This is a little true story based in modern history that shows what happens when things are not well thought out, or fully understood. I enjoy writing such stories, and the older I get the easier they come. I seem to have so many of them running around in my head… This one was stirred by the political nonsense currently surrounding our own proposed Keystone XL pipeline from western Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
Just two months after Germany attacked Poland and started World War II, Russia’s Red Army, with many thousands of tanks and aircraft and really huge numbers of soldiers, attacked little neutral Finland. It was an effort by Stalin to enlarge the defensible land around and beyond Leningrad (St Petersburg) on the Baltic.
The Finns immediately counter-attacked to stop the Soviet advance on its territory.
The contested land involved was an agriculturally rich and very beautiful Finnish region east of Helsinki and the Baltic Sea known for centuries as south Karelia, comparable to Finland as are the southern states to America. The Finns were enormously out-numbered, but the Russian military was hindered by paranoid Stalin’s earlier stupid purge of her military’s best and most experienced officers. The conflict, which became known as the Winter War, was confined to a relatively small region and was thus also incredibly bloody, with Khrushchev, who was there, later estimating that a million Russian soldiers died in Karelia – in a war against a very tiny country of only about four million people. (“Official” estimates of Russian casualties are only a third of this number, but still five times higher than Finnish casualties.) The Finns did sustain significant losses (26,000 dead or “missing”, 1,000 captured, 44,000 wounded) but fought brilliantly and valiantly in the bitter cold snow against great odds.
The Finns’ chief error seems to have been a failure, probably due to inexperience with air power, of making the best strategic use of a few bombers slipped in to them by the Brits and Americans; they would have been even more successful against the Russians if they had used those bombers to destroy rail supply lines in the rear, even if that called for suicide missions against superior air forces. However, the Finns knew that they would not prevail over the long run since Russia had an almost inexhaustible supply of men and equipment to throw into the meat grinder, and Finland had not been successful in obtaining help from others, including Sweden, Britain and America, beyond some supplies and equipment. When the opportunity to end the slaughter presented itself, the Finns, under their great nationalist hero Marshal Mannerheim, agreed to a peace treaty. That treaty cost Finland Karelia, but saved the rest of the country from Soviet occupation. Most of the people then living in Karelia were quickly evacuated to the remaining part of Finland and resettled at great cost throughout the small country, now made even smaller.
The events of the 1939-40 war became enshrined in Finnish mythology. The country for many centuries had been occupied and ruled by the Swedish empire and then by the Russian tsars, but had still managed to retain its language and culture, its own independent identity, before using the tumultuous Bolshevik Revolution to seize its independence. Much more than the resulting Civil War of 1917-18 (in which Mannerheim had led the White nationalists to victory over the Red communists), the Winter War of 1939-40 was their greatest source of national pride, and they even came up with a word to describe themselves – “sisu” – meaning a tough, gutsy, indomitable spirit that cannot be bowed by oppression or great adversity. The word came to define Finns, not only to themselves, but to the rest of the world, too. Finland is the only country in history to have fought the gigantic Russians and not been defeated. Not even Napoleon could lay claim to such a great accomplishment.
But throughout the subsequent long “Cold” War, Karelians resettled in Finland remained a people slightly apart from the others. They were also fiercely anti-Russian, anti-Soviet, anti-communist, even as the Finnish leadership sought wisely to maintain a more low key “accommodation” with Russia. (Since the alternative was Soviet occupation, Finnish leadership very astutely and adeptly kept the nation on a political tightrope, but free, for the next 45 years.) Even with a common language and culture, the Karelians were still regarded by other Finns as temporary residents who had been resettled and accommodated at great cost (and some not so subliminal resentment), even to the point of dividing up parcels of land throughout the country previously owned by others among the newly arrived Karelians.
No sooner was the ink on the Russia-Finland treaty dry did Germany invade and occupy Norway to the east. Soon Germany’s blitzkrieg, despite a non-aggression pact between the two countries and thus to Stalin’s great surprise, was advancing on Russia. Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa” called for massive attacks across an enormous front, all along the border north to south for 1,800 miles (2,900 km), with part of the northern flank involving an attack from Norway through northern Finland and into the Kola Peninsula and Karelia. The principle focus of the German forces in the north were first to secure the Russian Barents Sea ports at Murmansk and Archangel, before moving south toward Leningrad. Seeing an opportunity to regain Karelia, the Finns joined the German advance into Russia. At first that gamble succeeded, and Finns once again occupied their Karelia. But eventually the tide of war turned at Stalingrad, and soon it was the Russians who were advancing on the Germans, and, by default, also on the Finns. Both withdrew back westward ahead of the steamrolling American-supplied Red Army. Sensing catastrophe, the Finns sued for a separate peace with Russia. Karelia was again in Russian hands, but Finland proper was again spared Soviet occupation. In return, however, the Finns were required to turn on the Germans and force them out of Finland. The Germans were understandably chagrinned at this treasonous act by an “ally”, and instituted a scorched earth policy as they retreated westward out of Finland and then Norway.
