Many of the Finns who emigrated to Petro- zavodsk lived in sturdy frame housing in the Amerikansky Gorodok, or American Town.
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.
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 1920s and 1930s to forge a new life in far
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
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
"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 Ocean, thousands of Finns with
left-wing beliefs were interested in the socialist experiment being
carried out in the new Soviet Union. Many of them had had originally
left Finland in order to search for 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
In summer 1930, the 16th Party Congress passed a resolution to "expand
the practice of drawing workers and specialists from abroad and
inviting foreign engineers, masters and qualified workers to the
"Because of this decision, Gylling was given permission to recruit
[Finnish] 'national cadres,'" says Irina Takala, a professor of history
at Petrozavodsk State University.
Gylling lost no time. The Karelian Immigration Department opened in
Petrozavodsk in 1930. In the fall of that year, the first loggers came
from Canada, thanks to a personal arrangement between Gylling, Stalin
and Vyacheslav Molotov.
Karelian Technical Aid, the primary organization through which money
was raised and Finns who were to move to Karelia were recruited, 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 Tuömies, 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 skills (priority was
given to construction workers, logging workers 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?'" says 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 says.
"People really believed they were needed, that they were going to build socialism," Takala says.
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 says.
Those who stayed tried to make their new home more like the one they
left behind, Takala says. They started Finnish-language schools and a
theater. They were able to use their hard currency to buy goods to
which ordinary Soviet citizens had no access. They also had ration
cards that gave 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 says.
"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
Until 1935, nearly anyone who wanted to do so was allowed to return
home, she says. But, by 1935, the Soviet Union was grinding inevitably
toward the Great 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.
At that 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
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 the perceived security risk.
Paul Corgan recalls 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 says.
When war broke out with Nazi Germany in 1941, Finns were evacuated farther away, most to the Ural Mountains or Siberia.
After the Winter War of 1939 to 1940, 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 recalls that he, his mother and Aino were sent to a kolkhoz,
or collective farm, 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 says.
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 says, "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 both
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
"My father was arrested, I wasn't Russian, they didn't give me a place," he says 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 run 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 continued
practicing 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
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, Americans went 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
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
Paul Corgan acknowledges that the story of the Finns and their
struggles and hardship in the Soviet Union 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 says.
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 of 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 ["inhabitant of Russia"], as Yeltsin always said. Not a Russian, but a Rossiyanin."