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The Tragedy of Joonas Harju of Hiilisuo Commune, Soviet Karelia 1933-1936

Reino Kero

At the beginning of the 1930s, the United States and Canada were in the midst of an extemely severe economic depression. In the United States alone, the number of unemployed rose to over 16 million. In this kind of crisis situation, it was natural that North American Finnish leftists eagerly searched for a newer and better society. As a result, about 6000 Finnish leftists left the United States and Canada during this period to help build a workers'society in Soviet Karelia.

The North American economic situation obviously created conditions that favored return migration to Europe. However, the movement of Finnish leftists to Soviet Karelia also resulted from a determined effort by Karelian administrators to enlist North American workers. Soviet Karelia played an important role in the Soviet Union's first five year plan. In order to bring in western currency, the Soviets planned to export timber products to western markets. The output of the lumber industry in the area, therefore, had to undergo enormous growth.

It became quite obvious that such ambitious growth projections couldn't be realized with the area's own manpower. Not only was it necessary to supplement the existing work force, but it was also necessary to acquire even more effective forestry techniques. In setting out to achieve these goals, the Soviet Karelian Finnish leaders saw the North American immigrants as ideal subjects for enlistment. For one thing, they wanted the enlisted work force to be Finnish-speaking, a requirement that the North American Finns easily fulfilled. In addition, the work force had to be skilled and it was known throughout Soviet Karelia that in North America an ample work force existed that was acquainted with the most modern lumbering techniques. Since Soviet Karelia needed machinery and tools, the Karelian leaders anticipated that the prosperous North American Finns would bring with them at least some of these items. It was also known that the North American leftist timber workers fulfilled the ideological requirements placed on the work force. Thus, the Soviet Karelian Finnish leaders, Edvard Gylling and Kustaa Rovio, had every reason to expect that the available work force from the United States and Canada would bring with it a new age to Soviet Karelia's timber industry.

In addition to forestry techniques, the Finnish leadership in Karelia also hoped to profit from North American construction methods. North American Finns had constructed a group of "American style" buildings in Petroskoi (Petrozavodsk) and an effort was made to base the city's new water system on an American model.

Agriculture was a secondary priority in the economic life of Soviet Karelia. Due to its northern location, the area didn't adapt very well to farming and, as a result, the objectives established for it were modest. The Karelians were required to produce enough feed for the horses that were needed in the area's lumber industry. In addition, the administrators hoped that adequate supplies of vegetables, milk, butter, and meat could be locally produced for the residents. Thus, the recruitment effort in North America was at no point aimed at providing agricultural workers for Soviet Karelia. Agriculture was being developed in the Soviet Union through the construction of state-owned farms and the acquisition of new farming techniques. Obviously, the model for these collectives didn't have to come from outside the Soviet Union. Information on the newest farming methods could be obtained from Finland. It was the North American Finns themselves who were interested in also serving in the agricultural effort.

Already at the beginning of 1920, a group of Finnish American leftists had founded the Kylväjä collective in southern Russia. The effort encountered numerous difficulties, but the work commune was still in existence at the beginning of 1930. Canadian Finns also began to plan their own commune in the early 1920s and by the mid-point of the decade, they had established Säde in the Aunus area of Karelia. At about the same time, Finnish Americans built the Työ commune on an old, deteriorating estate near Leningrad and planned to develop it into a large scale farm. Both Säde and Työ appear to have been model farms, especially when compared with others in their regions.

Shortly before the "Karelian fever" actually began in 1931, a collective (kolkhose) named Hiilisuo had been started near Petroskoi. According to one source, it was Gylling's idea to establish this commune.1 It seems that the original pioneers at Hiilisuo were Finnish Americans, who had already lived for some time at the Kylväjä commune in southern Russia. Their arrival occurred in the spring of 1930 when Hiilisuo was still blanketed by snow.2

Thus, the founders of Hiilisuo were American Finns who had come from the steppes of South Russia. Immediately after the founding, a large number of Finns came directly from the United States and Canada, so that already by the summer of 1931 the composition of the collective's residents was quite varied and colorful. In a letter drafted that summer, the residents told of having come from Canada, the United States, Finland, Siberia, and the Tver region (near Moscow) in Karelia. Also working at the collective were several local Karelians from near Petroskoi.3 The majority, however, were Finns from the United States.

