[ End of article ]

The Canadian Finns in Soviet Karelia in the 1930s

Reino Kero

When Finnish immigrants found their way to North America, quite a few had the intention of returning to Finland. In the end, the majority of immigrants stayed in their new home country, either in the United States or in Canada. But a part stuck to their original plan and returned to their original homeland. A portion of the Finnish immigrants, those who had belonged to Communist-leaning parties or been associated with them, could not, however, think of returning home, because in their eyes Finland was a country of reactionary right-wing radicalism.

When the Great Depression began in the autumn of 1929, many a Canadian Finn of the radical left believed his own newspaper Vapaus when it said that the capitalist economic system was collapsing. The system did not collapse, but the Canadian Finns, most of whom were forest or mine workers, experienced the bitter unemployment and the lowering standard of living caused by the depression. In this situation, it was most natural to think of looking for a better future outside Canada. And since, at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, it was possible to read almost daily in the very same newspaper how beautifully the first five-year plan was progressing in the Soviet Union, the idea of getting to the Soviet Union seemed very attractive to Canadian Finns.

The first five-year plan marked the beginning of rapid economic growth in the Soviet Union. Industrial production, in particular, grew with such speed that corresponding growth figures are to be found solely in post-Second World War Japan. The objective of the five-year plan appears to have been to achieve maximum self-sufficiency. It is evident, however, that the first five-year plan drew the Soviet Union closer to the capitalist world, since the objectives of the plan could only be reached by importing machines from abroad and bringing into the country specialists in different fields. Paying for the machines imported from abroad and remunerating the specialists presupposed a correspondingly high level of exports, which was not easy to achieve during the depression years of the 1930s. One of the most important export sectors was the forest industry.

The forest resources of the Soviet Union in the 1920s were enormous. Most of the forests were situated, however, in areas where exploiting the wood was difficult, at least for purposes of foreign trade. From the point of view of their location, the best forests were to be found in Soviet Karelia, from whence timber could be transported with relative ease along the waterways to western European markets. For this reason Karelia, which was otherwise a backward area, was of particular importance with regard to carrying out the five-year plan.

The start of the first five-year plan meant that the production goals of Soviet Karelia were raised dramatically; they were set so high that reaching them was not possible with local manpower. According to information in Soviet Karelian newspapers, from 30,000 to 50,000 more workers were needed in 1931.1 Under these circumstances, Edvard Gylling, the leader of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Republic, seems to have tried to ensure that as many as possible of the new workers would be Finnish-speaking. As a result, Finnish-speaking workers came from southern Russia, Siberia, Ingermanland, Finland, the United States and Canada, in addition to which an attempt was made to persuade Tver Karelians to move to this district.2

The manpower to be recruited from Canada was valuable from Gylling's point of view not only because it was Finnish-speaking, but also because in Canada there were plenty of skilled forest workers thought to be capable also of teaching effective working methods to the rest of the population of Soviet Karelia. The recruiting was done by an office, known as Technical Aid to Soviet Karelia (Neuvosto-Karjalan Teknillinen Apu). Its representative in Canada (in Toronto) was John Latva, whose first supervisor was Matti Tenhunen. The main responsibility belonged subsequently to Kalle Aronen and Oscar Corgan.

