Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the familiar story of emigration was one of a lone individual or a family leaving a homeland that was without promise and searching for renewed prospects in life, boarding a ship to take them to a virgin land to pursue a dream. For the overwhelming number of these people, that virgin land was in the Americas, and the dream that they were pursuing has been termed “the American dream,” one still being chased by millions today. Yet for a brief time in the early 1930s, thousands of Finnish immigrants in the United States and Canada turned that story on its head, leaving the new world for the old to live the dream of socialism. Recruited to help build East Karelia—the Finnish land of national legend—into a bastion of socialist industry, they were welcomed by the Soviet government, allowed to set up schools and factories, and even given special treatment. Beneath the surface, the situation was less ideal: over half of the would-be Soviets left in short order due to harsh conditions, while the more open atmosphere fostered in the first half of the decade gave way to paranoia and government-imposed terror.
The emigrants to Karelia were not alone; thousands of others moved to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s in hopes of escaping the Great Depression and building a dynamic society. A combination of culturally ingrained leftism and contemporary economic issues led them to be easily swayed by the idea of living a better life with a higher purpose. They left in massive numbers over a few years and were welcomed, though not for long, and the actions of the Stalinist regime resulted in less-than ideal endings for the stories of many.
I. BACKGROUND: THE FINNISH-AMERICAN SITUATION
While Finland successfully developed a national identity in the late nineteenth century independent of its dominant Swedish and Russian neighbors, Finnish society faced an enormous number of challenges pushing them out of their home country. Making a living off of the land became harder as successive crop failures wrought economic devastation and caused widespread famine. On top of the struggle many individuals faced for survival came a larger one for Finland as a whole when, in 1899, Czar Nicholas ii began imposing policies aimed at replacing Finnish culture with Russian. While unsuccessful, this attempt at “Russification” further aggravated many Finns to the point of departure. Later on, another exodus was prompted in the wake of Finland’s brief but brutal civil war, in which a communist attempt at government takeover was foiled at a cost of over thirty thousand lives.1Thomas DuBois, “Kalevala and Finnish Folklore” (lecture, Univerity of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, April 22, 2013
The Finns encountered a new set of problems in their adopted country. Tensions between the upper and working classes at home were manifested in America, as Finns found themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy in many communities. Whatever advantages their technical skills gave them in the job search were essentially canceled out by their inability to speak English, a language completely different from their native tongue. As a result, they were a marginalized group, settling mostly in the heavily forested areas of the uppermost Midwest and engaging in what was frequently menial labor. Both out of tradition and in response to these circumstances, the Finns who moved to America maintained a stronger sense of solidarity than other immigrant ethnicities, as evidenced by their building of community halls in whatever towns they lived in.
The Finnish-Americans’ response to tough conditions and their community spirit did not come only through benign channels, however. The seeds of socialism, sowed in the old country, blossomed in the new as Finns became known for their left-wing activism. Despite being a relatively small population among the myriad of American immigrant groups, they were estimated at one time to have constituted forty percent of the membership of the American Communist Party.2Irene Galaktionova, “Soviet Karelia,” Russian Life 4 (2009): 35. This participation was not passive, either, as Finns founded newspapers in their native language, namely Tyomies and Eteenpain, which were nationally distributed and served as mouthpieces for Socialists and Communists, respectively. The flight of Finnish reds to America after the civil war of 1918 gave the movement additional strength, and the community halls that had been built so extensively soon became political centers, holding events that featured speeches by prominent labor organizers. This action was not without repercussions from outside and inside the community. From outside, management bosses in the mining and timber camps held the power to blacklist those who were seen as too radical, and government crackdowns on political dissenters during the First World War and the 1919 Red Scare gave these men a government sanction. From within, it became apparent that not all Finns were taken under the spell of socialism, and the community soon split between the radical elements and the moderates and conservatives. Each group became known by their preferred place of meeting: the activists were known as the “Hall Finns” because they met in the community halls, while the other side established itself as the “Church Finns,” and any advocacy they did was for mainstream causes, mainly temperance. In some ways, this divide mirrored that between the Reds and Whites in the old country, if on a smaller scale and in a significantly less abrasive manner.3Mayme Sevander, They Took My Father: A Story of Idealism and Betrayal (Duluth, Minnesota: Pfeifer-Hamilton, 1992), 8–9.
As with many other immigrant groups, the Finns were hard-hit by the Great Depression, and established systems to maintain community welfare faced overwhelming pressure from the sheer magnitude of the economic crisis. With many struggling to make a living, radicals were gravitating towards a solution that they believed could be dynamic and constructive.
