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Emigration of Finns from North America to Soviet Karelia in the Early 1930's

Reino Kero

When a Finnish emigrant left for North America, he usually intended to stay only for a short time, perhaps four or five years. After that he hoped to return to Finland a more affluent person than when he left. Despite their good intentions, however, only between twenty and thirty per cent of all Finnish emigrants realized their ambitions.1 Some did indeed return having reached their economic objecitives. Dollars jingled in their pockets, and they felt rich. Many others, however, returned embittered by their American experience. They had found to their disappointment that life was harsh in America and wealth difficult to obtain. For them life in the Old World was preferable to life in the New.

A chief attraction to America lay in the fact that she was a "free country", a "land of liberty and opportunity" superior to Finland.2 But by the beginning of the twentieth century, Finnish-American newspapers and immigrant letters began to tell another story. Many immigrants claimed, and especially those associated with the Finnish-American radical left, that the notion of "American freedom" was nonsense.3 Finnish-American socialists and IWW members, for example, strongly criticized the cointradications in American society. And Finnish-American communists were so critical of American society and its political system that thousands resolved to leave it. They called America "the country of rhinoceroses". For the communists, however, the problem of where to go remained thorny. A return to Finland was out of the question, for they perceived their former homeland as a repressive society dominated by "right-wing" elements. A promising alternative was the Soviet Union, the "country of workers". Re-emigration there, by the early 1930's, became the dream of many Finnish-American leftists.

To date the exodus of Finnish immigrants from the United States and Canada to Russia has been little studied. As far as I know only three articles on the subject have been written, and all three deal with the early 1920's when re-emigration was but a trickle.4 Nothing has been written on the re-emigration of Finns from the United States and Canada to Russia during the early 1930's when the exodus was truly substantial.

One reason for the lack of scholarship is that source materials are difficult to obtain. The most important archives, those in Russia itself, are closed to scholars. Another reason is that scholars in Finland have more interested in the concurrent migration from Finland to Russia than in what seemed an insignificant migration from North America. In words, Finnish scholars have largely ignored the question. Finally, Finnish-Americans seem to have been hesitanit to give scholarly attention to such a volatile issue. The re-emigration was perhaps one of the most bitter controversies which ever emerged among American and Canadian Finns. Until now it may have been impossible for Finnish-Americans to write about the subjeet from a detached point of view.

Despite the inaccessability of Russian sources, there are important substitutes available from which the story can be reconstructed. Most important are the Finnsh-American newspapers of the 1930's, especially leftist papers. When the migrants left for Karelia, for example, they celebrated the occasion with giant farewell parties which were carefully reported in letters sent to papers such as Työmies, Eteenpäin and Vapaus. The letters listing those persons emigrating often contained biographical data about them and told about their roles in the Finnish-American leftist movement.5 Much information is also available in the greetings departing Finns published in leftist papers. The greetings urged remaining comrades to continue the struggle against American capitalism and included the writers' names and addresses - perhaps in an effort to stimulate their friends' loyalty to communism.6 Työmies, Eteenpäin and Vapaus also contain reports from groups in transit. The dispatches, for example, tell how many comrades were in the group, how they occupied themselves during the trip, and what they expected the Soviet Union to be like.7 Other Finnish-American papers such as Raivaaja, Päivälehti and New Yorkin Uutiset, even though they condemned the move, also covered the migration extensively sively. They especially focused on stories of persons who had returned.8

It is even possible to glean useful information about the migration from Finnish papers published in the Soviet Union and from papers published in Finland.

There are also a few memoirs published by the migrants themselves.9 It is possible to interview returnees. And a source yet to be checked is the archives of the Finnish police, which may possibly contain information on those who returned to North America through Finland.

What inspired the migration? It is certain that the move was sanctioned by the Soviet government, for in the early 1920's it encouraged the migration of technical experts to help with the industrialization of the country.10 In fact, a small group of American Finns did leave for Karelia at that time. But perhaps the most important reason for the migration of the early 1930's was the Soviet Karelian government's campaign to develop its lumber industry. The concurrent Russian attempt to develop an auto industry and the need for technical experts may also have been a factor.

At any rate, the government of Soviet Karelia was itself in charge of bringing migrants into the province. And while it is impossible to determine the precise role of the Russian government in the affair, it is quite probable that Moscow authorized Karelia to "import", say, seven thousand immigrants for the lumber industry. Or perhaps Karelian authorities could or did set the number. But it was crucial for Karelia to induce as many workers as possible from North America, for they brought with them technical skills, hard American currency and equipment. North Americans could indeed be of great help in filling Karelian production quotas.

