Finland Forgotten: A Historical Case of (Unconscious) Cognitive Bias?

by Malcolm L.G. Spencer

Note: This article was originally published in the January 2021 NewsNet

There is a meme that began circulating among certain internet circles a few years ago. At its centre is the claim that Finland – that small Nordic state sandwiched between Sweden and Russia – doesn’t actually exist. It never did. In fact, its entire being was born of international intrigue, the parameters of which were first outlined on the popular media aggregation site, Reddit, in 2014. For anyone averse to such crackpot conspiracy theories, thanks to the quirks of quantitative analysis, the country’s population of native Finns can still be written off as a simple, statistical error. To this author’s knowledge, these light-hearted flights of fancy have failed to generate any explicit protest from the Finnish government, or a concerted effort by its neighbours to declare its territory fair-game. Nevertheless, the country has often found its place in international history forgotten; no less so than when the problems of twentieth-century politics become the fodder of twenty-first-century politicians.

As part of Russia’s official commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Vladimir Putin penned a lengthy essay on the lessons of the conflict. Published in the American journal, The National Interest, the piece is an unapologetic celebration of Russian patriotic feeling, which remains heavily anchored to the memory of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazism in 1945. In seeking to preserve this memory, Putin boldly asserts the primacy that should be given to the USSR’s role in the war – “the fact that the Nazis were defeated first and foremost by the Soviet people” – while extending the purview of his historical survey to include the “challenging pre-war period,” which set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power and the descent of Europe into a second global conflict just two decades after the last.

When outlining the root causes of the Second World War, Putin’s preoccupation is with the failures of the “Versailles world order” and the inability of the victor powers to create anything more than an extended armistice at the end of the Great War of 1914-1918. Accusing the post-war settlement of creating “fertile ground” for a resurgent and resentful Germany, he sketches out the diplomatic double-dealing and institutional ineptitude that ultimately led to the “Munich Betrayal,” as European leaders tacitly acquiesced to Adolf Hitler’s grab for Lebensraum. Behind Putin’s thesis is a determined effort to defend against any alternative reading of events that might cite the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the non-aggression treaty signed between Moscow and Berlin in the summer of 1939, as a key precipitant to the shattering of peace, since it opened the door for the German army’s march into Poland on 1 September 1939 without fear of Soviet reprisals.

Alert to potential detractors, Putin insists on having set aside the trappings of a political agenda and promises to base his interpretation of events on the available archival evidence. Drawing from a number of diplomatic sources, he points to the insincerity displayed by the dominant powers of the day, Britain and France, when the opportunity arose to come to terms with Moscow in checking Hitler’s expansionist aims, and quotes self-serving Polish efforts to secure its interests vis-a-vis Czechoslovak territory in the wider diplomatic wrangling of the late 1930s.

Fostering an air of objectivity, Putin is even willing to acknowledge the infamous secret-protocols attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, though he stops short of accepting that they provided a blue-print for the division of Central and Eastern Europe between Hitler and his Kremlin counterpart, Joseph Stalin. Instead, this diplomatic about-turn is presented as an unwelcome but necessary compromise made by the Soviet government, intent on buying time and establishing a forward defensive position for the Red Army in the event of (inevitable and expected) further aggression by Nazi Germany. In an effort to further strengthen the Soviet case for making good on the opportunity afforded them by the pact, Putin points to the historical, territorial, and ethnic basis on which Moscow’s justifiable occupation of its designated Polish lands could be made, while writing off the subsequent Baltic annexations as legitimate “contractual” agreements, “with the consent of the elected authorities.”

For any casual observer, these historical musings might come across as a sincere attempt to present the Second World War from a Russian perspective. The reader may assume that Putin is simply shifting the emphasis away from making a scapegoat of Stalin (whose regime, it should be noted, does not avoid reproach for its repressive treatment of the Soviet people), to one of rightly acknowledging the sacrifice of Soviet soldiers and civilians in the face of the devastating impact of war on their country’s sovereign soil. The diplomatic tussles at the end of the 1930s, and the League of Nations’ failure to forestall a second global catastrophe, do little to paint the Western Allies in glory, while the stress the Russian premier places on sources that shine a light on this institutional impotence could be viewed as merely ensuring both sides of the story are told.

There is, however, one glaring omission in Putin’s narrative: Finland.

Finland, unfortunately, does not fit comfortably into Putin’s thesis. The invasion of the Soviet Union’s neighbour to the north in November 1939 cannot be easily justified on the basis of buying time and avoiding war – even if an official declaration was never issued by the Kremlin. Nor was the invasion met with tacit endorsement by Western political figures. In contrast, the essay cites numerous comments from prominent British politicians in October 1939, all seemingly willing to condone the Soviet advance across its Polish border. Even Winston Churchill, with his “infamous dislike for the USSR,” would insist that same month that there was no reason to foresee a break in Anglo-Soviet relations.