In the beginning of the 1930s about 2,000 to 3,000 Canadian Finns appear to have left for the Soviet Union. The majority left after having been expressly recruited by the Technical Aid to Soviet Karelia bureau. Emigration to Soviet Karelia from among the Canadian-Finnish forest workers had already begun, however, before the founding of the Technical Aid office. According to one source, the movement first began in 1927 when "Comrade Hautamäki", a representative of agricultural and forest workers visited the Soviet Union. He was supposed to find out "from the Karelian Government whether Canadian forest workers were needed here".3 The Canadian Finns' dreams of getting to the Soviet Karelian timber-cutting areas had to wait, however, for several more years. At the beginning of 1930, however, matters were already so advanced that the "Karelian Work Unit" (Karjalan Työkunta) was able to announce an agreement made between "the Forest Trust of the Karelian Soviet Republic and the Canadian Forest Workers Union". According to the agreement, from 50 to 70 experienced forest workers from Canada, and possibly from the United States too, could be allowed to go to the Soviet Union. The "ambassador" of the Karelian Work Unit would visit the location as early as the spring of 1930. The Work Unit should act as "shock troops", who would show how effectively forest work could be carried out. Men with families were not desirable candidates; the ideal was a young, diligent man without a family. According to the announcement, the wage level in Karelia was "reasonable" by Canadian standards. The trip to Karelia had to be paid for by the worker himself. For this, one had to set aside $175, in addition to which a membership fee of $125 had to be paid to the Work Unit. With this sum, "necessary tools" were to be bought. In addition, it was expected that the person who intended to join the Work Unit was to pay $75 as a "registration fee" by the end of March 1930. This sum was to be used for purchase of "the equipment needed and to order articles which cannot be acquired right away through purchasing". The Work Unit had two representatives in Ontario: Kalle Salo in South Porcupine and Hannes Sula in Sudbury.4

Half a year later, the Work Unit gave out new information. It announced that the Work Unit would leave probably at the end of July and that carpenters' tools sharpening tools for saws, and clothing for two years were to be taken along. Those interested in the matter received information also about the requirements set for the persons travelling. According to the announcement, the sick and the injured were much better taken care of than anywhere else. The membership fee had been raised to $300 but no mention was now made in the announcement about the "registration fee."5

It appears from Punainen Karjala, the leading newspaper in Soviet Karelia, that the "ambassador" of the Canadian Finns was Comrade Karppinen, who came to Karelia in the spring of 1930. In the autumn, he was followed by twenty-six Canadian and four American Finnish forest workers who made an agreement with Karelles (the Bureau responsible for forest work) at the beginning of November to fell 14,000 cubic metres of pulpwood (about 21,000 cords), transport it to a tractor road and load it on tractor sleds.6

The small group of forest workers who came from Canada were in a special position in many ways. They came to teach. Punainen Karjala devoted more column space to this small group than to the 2,000 to 3,000 Finnish Canadians who followed these pioneers. Although foreigners were rarely offered an opportunity to criticize the conditions in Soviet Karelia, an exception was made for "Ambassador" Karppinen from this group. He was allowed to speak his mind and, consequently, he gave a sound verbal thrashing to the local forest work methods:

The tools of the lumberjacks have been completely neglected. They are so primitive that one wonders how anything can be accomplished with them ... an axe is not good enough for a forest worker. The saws are still more primitive .... The care of horses is, in those areas where I have been, in such a state that it is worthless.... Delay is a yearly phenomenon.7

Karppinen was also of the opinion that the systems which were used in timber cutting were primitive. The same was the case with the lumber camps.

When the Finnish-Canadian "teachers" had made the agreement with Karelles, Punainen Karjala published a long explanation about the problems they encountered. The headline was very eloquent: "Are Counter-revolutionaries in charge of Matroosa Point?" The subtitle revealed how those who came from Canada had been put in a "state of siege" and how every sort of obstacle had been placed in their way. The representative of the paper had gone to inspect the situation and, after having interviewed the Canadian Finns, accused the "leadership of Matroosa Point" of grave errors. The Canadians wanted to use their own working methods, whereas the local leaders, the "sub-foremen" (pikku kympit/desiatnik) demanded that the tasks had to be carried out in the way they said. These sub-foremen were not needed at all in the Canadian-Finnish lumber camps. The local leadership had also prohibited visits by outsiders to the Finnish-Canadian lumbermen's camp, which meant according to the editor, that they wanted to isolate the Canadian Finns and that "obstacles are raised on purpose to avoid the spread of measures to rationalize lumber work". The Canadian Finns also had unnecessary difficulties in obtaining equipment, and the quantity and the quality of foodstuffs left much to be desired. According to the editor, "the matter smells of counter-revolutionary sabotage".8

The management of Karelles deemed it necessary to respond to the severe criticism presented in Punainen Karjala. It protested its innocence and announced that:

