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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

America's Finns Caught 'Karelia Fever'

MTU.S.-born Paul Corgan was 9 when his Communist father moved the family to Karelia.
PETROZAVODSK, Karelia -- School No. 17 in the capital of the republic of Karelia has been known since its inception in 1967 as one of the best schools in Russia for English-language instruction.

And no wonder. Its long-time principal Paul Corgan is a native English speaker, and the school's teachers were trained at the Petrozavodsk Pedagogical Institute by Paul's sister, Mayme Sevander.

Paul, Mayme and their sister Aino, the children of a prominent Finnish-American Communist, were all born in the United States and came to Karelia as children in 1934. Although their father, Oscar Corgan, was killed in Josef Stalin's purges and their mother died in 1946, all three children have spent the rest of their lives in Petrozavodsk.

The Corgan family was not alone. In a little-known chapter in Soviet history, thousands of Finnish-Americans and Finnish-Canadians left North America in the 1920 and '30s to forge a new life in far northwestern Russia.

Some simply sought adventure. Others were homesick and thought that Karelia would bring them closer to Finland. Many, though, were committed political activists who were convinced that they could live out their socialist ideals of fair wages, good health care and free education only in the Soviet Union.

"It was that communist movement," Ruth Niskanen, a native of Minnesota, said in a telephone interview from her current home in Joensuu, Finland. "My mother married a man who was a communist, my stepfather. My mother thought that she would never be able to give an education to her [elder] son because she didn't have the money, and she thought in the U.S.S.R. he'd get a free education."

Niskanen was in seventh grade when she came to Karelia in March 1932 with her mother, stepfather, older brother Raymond and younger brother Roy. She said Raymond, then 14, was known as "Genius" at their school in Minnesota because he was so smart, especially in math.

Finnish migration to Karelia began in 1918 after the Finnish Civil War. Red Finns fleeing the victorious Whites crossed the border to Karelia, and in 1920 the Karelian Labor Commune was formed under the leadership of Edvard Gylling, a Finnish patriot who took Soviet citizenship.

Gylling began to gather Finns for a Finnish-Karelian autonomous region, and by the early 1920s, the Karelian Revolutionary Committee and Soviet People's Committee were discussing bringing foreign workers in to develop the Karelian economy -- and maintain its ethnic Finnish character.

"Gylling was envisaging the possibility of an independent Finnish homeland in Karelia, albeit under the umbrella of [the Soviet] administration," said Alexis Pogorelskin, a history professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

On the other side of the Atlantic, thousands of left-wing Finns were interested in the socialist experiment in the new Soviet Union. Many had left Finland in search of greater opportunities, but they found that American labor conditions could be brutal. By the mid-1920s, approximately half the membership of the American Communist Party was of Finnish descent.

North American Finnish communities held fundraisers to send money to Karelia, and a few Finns emigrated in the 1920s to form communes. But it wasn't until the late 1920s that the North American Finns and the Karelian government began to systematically recruit.

Karelian officials wanted to increase the region's population of ethnic Finns in order to maintain its status as a culturally Finnish republic with the ultimate goal of becoming a Soviet socialist republic, rather than an autonomous region of the Russian SSR.

But more important to the central government in Moscow, Karelia desperately needed skilled workers and technology, and North American Finns -- many of them working in the logging industry -- were perfect candidates.

In summer 1930, the 16th Party Congress made a resolution to "expand the practice of drawing workers and specialists from abroad and inviting foreign engineers, masters and qualified workers to the U.S.S.R."

"Because of this decision, Gylling was given permission to recruit [Finnish] 'national cadres,'" said Irina Takala, a professor of history at Petrozavodsk State University.

Gylling lost no time. The Karelian Immigration Department opened in Petrozavodsk in 1930. In fall of that year, the first loggers came from Canada, thanks to a personal arrangement between Gylling, Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov.

For MT

In a logging camp at Matrossa, about 35 kilometers north of Petrozavodsk, North American Finns lived in rough dormitories adorned with the usual posters of Lenin extolling Soviet power -- as well as placards written in Finnish.

Karelian Technical Aid, the primary organization through which money was raised and Finns were recruited to move to Karelia, was formed in New York on May 1, 1931. Another branch worked in Toronto to recruit Canadian Finns.

As "Karelia fever," as it was known, heated up in the early 1930s, Oscar Corgan -- a member of the U.S. Communist Party and editor of the Finnish-language Tu?mies, or Working Man, newspaper in Superior, Wisconsin -- moved with his family to New York, where in 1932 he took over the leadership of Karelian Technical Aid.