The ambitious objectives established for Hiilisuo were apparently aimed at making it a model for other collectives in the area. Already in the summer of 1930 - several months after the founding of Hiilisuo - Soviet Karelia's leading Finnish newspaper, Punainen Karjala, suggested that it could serve as an example for other collectives. The paper explained in detail how the building of the collective was progressing at an exemplary pace.4

The development of Hiilisuo into a blossoming collective may have looked easy when viewed from the district offices in Petroskoi. From the standpoint of the almost empty-handed immigrants themselves, however, the situation looked much more difficult. When it became obvious that Hiilisuo wasn't fulfilling the expectations of Petroskoi's administrators, a complaint appeared in Punainen Karjala in 1932. According to the article, the collective's spring sowing plans were in jeopardy. In addition, not only did the collective lack production objectives, but there was no evidence of any Soviet competition and the party and labour union were looking through their fingers at its failures.5

The obstacles to the development of Hiilisuo apparently weren't mere newspaper propaganda. According to one memoir, the collective underwent great difficulties when an effort was made to turn it into a large cattle farm. The writer recollects how eighty cows were obtained shortly after the founding of the collective, but by the fall of 1931 there were only 19 left. Of these, a "large part" soon died of starvation or diseases linked to malnutrition.6 It wasn't surprising, since the clearing of the swamps had started only a year earlier and the fields couldn't produce enough feed. The transporting of feed from elsewhere in the Soviet Union to a small, isolated collective like Hiilisuo wasn't easily arranged.

Nevertheless, these early problems didn't discourage the planners in Petroskoi nor the farm hands hoeing in the marshes. The collective was again receiving praise by the summer of 1933. Newspapers provided information on the example the collective's women were setting. and in the fall the papers predicted that Hiilisuo would develop into a model farm.8

In 1933 the leaders of Hiilisuo, or more accurately, the administrators if Petroskoi had grand plans to eventually develop the collective into an agricultural school. In the spring of 1934 it was reported that an impressive two story school building was going up, in which agricultural laborers would be trained.9 At about the same time, it is known that Hiilisuo received some "pure-bred cattle".10

According to one memoir, a certain "Finnish American bachelor" bought 100 pure-bred cows from Finland. A good barn had been built at Hiilisuo and a skilled dairyhand was hired to tend the cows.11

The memoir doesn't mention the year in which the purchase took place, but on the basis of other documentation, the date can be narrowed to 1933. In that year, two of Hiilisuo's farm-hands, Joonas Harju and Emil Niva, received travel visas to Finland, where they had instructions to buy cows, seed and agricultural machinery. Another source verifies that Finland sold cattle to the Soviet Union in 1933.12

The donator of the cattle was the aforementioned bachelor, Joonas Harju. According to one commemorative publication, he was a "sturdy, robust" man, already in his sixties, who had come to Soviet Karelia from Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio. He spoke Finnish with a distinct Ostro-Bothnian accent.13 Harju's age and prosperity indicate that he had already arrived in the United States before the first World War. He belonged to that large group of immigrants who had already lived in the United States 20 to 30 years before migrating to Soviet Karelia.

Harju's gift to the collective is an established fact, although he didn't necessarily donate exactly 100 cows. In any case, the donation was large enough to earn the donator considerable publicity. Harju's part in the building of Karelia wasn't simply limited to donating cattle. According to one source, he also brought with him a tractor, two cars and a radio, whose total value amounted to $3,000.14

Hiilisuo became an agricultural school, although its first students arrived a bit later than originally scheduled. The delay didn't matter because in 1934 the collective was again enjoying a favorable spotlight. Newspapers commended the chairman of the farm for his skills. The dairying was also praised. Hiilisuo's cows were giving a lot more milk because the feed situation had greatly improved.15

Yet, by the fall of 1935 the Finns of Hiilisuo were again beset by difficulties.

Edvard Gylling lost his position as Chairman of Soviet Karelia in August, 1935. Nevertheless, he seems to have spent the fall of 1935 in Petroskoi.16

One memoir of the period relates that Hiilisuo figured in the firing of the chairman, who was linked to the administrator of the collective after an "appropriate" accident was arranged at the farm. It seems that a certain "GPU stooge" mixed arsenic into the cattle feed, killing 95 cows. A series of trials and imprisonments followed the incident and, as a result, Russian administrators replaced the Finnish leaders of the collective. According to this writer, "with that [event] ended the golden period of that farm as well as the fruits of much hard work".17

