, the Soviet government claimed Finnish troops had shelled the border village of Mainila. Using this supposed aggression as an excuse, the Soviet government broke off relations with the Finns on November 29 and invaded Finland the next day. Concurrently, Soviet bombers launched attacks against Finnish cities, including Helsinki.

Mannerheim, the hero of the Finnish war of independence in 1918, assumed command of the Finnish army. A career soldier who had risen to the rank of general in the imperial Russian army during World War I, Mannerheim was an able commander who well understood the rigors of a winter war. Mannerheim and the Finnish General Staff had long planned for the possibility of a Soviet invasion of their country. Their plan called for the small Finnish army to hold the Russians at bay in the Karelian Isthmus while reserves could be called to active service. Both in the isthmus and on a front north of Lake Ladoga the Finns fought the Red Army to a standstill in November and December.

During the fighting, the Finnish government tried to secure military aid from abroad. The Germans held fast to their nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. The French and the British seemed willing to send military aid if the Finns would grant them bases for their armed forces on Finnish territory. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly denounced Soviet actions, but he was not inclined to send military aid. The Finns were no more willing to have French and British bases on their soil than they were to have Soviet bases, so the appeal of Finnish representatives did not succeed.

The Soviet troops at the front proved to be poorly led and ill equipped for war in conditions where the temperature often reached forty degrees below zero and lower. Their offensive halted, the Red Army found itself constantly harassed by the Finns and without supplies. Thousands were killed in the fighting and thousands more froze or starved to death. Even while his troops were dying, Stalin was planning a new offensive.

In December, the Soviet dictator replaced most of the generals on the Finnish front. General Kliment Voroshilov became the commander of Soviet forces and launched a new offensive against the Finns in February of 1940 with overwhelming force. The Finnish army gave up a considerable amount of territory but managed to fight the Russians to a standstill once again. By this time, Mannerheim had given up on aid from the French or British, and he advised the Finnish government to make peace on any terms short of unconditional surrender.

The Finns negotiated an armistice on February 13. Peace was finalized in the Treaty of Moscow, Moscow, Treaty of (1940) signed on March 12, 1940. The Finns had lost 22,425 men killed, 43,557 wounded, and 1,434 missing in action. The Russians had lost 53,500 killed, 176,000 wounded, and 16,000 missing in action. The exact numbers of civilian casualties are unknown, but hundreds of Finnish civilians died in the Russian bombings, which intensified during January and February, 1940.


The terms of the Treaty of Moscow forced the Finns to give up more than thirty-five thousand square kilometers of their territory. The Finns also agreed to the establishment of Russian military bases in their territory and signed a mutual assistance pact with the Soviets. Harsh as these terms were, the Finns kept their independence and did not suffer the fate of the Baltic republics, which were annexed outright into the Soviet Union. Through the sacrifice of their soldiers in the face of overwhelming odds, the Finns managed to keep their freedom. The mutual assistance pact proved useless, as rather than aid the Soviet Union against Germany, Finland accepted German military support when it launched the Continuation War against the Soviets in June of 1941.

Perhaps the greatest significance of the Winter War lay in its effects on the stature of the Soviet Union and the Red Army in the eyes of the world. In response to the illegal invasion of Finland, the Soviet Union was ejected from the League of Nations, and despite their victory, their losses were so great as to make the Red Army look vulnerable. This perception of vulnerability may have contributed to Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union. Ironically, the Soviets’ losses could also have been interpreted as an indication of the extreme difficulty of staging an invasion in wintertime, a lesson Hitler famously learned himself when he did invade the Soviet Union. Soviet Union;Russo-Finnish War[Russofinnish War] Russo-Finnish War (1939-1940)[Russofinnish War] Finland;Russo-Finnish War[Russofinnish War] Soviet-Finnish War (1939-1940)[Soviet Finnish War] Winter War (1939-1940)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engle, Eloise, and Lauri Paananen. The Winter War: The Soviet Attack on Finland, 1939-1940. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1973. Written for a popular audience, concentrates primarily on the soldiers and battles on the front lines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jakobson, Max. Finland Survived: An Account of the Finnish-Soviet Winter War, 1939-1940. Helsinki, Finland: Otava, 1961. Pro-Finnish account of origins and course of the war suitable for general readers. Written by a Finn, the language is sometimes confusing and the book reveals some obvious biases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tillotson, H. M. Finland at Peace and War, 1918-1993. Wilby Hall, England: Michael Russell, 1993. Heavily weighted toward military history, contains an account of Finnish history that puts the 1939-1940 war into a broader perspective of Finnish history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2000. Surveys the origins, course, and results of the war in language accessible to most readers. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Upton, Anthony F. Finland, 1939-1940. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1974. A concise overview of the origins of the war, the battles of the war, and the war’s results. Recommended for high school audiences and above.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Dyke, Carl. The Soviet Invasion of Finland, 1939-1940. Portland, Oreg.: F. Cass, 2001. A volume in F. Cass’s series on Soviet military experience: Recounts the war from the Soviet perspective and places it in the context of Soviet history. Bibliographic references.

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Categories: History