Local reactions to the Soviet attack on Finland
Source Finnish-Americans in War and Peace. St. Magnus Press 2015. Author: Rainer Langstedt
Soviet Plans for Finland
Infrastructure and Industry
Because their expectation for Finnish resistance was low, the Russian plan was to occupy Finland in three weeks. They believed the military action would be brief. It was their plan to minimize damage to the occupied country’s infrastructure. Finland had a substantial paper industry. It was the Soviet plan to convert these factories into gunpowder mills, which would have tripled Soviet Union’s gunpowder production. As such, Russian pilots were ordered not to bomb industrial installations.
Human casualties were not of a concern to the Russians. Russia’s Air Force, he world’s largest at that time, targeted civilian populations. In an ongoing effort to portray the Soviets as “peace loving,” Vyacheslav Molotov denied throughout the Winter War that any civilian dwellings were bombed. In a radio broadcast, he claimed that the only things dropped from Soviet airplanes were loaves of bread for starving Finns. Thereafter, Finns called Russian bombs “Molotov’s Bread Baskets.”
Despite Molotov’s declarations to the contrary, Soviet pilots did target civilians. Though the technology was outlawed, the Soviet airplanes were equipped with exploding bullets. Using these outlawed bullets classified the pilots of these planes as war criminals.135 The outlawed exploding bullets were also used by Soviet infantry. When war crimes were tried in Nuremberg in 1945, no cases were brought against the Soviets who were among the prosecutors.
The Soviet Plans for the Finnish Population
Scattering a population is perhaps the easiest way to quash a rebellion. Stalin’s rhetoric suggested this would be the approach with the Finns. Stalin noted in December of 1939, “The Finns must be settled elsewhere. There are fewer inhabitants in Finland than in Leningrad, it is easy to move them elsewhere,”136 He also declared that all members of the Finnish “Home Guard” were to be killed.137 This did not occur because the Soviets were unable to occupy Finland. The author’s father, Gustav Långstedt, was a member of the Home Guard, a voluntary militia organization with a yearly membership of about 90,000.138 The organization was politically neutral but patriotic. Their main activity was voluntary defense training. Stalin would have had the Home Guard meet the same fate as the Polish officers in Katyn.
Chapter 8: American Reaction to the Soviet Attack
The main divide in coverage of the Winter War was between the communist and the non-communist media outlets. A second division was among the communist newspapers, dependent on whether they were Finnish or English language paper.
The Russian attack on Finland was front-page news in the United States. For days, the war headlines led the news coverage on the front page of American papers. For the first time, Finland was a nation of worldwide interest to the press. Never before or since has Finland received so much publicity in the United States as during the Winter War.
Media in the United States was decidedly supportive of Finland, and the noncommunist segment of the population, who got their news from sources such as radio and local English language newspapers, was sympathetic of Finland.
Finnish Independence Day was on Dec 6, one week into the war. The report on that covered the front page of second section of the Elmira Star Gazette on Dec 7, 1939.
The Spencer Finn’s Reaction to the Winter War
Concern for close relatives burdened many people from Spencer and Van Etten. The local Finns were either first or second generation Finnish Americans, and many still had close ties to, and contact with, the “old country.” One such person was Mrs. Henry Niemi of Swartwood who had three brothers in the Finnish army.
Letters from the Old Country
The Soviet mouthpieces claimed throughout the war that no cities or villages were bombed, only military targets such as airports. The communist press reported that the Finnish people were forced against their will by the “Mannerheim clique” to fight the Soviets. A true account of the war can be found in the letters received by Finnish Americans who describe the bombings and explicate the resolve of the Finns fighting the invaders.
Three local papers, The Elmira Star-Gazette, The Ithaca Journal, and the Spencer Needle serviced the community.