The combined events of the Winter War and the immediate follow-on World War II (which the Finns still call the “Continuation War”) truly devastated the country and claimed a huge portion of her young men, and the Finns were still saddled with all those Karelians in an appreciably smaller country. Since they had fought with the Germans against the Russians, they were required by the western allies to pay huge reparation payments to Russia, and were also barred from assistance under major American reconstruction programs like the Marshall Plan. So Finns once again summoned all the “sisu” they could muster to meet their obligations, alone. This was, after all, Finland’s own Greatest Generation.
Even with a severe shortage of able bodied young men, they succeeded in rebuilding their country alone, took care of hundreds of thousands of Karelian refugees alone, and were the only people to actually pay off all their reparation requirements, alone. Finland, resurrected from the ashes of three phases of one long war, remained a free country and quietly built a rich, vibrant capitalist democracy for decades right under the nose of the big bear next door, ever fearful that at any moment the bear would walk in and take over. (There was always over 600 miles of unfenced and barely marked border between the two countries, and the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear naval base was just across that border in the far north at Murmansk. Adding to the tension was the fact that Murmansk was always very strongly defended by the Red Army all along the border.) What Finland’s Greatest Generation accomplished can only be compared to America’s Greatest Generation, and in some ways even surpassed it. This generation had all the “sisu” in the world. Some of them, including Karelians, even came to America “after the war” to join the US Army and fought in Korea; some of the best ended up in the US Army’s Special Forces and served in Vietnam. (See Footnote #1.)
I lived among these quiet unassuming people for three years (1978-81) as a military diplomat, a professional with a good foundation in history who knew how to analyze such things, and I literally stood in awe of what they had achieved in their small corner of the globe. Although quite large in land size, this country’s population never exceeded five million – smaller than the DC metropolitan area inside the Beltway. Yet they did everything that huge counties like Germany did, including fielding their own advanced fighter planes and military vehicles, and on an equal footing in advanced technological competence, just on a smaller scale. Their Greatest Generation developed a firm mission of the nation being able to do and make everything it needed in order to survive and compete alone, and that objective was very well realized. Even today, during the Great Recession, its economy remains among the very strongest and most solid in Europe, and its Finance Minister has become one of the top EU experts in guiding the continent out of its economic mess.
The many thousands of Karelians who had fled their homes with only the belongings they could carry on their backs or on small horse-drawn carts never stopped dreaming of going home again – back to their towns, their houses, their fields, their lakes and forests, back to their beloved Karelia. But age was catching up with them. In the 1980s they began dying, and as they died, so did their memories, their dreams. Those younger, who had grown up in a time of peace and bounty, unaffected by tumultuous events beyond their borders, unaware of great risks frequently taken on their behalf by others in the shadows, ignorant of how very precarious their condition had remained throughout the long and terrifying “Cold” War, had different perspectives. On my way out of Finland, I married the young daughter of Karelian refugees, and she accompanied me for several years of my odyssey. I must confess that her knowledge of and interest in such matters was no greater than for any other member of her generation of Finns. They had no comprehension at all of what their parents had gone through in order to offer their children so very much. Karelia was to them a sparsely populated region on the east side of the border that remained pretty much as it was at the end of the old wars, decaying and dying, old and unwanted, of no consequence, its soil rich with the blood of hundreds of thousands of long forgotten soldiers, now populated by new soldiers they feared while trying hard to ignore. The kids were all looking west, toward America and all its toys and music and wealth and fame – at all of what America’s Greatest Generation had forged for its children, who then put it all on gaudy display for the whole world to see, and envy. As our travels continued in far away other corners of the globe, my quiet Karelian wife quickly grew into a beautiful and rather sophisticated woman of the world, and, when she was ready, flew off on her own, leaving behind as much of the past as possible.
