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Turbulent Times: The Last Years of Santeri Nuorteva in America, 1918-1920

Auvo Kostiainen

In 1918 Santeri Nuorteva was the representative of "Red Finland" in the United States, struggling to get the United States to recognize the revolutionary government in Finland. Simultaneously he promoted the cause of the Russian Bolsheviks and later became the information director of the Soviet Russian Information Bureau in America.1 Nuorteva came to Duluth, Minnesota, in the spring of 1918 to give a talk. The mayor of the city, however, refused to give him permission to speak. Kalle Rissanen, a well-known Finnish American newspaperman, relates how Nuorteva went personally to see the mayor. At first the secretary said the mayor did not wish to see Mr. Nuorteva. But after an earnest entreaty, Nuorteva was permitted into the mayor's office. After a long and apparently intensive discussion, the mayor and Mr. Nuorteva came out of the office arm in arm and bid each other a friendly farewell. Then the mayor said: "If Mr. Nuorteva needs protection in case of a hooligan's attack, I will send police officers to the meeting place." When Nuorteva left, according to Rissanen, the mayor mumbled "What a wonderful man, a wonderful man." Santeri Nuorteva was indeed appreciated by Finnish American socialists like Rissanen.2 But this particular story also reflects Nuorteva's political abilities.

Many similar reminiscences could be told about Santeri Nuorteva and the turbulent period when he was in the United States. We must also remember the circumstances under which Nuorteva operated here. The period immediately following World War I was a time of intensive political and social tension in the United States - a reason for the sharp focus given the period by subsequent historians. Santeri Nuorteva's name appears in many kinds of historical sources. The purpose of this article is to examine one group of materials preserved, the papers of the Military Intelligence Office. Through them we can learn of Santeri Nuorteva's stay in the United States and the conditions under which he worked. We can also learn much about the Finnish American community out of which he worked.3

Santeri Nuorteva's original name was Alexander Nyberg. He had been born in Viipuri, the son of a Finnish Swedish telegraph officer and Russian Jewish mother. The city of Viipuri and his disparate background must have been good for the linguist he became. He could speak at least Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian and perhaps some German. After his family moved to Helsinki, and Santeri enrolled at the University, he moved to Forssa, a small industrial town between Helsinki and Turku, to become a language teacher in the local secondary school. Gradually he became more interested in the political and social questions which were sweeping Finland. While still in Forssa, he became editor of the local newspaper. After its failure, he edited a new working class paper and served as a member of the Finnish Diet, 1907-1910, as a Social Democrat. After troubles with Czarist bureacrats, and the threat of prison for citicizing the imperial government, he was forced to leave for the United States with his family in 1911.

His first job was as editor of Toveri (Comrade) in Astoria, Oregon. Later he became a speaker and organizer for the Finnish Socialist Federation, established in Hibbing, Minnesota in 1906, and also editor of Raivaaja (Pioneer) and Säkeniä (Sparks) in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. During the teens he became one of the best known Finnish American socialists and was often seen as a delegate to Federation conventions and meetings of the Socialist Party of America.

While in Fitchburg he became nominated as the "ambassador" of the revolutionary government in Finland in the United States in early 1918. The Civil War had broken out after Finland had gained independence in the fall of 1917, and the tension between the "White" and "Red" elements had gradually grown until the outbreak of Civil War in late January, 1918. The revolutionaries in Finland were, however, defeated during the spring. Nuorteva had to find another job in America. Soon he was a member of the Soviet Russian Information Bureau under the leadership of Ludvig C. A. K. Martens.

To understand the nature of the materials of the Military Intelligence on Santeri Nuorteva and the Finns, it is important to remember that after the United States joined the World War in 1917 anti-alien and anti-radical feelings in the country began to increase. Everything foreign was seen as a threat to the country's existence. Particularly, after the Russian October Revolution of 1917, the Eastern European element in the United States (which included Finns) was seen as especially dangerous. A reason for this was that a good deal of the leadership of the American radical movement was in the hands of Russian Jews. The peak was reached in the Palmer Red Raids under the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919-1920. Thousands of suspected radicals and aliens were arrested and many deported.4