To implement recruitment the Karelian government hired Finnish-American communist leaders as recruiters who traveled widely to speak on behalf of the migration. Leftist newspapers aided the recruiters by devoting generous column space to artitcles and advertisements about Karelia. But Finnish-American leftist support for the migration was not altogether wholehearted. Many letters to the papers and some articles questioned the wisdom of the move on the grounds that such a large migration would drain strength away from the Finnish leftist movement in North America. Too many persons of vital importance to the class struggle in America were leaving, the critics maintained.11

Despite these few objections, the migration grew to large proportions. The exact number of persons who left is isnposisible to determine precisely, but I have made a preliminary estimate based mainly on the names containied in the departees' newspaper greetings, and through information gathered in interviews. From these sources I estimate that at least 10,000 persons left the United States and Canada for Soviet Karelia during the early 1930's.12 My estimate may be slightly erroneous, however, for I may have counted certain persons twice. When an informant in, say, Cloquet, Minnesota, told me the names of those who left from Cloquet, he may have included persons from surrounding communities who were subsequently named again by other informants.

Because of this problem of duplicating names, another research method will have to be used in the future in determining the number of emigrants. A good approach is made possible by the fact that most emigrants to Soviet Karelia used the Swedish-American Line. On the basis of advertisements in the newspapers it is possible to come to know when the departure of each ship took place. And on the basis of greetings and travel reports published in the newspapers one can estimate how many emigrants traveled aboard each ship. It is also possible that the archives of the Swedish-American Line would have information on the number of travelers to Soviet Karelia, or that the Swedish-American Line would have passenger lists containing the names of travelers to Soviet Karelia. The use of these materials would make it possible to estimate the number of immigrants quite exactly.

The emigration of Finns from North America to Soviet Karelia began early in the 1920's. However, only several hundred Finns emigrated at this time. The numbers remained small throughout the decade, but increased rapidly for a time and reached a peak between 1931 and 1932, when a great number departed from American and Canadian ports. During 1933 and 1934, the totals fell off considerably, and after 1934 no evidence exists of group travel to Soviet Karelia.13

The Finns in America were not the only group interested in building a new society in Soviet Russia. Emigraints of several different nationial backgrounds left the United States. Among them were also persons born in America. Communists from European countries also emigrated. There were groups, for instance, from Sweden and Norway. The number of these emigrants is not known. One can assume, however, that the migration of North American Finns was at least one of the greatest streams of migraton to Soviet Russia.

While the number of emigrants from American states and Canadian provinces can be counted, only preliminary estimates are available at the moment. It seems probable that the migration touched all important Finnish-American localities, but as could be expected, Minnesota and Michigan were the most important states.14 There was, however, a difference between these states. It seems that in Michigan the most important localities were Detroit and Ironwood. Emigrants thus seem to have come from industrial centers. In Minnesota, on the other hand, a very great number left rural areas.

Why were so many Finnish-American eager to emigrate to Soviet Karelia? Several political, economic and propaganda factors were major reasons for the exodus. Työmies and Eteenpäin told their readers year after year that the United States was a "country of rhinoceroses". And they suggested that Finland was even worse; the "old country" was generally alled "Luumäki", "Bone Hill". These newspapers also claimed that the Finns were planning to attack Soviet Russia.15 Thus they believed that when they emigrated from the United States to Soviet Karelia they fled from capitalistic America to the ideal land of the workers, Soviet Russia, for political reasons. For years these newspapers claimed Soviet Russia as constantly progressing. They said that everything was not perfect yet, but the nation's defects would be removed very soon. They also believed that work was available for everybody in Soviet Karelia, that schools were better than in America, that excellent provisions would be made for the retired, that care of the sick was free and that decision making was in the hands of the workers.16 Soviet Russia was the country which was not yet paradise, but which would be a paradise in the very near future. This new society was a holy thing which workers were ready to defend with weapon in hand when the capitalistic world threatened, and the newspapers often suggested that the capitalistic states were planning to destroy their ideal country.17 Thus the departure to Soviet Russia was felt to be a holy crusade.