II. KARELIAN FEVER
It was no accident that many in the United States after 1929 came to see the Soviet Union as a land of plenty. Where the Great Depression had curtailed job creation in the former, the advent of Stalin’s five-year plans in the latter meant that there was more than enough work to go around. The favorable image many came to develop of Soviet society was also the result of a very deliberately crafted public relations campaign by their government, which, in the early 1930s, constructed an impressive façade to outsiders showcasing expansive public works projects and fair treatment of workers. For American socialists, the new Russia appeared to be the materialization of all that they had previously only dreamed of.
Still another dream of one Soviet administrator with Finnish roots provided special incentive for Finnish-American emigration. Edvard Gylling, who had fled to Russia in the wake of the Finnish Civil War, had not given up on the prospects for a red Finland, and in his mind, East Karelia across the border offered a perfect opportunity to start the process. By utilizing the vast timber resources it offered while establishing the dominance of ethnic Finns, he envisioned that an independent Karelia could bring heavy influence to bear on the rest of Scandinavia and one day expand into a Scandinavian Soviet Republic.4Lawrence Hokkanen, Karelia: A Finnish-American Couple in Stalin’s Russia, 1934–41 (St. Cloud, Minnesota: North Star Press, 1991), xi. Yet Gylling’s plan called for too large an industrial output in a sparsely populated region; there was not enough manpower to harvest such enormous amounts of timber, and creating it would necessitate importing an ethnically heterogeneous population from the rest of Russia. It was at this juncture that Gylling turned to the Finns living in the New World as a source of labor.
Fighting the reluctance of Stalin’s government to import a large and possibly subversive foreign population, he personally invited Finnish-American socialists without government backing and oversaw the creation in America of the Karelian Technical Aid Society to recruit more. The leftist leadership among American Finns readily embraced this idea, with both Tyomies and Eteenpain falling in line, and speaking tours among the Finn Halls spread the word that Karelia was a new promised land.5Sevander, They Took My Father, 19–22. Beginning in 1930, around ten thousand Finns made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean and through Europe to Petrozavodsk, capital of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Many brought their families with; more importantly, they brought their own mechanical equipment and skills and assumed leading positions in their new communities. They also established new industrial facilities, as in the case of Lauri Hokkanen, a Finn from northern Michigan who ran a successful ski factory in Petrozavodsk. Despite difficult conditions and cramped housing, many new immigrants remained driven out of an altruistic desire to help the region prosper. An additional encouragement came in the form of perquisites from the Soviet government, as the immigrants were allowed more substantial food rations than natives and could even shop at insnab, their own grocery store.6Hokkanen, Karelia, 55. A Finnish-language school in Petrozavodsk and the existence of Finnish publishing houses reinforced the immigrants’ native culture even as Finns and Karelians remained a minority population. Moving about the Karelian countryside, meanwhile, its new residents found ample opportunity for recreation in seemingly unending wilderness. The coming of the Finns brought numerous benefits to Karelia. They brought with them not only advanced technical knowledge that went a long way in forwarding regional industry, but also Western tastes and ideas that influenced strong cultural development. Music notably flourished, attested to by the Karelian Radio Symphony Orchestra, composed mostly of Finnish-Americans. Through 1935, many immigrants who stayed enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with the Soviet Union.
Information that is known today, and was not in the 1930s, has justifiably given us a very negative image of Stalin’s Russia. While Karelia’s new settlers left for the Soviet Union with a great sense of optimism, their hopes were soon canceled out by reality; most who could leave did, and those who did not faced what was more often than not a bitter and brutal fate.
Even before terror took hold of their adopted country in the latter half of the decade, many Finnish-Americans became simply disenchanted with standards of living in Karelia, and it is estimated that up to half of those who came left in short order. The faithful who stayed, frequently resented by natives for their greater wealth, were soon rewarded with a holocaust that killed many of their numbers and twenty million more across Russia. The seeds of Stalin’s Great Purge, perhaps the bloodiest consequence of individual paranoia the world has ever seen, were sown with the assassination of national party leader Sergei Kirov in 1934, just as Finnish immigration was tailing off. The mysterious death of a nationally revered figure troubled many; with the daughter of prominent immigrant Oscar Corgan later recalling her father saying in hushed tones that serious trouble awaited them, but that they had made a commitment to stay.7Sevander, They Took My Father, 54. The following year, Stalin began a crackdown on outsider nationalities, which in Karelia meant the closing of Finnish-language schools, the elimination of special privileges for immigrants, and the removal of Edvard Gylling himself.