The performance of the Red Army on Finnish soil also did little to shower its soldiers in glory or inspire the kind of patriotic feeling that might unite a people in support of their struggle. The war exposed many of the shortcomings of the Soviet armed forces, which Stalin and his military heads would scramble to rectify in the aftermath of the conflict. These were shortcomings that Hitler and his General Staff could not have failed to notice when deciding on the relative merits of unleashing the full force of the Wehrmacht on Germany’s enemy to the East. Thus, to forget Finland, is to overlook a decisive moment in Russian and Soviet history and its experience of this ever-expanding theatre of war.


In the interests of giving Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt for this oversight, let me state for the record that the Russian President is not alone in overlooking Finland’s part in any grand narrative concerned with unravelling the complex causes of the Second World War.
Since Putin himself alludes to his Leningrad upbringing during the essay’s opening preamble, one might even credit the Soviet education system with failing to instill a balanced view of events at the end of the 1930s, while acknowledging that the war – whose frontline stretched across the Finnish frontier just 20 miles from the former Russian capital – has left no significant mark on present-day St. Petersburg. There are no prominent monuments, no great effort to preserve the memory of the conflict in the city’s museums, and the commemoration of Russia’s part in the Second World War has long centred on the chronological confines of its preferred nomenclature: the Great Patriotic War. The story of that conflict traditionally begins with the initiation of Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa” on 22 June 1941, nearly a year and a half after a fragile peace between Moscow and Helsinki had been restored.

The story of the Soviet-Finnish War, or Winter War, is not an easy episode to integrate into any broader history of the Second World War. Though the invasion of ‘Little Finland’ produced an international outcry from contemporary audiences, and resulted in the expulsion of the USSR from the League of Nations, the media outrage and diplomatic hand-wringing that followed failed to produce a concerted effort by Western powers to intervene on Helsinki’s behalf. The desperate need of Soviet softwood for British aviation production played its part in staying the hand of Westminster from making an outright enemy of the Soviet Union, and the strictly volunteer forces which Britain and France begrudgingly allowed to travel to the Finnish front arrived too late to contribute to the country’s determined defence.
In March 1940, as Soviet forces finally began to make military inroads, and only after the mobilization of men and machine on a scale not seen since the Great War, both sides agreed to return to the negotiating table. That Moscow gained little more territorially than it had sought in the protracted and unsuccessful diplomatic struggles with Helsinki that had preceded the outbreak of fighting was now overshadowed by the Kremlin’s commendation of Red Army successes in breaking through the Finnish defences along the Karelian Isthmus: the infamous “Mannerheim Line,” which Moscow insisted had been developed with the direct support of Finland’s European backers.

By the spring of 1940, Britain and France were once more firmly in the opposition camp, as far as the Kremlin’s ideological fervour was concerned. Yet, less than eighteen months later, all was seemingly forgiven and forgotten, as the Allied forces welcomed the Soviet Union firmly into the fold as an essential partner in the fight against fascism. As a result, a collective amnesia regarding the events of the winter of 1939-40 is all too often seen as much in Western accounts of the period as Russian ones. As an essential ally, whose sacrifices dwarfed those of other nations joined in conflict against the Axis powers, it became easier to remember the USSR as a late addition to the scorecard than as a pariah power, until circumstances dictated a sudden shift in diplomatic relations once more.

Of course, even this is a simplification of a complex and shifting narrative. Still, it might serve to explain why the absence of Finland in Putin’s reading of Russian history need not be immediately credited to a furthering of his present political agenda – or his having fallen victim to a disinformation campaign intent on erasing Finland from the internet’s ‘frontpage.’ Rather, once forgotten, it has seemingly become harder and harder to find a place for the Winter War in any collective memory of the Second World War.


What lessons, then, might we draw out from Vladimir Putin’s imperfect attempt to bring some order and meaning to the disparate scenes and inconsistent actors that contributed to the unravelling of peace in Europe?

Though I am myself a historian by trade, I wouldn’t claim to have a command of every facet of this period or pretend that any attempt I might yet make to develop a coherent and comprehensive account would be without the risk of leaving some key episode overlooked. For that lesson, I have long relied on the words of Lev Tolstoy. Within the many pages of Tolstoy’s epic account of Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the author wove numerous reminders to the reader that our understanding of such epoch-shifting events is often skewed by our narrow view of proceedings and impartial selection of evidence. Indeed, one could argue that my own insistence on Finland’s importance is an arbitrary decision that still brings us no closer to understanding, more accurately, this “continuous movement” of history:

It needs no critical exertion to reduce utterly to dust any deductions drawn from history. It is merely necessary to select some larger or smaller unit as the subject of observation – as criticism has every right to do, seeing that whatever unit history observes must always be arbitrarily selected.