At the beginning of October a couple of the eldest subforemen from the Prääsä forest industry district-who were unaware that the Canadians had already been given permission in September by the management of Karelles to arrange all work according to their own judgment - interfered arbitrarily and immediately began explaining to the Canadian comrades that their method of timber cutting was against the rules in effect in Karelia and that the pulpwood had been poorly prepared, and so forth .... On October 17, 1930, the Chairman of the Board had given a new order to the effect that ... nobody had the right to interfere with the work methods of the Canadians .... The management of the Matroosa subdistrict has never hindered the organizational measures and work methods of the Canadians, for the management has always known about these exceptions that are allowed with respect to the Canadian artel (workunit) .... As far as the prohibition of the visits by outsiders to the Canadians' quarters was concerned, it was caused by the fact that as soon as the information about the arrival of the Canadians reached the forest workers working nearby, it prompted a "great migration" [of people] ... Only organized workers' groups, the representatives of social organizations and specialists sent there by Karelles from nearby can go and familiarize themselves with the work methods of the Canadians.9

Neither the news in Punainen Karjala nor any other source explains how the quarrel between the Canadian-Finnish teachers and the sub-foremen of the Prääsä district ended - in the short term it was probably won by the Canadian Finns. In the autumn of 1930 and the winter of 1931, the Canadian Finns were presented in the paper in a positive manner. Its readers were told, among other things, how the Canadian Finns surpassed their timber-cutting goals and how their methods were exemplary even if the "Matroosa tractor transportation unit sabotaged" their work.10

In the spring of 1931, when Technical Aid to Soviet-Karelia was founded and Soviet Karelia got its own immigration office, the major migration of North American Finns began to their newest home country, "the homeland of workers and peasants". Finns who had come from Canada were not generally distinguished from the Finns who had come from the United States. Consequently in the East Karelian press only incidental mention is made of the 2,000 to 3,000 Finnish immigrants who came from Canada about 1931 and 1932.

The Canadian Finns who came to Soviet Karelia in the autumn of 1930 came specifically to teach. The thousands of North American Finns who followed were hardly cast for this type of role. There were, however, a great many fields of work where the manpower from North America was urgently needed.

It is difficult to estimate what kind of influence the Canadian Finns had as reformers of work methods in the Soviet Union. In any case, it can be said that in the columns of Punainen Karjala there are mentions of the adoption of Canadian work methods. In August 1932 the paper contained an article by I. Tonkell and M. Katsi, in which it was stated that the experiences of the Canadian forest workers had to be "transmitted to large groups of forest workers".11 A little later Punainen Karjala published a similar kind of suggestion by Matti Penttinen.12 In December 1934, Punainen Karjala further reported on the beginning of a "course to transmit the experience of the Canadians". The course was supposed to last for four months. There were twenty-five students, who had been sent by several different trusts. According to the paper, six different courses had already been organized earlier; these courses had "trained 293 instructors well versed in Canadian working methods"; at that moment they were working in different parts of the Soviet Union.13

The Canadians taught, therefore, their own working methods, and the instruction was given mainly in Matroosa. In addition, the Soviet Karelian manufacturing industry tried to produce imitations of Canadian tools. There is some evidence that a Canadian type of axe became common in Soviet Karelia; for example, the Onega factory, which was situated there, manufactured an axe, which bore the name "Canadian". But when Finnish and in general foreign labels became an "eyesore" for Soveit Karelian officials, the Canadian axe was renamed the "Onegan" axe, because it was "one of our own products".

Even though no precise information is available about the positive effects of the teaching activities of the Canadian Finns, certain facts seem to be clear. First, it can be observed that Matroosa was a kind of model forestry area and that attempts were made there to organize timber cutting and processing on the basis of the methods taught by the Canadian Finns. Secondly, it seems certain that the methods brought by the Canadian Finns were taught in Matroosa to forest workers from other parts of the Soviet Union also. As far as the tools are concerned, the axe at least became "Canadian". Consequently, it seems quite possible that the Canadian Finns played a rather central role in attempts to modernize forestry in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. To what extent the forest economy as a whole was renewed in the Soviet Union at that time is, however, unclear.

