Governor Erkki Liikanen
Bank of Finland
Book review publisehd in Helsingin Sanomat on 17 March 2018


An American perspective places the Finnish Winter War in the geopolitical framework of the Soviet Union.

Last August Princeton university professor Stephen Kotkin gave a speech at an international conference in Aspen, Colorado. His analyses of Russia were distinctive and incisive. When I went to thank the professor he asked whether I knew Kimmo Rentola. Kotkin had familiarised himself with the Finnish professor’s articles on the Winter War for his own research on Stalin.

Kotkin had begun work on a trilogy on Stalin, and the first volume had already been published. It was a huge success among the critics. The second volume, Waiting for Hitler, discusses the events of the Soviet empire from 1928 onwards and was published last autumn.

Henry Kissinger wrote in his famous book Diplomacy (1994): ‘Stalin was indeed a monster; but in the conduct of international relations, he was the supreme realist – patient, shrewd and implacable, the Richelieu of his period.’

Kotkin challenges Kissinger’s view. Stalin was all the things Kissinger stated, but he was never only that. Stalin was more of a gambler than most people have understood.

Kotkin mentions four gambles taken by Stalin. The first was the forced collectivisation and dekulakisation.

Stalin’s justification for his action was that capital was needed for a rapid industrialisation of the country. Not much capital could be extracted, though. The greatest risk of collectivisation was famine, which actually materialised in many regions.

The second gamble involved the cleansing of the party and army at the same time as the Soviet Union was already involved in wars in Spain and China and was soon to be in conflict with Germany.

These purges also featured in director A. J. Annila’s latest film, which is based on Antti Tuuri’s novel Ikitie (‘The Eternal Road’). If the worst had come to pass, the purges could have threatened the very existence of the Soviet Union.

The third gamble was the treaty with Hitler and the division of Europe by a ‘Pact of Blood’, even if the justifications for this were economic in nature. The pact between Hitler and Mussolini was also identically titled, before it was later renamed the ‘Pact of Steel’, due to the negative reception in Italy.

Kotkin considers that Stalin’s fourth and final gamble was the Soviet invasion of Finland and the resulting Winter War. Stalin embarked on this gamble with Finland unprepared – and without realising he was doing so. This was Stalin’s first test in the arts of modern warfare. According to Kotkin, the results initially proved disastrous.

The book dedicates as many as 60 pages to detailing the negotiations preceding the Winter War and the war itself. Kotkin not only draws on Soviet archives but has also studied Finnish biographies and research literature. Jakobson, Käkönen, Mannerheim, Manninen, Rentola, Sarola-Kuusinen, Tanner, Tuominen and many others are named among the book’s references.

The value of Kotkin’s monumental work for a Finnish reader is that it places Finland in the geopolitical framework of the Soviet Union. It provides an impressive chronicle of Soviet history and simultaneously paints a detailed portrait of Stalin’s person, characteristics and life.

Kotkin raises a fundamental question for the reader: would it have been possible to avoid the Winter War by agreeing to Stalin’s demands on the borderline adjustments and the Hanko military base?

The late Finnish president Mauno Koivisto discussed the issue in his final book Itsenäiseksi imperiumin kainalossa (‘Independence under the arm of an empire’) (2004). Koivisto wrote:

‘To date, there is no evidence that the Soviet Union’s plans for Finland would have diverged from those for the Baltic States. Perhaps war in autumn 1939 was a necessary prelude to new negotiations, who knows.’

Kotkin’s book pays a great deal of attention to culture. A year ago, the Finnish National Opera performed Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth. Stalin went to see this in January 1937. A few days later an article appeared in Pravda entitled ‘A muddle instead of music’. It had been penned by Platon Kerzhentsev, the eager new chairman of the Committee for Artistic Affairs, and not by Stalin, as rumoured. The opera was not showcased again for several decades.

The first volume of Kotkin’s Stalin trilogy closed in 1928. The second volume brings events up to the German invasion. 

Stalin II stands head and shoulder above its peers. The book is a mammoth 950 pages, with an additional 150 pages of reference literature. After this great endeavour, the reader awaits with bated breath the third volume of the trilogy.

Erkki Liikanen