Ninety-nine-year-old Unto Hakuli and his fellow veteran and friend Tapio Niemi, 94, still live among the forests and frozen lakes of Finland’s border region, where they fought invading Russian soldiers more than 80 years ago.
The bravery and skill of the defenders in what is known as the Winter War is feted far beyond Finland’s borders. Soviet forces invaded on Nov. 30, 1939. Despite outnumbering and outgunning Finnish soldiers, they suffered heavy losses amid the unforgiving Nordic winter.
Niemi recalls the day of the invasion. “It was a really scary situation for a little boy. I was 12 and at school, when the teacher came to the classroom and told us that a war has started between Finland and Russia and the school will be closed from now on.”
Five years later, Niemi joined the army, serving on the home front. His tasks included carrying the bodies of comrades killed in action.
Finland resisted full Soviet occupation. But at the end of World War II, it was forced to concede the region of Karelia, around 10 percent of its territory, to Russia.
We met the veterans in Niemi’s family home in Taipalsaari, around 30 kilometers from the Russian border, where he lives alone in a wooden house among forests of spruce and silver birch. In early May, the vast lakes of the region are still frozen. The log stove, which has burned through the long winter, is recently extinguished.
Unto Hakuli joined the army in 1942, three years after the Soviet invasion. He fought for more than two years on the frontline.
“The secret was that we were probably a little bit more competent than the Russians,” Hakuli told VOA. “There were good fighters in the Russian army, but most of them didn’t know how to fight.”
Hakuli and Niemi have been closely following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has particular historical resonance for the Finnish people. Finland is expected to apply to join NATO in coming days in response to the invasion and perceived threat from Russia, its neighbor to the east. Finland’s border with Russia stretches some 1,300 kilometers from Karelia to north of the Arctic Circle.
“Joining NATO would give us broader shoulders regarding our security,” Niemi told VOA. “There are many different opinions about it, and Russia, of course, disapproves that its neighbors would join. Still, when we look at other Baltic states and, for example, Poland, they have not suffered any harm because they belong to NATO.”
Finland and Russia have lived in relative peace for decades. The war veterans frequently visited battle sites across the border.
“When the war in Ukraine started, our opinion about the Russians changed totally,” Hakuli said. “Especially how cruel the Russians are towards Ukrainians. And it also affects Finland when we consider whether or not to join NATO. I would definitely think of joining if they asked my opinion.
“It is clear that if we have to fight against Russia alone, we can’t win. We will lose the war and our independence, which is very important to us.”
Both veterans believe Ukraine will defeat the Russian forces.
“I don’t believe that there will be a Third World War. I think that Russia will have enough of this war, as it has already lost a lot of men and military equipment,” Niemi said.
Hakuli voiced agreement, saying, “When Russia loses this war in Ukraine, it will calm down again.”
Mari-Leena Kuosa contributed to this report.