Agriculture did not have a high priority in the economic life of Soviet Karelia in the 1930s. It could have no national significance because of the northern location of the district. The only objective of agriculture in Soviet Karelia was as a supplement to the supplies of the district itself. Attempts were made to render the production more effective. Old farms were amalgamated into kolkhoses. At least three kolkhoses - Säde, Hiilisuo and Vonganperä - had been founded by immigrants from America. Säde was situated in the Aunus area (Olonets), Hiilisuo near Petroskoi (Petrozavodsk) and Vonganperä far up in the north at Uhtua (Ukhta). Out of these, Säde had been founded by Canadian Finns, and it was considered exemplary.

According to one description, the main work force at Säde was made up of Finns who in 1926 started to clear their fields among the clusters of junipers in the Aunus area.15 It was not before the beginning of the 1930s, however, that Säde became a vital model farm, at which time it then became an "eyesore" for the sub-foremen in the same fashion as had the Matroosa forest work site. There is relatively little information about the conflict between the Canadians and the "Russian agronomists". In 1930 there was an article in Punainen Karjala, attributed to the pen name "Kollektivisti" and directed against an article criticizing Säde published in the Kolkhosnik newspaper. According to "Kollektivisti", Säde had been accused of the following: its membership had grown insufficiently; its production had increased too slowly; and its political significance had diminished continuously. The author agreed that the membership had indeed grown slowly. It had grown, however, and now there were thirty-eight adult members, whereas the number a year earlier had been only fourteen. The reason for the slow growth of membership was three fold: when the work unit was founded the old buildings were of absolutely no use, and the new members of Säde were supposed to meet high standards of work skills. The third factor was the language barrier. Speaking about the economy of Säde, the author said that during five years seventy-two hectares of fields had been cleared, whereas the objective according to the original plan had been only ten hectares a year. Harvest per hectare and the yearly output of cattle were also very high. Agricultural products had been handed over at least according to the quota agreed upon. The machines of the work unit were said to be in excellent condition. The economy of Säde was downright exemplary; in fact according to "Kollektivisti," it had been used as an example. This was demonstrated by the hundreds of excursion groups which visited Säde. Finally, the author wondered why the criticisms should come from a source which, instead of attacking, should have helped the activity of Säde. As an example of the right attitude to take, the author mentioned the agronomist Petrov who had written a book about Säde and who, when travelling in Aunus, always visited Säde.15

It appears that "Kollektivisti" was exaggerating when talking about the good results obtained by Säde. Still it seems probable, according to news items in Punainen Karjala, that Säde was the best-cared-for work commune in the Aunus district. For example, it was reported in May 1933 that the cattle of Säde were among the best in Karelia.16 Slightly later it received recognition for being "one of the most advanced collective economic units in the district of Aunus with its model fields and good front-line workers, machines and cattle."17 The party cell was also reported to be sound and "class conscious".18 Still later it received recognition for the fact that the spring sowing of the work unit was taken care of in an exemplary manner,19 that it showed a good example in "the preparation for party studies",20 that its cattle were so good that it could have won a production contest for all of Karelia,21 that it fulfilled, in a showcase manner, the objectives set for the furnishing of agricultural products and that the members of the work unit participated also in a praiseworthy manner in forest work.22 As late as in the summer of 1935 Punainen Karjala exhorted its readers to work the way "the front-line workers of Säde did".23

The Canadian Finns thus set a good example, at least in the domain of forest work and in the organization of agricultural work of the Säde collective. It is possible, therefore, to state that the immigrant group of Canadian Finns accomplished, at least to a certain extent, those objectives which had been set for them by the authorities in Soviet Karelia. If we consider the success achieved in their new home country by those 2,000 to 3,000 Canadian Finns who went to Soviet Karelia, we can state, however, that for the majority Soviet Karelia offered bitter disappointments. Food was bad according to Canadian standards; living quarters were poor; and the relationship to the local population, both Russians and Karelians, was anything but good. The brunt of the purges begun in 1935 was also borne heavily by the Finns who had come from Canada. Statements have been preserved about violence, imprisonment and murders committed against Canada Finns. It is not possible to verify in detail the truth of these statements. It can be stated, however, that many a Canadian Finn experienced the move to Soviet Karelia as the "mistake of a lifetime", as one of the immigrants from Ontario to Soviet Karelia mentioned in an interview done in the 1960s.

