Pasi Tuunainen, The Battle of Raate Road as experienced by Ukrainian veterans
This article examines how Ukrainian veterans of the Winter War (1939 – 1940) have later interpreted and made their experiences of the war in Suomussalmi, Finland, meaningful. The battle of Raate Road is an internationally known encirclement battle fought in early January 1940. The Finnish 9th Division defeated the Red Army elite 44th Division. The 44th Rifle Division was formed in the Kiev Special Military District, and its home area was the region of Zhitomir in Ukraine. The Division was mobilized in September 1939 and participated in the Polish campaign before being sent to Finland.
The article is based on 12 interviews and 8 prisoner of war (POW) interrogation reports. The most important sources are seven lengthy transcripts from interviews that were conducted in 1993 for a documentary film.
The Ukrainian veterans of the 44th Division had not been able to talk about the Winter War or unburden their traumatic experiences to anyone in over 50 years. During the Soviet period, the war was merely considered a border dispute and, as such, it was not interesting to even the veterans’ relatives or colleagues. The interviews offered the veterans, who had faced disparagement, a venue for a kind of therapy. The recollections of these veterans were a mixture of facts and imagination. They are, to a large extent, distorted, and reveal more about feelings, atmospheres and sentiments than reality. The interviewees viewed the past emotionally, and thus could not accurately recount everything.
World War II was not a shared experience for Ukrainians. Some of them fought with Germans, whereas the majority was a part of the Red Army. The history perception of the latter group was close to the Soviet interpretation of the War. The veterans saw themselves as innocent victims but they accepted heavy casualties as inevitable. The veterans seemed to be able to memorize general features while forgetting details and timing of events. They had accepted some common truths about the Winter War. The veterans, for example, imagined that they had fought on the Karelian Isthmus against the Mannerheim Line. They also referred to the role of Germany even though it was only involved since 1941. The veterans thought that they were fighting against an aggressive warmongering leadership in Finland, and that they were on a parade march to Oulu “liberating” ordinary Finns just as they did the Poles. They did not expect any difficulties, and explained their failure by referring to harsh conditions and blaming their leaders – just as Stalin did. They were cut off by the Finns. Cold and hunger together with mounting casualties lowered their morale. They had not been trained to fight in forests. Interestingly, they do not mention primary group cohesion, which is the key to effective military action.
Apparently, later times have led them astray. This is probably because the Great Patriotic War overshadowed earlier events. It also tells about effective indoctrination and the influence of propaganda. The veterans did not know much about their objectives or course of events at Suomussalmi. This lack of first-hand information significantly contributes to their misperceptions. The Ukrainian veterans have tried to explain themselves and their experiences as logical. They, therefore, augmented their memory by adding what they later had read, heard, and imagined, even taking other people’s experiences and believing that they had happened to them. Additionally, the current context is also very important. By mentioning veteran benefits, the group mainly reflects upon current times and describes the economic crisis in Ukraine that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.