If this latent upsurge of patriotic feeling was undetectable to the British Intelligence team, so too was another significant factor. They had totally discounted the possibility of recruiting any anti-Soviet military force from amongst the prisoners, whose apathy under irresistible oppression seemingly far outweighed the universal resentment. The report had noted that ‘The overthrow of the Government can only be achieved by foreign military intervention, such intervention to be presented to the Russian as a crusade for the restoration of his rights and liberty, ie restoration of peasant private ownership of the land and return of religious freedom.’ Such a crusade was of course far beyond the Finns’ capacity or intentions, but nevertheless an attempt was briefly made to enlist the Russian prisoners in their struggle against the common enemy.
Boris Bajanov had been Stalin’s personal secretary until 1928, when, disgusted with the crimes of the still infant Soviet regime, he fled across the frontier to Persia. After many adventures, he found himself living in France in 1940. Urged and authorized by the Russian emigre organizations, and assisted by the French military authorities, he travelled to Finland to see if anything could be made of the Russian prisoners as a military force. On 15 January he was received by Marshal Mannerheim at Finnish GHQ. Mannerheim was sympathetic but sceptical. Authorizing Bajanov to visit a camp containing five hundred prisoners, he observed: ‘If they follow you, organize your army. But I am an old soldier, and I doubt that these men, who have escaped from hell and been saved virtually by a miracle, will be willing of their own accord to return to that hell.’
But Bajanov persisted, and set about recruiting from the inmates of the designated camp. His plan was not to form an anti-Bolshevik military unit to fight alongside the Finns, but to employ his people in appealing to their comrades fighting on the other side. The success which followed was unexpected by everyone save Bajanov. Of five hundred men, four hundred and fifty answered their compatriot’s appeal. The remaining fifty expressed sympathy but were too fearful to act. With the officers, however, there was no success. Menaced by an NKVD* cell in their midst, they were far too frightened of the inevitable reprisals on their families at home to volunteer.
Bajanov instead employed White Russian emigre officers, and began training his little force. But increasing chaos caused by Soviet aerial devastation delayed preparations so far that two weeks’ work became two months’. It was not until March that the first section appeared on the front. The effect was instantaneous: about three hundred Red Army men were induced to desert in a few days. But Finland was on the point of calling for terms; on 12 March peace was agreed, and on 14th Bajanov had to beat a hasty retreat from Finland before the inevitable Soviet request for extradition was delivered to the helpless Finns.
These divergent modifications, together with the verdict expressed in the British Intelligence report, surely provide a singularly accurate estimate of the state of Russian public opinion, so far as such a thing can be said to exist or be estimated at all. The battered, cowed and resigned population, scarcely one of whom did not possess a close relative murdered by the state or vanished into slavery, was too crushed under the weight of NKVD power to contemplate change, let alone resistance. Only foreign intervention or war could stir those sluggish waters, and the Finnish conflict, during its brief course, indicated the likely outcome of such a crisis. Given a real opportunity to revolt and restore basic human rights and decencies, Russians would flock to overthrow their government. As a powerful counterbalance lay instincts of national pride which, if channeled with reasonable intelligence, could arouse Russians to defend their Motherland, whatever the government. Which of these two factors would prove the stronger depended in large part on the nature of the foreign intervention and the Soviet response. Within fifteen months these issues would be put to the test [Emphasis added].
Narodny Kommissariat Vnutrennikh Del: ‘People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs’ – the Soviet political police.
Tolstoy N, Stalin’s Secret War, Second Edition, 1982, London: Pan Books Ltd, pp 164-5