The Military Intelligence papers show that in the crucial years 1918-20 the activities of Finnish-American radicals were strictly watched. Agents reported on "Bolshevik meetings" in different parts of the country. Santeri Nuorteva was a common speaker both in Finnish and English at such affairs, particularly after he became employed by the Soviet Russian Bureau. Thus there is a detailed report by sergeant G. L. Ryder of the celebration of the first anniversary of the Russian Revolution on November 17, 1918. At the meeting, held in Boston's Grand Opera House, there were prominent radical speakers such as Eaikmonn McAlpine, editor of the New York Call, Gregory Weinstein, editor of Novi Mir, Louis C. Frainia, editor of Revolutionary Age, and Santeri Nuorteva, "Ambassador of the Finnish Soviet Republic". Nuorteva gave a long talk in the English language about the situation in Finland and Russia at the meeting.5 Naturally there were also other Finnish-American radicals who drew the attention of government agencies, such as Raivaaja's editor-in-chief, F. J. Syrjala and Elis Sulkanen, another known socialist journalist. Also the Finnish-American supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World was seen as especially dangerous because of its syndicalist and sometimes anarchist-oriented ideas and practices. There even appear to have been some MI agents who believed that Nuorteva was an IWW-supporter, but after more investigation such notions were dropped.6

The materials also include several copies of the letters and writings Nuorteva sent to American officials (including the Military Intelligence) and newspapers. These reveal his active role as a Finnish-American social leader and also his work to secure the results of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

The agents' reports are both positive and negative about the role of Nuorteva as a "dangerous Bolshevik". Several agents see him as a very intelligent man, as a socialist, but not as an anti-American or seditious person,7 as do such agents who will be discussed in the later pages of this article. An example of the positive reports by the Military Intellegence agents is one by Julius Wulbert from August 30, 1918. He attended a Socialist Party meeting in Chicago, where Nuorteva appears to have spoken in English. Wulbert describes in detail Nuorteva's speech and states among other things:

...while there was nothing anti-American in his speech, his care in choosing his words was noticeable and several questions propounded to him on American diplomacy or government he refused to answer or give an opinion....Subject is a socialist propagandist and a shrewd diplomat. He has called on Mr. Miles of the State Department in in Washington, and asked for the assistance of this Government, pledging an anti-German policy on behalf of the Red Guard of whom he claims to be accredited agent....

The report also includes a description of how Nuorteva gave detailed suggestions to arrange America's relations with Soviet Russia, what kind of help should be sent there and that Americans should take certain diplomatic measures in international politics to help the Soviet Russian government. According to Wulbert, Nuorteva also assisted the "Chicago Bolsheviks" financially.

While it appears that agents followed Nuorteva in America, and watched other suspicious activities of labor Finns, it is also clear that the so-called loyal Finns were as interested as the government in the radical Finnish-American workers. As it is generally known, the Finnish community in America was divided into conflicting groups along religious or ideological lines. The conflict between the church goers and the socialists is particularly visible in the early decades of this century. The antipathy of the socialists against the church has to be understood largely from immigrant experiences in Finland, where the state church was very conservative and supported the existing order.8 In America many Finns thought that church was unnecessary and only limited a person's activities, while others felt secure to be active in the Suomi Synod or other Finnish-American church groups.

The conflict within the Finnish-American community culminated in the early 1900's after Finnish socialists had been active in several great strikes and caused many to consider all Finns radicals. It was more difficult now for all Finns to find work. Proclamations by "non-radicals" were given to re-establish the Finns as good workers. Suomalainen Anti-sosialisti-Liitto (The Finnish Anti-Socialist League) was founded in 1914. During the war the conflict again intensified and the same kind of development occurred as described above. Again it was understood by Americans that all the Finns in America were radicals because of the activities of only a section of the Finnish immigrant community.

"Loyalist meetings" were held and one result of the conservative Finns' reactions was the founding of the Lincoln Loyalty League in 1918, the purpose of which was to make known to Americans that not every Finn was "seditious and dangerous", but they were good potential American citizens. In the leadership of the League were conservatives, many of whom were closely linked to the church.9 A well-known Finnish-American businessman, J. H. Jasberg, was the secretary of the League in 1919 and informed government officials of "dangerous propaganda" by Finns after having received information from other loyalists.10 Also, Hon. Oscar J. Larson, chairman of the League:

felt humiliated to have to acknowledge that most, if not all, of the class-conscious international Socialist Finns in the United States are not loyal to the government. In fact they have never been loyal. But they aren't pro-German. Neither are they pro-American. On the contrary, they are anti-American in that they are doing nothing especially to help the United States win the war.11

Mr. Larson was definitely right when he said that the socialist Finns were internationalist, and he was also right when he said they were not pro-American, since the socialists were willing to be Americans, but only in a different America, a socialist one. However, the claims by Larson that the socialists were pro-German were without any grounds. This was only an effort to blackball them in the eyes of the government and to further the conservative Finns' cause. This is clear from historical facts, and, for example, Santeri Nuorteva in his propaganda strongly attacked Germans while representing the unsuccessful Finnish revolutionary government in America. At that time everybody had to acknowledge that the defeat of the Finnish revolution was partly a consequence of the landing of the German troops in Finland which helped the Finnish "White government" to re-establish its power.