One of the background factors of the emigration to Soviet Karelia was thus strong political conviction based on the propaganda of the newspapers. Since the greatest wave of emigration took place in the beginning of 1930's, it seems probable that the great economic depression of the 1930's was also a very important factor. Source materials indicate that the emigrants did not belong to the poorest class of Finnish-Americans, that those who were out of work when they left may have been a very small minority among the emigrants. But there is reason to suppose that those who read left-wing newspapers were more afraid than other people that they would be out of work very soon. They may have believed that the crisis of the depression was even more difficult than it really was, at least as they were personally concerned.

The leftist newspapers regularly praised Soviet Russia, but only rarely were readers urged to emigrate to Soviet Karelia. Actual recruiting took place in other ways. Part of it was done through advertisements and articles in the newspapers, and much of it was done by well known radical leaders who traveled from locality to locality in ordier to describe the Soviet Union as a land of promise, and to provide information for those who might wish to emigrate there. Sponsoring the recruitmient program was the Neuvosto-Karjalan Teknillinen Apu, the Technical Aid of Soviet Karelia, which had its office in New York. Applications to Soviet Karelia and recommendations by local workingmen's societies were sent to this office.19 The actual trip to the Soviet Union was also otganizeid by the Neuvosto-Karjalan Teknillinen Apu. Groups were generally quite large, with some groups numbering 250.

The character of Finnish emigration from North America to Soviet Karelia was thus primarily political, the result of political radicalism. But a very important question emerges when one takes into account the actual realities of the political and social life of the socialist Finns. Were the Finns actually radical? And if they were radical, how was this radicalism born?

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Finnish-American socialism could be called "hall socialism", chiefly recreational and social in basic nature. Meetings of workingmen's clubs provided an occasion for fellowship and pleasant conversation with countrymen. Newspaper editors and agitators long complained that people were not really interested in speeches on socialism, but they would rather listen to music, participate in athletics, and drink coffee. Finnish-American socialists believed that their meetings were quite different from those arranged by the "American" socialist groups, which presumably discussed only theoretical matters and Party activities, and that "hall activity" was not essential to them.20

Thus it is probable that a great portion of Finnish-American socialists were only hall socialists. But it is necessary to stress two matters: first, the number of hall socialists among Finnish-Americans was very large, relatively more than, for instance, among Swedish immigrants; and secondly, in addition to these hall socialists there was an important group of persons ho were very active and class-conscious. They were the real leaders, and their effect on the political activity of the Finns was very great. In fact, they guided the activities of the hall socialists.

A large number of the most active Finnish-American socialists joined the American communist movement in the beginning of the 1920's. The Civil War in Finland had caused a great number of Finnish-American socialists to become embittered radicals. Thus events in Finland provided important impetus to political radicalism.

It can be shown indisputably how certain events in Finland, above all the Russification policy in the beginning of the twentieth century, the Civil War in 1918 and the Lapua movement in the beginning of the 1930's, were reflected in the Finnish-American labor movement. It can also be demonstrated that the most important Finnish-American socialists were very often from the southern parts of Finland, and not from Ostrobothnia from where most of the emigrants to America came.21 But American conditions also made Finns radical, and this was likewise an important factor in the emigration to Soviet Karelia. To be periodically out of work was a strong argument that something was amiss in American society. During violent strikes, when the National Guard was on the employers' side, the capitalists were seen as merciless exploiters who did not feel any responbility for their employees. Frequent mining accidents made the immigrants' lives uncertain. And when some Finns became socialists, employers even blacklisted those Finns who had nothing to do with socialism. The Finns felt the blacklist as a bitter humiliation.

The Finnish immigrant group which migrated to Soviet Karrelia was in any aspects a curious group. A great portion of this group sems to have come to America before World War I. Thus, they had been in North America for fifteen to twenty-five years.22 Even though they had been in America for a long time, they felt that America was not ther country. It is probable that those who went to Russia from Canada often had emigrated to Canada only after World War I.

Almost all the Finnish emigrants were poor when they left Finland. They were farmers' sons, crofters' sons, cottagers and workers. However, there was a difference between a farmer's son and a cottager. The farmer considered himself to be slightly higher than the latter on the social and economic scale. So it is very interesting to learn that there were among emigrants to Soviet Karelia both those who had "good" backgrounds and those who had "poor" backgrounds in Finland.