In November 1989 the whole half-century long nightmare “in the background” came to a sudden and peaceful end. For 45 years West Berlin had been an occupied city, the freest place in all of Europe, kept that way by a US Army of Occupation, a sparkling diamond island surrounded by a sea of gray misery 110 miles behind the “Iron Curtain”. I returned to my former home in Berlin to watch The Wall come down, and even to pitch in with friends from both sides in the effort. As I had long done elsewhere, I watched from an inside front row seat all that I and so many of my partners had worked toward for the previous 45 years finally come to fruition, a long overdue but nevertheless supremely satisfactory resolution. For the first and only time in my career I couldn’t hold back the tears. For a man who knew libraries of so many intimate details of what had gone before, it was all just too overwhelming. Faces of fallen friends and dead enemies all around the world played across my mind as students from West Berlin’s Free University and East Berlin’s Humboldt University cheered and screamed and sang from the top of an ugly wall that had come to symbolize a century of monumental conflict and fear. A lifetime of living with the constant terror of potential nuclear Armageddon seemed to just slink away into the shadows. It was time to exhale. For the first time in a quarter of a century, I could smell the roses.
I remembered another cold November day 28 years earlier. I remembered when I was young and standing in the frigid Washington of November 1961 listening to another Irish-American say, as he took the helm of America, “Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah — to “undo the heavy burdens, and let the oppressed go free. …. And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (See Footnote #2.) I was sold. A year and a half later Kennedy spoke to a half million people in a West Berlin square and said, “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin Berliner!”… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin Berliner!” I, too, became a Berliner, a proud resident of the city, living in and working out of West Berlin for over a decade but never leaving its magnetism, its hold on my soul. Long set adrift from my home country, the Divided City and all its symbolism had become the reason I served my own nation around the world, even in Finland.
In November 1989, the ugly Wall around Berlin came down, and hundreds of millions of average people in nine countries all along the “Iron Curtain”, and Russia, too, breathed their very first scent of freedom.
Some things were worth great sacrifice. The small in-between Silent Generation spoke the same language as the Greatest Generation.
But their spoiled children did not. The post-War Baby Boomers just enjoyed the fruits.
Two years later in 1992, the new elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Finland. During the visit Yeltsin, who had not yet begun drinking so heavily, stated flat out that Stalin had taken Karelia from Finland. He also signed a new and far less oppressive treaty between Finland and Russia and promised to open up secret archives. I stood far off to the side as the symbolic climax of the visit came when he laid a wreath at the tomb of Finland’s Unknown Soldier, the first Russian leader to do so. During that visit, Yeltsin also offered to return Karelia to Finland, an offer that caught the Finnish government completely off guard.
Earlier, West Germans had seen a sudden opportunity to reunite the two parts of their country and immediately seized that opportunity without a moment’s hesitation. Within just seven months it was a fait accompli, well before anyone had even fully calculated the great potential cost. It was the right thing to do, especially for a country constantly reminded by everyone else of its history. The Germans still had a sense of self, of national identity, a sense of responsibility to the future in full consideration of the past, its past.
By now I knew both Berlin and Helsinki better than I knew my own home town of Washington, but I had never fully grasped just how much the younger people of those two European cities had grown so different. And it broke my heart.
Finland was now in the hands of a new generation, a contemporary American-style generation. With limited vision, they had not anticipated the possibility. Unprepared for Yeltsin’s offer, they were unprepared to discuss it, and most especially in public. The Russians were shocked; fully expecting the matter to be raised by the Finns, they had even done preliminary work on a negotiating position in preparation. (Russia probably would have retained sizeable chunks in the south to provide a defensible area around Leningrad and in the north to do the same for Murmansk; both are significant Russian naval bases. Still, major portions of Karelia around Lake Ladoga would once again have been Finland’s.) But, even though there had always been in Finland quietly vocal Karelian interest groups, it appeared that the Finnish leadership had never even given the topic much consideration at all. (The Karelian groups had suggested that Finland offer to remain outside “NATO” as an inducement to regain Karelia, but the Finnish government had long ignored the Karelians and had little or no interest in joining “NATO”, with all its inherent costs and obligations, anyway.)
And there suddenly before the Finnish leadership stood a huge potential bill, a bill that did not benefit “me”. Not only did Russia, then rapidly disintegrating and in desperate need of foreign cash, have a price tag for Karelia, but the cost of rebuilding a region that had suffered abject neglect for over a half century would have been formidable indeed. The Finnish government essentially put a lid on the whole subject, even denying that a Russian offer had even been made. The government leadership never offered an explanation of why they had not raised the issue with the Russians themselves.
And, even if such an offer had been made, the costs were just too high for Finland to bear.
