It happens to rearrange old books and pick up one that seems anything but interesting. Then you see Indro Montanelli’s signature and you realize you’ve found an old friend who never lets you down. You start reading it and after a few pages you catch a glimpse of déjà vu: it is about the war between Stalin’s USSR and Finland in 1939.

Surrender of Poland to Nazi Germany

We are in November 1939, shortly after the surrender of Poland to Nazi Germany, when it seemed that Hitler had been satisfied because, despite the war declared by France and the United Kingdom, the armies would remain stationary until the following April, when Hitler would attack Denmark and Norway and, shortly after, invading Belgium and Holland, he will move to the conquest of France. Those months (defined by the French as «funny war») will be filled with news from distant Finland. And here Montanelli enters the scene who, struck at home by the ostracism of the regime for his reports on the Spanish civil war, is sent to Helsinki by Corriere della Sera as a “traveling editor”.

After a series of negotiations between the Finns and the Soviets, on November 30, 1939, a force of 540,000 men, 2,485 tanks, 2,000 guns and 2,340 planes attacked Finland without a declaration of war, with 140,000 men, 32 tanks and 145 planes.

The simple difference between the 180 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union and the 3.5 million of Finland would have been sufficient to predict a rapid end to the conflict: the USSR attacks from the far north, from the center (the border between the two nations is over 1300 kilometers) but above all from the south, from the Karelian isthmus, a few tens of kilometers away from St. Petersburg.

Montanelli reveals that the reason that unleashed the war is precisely this extreme proximity between the old tsarist capital and the border with Finland, despite the fact that the Finns, during the negotiations that preceded the attack, had declared: «How can you think that a nation of 3.5 million inhabitants attack one of 180»?

The old fear of any attack had got the better of even logic. And this already makes us think of a similarity with the Russian-Ukrainian war. But the more Montanelli takes us into the story, the more the similarities overlap: the Soviets hit civilian targets to weaken the morale of the attacked nation, their shots are as generic as they are inaccurate.

On the ground they advance in large masses, meeting unexpected and deadly resistance. The Finns, who defend their land, are determined, indomitable, impregnable: they fight on skis and using guerrilla warfare, ambushes in the night, massacring Russian soldiers who, once taken prisoner, reveal themselves with morale on the ground, with equipment substandard and obsolete weapons.

Analogies again? The tepid aid of France and England to the attacked nation in “volunteers” and military means.

The “winter war”, as it will be called, will end six months later, in March 1940, with the peace of Moscow, which will see a relative victory for Stalin: 126,000 dead or missing on the Soviet side against between 22 and 26,000 dead and missing Finns, 264 thousand Soviet wounded against 43 thousand Finnish wounded, 1800 tanks and 521 Russian aircraft destroyed against 62 Finnish aircraft.

In his memoirs, former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev speaks of about one million deaths on the Russian side.

Finland will lose 10% of its territory and 12% of its population and will suffer major negative economic and financial consequences.

The Red Army will suffer a strong loss of credibility due to the numerous setbacks which made it a far from unbeatable force. Karl Marx said that history always repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy and the second time as a farce. But this time, there are two tragedies, equally bloody and always have – more or less – the same attacker.

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