Moreover, the age structure was curious. Those who had come to America before World War I were already thirty-five to forty-five years old when they left for Soviet Karelia. Very often whole families migrated. Thus there were many children among emigration from the United States. Among Canadian emigrants, there may have been many who were twenty to thirty years old and who were single lumbermen.

What was the economic status of the emigrants when they left America? At first, some of those who wanted to go to Soviet Karelia had to pay an entrance fee of five hundred dollars. These people were also required to take all kinds of tools and special clothing with them. This may mean that when somebody emigrated to Soviet Karelia he did not receive any help from the Soviet government. Only occasionally was someone allowed to emigrate without paying his own fare. So it seems that those who migrated from North America to Soviet Karelia were not rich, but compared with other Finns were relatively well-to-do.23

During their trip to Soviet Karelia the Finns were an interesting group. When they left New York they waved red handkerchiefs and sang the "International" and "Free Russia". On board ship, they organized themselves into work groups and committees. Those who broke common rules were disciplined by their comrades at their own courts. They insisted that on the Swedish-American Line's ships, the Finnish national hymn not be played, because, they said, the trip was intended as a "glad happening". They collected money for Työmies, Eteenpäin, Vapaus, the Swedish Communist Party, the Finnish Communist Party and of course for Soviet Russia. In Sweden, especially in Gothenburg, they showed what an active and noisy group they were, and when the ships stopped in Finnish ports they cursed and abused those returning Finns who left the ship, and again waved red handkerchiefs and sang songs.24

When the immigrants came to Soviet Karelia, they were full of optimism. Since they haid learned in America that everything was not yet perfect in Karelia, they were ready to enter an imperfect society. It seems, however, that they were not reaidy enough for those difficulties that they met when they came to the new land. There was not enough food, and the food that was available was worse than they had been accustomed to eating in America. Houses were smaller, colder and dirtier than in America. It wais difficult to get new clothes. They found that the work system was disorganized. Natives and other settlers were occasionially hostile and often asked why these rich Americans came to eat their bread. They unexpectedly found quarreling among the Finns already there. And they particularly missed the freedom of expression they had enjoyed in North America. In America workers had been accustomed to protesting in the streets to demand the social problems be remedied. But in Soviet Karelia they had to accustom themselves to a situation where authorities ordered everything and individuals were only allowed to do what they were commanded to do.25 Accordinigly, many Finnish-Americans in Soviet Karelia felt disappointed and began to think of ways to get back to America.

A part of those who came to Soviet Karelia were citizens of Finland and many were citizens of the United States or Canada. When they came to Leningraid, many of them thought that their American citizenship was no longer of any value. As a result many renounced it and became citizens of the Soviet Union. For the last-menitioned group it was very difficult leave Russia. For American citizens, on the other hand, the return was quite simple and they usually came back by way of Finland.

On the basis of materials that I have collected through interviews it seems that about half of those who emigrated to Soviet Karelia returned to Finland, the United States or Canada. Many of them stayed in Finland beause they did not have enough money to travel back to America. Those who returned to the United States or Canada very often seem to have gone to localities where they were not known, where there was nobody who could ask how they had succeeded in building the "new society" in Soviet Russia.

For the United States and Canada, the 10,000 Finns who left for Soviet Karelia were numerically only of little importance, especially because there were millions of people out of work. For the Soviet economy, these 10,000 immigrants were quite insignificant. However, for Soviet Karelia this group may have been of value. They brought dollars and helped to complete the quotos that the Soviet Karelian lumber industry had to reach. In addition, Finns brought with them certain technical skills which aided in the industrialization of Karelia, especiailly its timber industry.

The importance of the emigration from North America to Soviet Karelia was thus generally quite small. For the Finnish-American communist movement, the loss of thousands of active members was, on the other hand, a heavy blow. The communist workingmen's societies no doubt lost some of their most able members. They had been of value when social evenings were arranged, when demonstrators were needed, or when they had to find people to collect money for the party or for their newspapers. Along with these members there was also a decided loss of leadership from the movement.

I believe that the migration to Soviet Karelia marked the beginning of the decline of the Finnish-American communist movement. The two other worker movements among the Finnish-Americans, the socialist and the IWW movements, had suffered this fate earlier. But it must also be said that the unsuccessful emigration to Soviet Karelia did not kill the Finnish-American communist movement. The movement still has an active core group which has worked so effectively that today Työmies-Eteenpäin is still published as are two other leftist newspapers, Raivaaja and Industrialisti.