“The costs were just too high to bear.”
We are talking here about money, and money presented only as a beginning figure for negotiation, a figure, given the circumstances, that could easily have been considerably lowered through adept bargaining. After all, Karelia now not only represented a potential cost to Finland, but a potential cost to a very hard-strapped Russia, too, depending on which country had ownership. The primary way that Russia was seeking to keep its head above water, to avoid its total disintegration, was rapid and massive exploitation of its huge oil and gas resources. In order to get those resources to the Baltic for onward shipment, it would be necessary for them to transit Karelia. All of this took time, and money.
The Finnish government never picked up the Yeltsin offer, even steadily sought to deny it, to put the whole topic under the carpet, out of sight, out of mind. This dismissive denial continues today. And, quite naturally, the Russian position subsequently has undergone considerable back-peddling as their situation has gradually improved; it seems the window of opportunity for Finland has now closed. (The same is true of the golden once-in-a-century window that opened for America to forge a meaningful and highly useful partnership with Russia for the coming century; America’s Baby Boomers instead continued to rely on thinking done for them by their fathers — for a world now gone — for the past century. And they have paid a very heavy price ever since.)
The absolutely astounding thing is that the factor considered by the Finns was solely money. Those making the decision apparently had absolutely no understanding of their own history, of their own culture, of the very foundation of their national character, their own exalted “sisu” identity. These were spoiled little children who had no understanding at all of their own parents. They were children who had spent their whole lives riding free on the accomplishments of their parents and grandparents – and claiming those accomplishments, as do all who throw around so cavalierly the royal “we”, as their own. Karelia, so very fundamental to understanding Finland, at the very core of “Finnish”, remains today a part of Russia. Finnish children could not even bother to rise to the occasion, to summon the courage to make an effort, to retain for future generations their very soul. It is impossible to imagine that future generations of Finns, if there ARE future generations of Finns in a country that can’t even be bothered to have and raise enough of its own children to pay for their own “birthright entitlements”, will not rightly enshrine this generation in shame.
Russia in the intervening years has not disintegrated. Out of the collapse eventually rose a firm leader, a man who knew and understood both the West and Russia, a strong man not so unlike the very long line of powerful Russian rulers that Russians understood and admired, a man who placed “Mother Russia” above all else. To the vast majority of Russians, Mother Russia is the hallowed Everything, more important than even themselves. Putin chose the only path available to Mother Russia and regained control over those natural resources that had been sold off to foreigners in the desperate and dysfunctional years immediately following the fall of Soviet communism. He has thrown all he could into developing those and additional resources, and into shipping them to market as fast as possible.
The city of Leningrad quickly re-adopted its proud original name – St Petersburg. Soon big oil and gas pipelines were laid north of St Petersburg to new port terminals on the Baltic, where they were loaded onto ships for western destinations at good market prices. Russia, the largest nation on Earth with the world’s largest deposits of natural resources, has used profits from that oil and gas to hold the nation’s economy together while also gradually rebuilding its military forces and its future viability as a nation worthy of respect. Its greatest and most strategic weakness remains its self-destructive super low birth rate with no viable immigration to take up the native slack. But just this month the nation’s leadership inaugurated a huge new duel gas pipeline that had been laid for 760 miles on the bottom of the Baltic all the way from Karelia to northern Germany in a little over one year. (The Nord Stream Baltic pipeline avoids transiting former Soviet states now unhappy with paying global market rates for what was formerly heavily subsidized by the Russians and willing to try stopping its transit or stealing it for themselves – all to recreate the old East-West “Cold” War tensions for their own advantage.)
Nominal Finnish taxes and fees on all that gas and oil flowing in all those pipelines through a Finnish Karelia would easily have paid to rebuild Karelia, and more.
After finally removing their WW II mines from the seabed ahead of the new pipes, Finns made certain that the Russian pipelines would in no way represent a threat to their Baltic environment. That, and some heavy concrete coating to keep the pipes on the bottom, was Finland’s contribution to this major Western Europe lifeline – a lifeline that bypasses Finland.
And little has changed in Karelia. Finns now ride a super high speed rail between Helsinki and St Petersburg, which affords glimpses of Karelia out the window. A few other aging Finns and Karelians can take guided excursions to their ancestral homes and farms, and try to grasp the monumental events that befell their grandparents in their youth. But very little has changed; Russia has so far chosen to devote its attention elsewhere. The Greatest Generation of Finns and Karelians, most now long in their graves, are justifiably ashamed of their own children. So, too, will be their grandchildren. “Sisu” has become a figment of a delusional Finnish imagination – all while necessary Third World immigration steadily changes the very character and face of the nation.