When difficulties were encountered in Soviet Karelia, quite a few tried to return to Canada. There were many obstacles in the way, but those who had retained their Canadian citizenship generally succeeded in returning. There is no precise information about the number of those who returned, but it is possible that their number could have been almost half of those who had originally left. Those who returned also had difficulties in Canada, for the Finnish Canadian Organization (Canadan Suomalainen Järjestö) treated with hostility those who gave negative statements about Soviet Karelia - and most of those who returned had only negative experiences, which the anti-Soviet newspapers Industrialisti and Raivaaja reported with great delight. Finding a job after their return must also have caused great difficulties for many, because the employment situation in Canada during the mid-thirties was still bad.

There is little documentation on those who stayed permanently in Soviet Karelia. In 1935 purges began in Soviet Karelia, and Canadian and American Finns were severely criticized. For example, the Canadian Finns were accused of not allowing their children to live in the same residences as the children of the local population. During 1937, the situation worsened. Among other things, Punainen Karjala ceased to be published in Finnish. Some Canadian Finns who were in Soviet Karelia during the Second World War might have been transported to other parts of the Soviet Union. A small portion fled to Finland. After the war, at least a small part of them returned to Soviet Karelia; for example, among the actors of the Finnish-language theatre operating in Petroskoi, there is at least one Finn who, as a child, came from Canada to Soviet Karelia.


1 A citation by Työmies from Punainen Karjala, 20 March, 1931.

2 Leo Leino, "Karjala - suomalaisten punikkien kotimaa", Työmies, 6 May, 1930.

3 Punainen Karjala, 30 September, 1930.

4 Työmies 26 January, 1930.

5 "Karjalan Työkunnan asioita", Työmies 20 June, 1930.

6 Väinö Järvi, "Karjalan Työkunnan Matkalta", Vapaus 13 October, 1930. For the beginning stages of the Work Unit, see Punainen Karjala, 30 September, 1930.

7 "Kanadalaisen metsäyömiehen mielipiteitä Karjalan metsätöistä", Punainen Karjala, 24 August, 1930.

8 M. J., "Vastavallankumouksellisuuttako Matroosan punktin johdossa? Kanadalaiset metsätyöläiset asetettu "piiritystilaan' - Muutenkin heille asetetaan esteitä", Punainen Karjala, 21 January, 1930.

9 "Karellesin hallinto: Seldin, Kanadalaisten metsätyöläisten aseina Matroosan punktilla", Punainen Karjala, 21 November, 1930.

10 "Kanadan suomalaisten työtulokset esimerkiksi kelpaavia", Punainen Karjala, 2 February, 1931.

11 Punainen Karjala, 5 August, 1932.

12 Ibid., 26 August, 1932.

13 "Kurssit Kanadalaisen kokemuksen siirtämiseksi", Punainen Karjala, 21 December, 1934. See also ibid., 11 September, 1935 and 27 October 1936.

14 "Toverit Irklis ja Maksimov käynnilla Onegan tehtaalla", Punainen Karjala, 22 July, 1936.

15 "Kommuuni 'Säteesta': Tulokset puhukoon puolestaan", Punainen Karjala, 11 December, 1930.

16 Punainen Karjala, 25 May, 1933.

17 Ibid., 23 July, 1933, "Kommuuna 'Säteen' konununistit pelto- ja metsätöissä".

18 Ibid., 10 August, 1933.

19 Ibid., 3 April, 1934.

20 Ibid., 27 September, 1934.

21 Ibid., 23 July, and 14 August, 1934.

22 "Kommuuna Säde viisivuotias", Punainen Karjala, 6 December, 1934.

23 Punainen Karjala, 23 July, 1935.

Published in Finnish Diaspora I: Canada, South America, Africa, Australia and Sweden. Papers of the Finn Forum conference held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 1-3, 1979. 1981, p. 203-213.

© Reino Kero

[ Beginning of article ]