At the same time Stalin was beginning to close his fist on his people, he began to anticipate troublesome events in the outside world, and soon attempted to impose his will across Europe and Asia. Finland itself now became a subject of his aggressive intent, and the impact of the Great Purge was thus magnified on Karelia’s Finns, who were now not only outsiders but potential enemies. By 1937, residents were living in constant fear of a knock on the door from the nkvd secret police, and in December of that year the aforementioned Oscar Corgan, who had freely published Soviet propaganda as editor of Tyomies in America, found himself among those arrested and killed. The hysteria finally peaked in the summer of 1938, with the prominence of Finnish-Americans in the community making their absences very obvious: nearly all of the workers at the Petrozavodsk ski factory simply were not there one morning; half of the symphony orchestra too was arrested.8Ibid., 77.w Confusion and outrage among the Finns existed—if, as the nkvd maintained, no innocents were arrested, how could such massive numbers of people have all committed serious crimes?—but fear stifled these concerns to the utmost level of privacy. Though the purge finally subsided after 1938, the next year Karelia was at the center of a Soviet war effort against the Finns; while government propaganda ensured that citizens would only hear the Soviet side of events, some immigrants felt a secret sense of pride in their erstwhile countrymen for a brave and unconventional defense. When the Finnish invaded in 1941, the Finns left in Karelia were sent to labor camps far from the front lines; by this time, essentially everyone who could leave had. While some who left had a sense of guilt at “abandoning” the Soviet experiment, it was considered a far greater consolation to be out of harm’s way after leaving. Those who stayed behind generally assimilated into Russian society, and with the general secrecy of Soviet society, their story remained generally obscure until the Gorbachev era.
In the late 1980s, Petrozavodsk was paired with Duluth as a sister city, and it was then that the Minnesotans visiting the city discovered the story; then, in the early 1990s, a number of books were published on the subject, including memoirs by Oscar Corgan’s daughter, Mayme Sevander, who remained in Russia to become a schoolteacher, as well as Lauri (now Lawrence) Hokkanen, who left the country with his wife in 1941. Shedding light on the emigration and its tragic end, they leave a valuable firsthand account of the experience for posterity.
The phenomenon of American emigration to the Soviet Union was not limited to the Finns, but that group was uniquely enticed with the prospect of creating a nationalist utopia in what many saw as their culture’s homeland. Karelia was and is always associated with the epic poem of the Finnish people, the Kalevala, and that touch of Romantic appeal combined with a long Finnish tradition of socialism to lead many to move there. In many ways, during the early 1930s they truly helped Karelia move towards what was seen as its full productive potential, introducing modern machinery to the region, as well as modern ideas. Neither Sevander’s and Hokkanen’s memoirs fail to take note of the possible influence of the latter on Yuri Andropov, then a bureaucrat in the region, who some fifty years later in his brief tenure as Soviet premier paved the way for Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies. Yet the positive influence that Edvard Gylling’s idea could have had was severely curtailed by actions of Stalin’s government, which was never fully committed to making the idea a success and soon shut it down with excessive use of force.
Though Gylling’s idea was quite idealistic and faced dubious prospects, it will never be known whether it could have worked or not because of its abrupt cancellation. What is clear is that the experience disillusioned thousands. The Karelian experiment stands as a worthy item of historical intrigue, representing a small number of peoples’ nationalist ambition to create essentially an entirely new country using an untried system. On some scale, it replicated the experience of the Soviet Union as a whole, which started out with a utopian vision but, perhaps because of mismanagement, and more broadly due to the age-old conflict of dreams and reality, failed in its mission and has been relegated to the dustbin of history.
DuBois, Thomas. “Kalevala and Finnish Folklore.” Lecture, Madison, WI, April 22, 2013.
Galaktionova, Irene. “Soviet Karelia.” Russian Life 4 (2009): 35.
Hokkanen, Lawrence. Karelia: A Finnish-American Couple in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-41. St. Cloud: North Star Press, 1991.
Sevander, Mayme. They Took My Father: A Story of Idealism and Betrayal. Duluth: Pfeifer Hamilton, 1992.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Thomas DuBois, “Kalevala and Finnish Folklore” (lecture, Univerity of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, April 22, 2013|
|2.||↑||Irene Galaktionova, “Soviet Karelia,” Russian Life 4 (2009): 35.|
|3.||↑||Mayme Sevander, They Took My Father: A Story of Idealism and Betrayal (Duluth, Minnesota: Pfeifer-Hamilton, 1992), 8–9.|
|4.||↑||Lawrence Hokkanen, Karelia: A Finnish-American Couple in Stalin’s Russia, 1934–41 (St. Cloud, Minnesota: North Star Press, 1991), xi.|
|5.||↑||Sevander, They Took My Father, 19–22.|
|6.||↑||Hokkanen, Karelia, 55.|
|7.||↑||Sevander, They Took My Father, 54.|