In its activities the Lincoln Loyalty League thus saw it necessary to inform the government about the activities of the "dangerous Finns", either basing their information on the materials they had collected themselves or received from other Finnish informants like Emil Saastamoinen, one of the leading Finnish-American conservatives. The United States government offices also hired Finnish-speaking persons to translate information from Finnish newspapers. Similar persons were hired from other language groups to keep the government informed of the situation among each one of them. Also, there were associations which were closely connected with the government and promoted Americanism, such as the American Legion and the North American Civic League for Immigrants, whose office in Boston in early 1920 noted that Santeri Nuorteva appeared to be "a man of very great ability". The president of the Civic League also claimed that Nuorteva was the man who "practically steers the Bolshevik course".12

Military Intelligence officers appear to accord to Nuorteva a great deal of "honor" for importing communism to America. Thus, it was stated that Nuorteva and Martens had spent a great deal of money to capture the leadership of the American labor movement. Their records also claim that Nuorteva was appointed the American Communist Labor Party's honorary member at large along with certain other eminent American radicals like Eugene V. Debs.13

Even if the accuracy of these reports is questionable, the reputation of Nuorteva as one of the top radicals in America is undoubted. His reputation was based on his active role in the Finnish information Bureau, the papers of which were confiscated in 1920 and are now preserved in the New York State Library in Albany. Later, when working in the Soviet Russian Bureau with Martens, he was in charge of its foreign and information affairs. Because of all these activities he became widely known in America, and not only among the Finnish immigrant groups. The press, for example, was in frequent contact with him. It is also possible that Nuorteva's work in the Russian Bureau somehow was actually connected with the creation of both American communist parties in the fall of 1919.

Nuorteva's name is also connected with the infamous Sandburg case and the import of large amounts of money from Russia to the United States. Also, when Finnish-American socialists collected money, the Million Mark Fund (Miljoonan markan rahasto), to help in rebuilding the Finnish labor movement from the strains of the Civil War of 1918, misunderstandings and suspicions arose. When marking Nuorteva's activities for 1918, the Synopsis of the case against Santeri Nuorteva of the Military Intelligence notes:

He made a big collection in the United States, principally among the Finns, with the ostensible purpose of helping the Finnish women and children, supposed to be on the verge of starvation, with food. The real object of collecting the gigantic funds, $14,500,000 on deposit in a New York Bank, was alleged to start a nation-wide revolution in the United States. The disposition of this fund has not been traced.

Here the Military Intelligence apparently confused the Million Mark Fund collection, and the efforts of the Finns to buy foodstuffs from America. The fact is that the Finnish official ("White") government had deposited the above-mentioned sum of money in the White government's bank in New York for that purpose. And when Nuorteva acted as the White government's opponent in America, he managed to prohibit the use of the money by the representatives of that government in the United States. However, he was not able to use the money for purchase of foodstuffs for the revolutionary government in Finland.14

A revealing example of the tension and suspicion prevailing in America about the possible seditious activities of Finnish-American radicals is the attention directed to Finnish socialist newspapers and their publishing houses, such as Raivaaja of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where Nuorteva worked before being nominated the representative of "Red Finland" in the United States in 1918. There is a report by First Lieutenant Hannibal L. Hamlin of Worcester, Massachusetts, to the Intelligence Office, Northeastern Department in Boston, from July 10, 1918, where attention is directed particularly to the sixty-eight page book Aakkosia sosialistien lapsille (A Socialist Primer).15 A short article titled Sotamies (Soldier) is translated completely because of its anti-war attitude, but it is either not mentioned, or no one knew, that the original was written by Jack London! The contents of the primer in general is analyzed in detail.

Such portions as the Socialists' ten commandments are commented on. Commandment one undoubtedly raised some eyebrows. It reads: "Ajattele itse, tutki itse. Ei Kannata uskoa porvarien jaarituksia. He eivät tiedä tulevaisista eikä salaisista asiosta enempää kuin sinäkään - (Think for yourself. Examine things yourself. It doesn't pay to believe in the nonsense of the capitalists. They don't know any more about future events than you).16

It is most difficult to get this book, as the Finn socialists guard it most jealously, although it probably is in every socialistic home. Mr. Samuel E. M. Crocker, who has co-operated in this investigation, said he would undertake to get a copy of this book last night. With the assistance of a loyal Finnish Minister and another patriotic Finn, the copy was secured at midnight at the foot of Wauchusett Mountain in the thick woods. It would probably cost this man his life if it were known that he assisted in this matter.