The system of funding and recruitment was cumbersome and bureaucratic, but it worked. Hopeful Karelian settlers got a recommendation from a local workers' organization and filled out an application, which was then sent to Technical Aid. The committees in New York and Toronto read the applications, chose candidates and forwarded their recommendations to Petrozavodsk. Officials in Petrozavodsk sent the forms on to Moscow, which approved entry visas.

The criteria for immigrants were professional preparation (priority was given to construction workers, loggers and fishermen), political convictions and -- most important -- the financial and equipment contributions a potential immigrant had to offer.

"The first question on the application was, 'How much money can you contribute to the machine fund?'" said Takala. The immigrants brought cars, tractors, industrial machinery and even the materials to build an entire brick factory with them to Karelia.

Despite the Great Depression, North American Finns were moving to Karelia not out of desperation but out of sheer idealism, she said. "People really believed they were needed, that they were going to build socialism," Takala said.

But the clash between ideal and reality became evident almost as soon as the new immigrants stepped off the train in Petrozavodsk, and many -- probably around 1,500, according to Takala -- returned to Finland or North America not long after their arrival in Karelia.

"The fact is, re-emigration began almost as soon as the first groups of immigrants arrived, because the reality of Karelia didn't correspond at all with what they'd been promised. These people were from a different world," she said.

Those who stayed set about making their new home more like the one they left behind, Takala said. They started Finnish-language schools and a theater. They were able to use their hard currency to buy goods that ordinary Soviet citizens had no access to. They also had ration cards that allowed them more food and they tended to have better living and working conditions.

The result was that the Finnish-Americans were almost immediately resented in Karelia, Pogorelskin said.

"Documents in the Karelian state archive reveal that their cars, typewriters, clothing and access to special dollar stores, at least up to 1935, aroused the ire of Soviets who had never seen such tools and machinery and whose diet was often inadequate," she wrote in a history of Karelia posted on the Internet.

According to Takala's research, the immigrants from Canada were better able to fit in. Most were loggers, who were poorer and brought fewer things with them, and since they were out in the woods, it was harder for them to form a segregated community the way those living in Petrozavodsk could.

Until 1935, nearly anyone who wanted to was allowed to return home, she said. But by 1935, the Soviet Union was grinding inevitably toward the Terror.

In October 1935 at a plenum of the regional committee of the Communist Party in Karelia, a mention was made of "Finnish bourgeois nationalism" -- Finns were now under suspicion.

By this point, many immigrants could not escape because they no longer had valid U.S. or Canadian passports. Many had voluntarily acquired Soviet citizenship or did not have the money to travel to Moscow or Leningrad to renew their foreign passports, and so received Soviet citizenship and passports instead.

It is likely that at least some of the Finns had an intimation of the horror to come. In her book "They Took My Father," Mayme Sevander describes worried late-night conversations between her parents and their friends not long after the family arrived in Karelia, and particularly after Leningrad Party boss Sergei Kirov's assassination on Dec. 1, 1934. Sevander relates how her father was called to the Comintern in Moscow by Yrjo Sirola, a prominent Finnish Bolshevik, who warned him that bad times lay ahead and urged him to leave with his family while he still could.

Oscar Corgan, however, refused to go unless all the Finns he convinced to come to Karelia would also go. On Nov. 4, 1937, he was arrested in the middle of the night. The family never saw him again.

Most estimates put the number of Finnish-Americans and Finnish-Canadians who came to Karelia at 6,000 to 6,500. According to Takala, many were simply considered Finns by nationality in the records, and of the 15,000 or so ethnic Finns living in Karelia in the mid-1930s, 10,000 were Finns from Finland. Counting the North American Finns was complicated by the fact that many of them were actually born in Finland.

Exact numbers of Finnish-Americans and Finnish-Canadians killed in the purges may never be known. In addition to those arrested and shot, huge numbers were exiled, particularly those living near the Finnish border because of their perceived security risk.

Paul Corgan recalled that in 1938, his family, minus his father, was living in Uhtua, a small town in Karelia next to the Finnish border. That summer they were exiled to Kem, a Karelian town farther north and away from the border.

"They took a family or two in one truck and people came to their new living place, and there was just a big, big house with one wall dividing it into two parts," he said.

When war broke out with Nazi Germany in 1941, Finns were evacuated farther away, most to the Ural Mountains or Siberia.

For MT

Finnish-Americans in Petrozavodsk in the 1930s had a higher standard of living and were resented by their Russian neighbors.

After the Winter War of 1939-40, in which Finland lost parts of Karelia to the Soviet Union, Finland attacked with Germany, hoping to regain the lost areas. The Soviet government did not trust its citizens of Finnish descent to remain loyal.

There were exceptions, though. Mayme Sevander was recruited for reconnaissance missions into Finland and remained in Petrozavodsk.

Ruth Niskanen, too, was deemed useful to the war effort. She worked in hospitals at the front as an interpreter, although her mother and younger brother were sent beyond the Urals, where her mother died of hunger and her brother Roy, then 12, was put in an orphanage.

Her older brother Raymond, who graduated from the Petrozavodsk Pedagogical Institute in 1938, fought in the Soviet Army and was killed at the front.

Corgan recalled that he, his mother and Aino were sent to a kolkhoz in what is now the Perm region. Paul worked at the kolkhoz briefly, but in November 1942 he was drafted. However, unlike Raymond Niskanen, as a Finn he was considered too big a risk to send to the front and instead was put in a labor brigade and shipped east to Chelyabinsk, where he spent nearly five years building the giant metallurgical plant there in horrific conditions.

"Thousands died there. It was altogether difficult, terrible," he said.

After the war ended, Finns gradually made their way back to Petrozavodsk.

"That was the place we came to from America and our friends were there," Ruth Niskanen said, "and Karelia was a little higher in culture than [the rest of] Russia in those years."

Many of the sons and daughters of the 1930s idealists managed to live reasonably well in postwar Karelia. Thanks to Soviet territorial gains in the Winter War, Karelia had become the Karelian-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic, the 16th SSR. Russian and Finnish were official languages, and Finnish was taught in schools and universities.

But discrimination against the Finns continued. Paul Corgan wanted to enroll in the geology department at Petrozavodsk State University, but geology was deemed a potentially sensitive area, and he was not admitted.

"My father was arrested, I wasn't Russian, they didn't give me a place," he said simply.

Eventually he studied mathematics -- a less dangerous subject, it seemed -- and became a teacher and school principal. When the city educational authorities decided in 1967 that Karelia needed a school for English-language instruction, they asked Corgan to head it. He remained the school's principal until retiring in 1999.

At the same time, his sister Mayme had left her job as a principal and English teacher at School No. 25 to become dean of the foreign-language department at the Pedagogical Institute.

Between the two of them, Corgan, now 77, and his sister, who is two years older, improved the level of foreign-language instruction in Petrozavodsk -- and eventually helped build international connections for the small city.

Although they were stuck behind the Iron Curtain, they kept up their English and Finnish, and when the political conditions mellowed, they spearheaded cultural and educational exchange programs with other countries, particularly the United States and Finland.

Petrozavodsk now has a thriving sister-city relationship with Duluth, Minnesota, forged in 1988 in large part because of the many residents of Finnish extraction in both cities.

A university exchange between the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Petrozavodsk State University in 1989 was the first of its kind in the Soviet Union. Seven American students came to Petrozavodsk in June, and two months later Anatoly Shishkin, whose stepfather, Eino Hirvonen, immigrated to Karelia from Duluth and survived a Siberian work camp, led a group of 10 Russian students to Duluth.

Also in 1989, an exchange program was established between School No. 17 and Amherst Regional High School in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Tatyana Martynenko, a former student of Mayme Sevander and a teacher at School No. 17 since 1970, traveled to Washington in 1989 for a three-month program sponsored by ACTR, the American Council of Teachers of Russian.

She spent her time trying to drum up an exchange partner, and a few days before her departure found Amherst high school willing. In February 1990, the first group of Russian students traveled to America, and in April, the Americans came to Petrozavodsk.

In the last 12 years, the program has thrived, surviving funding cuts on both sides and falling enrollment in Russian classes in the United States.

But when students from School No. 17 who traveled to Amherst last spring were asked if they knew the story of American Finns in Karelia, or the effect they had on their school, the roomful of teenagers looked blank.

Paul Corgan acknowledges that the story is being lost. "Those books Mayme has written -- they should be written in Russian, but nowadays to print a book takes so much money. It's especially the young people who know nothing," he said.

Although he wishes that more people knew and understood the story of Karelia fever and the contributions the immigrants made to the region -- not to mention the horrors they suffered -- he feels remarkably little resentment for what happened.

After his long and distinguished career -- which includes three Soviet awards as well as the title Distinguished Citizen of Petrozavodsk -- he considers Russia home.

"Myself, now I cannot say that I'm a Finn or an American. I'm a Rossiyanin, as Yeltsin always said. Not a Russian, but a Rossiyanin."