Saturday, December 1, 2012

Finnish Democratic Republic

One day after the war started an unknown radio broadcast was heard announcing that the Finnish Communist Party (which was set up in Moscow by the 'exiled' leaders of the Social Democratic Party of Finland, it was illegal in Finland until 1944) had set up a Democratic Republic and appointed Otto Kuusinen as its Chairman. Kuusinen was an exiled Finn, who had fled to Moscow when the Red Guard was defeated during the Finnish Civil War. He had been Commissar of Education in the short lived Finnish Socialist Workers' Republic which was set up at the outbreak of the January 1918 revolution. The government was made up entirely of exiled Red Guard Finns.

The place where this Republic had been set up was the beach resort town of Terijoki (today known as Zelenogorsk), it was the first 'major' population centre to be 'liberated' by the Soviet Union. The Red Army was greeted at Terijoki by hundreds of booby traps and snipers' bullets (the local population had been evacuated). 2 battalions of Group U were assigned to the area on the orders to delay and harass the enemy, they placed snipers in the church tower and the higher buildings of the town, prepared ambushes at street level. Soon tanks were scattered and left without infantry support, unable to attack what it couldn't see, communications broke down between units as fighting descended to a level of barbarity akin to Stalingrad several years in the future; knives, grenades, submachine guns and even fists. The Soviet Baltic fleet made things worse for the Red Army by offering inaccurate fire support that landed amongst their own units, doing less damage to the defending Finns than themselves. This group held up the 70th Rifle Division for over 24 hours and only withdrew after setting up pipebombs, mines and improvised explosives that would hinder the Soviets for many days after, they even blew up the tactically important Leningrad-Viipuri railway bridge. Thanks to the efforts of these units, they dented Kuusinen's plans and the radio broacast asking for urgent Soviet help was made a day after the Soviet invasion, it was a policical embarrassment for the Soviet Government. It is a wonder how any Government was formed so quickly under such chaos. Many modern historians believe that Kuusinen never held Government in Terijoki and that it was impossible to set it up on the 1st December due to the heavy fighting except on paper.

The Officers Club of the 1 Bicycle Battalion in Terijoki, it would become the  'Government' Building which the Finnish Democratic Government was ran from.

The first action by this new Republic was to enter into talks with the Soviet Union. Molotov and Kuusinen must have had a pleasant meetings because the Soviet Union got all the things they wanted from the pre-war negotiations with the Finnish Government. Soon Broadcasts and Leaflets dropped by Soviet Bombers informed the Finnish people that all great Landowner Estates would be broken up and that an eight hour day would be instituted. The main problem with this promise was that an eight hour work day had been brought into Finnish law in over 20 years earlier and the land reform program was such that only a few hundred estates were left with over 300 acres of land. Many of the leaflets dropped on Finnish lines had the message "Let us not shoot each other; let us turn our guns on the common enemy: the White Guard government of Tanner and Mannerheim" or similar. 

The general opinion of the Finnish People of this 'People's' Government was the opposite of what the Soviets thought would happen. Finns thought it laughable and it united them even more no matter their political alignment (There were still some old wounds from the Civil War). They had seen what had happened to the Baltic states and knew that if the Soviets won, then they would no longer be an independent country but a puppet of the Soviet Union. The Democratic Republic was used as the excuse by the Soviet Union to invade Finland, Pravda's front page read "Only the Soviet Union, which rejects the principle of violent seizure of territory and enslavement of nations, would agree to place its armed might at disposal, not for the purpose of attacking Finland or enslaving her people, but securing Finland's independence." When a League of Nations council was called to discuss the conflict, the Soviet representative rejected all attacks on his countries character by stating Russia was not at war with Finland, that's absurd! On the contrary, its relations with the legitimate Kuusinen government were, verifiably, the last word in cordiality and mutual trust! The League did the only thing it could do, it expelled the Soviet Union, not that Stalin would lose any sleep over it. The Winter War would be the final blow to the League of Nations and soon after it would dissolve. 

The crowning achievement for this charade was the formation of the Finnish National Army or as it appeared on the Red Army order of battle, The First Finnish Corps. Not much it known about this short lived unit or how seriously it was taken by the Red Army high command. The propaganda never claimed more that 6,000 men in strength and witnesses only counted 1,000 on display. The majority of its number were of East Karelia and exiled Red Guardsmen (who would be a bit grey by now), however there were probably some turncoats in their ranks but it is not possible to say on exact numbers and as only 1,000 Finns were POWs during the whole war, it can be assumed the number was small. The biggest POW camp held 600 Finns and during a recruitment drive in December only 16 men signed up, so this small percentage shows what the Finnish soldiers thought of it. It was reported, very mockingly, by Finnish sources that the armies first assignment was guarding the headquarters of Kuusinens government dressed in Swedish Royal Army uniforms of the Great Northern War (1700-21) that had been looted from a nearby museum. 

The Finnish National Army first paraded in Terijoki in uniforms similar to this, taken from a local museum.

The Army was effectively a Red Army unit under the jurisdiction of the Leningrad Military District, who provided the line officers. It also had numerous NKVD troops to fill out its ranks. It would fall under the command of Akseli Antilla who was a Red Army officer of Finnish origin and was made Kuusinen's 'minister of defence'. The corps would not be used in any battles but was used more as a militia force behind the lines acting as a recruiting tool, enforcing Popular Front activities that would soon infest the captured territories and helping in the interrogations of prisoners (Kuusinen was at many interrogations).

One of the few photos of the First Finnish Corps, Finnish National Army.
Even though the Government never received any official recognition (except from the Soviet Union), many leftist writers and activists voiced their support, these included John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw and Jawaharlal Nehru. State ran newspapers in Nazi Germany also showed support for the Government, this was down to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The ploy never worked but became an obstacle as it stood in the way of any negotiations, it definitely prolonged the war and caused the deaths of thousands of men on both sides, even if indirectly. The Finnish Democratic Republic saw itself disestablished on the 12th March (one day before the end of the War) and merged with Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to form the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic which was made up of territory ceded to the Soviet Union at the end of the Winter War.

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