While Tolstoy might not have had access to the language and concepts that we use to describe the cognitive processes human beings rely on in ‘selecting’ those units of history, he was alert to some of the underlying fallacies to which we too often fall victim.
Unfortunately, the perils of selection bias can overcome even the most concerted efforts to avoid the accusation that one has an underlying agenda in their presentation of the facts. Despite this ever-present danger, human beings have long preferred to think of themselves as rational, intelligent, and clear-thinking individuals. One of the fundamental flaws in this self-assessment is an inability to appreciate that many of the biases we hold are simply blind to us. Thus, the influence they have on the cognitive processes we rely on to gather information and develop a narrative that might help us better understand the world (and its history) remains overlooked. Whether we credit them or not, these biases continue to operate behind the scenes and lead us to see patterns, build theories and select evidence that reinforce fallacies as readily as they might make an uncomfortable truth, or an alternative perspective, clearer to us. Thankfully, following the pioneering work of experimental psychologists like the Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, many of the inherent biases that play a key role in choice and decision-making are becoming more familiar and widely appreciated.

Historians, like politicians, are just as susceptible to these errors of judgement. We might seek, as part of our professional toolkit, to develop the skills and self-awareness to constantly check our reading of evidence and building of narrative in a way that is aimed at minimising the influence of such sub-conscious cognitive errors. I still worry that we are too often fighting a losing battle. But at least we strive to open ourselves to the possibility that our ideas can be checked, verified, and corrected by our peers, where necessary. Admittedly, Putin is not operating as a trained historian, even if he makes the claims a good researcher should, as far as relying on sources and not seeking to press a particular program. In the end, he is just as vulnerable as anyone else to a multitude of subconscious shortcuts that help us sit comfortably with our view of the world, and protect us from doubt or a need to reject long-held, and, ultimately, reassuring beliefs and ideas.

Although it would make for an amusing anekdot, I also don’t think that Putin is someone that readily subscribes to the conspiracy that Finland doesn’t exist. Its absence from his essay may not be a work of intellectual intrigue either – though this is not the first time it has been overlooked in his reading of the period. Instead, I do think there is value in using his example as a reminder that the past is built from a vast number of complex and often contradictory narrative threads. Our attempt to unravel them, to explain away loose ends, and ultimately weave them once more into an account that offers a more satisfying story to our ears is a natural and universal human endeavour.

To acknowledge such a truth might also bring us closer to recognising and understanding why the present, too, is so full of such complex and contradictory stories; of conflicting viewpoints and inconsistent actors. That it often proves so impossible to reconcile the views held by those individuals, and the groups of like-minded people that develop a further sense of reassurance from their shared identities – whether right or left, blue or red, black or white – with their apparent or actual agenda is a reality of life. But by being alert to our own assumptions and implicit biases, we might take the first step towards finding the space for more reasoned debate and possible compromise; towards a dialogue that is less coloured by ideology and the pre-conceived ideas that are not always clear even to those who hold them.


And as a final thought, if the history of our current global struggle against an unseen enemy is still being written and debated 75 years from now, I sincerely hope that it will not be exploited for political point-scoring in the way that the present pandemic, regrettably, has been. In the global fight against a virus that has the capacity to kill irrespective of one’s national, ethnic, racial, political, sexual or gender identity, a collective response that set aside all these differences and embraced the experiences of a broad and diverse global community – Finland included – should have been forthcoming to best safeguard our entire species from threat. Instead, the striving for self-preservation (or lack thereof) has been infected with political rhetoric, nationalist fervour, and blind bigotry. Once again, it has been easier to take cognitive shortcuts than think deeply and carefully about how best to understand our present predicament. And as a still-developing historical narrative, it already makes for an uncomfortable lesson in human behaviour.

Malcolm L. G. Spencer is an early career researcher and historian of Russia and the former-Soviet Union. His work to date has centered on exploring continuity and change in the ideological and institutional connections between the USSR and the broader international communist movement during the interwar period. His first monograph, Stalinism and the Soviet-Finnish War, 1939-40: Crisis Management, Censorship and Control, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018, as part of their well-established ‘St Antony’s Series’ on global and regional issues. He received his DPhil in Modern History from the University of Oxford in 2016.