Although there may be some errors in this interpretation of the incident,18 is other available source materials indicate that the cattle at the collective died suddenly during the winter of 1935-36. In fact, quite a detailed story about the death of the cattle and the ensuing imprisonments appeared in Petroskoi newspapers as they reported on the difficulties of the Finns at Hiilisuo.19 In the summer of 1936 Punainen Karjala noted that "just a short while ago, State Farm No. 2 was a place where skillfully disguised bourgeois nationalists committed sabotage". These nationalists, the paper said, had among other things poisoned a noticeable part of the collective's breeding stock and promoted "national hatred". The saboteurs had been jailed and the collective had been turned into an experimental farm. Ethnocentricity had been eliminated, the article continued, as shown by the fact that the residents of the collective were studying Russian and there were now 40 Stakhanovites at Hiilisuo.20 However, not everything was yet in order, particularly in the achievement of a truly Leninist-Stalinist national political perspective. According to the article, "the Russian speaking intelligensia" had not been drawn into the collective's activities. Nor had Hiilisuo risen from depths to which the saboteurs' activities had taken it. Quite a few of the collectives scapegoats now had Russian names, which may possibly indicate that the collective's leadership had become Russian or Karelian.21

What happened to Joonas Harju, the man who donated 100 Finnish cows to Hiilisuo? For a time he enjoyed the thanks and praise of the collective. In one source he's even called Hiilisuo's president, although he certainly wasn't the collective's leader.

Yet, it wasn't long before Harju was treated like a "shiftless hired-hand and when Hiilisuo was purged in the fall of 1935, he was deemed untrustworthy and was no longer allowed to participate in the administration of the commune. Harju was imprisoned in connection with the cattle catastrophe.22 In all likelihood this took place at the beginning of 1936, but at this point the reports about Harju end.

It's quite apparent that Finnish Americans continued living at Hiilisuo even after the cattle incident. But from this point on, the leadership in the collective was firmly in the hands of the Russians. The story of Hiilisuo as a Finnish American collective had come to an end.

Reino Kero is a Professor of History at Turku University, Turku, Finland.

1 Artturi Leinonen, Punaisen aallon ajelemana. Yrjö Kultajärven seikkailut 1917-1937 (Porvoo 1963), p. 183. The book is based on interviews, conducted during World War II with Finnish American Immigrants to Soviet Karelia who stayed in Finland. The first edition appeared in 1943, when it's author was listed as Yrjö Kultajärvi.

2 In addition to the aforementioned collectives, North Americans also established a sovkhoz and a kolkhoz at Alavoinen near the northerly situated Uhtua [Uhkta]. The sovkhoz was quite small, while the kolkhoz was situated in such an isolated location that at the time of its founding, there were no roads in the area.

3 Minutes written at Soviet Karelian State Farm No. 2 Workers Meeting, July 1, 1931. Public Archives of Canada, Mg 28, V 46, volume 18, file 36a.

4 Punainen Karjala, June 6, 1930.

5 Punainen Karjala, June 14, 1932.

6 V. Suomela, Kuusi kuukautta Karjalassa. Mita siirtolainen näki ja koki Neuvosto-Karjalassa (Sudbury, Ont. n.d.), pp. 50-51.

7 Punainen Karjala, August 26, 1933.

8 Punainen Karjala, November 23, 1933.

9 Punainen Karjala, March 21, 1934.

10 Punainen Karjala, August 18, 1933.

11 Ernest Tuulensuu, Muistelmia ja vaikutelmia Neuvostoliitosta vuosilta 1930-1941. Eli yksitoista vuotta bolsheviikkidiktatuuria. Manuscript in writer's possession, pp. 17-19.

12 Office of the Finnish Consul General in Pietari (Leningrad). Visa applications for 1933. Archive of the Finnish Consulate in Pietari in the Finnish State Archive. The transportation of cattle into Soviet Karelia can be traced in the annual report for 1933, p. 91, of the East Finland Cattle Breeders Association.

13 Leinonen, Punaisen aallon ajelemana, p. 143.

14 Leinonen, pp. 141-143.

15 Punainen Karjala, July 14, 1935.

16 A letter by Gylling from Moscow, dated January 16, 1936, was published in Canada in Vapaus on February 1, 1936. The letter appears authentic, which would seem to indicate that Gylling was in Moscow already at the beginning of 1936.

17 Tuulensuu, Muistelmia ja Vaikutelmia, pp. 17-19.

18 One gets the impression from Leinonen's book, based as it is on interviews with an individual who had apparently often been at Hiilisuo, that Gylling was already in Moscow when Hillisuo's cattle suddenly died.

19 Leinonen, pp.183-190.

20 Punainen Karjala, July 27, 1936.

21 Punainen Karjala, August 24, 1936.

22 Leinonen, pp. 141-147. 183-190.

Published in Finnish Americana 5(1982-1983), p. 8-11.

© Reino Kero

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