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The Winter War: Finland’s fight for independence

Memorial Day is something I have yet to experience in the United States. However, I am fully aware how much the veterans are respected, as they should be. They are the ones who have put their lives on the line for the greater good. Just as hockey player T.J. Oshie once said after scoring four shootout goals against Russia in the 2014 Olympics and getting called the American hero, “The American heroes are wearing camo. That’s not me.”

By far the coolest military appreciation moment I have personally witnessed happened in Fairbanks, Alaska. We played the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and during the opening ceremony, they had soldiers fast-roping from the catwalk. Opening ceremonies like that, standing ovations, special jerseys, and Memorial Day, just to name a few, are unbelievable ways to show respect to the veterans.

Since Finland is not a member of any military alliance, people might think that it has always been peaceful in here. However, it has been a battlefield on multiple different occasions. It is honestly a miracle that we’re still an independent country. The biggest miracle of all was the Winter War, which was one of the World War II battles. The Finnish Memorial Day has been celebrated ever since that war on the third Sunday in May.

The Winter War was fought between Finland and the then-Soviet Union. It took place in the border areas of the two countries, and lasted from Nov. 30, 1939, to March 13, 1940. Joseph Stalin and the Soviets thought that the war would be over in no time. To be fair, there was no reason to think otherwise.

When the Winter War started, the Soviets had 500,000 soldiers, which was three times more than what Finland had. They also had 30 times more airplanes and 200 times more tanks than the Finns. These numbers feel absurd, and that’s why the Soviets thought that they would conquer Finland in 12 days.

The Soviets started the war by staging a military conflict (Shelling of Mainila) in the Soviet village of Mainila, close to the Finnish border. Four Soviet soldiers died in the artillery fire that came from Finland. But it was not Finland who fired the shots. Finland knew that Stalin would try something like this, which is why the Finns had pulled their artillery back. Even though the village of Mainila was simply out of their range, the Soviet Union blamed it on Finland.

So, how was Finland able to fight back against the mighty Soviet Union? Well, since pretty much all the Finns knew how to ski, it was a great way to move fast and silently in the snow. Knowledge of terrain, guerrilla warfare, and white parkas made the war miserable to the poorly prepared Soviets. Finns also used a tactic called “motti.” They used to cut down trees in order to force the Soviet tanks stop, surrounded them, and left no way to escape.

One of the most important soldiers of the Winter War was a Finnish sniper, Simo Häyhä. Häyhä used to ski to his position and lay there for the whole day, moving inch-by-inch if necessary. He froze the snow around him with water, so that the snow would not puff and expose him after his shots. He also put snow in his mouth to reduce the warm breath from coming out of his mouth and exposing him.

The most impressive thing about Häyhä is that he refused to use new and modern rifles. He stuck to his own rifle, a SAKO M/28-30, and did not use a scope at all. Häyhä thought that a scope would reflect sunlight and make him vulnerable.

He was so feared among the Soviets that they gave him a nickname, Belaja Smert, which means “the White Death.”

He had a bounty on his head, and eventually he got hit in the jaw by an exploding bullet. This put him in an 11-day coma. He woke up from coma on the last day of the Winter War, with 500 confirmed kills on his belt and a daily high of 40 confirmed kills.

Regardless of maintaining its independence and gaining the whole world’s respect, Finland suffered major losses as the aftermath of the war. Finland lost 57,000 square kilometers of land to the Soviets. This was a significant loss, because some of the main industrial areas were now owned by the Soviet Union.

What hurt Finland the most was losing the Karelian Isthmus. The second largest city in Finland, Vyborg, was lost as a part of the Moscow Peace Treaty and 420,000 people, 12% of Finland’s population, was forced to move elsewhere in Finland from the isthmus.

Due to multiple reasons, such as its geographic proximity to Russia, Finland still has mandatory military service for men over 18 years old. The minimum duration is 165 days, but for certain conscripts it can be as long as 255 or 347 days. If someone is prevented from completing their time in the military, for example due to their religion, they can choose a 347-day non-military service. That means working in a non-profit company/entity.

Not everyone is happy about the mandatory military service, but for the most part Finns accept it as their duty. I have not completed military service yet due to hockey and my studies, but I am looking forward to experiencing it. Personally, I feel like that is just something that Finns have to do for their country. That is the least we can do to honor our veterans and their sacrifices for our independence.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Roni Salmenkangas is a student athlete at Ferris State University, majoring in sports communication. For the most part, Roni’s stories focus on Finnish culture and people. He is completing his internship from Tampere, Finland.

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