TALLINN – Soviet-era myths about the most prominent events in the 20th century have been challenged if not always completely dispelled by the efforts of Russian and Western historians over the past two decades. But myths about less central developments have remained in place because fewer historians have focused on them.
If that pattern is hardly unexpected, Anatoliy Tsyganok argues in a commentary posted on the Polit.ru website February 8th, it is nonetheless fraught with serious consequences not only for those who want to understand the past but also for those who seek to draw on it in developing policies for the future.
As an exemplar of this problem, Tsyganok discusses Soviet and post-Soviet research about the Soviet-Finnish "Winter War" of 1939-1940. "Extremely little has been written" about that conflict, he notes. And "what has been written consists almost entirely of myths" that get in the way of understanding just what happened.
There are, of course, obvious reasons why Soviet and Russian historians have shied away from coming to grips with that conflict. On the one hand, it was a war in which the international community of the time declared Moscow to be the aggressor and expelled the USSR from the League of Nations.
And on the other, the Red Army did not achieve any of Moscow’s pre-war aims. Instead, Tsyganok argues, the Soviet side suffered what all objective accounts have described as a "crushing" defeat, given the size of the force Moscow committed and that of the forces which opposed it.
Soviet-era military historians thus shied away from any detailed examination of that war and generally described it in generalized and often highly ideologized terms. Post-Soviet Russian historians have done better, Tsyganok argues, but even they have failed to overcome what he describes as the five myths of the Winter War.
According to the first of these myths, Finland attacked the Soviet Union and thus provoked the conflict. In fact, as archives and memoir literature show, the Soviet secret police organized the attack in order to justify what Moscow wanted to do – a scenario strikingly similar to the way in which Hitler’s Gestapo acted in Poland only three months later.
In both cases, citizens of the country that wanted the war were killed by their own people, and in both cases the forces that country needed to attack and even the orders for an advance were in place long before these incidents he notes, commenting that this should not surprise anyone given "the close contacts between Hitler’s Gestapo and [Stalin’s] NKVD."
The second myth that continues to inform much Russian writing about the Winter War is that Finland supposedly had far more forces than did the Soviet Union. That is simply nonsense, Tsyganok notes. The Soviet Union had 960,000 men under arms in that theater; Finland had only 340,000. The Soviet side’s superiority in weapons was similar.
The third myth, one that some Russian writers on the war continue to put about, is that in the Winter War, the Red Army showed its maturity and competence. In fact, Tsyganok points out, the Red Army failed in all its key objectives, including its plan to seize Helsinki in two to three weeks, something that in the end it never did.
A fourth myth, that the proletariat of the world supported the Soviet Union in this conflict, is also without foundation. Instead, more than 11,500 foreign volunteers came from around the world to fight the Soviet invasion of Finland. To suggest that the Soviet Union enjoyed genuine popular support anywhere for this war is simply "dishonest," Tsyganok says.
And according to a fifth myth, the two sides suffered roughly equal losses. That is completely untrue. During the war, Finland suffered 66,400 casualties, of whom 21,396 were killed, while the Soviet Union, according to the archives, lost some 391,883 dead and wounded.
Just how much of a disaster that was for the Soviet military, Tsyganok notes can be understood if one considers the following fact: "During the four months [of the war with Finland], the USSR lost more soldiers than lost during the entire Second World War England (388,000), France (250,000), Austria (230,000), or the United States (250,000)."
Total losses of the Red Army were thus five times greater than those of the Finnish forces, and Soviet fatalities were six times greater than deaths among the Finns. Only if one compares losses relative to total population does the Soviet side come out ahead: During that war, Finland lost 1.8 percent of its people; the USSR, "only" 0.15 percent.
In order to understand the past, to honor those who died, and to avoid similar kinds of miscalculations in the future, Tsyganok concludes, it is absolutely necessary that these myths be dispelled not only from the pages of the works of historians but from the minds of Russian citizens and policy makers.
Soviet-era myths about Winter War with Finland slow to dissipate (10)