On this day in 1939, the Soviet Red Army fired seven artillery shells at Mainila, a Russian village 800 metres from the Russian-Finnish border. Claiming that Finnish units had fired on Russian civilians unprovoked, the Shelling of Mainila was used by Soviet high command as justification for the Winter War – Russia’s WWII invasion of Finland. The Soviets had numerous peace treaties with Finland and felt they could not invade the small Baltic country without justification (no matter how false); but the Soviets desperately wanted Finnish territory, and Nazi Germany had recently used false attacks on its own citizens to justify its invasion of Poland in September 1939. The attack on Mainila was obviously fake, and Finnish observers had even witnessed Red Army units preparing for the possibility of shots fired at Mainila during war games earlier in the year. But the shelling worked, at least for the Soviet’s purposes, and Red Army units rolled across the border on November 30th. Maskirovka – or, “disguise operations” – are still an important part of Russian military doctrine. If an attack must happen, then justification will be found (or fabricated) as needed. Throughout WWII, the Red Army used similar tactics to confuse its enemy and win the all-important propaganda battle.
The Winter War was not a success for the Soviets, whose miserable troops were attacked relentlessly by Finnish guerilla (ambush) units on skis who refused to stand and fight. One Finn, Simo Häyhä AKA “The White Death”, is believed to have killed over 500 Russians by himself. By August of 1941, the Finnish army had reclaimed lost ground and, symbolically, “shelled Mainila for real”, a propaganda victory for the Finns. Whatever the end result of the Winter War, the Shelling of Mainila is a great example of how, if a military superpower wants something, it will find (or fabricate) justification wherever it can.