1 Reino Kero, "The Return of Emigrants from America to Finland", Publications of the Institute of General History (University of Turku, Finland No. 4, 1972), p. 20.

2 Reino Kero, "Yhdysvaltojen kuva Suomen sanomalehdissä 1800-luvun puolivälin jälkeen (noin vuosina 1850-75)", Turun Historiallisen Yhdistyksen Julkaisuja, XX (Turku, 1967), p. 40.

3 For example, Kalle Toivola, a well-known Finnish-American Socialist, wrote in his short story "Uni" as follows: "America is a 'free country', we do not need any kind of opinions here". Vappu, 1908, p. 13.

4 Ritva-Liisa Hovi, "Amerikansuomalaiset osuuskunnat Neuvosto-Karjalassa 1920-luvun alkupuolella amerikansuomalaisten ja neuvostokarjalaisten sanomalehtien valossa", Turun Historiallisen Yhdistyksen Julkaisuja XXIV (Turku, 1971); Ritva-Liisa Hovi, "Amerikansuomalaisten maanviljelyskommuuni Etelä-Venäjällä", Turun Historiallisen Yhdistyksen Julkaisuja XXV (Turku, 1971); William R. Copeland, "Amerikansuomalaiset 'pyhiinvaeltajat' Neuvosto-Karjalassa", Historiallinen Aikakauskirja (4/1973).

5 Työmies, September 12, 1931.

6 Työmies, October 16 and December 6, 1931.

7 Työmies, August 9, 1931; Vapaus, October 9, 1931.

8 Päivälehti, September 30, 1931.

9 For example, John Hamlin, Työmiehenä Venäjällä. Mitä suomalainen työmies siellä näki (Porvoo, 1934); Eemil Rautiainen, Neuvostomaata rakentamassa. Amerikan suomalaiset siirtolaiset sosialistisessa rakennustyössä Karjalassa (Petroskoi, 1933); V. Suomela, Kuusi kuukautta Karjalassa. Mitä siirtolainen näki ja koki Neuvosto-Karjalassa (Sudbury, n.d.); Havaintoja matkalta Karjalaan ja siellä oloajalta.K ommunistien vuosikausia kestänyt Karjalakeinottelu paljastettuna (Fitchburg, n.d.).

10 Hovi, "Amerikansuomalaiset osuuskunnat", pp. 190-192.

11 Työmies, September 13, October 3 and 27, November 21, 1931.

12 For more on the number of Soviet Karelian emigrants, see Reino Kero, "Satakuntalainen amerikansiirtolaisuus ennen ensimmäistä maailmansotaa. Lähtö ja muuttoliikkeet", Phil. Lic. Thesis, University of Turku, 1970, pp. 207-216.

13 The fluctuation of the Soviet Karelian emigrations can be revealed to some extent on the basis of the greetings in the newspapers.

14 Kero, "Satakuntalainen amerikansiirtolaisuus", p. 212-214.

15 For example, the Työmies, November 25, 1931, issue noted that Finnish Social Democrats are devoted helpers of Fascists in preparation for war against the Soviet Union."

16 Työmies, June 21, 1931.

17 For example, the July 23, 1929, issue of the Työmies said: "Workers! Defend Soviet Russia! The only correct information on the new imperialistic blockade against the Soviet Union you get when you read the Työmies."

18 In 1931, for instance, Adam Tenho traveled in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin representing Neuvosto-Karjalan Teknillinen Apu. See Työmies, August 1, 1931.

19 Työmies, November 17, 1931.

20 For example, Kolmannen Amerikan suomalaisen sosialistijärjestön edusjakokouksen pöytäkirja, Hancockissa, Mich., August 23-30, 1909 (Fitchburg, 1910), 76-77.

21 Reino Kero, "The Roots of Finnish-American Left-Wing Radicalism", Publications of the Institute of General History (University of Turku, Finland, 73), pp. 45-55.

22 Kero, "Satakuntalainen amerikansiirtolaisuus", p. 215.

23 Ibid., P. 216; Työmies, April 24, June 20, 1930, May 22, June 27 and December 13, 1931; Uusi Suomi, May 29, 1931.

24 Työmies, July 15 and December 6, 1931.

25 For example, John Hamlin, pp. 21-30, and V. Suomela, pp. 48-49.

Published in The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region: New Perspectives = Migration Studies C 3 (1975), p. 212-221.

© Reino Kero

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