Sixty years have passed since the outbreak of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. The fighting began on the last day of November 1939 and ended in March 1940. The Red Army regarded Finland as an easy tit-bit, but found itself choking as the Finns offered fierce resistance in their country's wintry terrain. Finland's heroic struggle against an aggressor with immense numerical superiority gained the admiration of the entire Western world.
Cold numbers tell the essential facts of the fighting. The Finnish loses were 23,000 killed and 45,000 wounded. Soviet casualties totalled about 600,000 men. All in all, the invading force that the Finns had to oppose was about one million strong. In the face of that superior power Finland bent, but did not break.
Under the terms of an armistice signed in Moscow in 1940, Finland ceded the territories that the Soviet Union demanded. The Winter War had ended, but Finland's involvement in the Second World War hostilities resumed just over a year later and continued until autumn 1944. Then they were brought to an end by a new armistice, with harsh terms that were confirmed in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947. Of the territories that had to be ceded, the southern one of Karelia and Petsamo in the north were discussed in the 1999 issue of "Welcome to Finland". But why did the Russians want to push the border westwards also at Salla and Kuusamo about half way up?
"Stalin had clear plans," says the war historian Colonel Sampo Ahto. "Already during the Winter War the Soviet Union attacked with two divisions at Salla in an effort to cut right across Finland and reach the Swedish border at Tornio. However, Finland defended herself so effectively that the operation was a failure - like nearly every other Russian plan in the Winter War."
One of the most epic battles of the war was fought on the Raattee road south of Salla in January 1940 - in a temperature of nearly 40 degrees below zero. The Finns encircled and almost totally destroyed the Red Army's crack 44th Division; 17,500 men died in four days of fighting. That was the end of the Soviet Union's attempt to cut Finland in half at her narrowest point. The crushing defeat inspired a legendary respect among the Russians for their opponents in snow camouflage suits: "the white death".
Salla's role in the great plan
When the peace treaty was being negotiated, the Soviet Union demanded 7,426 sq. km. of territory in Salla and Kuusamo. It was handed over and its few thousand inhabitants were evacuated to the rest of Finland. The treaty included an article requiring Finland to built a railway line from Salla to Kemijärvi, from where there was already a rail link to the port of Tornio. The idea of cutting Finland in half remained very much alive, and the Finns knew it. "This construction work was intended to facilitate a future Russian attack," says Colonel Ahto. "The Russians tried to speed up work on the line by continually issuing ultimatums. They completed their own section connecting with the Murmansk line very quickly. At peak, some 3,000 men were working on the 80-km Finnish section of the line. Only the finishing touches remained to be done in summer 1941." Documents uncovered in Russian archives have revealed that a plan drawn up in November 1940 envisaged the Red Army launching an attack in the Salla area with the whole of the 21st Army, comprising eight divisions. "A force that size does not attack without a railway line, because the logistics are so difficult," explains Ahto. "But then the situation changed - and it was the Germans that gained the benefit of the line. In a way, the Russians shot themselves in the foot with their whole railway project."
Germany had attacked Russia in June 1941 and soon Finland was a co-belligerent seeking revenge for the Winter War. The lost territories were re-conquered. Then followed a long period of static warfare, which lasted until the Red Army launched a massive offensive on the Karelian Isthmus between Lake Ladoga and the sea. In autumn 1944, when it was already clear that Hitler's defeat was inevitable, Finland managed to negotiate an armistice with the Soviet Union. One of the terms required Finland to expel the German forces still in Lapland. It was done and the Second World War was over for Finland's part.
Landscape calls - military importance forgotten
Before the war, three handsome Arctic hills that the peace settlement had left on the Russian side of the border, Salla, Välitunturi and Rohmoiva, together with the lakes and rivers near them fascinated skiers, fishermen and hikers. Salla itself was said to be Lapland's most beautiful village. Tourism was growing strongly in the 1930s and big plans were being made. With Finland already then dreaming of hosting the Winter Olympics, Salla was regarded as the only place where the Alpine events could be arranged.
Thus war destroyed great plans for the future of tourism in Salla. On the Russian side of the border, hydroelectric power stations were built without any regard for the environment, rivers that once teemed with salmon and trout were rendered lifeless and forests were ruthlessly scalped. The only places that remained in a natural state were those where deep gorges prevented the onward march of tree-harvesting machines. However, not everything has been lost, because the Russians established a strict nature reserve in the area in 1994.
Salla is no longer of military importance to either Finland or Russia. "In general, scraps of land like this no longer have the military significance they once had," says Ahto. "Everything indicates that the Russians are at ease with the Finnish border, and probably more confident of its security than is the case anywhere else along their long frontiers. They have withdrawn their forces from the border area. Their garrison at Alakurtti in Salla is also a lot smaller than it used to be."
Plans to bring some of the hills that wound up on the wrong side of the border back into use as a tourist amenity are gradually beginning to be realised. In 1999 Salla Tunturipalvelut Oy - a company belonging to the Holiday Club Finland group - and the Russian municipality of Kantalahti set up a joint venture to develop a resort in the hills. Using funds provided under the EU's Tacis programme, the Finnish-based company NCC-Puolimatka International began building a frontier station on the Russian side. The aim is to have the crossing point ready for international traffic on 1.1.2001. Once the physical facilities have been put in place, development in the area will forge ahead at a lively pace.