The self-involved kids couldn’t even be bothered to keep it all alive and viable. There will be no great sacrifices for these Finns. Once led by real giants like Mannerheim, Paasikivi, Kekkonen, and made possible by Finnish men and women of forged steel, today Finland is led by petty people, small bureaucrats and functionaries .. who play shortsightedly to “me”.
Except for its far better schools, Finland has become a microcosmic reflection of America. How did that happen, in each country? (It’s not exactly comforting that now I can’t shake a vague impression that the Germans have become the only adults left in the West. Perhaps it’s primarily a matter of masculine logical thinking still nudging out feminine emotional nonsense, and not the reverse, in Germany alone. The nation is indeed fortunate to be blessed with the best leader in the West – a smart woman who grew up in Communist East Germany and has no illusions about the real world, and responsibility.)
Addendum: In August 2012, Finland approved the establishment of a huge new gambling casino in Vaalimaa, at Finland’s southeastern border with Russia’s Karelia. Vaalimaa has become one of the most significant border crossing points in the European Union: in 2011, more than one million Russian tourists came to Finland via Vaalimaa, through which the super high speed train now runs between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. The Russians, too, can glimpse a still unkempt Karelia out the window, evidencing little interest. The number of Russian tourists visiting Finland is estimated to double in the next few years, and projections are rosy far into the future. Gambling in Finland (mostly of the slot machine variety) is tightly controlled by a quasi-government agency (“RAY”), which collects all profits and redistributes them to charitable causes throughout the country. Profits from the new Vaalimaa gambling casino could easily have been added to gas and oil transit fees to rebuild a Finnish Karelia, dramatically reducing any such costs to the Finnish taxpayer. The shirking of their sacred responsibility in 1992 will go down as the dumbest mistake in all of Finnish history – a mistake made by Finnish Baby Boomers shirking their responsibility.
July 2013: A group of Russian, Finnish and international private investors is building a major four-lane toll highway from the Parikkala-Syväoro border crossing in Finland to Petrozavodsk in Northwestern Russia. Known as the Onega “freeway”, the 426-kilometre (265 mile) road, that will run through Russian Karelia north of Lake Ladoga to the western shore of Lake Onega, is scheduled for completion in six years (2019). The route will traverse numerous Winter War and Continuation War battlefields in very beautiful landscape and is likely to return appreciable profit to investors.
Footnote #1: Lauri Törni (American: Larry Thorn) was a Karelian refugee who, for starters, fought in both the Winter War and the Continuation War as a “guerrilla” and then immigrated illegally to the US. One of Törni’s special operations men in the Continuation War was future President of Finland Mauno Koivisto. Angered by the second treaty with Russia, one that duplicated the first, Törni left Finland and eventually found his way to Venezuela before jumping ship into America. In 1953 he was granted a US residence permit through an Act of Congress that was shepherded by the law firm of “Wild Bill” Donovan, the former head of the OSS, America’s wartime covert military organization that became the CIA. Törni joined the US Army in 1954 under the provisions of the Lodge-Philbin Act and adopted the name Larry Thorne. While in the US Army, he was befriended by a group of Finnish-American officers who came to be known as “Marttinen’s Men.” Similar to Thorne, this group of decorated Finnish wartime officers had emigrated to the United States and were also inducted into the US Army under the Lodge-Philbin Act. Several, including Thorne, were brought into Special Forces (SF, Green Berets) at its inception and soon found themselves serving quietly in the very early years of the Vietnam War. Special Forces Major Thorn died in a 1965 helicopter crash during a covert mission in that war, but his body was not recovered for 34 years, until 1999, and then brought home to be buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery (and also enshrined in Finland). While he lived, in addition to the Finnish Mannerheim Cross (Finland’s equivalent to the Medal Of Honor), Thorne had been awarded the German Iron Cross 2nd Class, and the US Bronze Star, the US Distinguished Flying Cross, and two US Purple Hearts for combat wounds. The man was a hero to three countries, and to all Karelians everywhere.
Footnote #2: Six months after taking office, Kennedy granted presidential authority for the Special Forces’ distinctive green beret and established the Peace Corps – two sides of one mission, one military and one civilian. The motto of the Special Forces is “De oppresso liber” [translation from Latin: “To free the oppressed”]. Note the phrase that Kennedy used in his 1961 speech (above).