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Facing Challenges As a Leader

Pictured: L. Z. Mekhlis, Komkor V. I. Chuikov, and Red Star journalist and chief editor D. I. Ortenberg in Finland during the Winter War of 1939-1940; A diploma signed by Chuikov (lower left-hand side). The citation text reads in part, “Comrade Seregin Vasily Vasilyevich, the Military Council of the 9th Army commemorates your valor, courage shown in the fight against the Finnish White Guards, declares gratitude to you and rewards you for hours.”

Western leadership theories tend to focus on the factors necessary for leadership success. For example, the Big Five Traits theory features common characteristics of successful leaders, such as extraversion and openness to experience. But what happens when a typically effective leader finds himself struggling with defeat and receives critique when certain factors are outside of his control? Marshal Chuikov faced such a situation during the 1939-1940 Russo-Finnish War, often referred to as the Winter War. His example of standing his ground and remaining poised when questioned by leadership is an effective one to recall for the times when leaders are faced with difficult situations.

The German invasion of Poland from the west on 1 September 1939 marked the beginning of WW2. Shortly after, Red Army troops, including Commander Chuikov’s 4th Army, entered Poland from the eastern border. Later during the autumn of 1939, the Russo-Finnish War (also known as the Winter War) broke out at the Karelian Isthmus (north of Leningrad). Vasily Ivanovich did not initially participate in the Winter War but was eventually transferred to command the 9th Army in December 1939 to replace Komkor Duhanov. Although he was brought in to try to stabilize the dire situation of the 9th Army and to turn things around, Chuikov’s soldiers suffered crushing defeats.

The Red Army did prevail, and a peace treaty was signed with Finland in April 1940. However, the Finnish campaign showed the problem points of the Red Army as a whole, and Hitler took notice. After the close of the Russo-Finnish War, Komkor Chuikov and other commanders were called to Moscow by Stalin to explain what happened there. The reports shared at these meetings are recorded in the book titled Stalin and the Soviet-Finnish War, 1939-1940, edited by Alexander Chubaryan and Harold Shukman.

When prompted to provide an account of the situation, Chuikov shared the grim details: “It must be said that the men of the 44th Division were poorly dressed: they did not have felt boots and had to fight [in the snow] wearing leather footwear. […] The 88th [Division] began to arrive 12 December. Only one of its regiments had been concentrated and was at Kandakaksha, then in Kuolajarvi until the end of the war. The regiment did not have a supply convoy. It was impossible to send them anywhere far from the road. The 131st Division began to arrive in early January. Two rifle and battalion, and one tank battalion, had been assembled by the end of the war; the remaining units had not arrived. […]

We knew nothing about the enemy. Neither did intelligence give us any information. It was thought that the 163rd Division was fighting against five or six separate battalions. In actual fact, the whole 9th Infantry Division was concentrated in that sector. We learned about it after 7 January. We had not detected the arrival of reinforcements to the army’s sector. This was a general organizational failure of our intelligence. Covert intelligence practically did not exist throughout the whole war. The agents who were sent in never returned. We did not have reconnaissance planes or reconnaissance crews.”

It is important to note that Komkor Chuikov was not offering excuses for the struggles he and the 9th Army faced. His focus on the particular hardships and deprivations endured by his loyal troops in the Finnish campaign, especially in his forthright report directly to Stalin, shows his true leadership quality—a desire to optimize his organization through candid post-operation analysis. His conclusion aimed to equip subordinates to perform their mission with minimal loss and, as the citation demonstrates, to foster cohesive pride in their role as soldiers.

Special thanks for the review/contributions by Randy Blackerby and Rustem Vakhitov.


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