The report also tells dramatically how the mailing of these "dangerous" primers was supervised. It is not, however, told that the first printing of the primer was made as early as 1912, but only now after six years' serious attention was directed to it. There was also another children's book by Hilja Liinamaa-Parssinen, Lasten laulukirja (Children's Songbook, 1st printing in Astoria, Ore., in 1914), to which another report paid attention, and especially to its "seditious and anti-military" song, "March for Peace."17

The report by Hamlin also pointed to the rich and active Finnish socialists functioning in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and to their publishing house, cooperatives, and workers' credit union. A totally incorrect claim was also presented by Hamlin when he said that Nuorteva had organized all these "some years ago,", since Raivaaja was established in 1905 and the cooperative in 1910, or before Nuorteva even came to America. The workers' credit union was established in 1914, but Nuorteva does not appear to have played any major role in its establishment.18 In addition Hamlin said that "it is believed that this man is an agitator of the extreme type and is in no way a friend to the best interests of the country."

The socialist primer and children's songbook coincidence might have had larger importance to the investigation of the socialist Finns, since those reports are among the oldest ones in the files of the Military Intelligence, and apparently increased the government's attention to the Finns' activities. Later, in July 1918, the Raivaaja house in Fitchburg was actually raided and F. J. Syrjälä and Santeri Nuorteva were taken before the Intelligence authorities.19 Raivaaja, however, did not run into major difficulties, since its second-class mailing permit was not cancelled and no law suit was filed.20 The radical Finns were also under surveillance in other parts of the country as well as in Canada, and some of them were arrested, put in jail and even deported from the United States.21

The above facts reveal that the information the government agencies received was not always even close to the truth. Apparently one reason for the difficulties of the agents was the language barrier. They had to rely greatly on information from "loyal Finns" which was biased in favor of their ideology and aims. Examples of wrong or biased information are found frequently in the Military Intelligence files, as are the reports of a special agent, Jacob Spolansky, from a Finnish socialist meeting from Chicago. The Intelligence synopsis of the case of Nuorteva is based on its information, however.22 Good examples of confusing and mixed information are the different versions of Nuorteva's biography in the files, which are all incorrect. The synopsis of the Military Intelligence wrongly states that Nuorteva was born in Petrograd, Russia, and that he learned the Finnish language only after becoming twenty-one years of age. The report appears to believe the information from "conservative" Finns when it states that Nuorteva's friend, Wilho Boman, was a bank robber in Finland, which is incorrect. Also the timing of Nuorteva's activites in Finland and America are very much confused in the Synopsis. Then there is the report by the Department of Justice agent, V. J. Valjovec, of July 29, 1918, which also mixes the timing of important events in Nuorteva's life and asserts some curious things:

Subject (Nuorteva) is a pure and simple Bolshevist, and was associated with the work of Trotsky, Le-nine and Koltenay [Kollontay?] and other Bolshevists as far back as 1906 when they were living in Switzerland and other countries and perhaps acting as German agents.

The connection with leading Russian revolutionaries has never been proved in the case of Nuorteva, but perhaps this was only one of the rumors connected with the suspicions about his activities in America. Another possibility is that in his younger days Nuorteva actually visited Petrograd and was active in the General Strike of 1905-06 in Finland. At that time, and between 1907 and 1911 when Nuorteva was active in the Finnish Social Democratic movement and one of its leaders, Russian revolutionaries often went to Petrograd through Finland, and the country was one of the bases for anti-Czarist activities.

Further examples of wrong data were also reports that Santeri Nuorteva was kicked out of the Finnish Socialist Federation. This erroneous information, however, was corrected by other agents. All this leads one to think about the function of the Military Intelligence: how could they steer their way in the chaos of different types of information on the same things; how were they able to find at least a partial truth? And, obviously, MI offered a good place for politically biased persons to do harm to their opponents by misusing a government agency.

Still, we must remember that the Nuorteva case for the years 1918-1920, and through him the case of the Finnish-American radicals, has to be understood as a reflection of the crisis being endured in America. The period was painful because of the participation in the war and its aftermath, when the country tried to recover from the strains connected with war. At the time the government tried to assimilate different immigrant groups into one homogenous unit to be able to respond better to any outer threat. The Military Intelligence materials give a hint of the factions into which the Finnish immigrant community was divided because of ideologies, and of the conflicts between them, which drove them into different relations with the American government.

