The Karelian Isthmus has long labored through uneasy times. I suppose it’s a bad idea to apply human characteristics such as suffering and endurance to a chunk of land, because it’s very near to mixing metaphors…or something. But it seems somehow appropriate. We’ve talked about this piece of property on numerous occasions, and always under the strain of conflict or outright war.
Where is it? The easiest way to find it is to locate St. Petersburg, Russia on your globe or wall map or maybe even on the Internet. St. Petersburg sits right at the tip of the Karelian Isthmus, which separates the Gulf of Finland from Lake Ladoga (which has also received some play around these parts).
It’s not as though this is prime real estate. In his wonderful book on the Russo-Finnish War called A Frozen Hell, William Trotter writes that while the area is beautiful, rich with trees and pocked with lakes, the beauty runs no deeper than that. He pens, “The soil grows few crops, and those grudgingly, and the scant mineral resources are hardly worth the labor of extraction.”
This chunk of “scenic wasteland” has value because of its location and its function as a land bridge between Russia and Asia to the east and Scandanavia to the west. And in the land couple of hundred years, much of the conflict has centered around St. Petersburg.
In the late 1930s, St. Petersburg was called Leningrad and the Karelian Isthmus, to within a very few miles of the city, was territory belonging to Finland. And this worried the Stalin-led Soviets badly. It’s not as though Finland was a threat, as their stance of strict neutrality was well-known. But Germany was not neutral, and her ties in Scandanavia (particularly with Sweden) presented a tremendous threat to Stalin, especially since Finland didn’t appear to have much of a military presence. A quick air attack, a few Wehrmacht divisions on the ground with a handful of Panzers, and the spear tip of National Socialism would be an artillery shell’s distance from Leningrad, the heart of Bolshevism.
So the Soviets began discussions with the Finns in early 1938, hinting that the Finns should take positive action to resist German aggression. The Finns reminded their western neighbors that, as neutrals, they would take positive action against any aggressor. The talks continued, with the Russians stating that Helsinki could really show their neutrality best by ceding to Russia parts of the Karelian Isthmus, especially those closest to Leningrad. The Finnish response was predictable: that’s preposterous and out of the question.
The back-and-forth banter continued through 1938 and into 1939. When the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Red Army followed suit from the east a couple of weeks later. Stalin had his breathing space in Europe. As part of his agreement with Germany, the Soviet dictator annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Stalin had his breathing space in the Balkans. But still there was Scandanavia.
The Finnish government was summoned in early October. Trotter quotes Max Jakobsen, a Finnish historian. “For eighteen months, Finland had conducted a muted dialogue with her great neighbor; the Russians had from time to time softly asked a favor or two, and the Finns had politely whispered their refusal. Now the tone was changed: this time, there had been steel in Molotov’s voice.” The first high-level meeting between the two governments took place in Moscow on October 12, 1939, and there was no soft talk or beating around the bush on this occasion.
The Soviet Union demanded that the Finns give up most of the Karelian Isthmus and all fortifications there (including the famed Mannerheim Line) be destroyed. Also demanded were several Finnish-owned islands in the Gulf of Finland and the Rybachi Peninsula in the Arctic. In addition, the Soviets wanted Finland to lease them the Hanko peninsula and allow them to build a Red Army base there. In return, the Russians would give Finland 5,500 square kilometers of territory on the other side of Lake Ladoga.
Effectively, the Russians were asking Finland to give up any ability to defend itself from the east while providing their neighbor protection from the west. The Finns believed this was ludicrous. They were right. They also believed that Stalin’s threat to take the territory by force if they refused was a bluff. They were wrong.
These talks would ultimately fail, leading to one of the most lopsided land battles in all of the Second World War.
Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell