SURVIVORS

When Anita Middleton was young, there was a picture of 4 men in the living room of her grandparents’ home. She assumed they were relatives in Finland. When she was older she learned their names were Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Her parents didn’t want to talk about them. She learned her parents had left the US to live in the Soviet Union in the 1930s to help build "the worker’s paradise." Her parents wouldn’t talk about that, but eventually they did.

In the late 1800s some of the Finns who came to North America brought a socialist tradition. They sent their children to socialist Young Pioneer camps. In the 1900s during the Depression, thousands of those Finnish immigrants were recruited by agents from the Soviet Union who offered social and economic justice in Soviet Karelia. More than 6,000 people accepted, including 1,000 from Minnesota.

The Finnish Americans were stuck in the Soviet Union when their dreams failed. Many died, worked to death in labor camps or taken away during the night and shot during Stalin’s purges. Some fled to Finland and some managed to return to North America. One couple who returned were Anita Middleton’s parents, Lauri and Sylvia Hokkanen, who finally told their story in 1991. Their daughter helped them write a book: "Karelia: A Finnish America Couple in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941."

Anita Middleton has prepared a one-hour documentary based on interviews with the survivors in order to preserve a piece of history. Middleton’s grandparents were members of the Finnish Workers Federation, a US Labor Union affiliated with the Communist Party. They couldn’t believe the stories of arrests, executions and failures of socialism when their son and his wife returned from Karelia in 1941.

Edvard Gylling, leader of Soviet Karelia in the 1930s was a Finn. Working from headquarters in New York, agents traveled where Finnish immigrants lived, asking them to return home and build a worker’s paradise in Karelia. This was during the Depression in the US. People thought capitalism was going down the tubes. They sold their farms, animals, everything they owned, expecting to find everything they needed — land, work and socialism in the new paradise.

They found that Karelia was a backward place. The capital, Petrozavadsk, was a muddy little town with no sidewalks until the Finnish Americans built some. Their enthusiasm lasted only a few years. Working and living conditions didn’t improve. They were told to give up their passports and to speak Russian. As World War II neared, many Finns were executed, drafted into the Russian Army or sent to labor camps. Some escaped to Finland, and a very few made it back to America.

Anita Middleton’s parents were among the last to leave in 1941 just before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. They went back to Michigan and had to wait 10 years before citizenship was restored.

In 1980 Duluth, Minnesota was looking for a sister city and chose Petrozavodsk. The first delegation from Duluth arrived in 1986 and was welcomed at the train station by people speaking Finnish-accented English, asking how things were back in Embarrass, Hibbing and along the St. Louis River. They were proud of the effort they made to build a new society.

Karelia is now a part of the Russian Federation and travel restrictions are relaxed. Ruth Niskanen returned to the US in 1992 and went to her childhood home near Palo, MN. It was falling apart. She moved into a senior housing complex but was lonely because she had so little in common with the others. She went back to Karelia and, a few years ago, married Ernest Haapaniemi and they moved to Finland.

Extracts from The Finnish American Reporter, 1999.

June Pelo

 

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