The central Finnish-American figure in these years, Santeri Nuorteva, saw it necessary to leave the United States in 1920. Otherwise he apparently would have been deported. The phases of his life thereafter continue just as colorfully. He went through Canada to England, where he was jailed. The English government transported him by a warship to Soviet Russia. There he was soon appointed to a high administrative position in the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, seemingly because of his international experiences and linguistic skills. However, suspicions rose about his possible role as a double agent and he was jailed for almost one year. After being released he again gained an important position in the government and particularly in the administration of the Soviet Karelian Republic.

The life of this socialist, who started as a school teacher and newspaperman in Finland and rose to a member of the Finnish Diet, who became a "revolutionary ambassador" in America and a political figure in Soviet Russia, was ended in a Leningrad hospital in 1929. His lifespan reflects in its way the crucial years of these three countries. Through his experiences we may see the course of autonomous Finland toward independence under the Czarist pressure, the postwar crisis of the United States and the state of the Finnish-American community. Through his biography we can also trace the attempts of Soviet Russia to gain diplomatic status and the efforts to form a new type of government in Russia.


The author of this article is preparing a major biographical study of Santeri Nuorteva. The article here covers only a small section of the research being done.

1 About Nuorteva's work as the representative of "Red Finland". see Auvo Kostiainen, "'Punaisen Suomen edustus' Yhdysvalloissa vuonna 1918", Turun Historiallinen Arkisto XXVII, Turku 1972, pp. 88-119.

2 See Kalle Rissanen, "Feidias veistää henkilokuvia" a type-written manuscript at the Emigration History Research Archives at the Department of History, University of Turku, p. 112, original at Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota.

3 Records of War Department. General of Special Staffs, MIO Correspondence 1917-1941. Microfilm from the National Archives of the United States, Washington, D. C. Hereafter referred to as MIOC.

4 For studies about this period, see William Preston, Jr., Aliens and Dissenters. Federal Suppression of Radicals 1903-1933 (New York 1963), esp. pp. 88-237; and John Highham, Strangers in the Land. Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925, rev. edition (New York, 1973), pp. 194-263.

5 See the agents' reports on Nuorteva's speeches from Sept. 16 and Dec. 5, 1918, MIOC; and Report of Sergt. G. L. Ryder, November 17, 1918.

6 Memorandum for Capt. Callahan, Aug. 6, 1918, MIOC.

7 See Col. H. H. VanDeman to Mr. Leland Harrison, Dept. of State, Washington, D. C., May 14, 1918, a copy of the letter in MIOC.

8 See Douglas J. Ollila and Auvo Kostiainen, "Finnish-American Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Industrial Workers of the World", Siirtolaisuus-Migration 4/1979, esp. p. 18.

9 Douglas J. Ollila, Jr., "Defects in the Melting Pot: Finnish-American Reponse to the Loyalty Issue 1917-1920", Turun Historiallinen Arkisto 31, pp. 409-410; cf. S. Ilmonen, Amerikan Suomalaisten Sivistys historia. Johtavia aatteita, harrastuksia, yhteispyrintöjä ja tapahtumia siirtokansan keskuudessa. Jalkimmainen osa (Hancock, Mich., 1931), pp. 11-17.

10 For example, J. H. Jasberg to Mr. Edwin Bjorkman, March 4, 1919, a copy of the letter in MIOC.

11 Attorney J. Alfred Andersson's letter to Military Intelligence Branch, War Department in Washington, received July 31, 1918, contains long quotations of Larson's opinions, MIOC.

12 D. Chauncey Brewer to Capt. Henry A. Frothingham, Military Intelligence, War Department in Boston, March 1, 1920, a copy of the letter in MIOC.

13 See Synopsis of the case of Santeri Nuorteva, MIOC.

14 Kostiainen, "Punaisen Suomen edustus", esp. p. 90.

15 Ed. by A.B. Mäkelä, 2nd printing, Fitchburg, Mass., 1913.

16 Ibid.

17 Capt. Fred W. Moore to Intelligence Officer, Northeastern Department, Boston, July 25, 1918, MIOC.

18 See Doris Kirkpatrick, Around the World in Fitchburg, Vol. II, (Fitchburg, Mass., 1975), pp. 124-125.

19 Intelligence Officer, Northeastern Dept., Boston, to Adjutant General, State of Maine, Augusta, Maine, Nov. 24, 1919, a copy of the letter in MIOC.

20 See Auvo Kostiainen, The Forging of Finnish-American Communism, 1917-1924. A Study in Ethnic Radicalism, Annales Universitatis Turkuensis, Ser. B, Part 147, Turku 1978, p. 62.

21 Ibid., p. 92, esp. note 134.

22 Synopsis of the case of Santeri Nuorteva, MIOC.

Published in Finnish Americana, 3(1980), p. 41-52.

© Auvo Kostiainen

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