In December of 1939 and January of 1940, the Winter War was on the front page of each issue of the Ithaca Journal. The 12–20 page per issue paper included information on the history, politics, and constitution of Finland. The Elmira Star-Gazette was a larger paper with over 30 pages and a circulation of 29,000. Like the Ithaca Journal, it collected money from donors for Finnish relief. The Spencer Needle was a weekly paper, which desired to be outside the local controversy between the Finnish communists and other readers. The paper did print some letters, that had been sent to friends and relatives in Spencer. Part of one was printed in the 2/22/40 paper, which a woman had written to her brother in Spencer, reads:
“We can do nothing but pray that God will protect us and our land. I believe that He will do so, for it can not be God’s wish that such a barbarous nation, as Russia should destroy our civilized country. We do not wish to live if Russia becomes master. We shall fight as long as there is even one of us alive, and then the Russians may have a barren land, for we would not wish to live in a land ruled by Russia, for we know what would be our fate then.”
Tyyne Sippola had moved to Finland with her husband a couple of years earlier. She wrote Myrtle Aspinwall, a schoolmate in Spencer, her feelings two weeks after the peace. The letter was printed in the May 9,1940 issue of Spencer Needle.
Ylistaro kk. Finland
March 27, 1940
It was a surprise to get your letter and a pleasure, too. It was February when I received it, although sent in December. Ever since last fall all letters have taken two months or more to come.
Oh Myrtle, you folk over there can’t guess what war is like. We, here in Ylistaro, didn’t know what it was either, although war had started over three months ago, till we had a dose of it here. It came unexpectedly here, although we had seen many Russian bombing planes fly overhead to and from Vaasa.
It was about the middle of February when they came here. Twenty-one planes. What a roaring sound and bombs falling. Quite a few came within 300 yards of our place. They came so unexpectedly that no one had time to think. All I could think or do was to stand in the middle of the room, right in line with the window; but the bombs fell far enough away that no bomb pieces or rocks came near. Two women were killed here. And then the planes came another time, which was worse because we knew what was coming, as we were warned about 20 minutes before they arrived.
It’s no fun to face death waiting for a bomb to fall on one or waiting for them to use their machine guns on us. Quite a few were shot at but as they laid on the ground under the trees so no one was hurt. You should see the big holes the bombs make. One can’t put it on the paper the feelings one has during the bombing. Every time the skies are clear and fine weather, we are all afraid. People rush around doing chores and shopping so as to be free the rest of the day in case they should come again. Most of the people left the town for the day. When the weather was good for flying we called it “Molotof’s weather” and bad weather “Mannerheim weather.”
No one of us minded the severe weather and snow storms because in every way it was in our favor even at the fighting lines. Many a Russian froze to death for lack of warm clothing. It was a surprise and sad, very sad news when we heard over the radio, that peace had been signed. What a peace! No one was glad to hear it because of the terms.
But no one on the face of the earth can say that Finland lost. They held their own but our army was small, being a small country and the other countries were so slow in sending men, and Sweden in the end would not allow them to go through her country as she was afraid of Germany.
We had a lot of humane help from the outside but it wasn’t enough.
Yes, my husband is a soldier, too, but he did not have to go till January. I have a family of three here evacuated from the war territory; now they’ve lost their homes forever to the Russians. It is really sad and pathetic when one stops to think that thousands of people were left homeless. Lots of them had to leave most of their belongings for the Russians to destroy.
There’s lots and lots one could write about all this. We only hope war doesn’t start again. None of us believe this peace will last. I feel bad because Finland only gets humane help from the U.S.A. while Russia gets gasoline and war goods so she can fly over Finland spreading death and destruction even among the civilians, not only at the fighting front.
We are still having winter weather although it is the last of March and past Easter. I have my hands full with my daughter, I mean with all the other work put in. But she is a good baby, always laughing. I only hope she will stay as healthy as she is now. She is seven months old.
Life is so funny now that one does not know just what to do and what to plan. The war has taken the joy out of life. I suppose everything will turn all right after my husband comes home; we have no idea when that will be.
I guess I had better quit scribbling and send my best regards to all of you.
Tyyne Sippola. 139