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12 Mar, 2009 05:46

Soviet-Finnish war remembered

Thursday marks the sixty-ninth anniversary of the peace treaty ending the 1939-40 military conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland. It lasted for 105 bitterly cold days and is known as the Winter War.

Joseph Stalin had long wanted to regain Finland – part of the Russian Empire before the Revolution.

At the end of November 1939 the Soviet army attacked, expecting a quick victory, but the campaign quickly turned into an icy hell for the poorly prepared Red Army, crippled by the recent purges among officers.

The Soviets eventually broke the Finnish defense, but they paid a high price. While some 25,000 Finns were killed, the USSR initially claimed its losses stood at 49,000. It was later revealed the number could be almost three times that.

Finland was forced to accept peace terms signed in Moscow on March 12, 1940. The USSR pushed its border west, gaining a large slice of Finnish territory and much of the country's industrial capacity.

However, the war dealt a massive blow to the USSR's reputation as world opinion largely supported the Finnish cause. The country was expelled from the League of Nations.

In spite of this, historian Yuri Kilin says Finland too had been nursing plans of an attack against the Bolsheviks.

“Although Finland didn't start the war, it had long wanted to capture some Soviet land. The maps were drawn as early as 1919. Finland was never just an innocent victim. It simply didn't plan to attack the USSR alone,” he said.

In 1941, soon after Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, the Finns regained their land and moved into Soviet territory. They set up several concentration camps in the city of Petrozavodsk. Out of its 20,000 civilians, 4,000 perished.

Lydia Sinukova was 14 at the time, and was one of the prisoners. Now 82 she still remembers the shock she felt then.

She recalled: “We woke up in the morning and there was barbed wire all around the city. People were panicking. My mother soon fell ill and was taken to a hospital for prisoners. Two weeks later I was given a scrap of paper saying she had died.”

After World War II the 1940 border was restored. Now, 70 years after the Winter War, enthusiasts take part in reconstructions of the events, saying the key is to remember and come to terms with this bitter part of Russia's past.