Karelian Fever in the 1930s

From the book Finnish-Americans in War and Peace. © Rainer Langstedt. St. Magnus Press 2015.

Chapter 5: Karelia

While the term “immigration” often provokes images of ships landing at Ellis Island on their way to America, for a short time in the 1930s, Finnish-Americans voluntarily were leaving the United States hoping for a brighter future in the Finnish Karelian Soviet Socialist Republic. The border between Finland and the Soviet Union was drawn in the peace treaty of 1920. The border did not demarcate the Finnish population from the Russian population, with ethnic Finns living on both sides of the border. The part belonging to Finland was known as Karelia, and the part belonging to Russia was referred to as Eastern Karelia and later Soviet Karelia. The residents spoke a dialect of Finnish called Karelian.

In the aftermath of the Finnish War of Independence, a substantial number of Finnish communists and their families moved to the Soviet Union in the spring of 1918. An estimated 13,000 to 15,000 Finns crossed into the Soviet Union without documentation.70 These illegal immigrants were called “border hoppers.” These people tended to move to Soviet Karelia. As seen in the Finnish settlement around Spencer, New York, Finns like to live near other Finns. Proximity to Finland and the Finnish language spoken by existing settlers were no doubt the main reasons why the immigrants and refugees settled in Soviet Karelia.

Karelian Fever

The frenzy that caused Finnish Americans and Finnish Canadians to move to Karelia in search for a promised “Workers Paradise” is called Karelian Fever. Thousands of Finnish-Americans immigrated to Karelia between 1931 and 1934. Communist sources such as Wisconsin-based newspaper Työmies estimates that about 12,000 Finns emigrated from North America to the Soviet Union.73 Other sources put the number at 5,000 to 10,000.74 The Soviets would not take all comers. The immigrants had to be able to pay for their ticket and had to be young. Four-time US presidential candidate Gus Hall’s parents Matti and Susanna Halberg were refused due to their age.75 More about Gus Hall in Appendix G, page 165.

The communists in the Soviet Union realized in 1930 that the country would benefit from importing foreign engineers and skilled workers.76 There was a very successful propaganda effort made in the United States and Canada to get immigrant Finns to move to Karelia. Recruiters came to “Finn Halls,” such as the one in Van Etten, selling the image of the delightful life awaiting immigrants to Soviet Karelia. 77 The Soviets sent a propagandist named Gorin to paint a rosy future for potential immigrants to Soviet Karelia.78

The Soviet government made a push to recruit American Finns to come to work for them in Karelia for three years. In hindsight, signing that contract for many meant signing their own death sentence. The rosy scene painted by Soviet propagandists no doubt received more consideration because of the Great Depression taking place in the United States at that time.

The Finnish American newspaper Työmies cartoon from 1929 showed the Collective farm village to the left with nice buildings and a school. The modern farm tractors drive over the landowner “kulak.” His skeletal horse and buildings are to the right. Next in line to be run over is the clergyman with his bible. 79

The following is what one of the emigrants, Aino Streng, recalls hearing from a recruiter named Juho (Jussi) Latva:

I can now present to you a message of hope and happiness. There is room for you and your families in the Soviet Union. The sun never sets in the sunny, warm Soviet Union, the world’s largest country. There is a great shortage of labor there. And just to you, Finns, we can offer tens of thousands of pleasing jobs close to the country of your ancestors in the beautiful East Karelia. There the coniferous forests are humming the wonderful hymns of your ancestral land. Modern, warm and brightly illuminated factories wait for you there. And remember, you are arriving into a Finnish country. Lenin himself has promised that Eastern Karelia will always remain an autonomous Soviet Republic where Finnish is the main language. What Lenin has promised, Stalin will keep. You will have no language problems there unlike here in this English speaking country. The government works in Finnish and all officials are Finnish-speaking. You will feel at home.80

The sales pitch was deceptive because the promise of Finnish being the main language was false. Soviet Karelia always had a majority of people who spoke Russian. In 1926, there was only 0.9% Finns in Soviet Karelia. With the American immigration, there were 3.2% in 1933. By 1939, Finns had been executed and deported, so the percentage of Finns dropped again under 2%. 82

There was also a revenge motive presented to the Karelian immigrants. They were indoctrinated to the idea of revenge against the Finnish government troops.

The reds called the government troops that had crushed the red insurrection of 1918 “butchers.”

Photo courtesy of Albert Bosk

Spencerite Albert Bock’s mother-in law sent a card to her daughter. The posed card has a couple of officers waving bared swords while the men are aiming their Moisin Nagant rifles. Handwritten on the other side of the card: “Former Finnish red Guardists receive the butchers in Russian Karelia.” (Suomen entiset punikit ottaa vastaan lahtareita venäjän karjalassa) The original card is of Soviet quality. The people who left for Soviet Karelia had no idea about the miserable living conditions awaiting them in Soviet Karelia. Five families from Spencer, New York immigrated to the Soviet Union. 81 Of these families, one family returned, and another single survivor settled in Finland after escaping from the Soviet Union. Soviet officials rejected return applications, and by 1938, most of the Karelian Fever immigrants had been executed in Stalin’s pogroms.82-1

The Business of Human Trafficking.

The Karelian Fever was prompted by paid recruiters; and a talented recruiter could make a good living. The recruiters were paid $50, approximately $815 in today’s currency, for each person they convinced to emigrate from the United States to Russia.83 Similar recruitment to Karelia also took place in Sweden. In both circumstances, commissions were paid at the Soviet Embassy.84

The name of the organization focused on recruitment was Soviet Karelian Technical Aid and was based in New York City. The directors of Karelian Technical Aid were Matti Tenhunen, Kalle Aronen, and Oscar Corgan (Oskari Kurkinen). As noted previously, Matti Tenhunen was the former manager of the Co-operative Central Exchange but was removed from that position. Continuing to work on behalf of the communist party, Tenhunen’s new task was to fan the flames of Karelian Fever. Before joining Karelian Technical Aid, Corgan was an editor of the communist newspaper Työmies.

The directors were creative in finding ways to profit from their human trafficking. The organization directed the travelers destined for Karelia to stay in certain costly lodging establishments, sometimes for weeks, while waiting for the Swedish-American Line ship to arrive. Unknown to the travelers, the directors received kickbacks from both the lodging establishments and the ship line.85 For his part, Tenhunen had arranged to receive $11.50 for each adult and $5.75 for each child he brought to the Swedish-American Line. In today’s currency, this would be approximately $184 per adult and $92 per child.

Recruiters stressed the importance of exchanging dollars to rubles before leaving. The emigrants were told that there would be no need for American money in the Soviet Union.86 Some recruiters would assist the travelers by exchanging currency themselves, often at the rate of one ruble per dollar. For many, they were only informed upon their arrival that one dollar was worth 20 rubles.87

A detail that likely went unstated in the recruiting rallies and was lost in the euphoria of moving to the worker’s paradise was the absence of private property rights in their new homeland.89 For those who had avoided losing their assets to the recruiters and directors, upon their arrival in Karelia, furniture, cars, pianos, and even wool blankets were confiscated as property of the state.

Many immigrants had bought with them modern American woodworking tools that they planned to use in their profession. The tools were unknown in the Soviet Union, so an unscrupulous government bureaucrat named Heikki Kaljunen had drawings made of them and then applied for patents in his own name. Kaljunen was a former Red Guard “ General.” The patents were of course only good in the Soviet Union, but the fraud made Kaljunen a rich man. 89.1

The Life of a Soviet Immigrant

Upon their arrival in Leningrad, the new immigrants were treated to laudatory speeches. The speeches professed that they were pioneers building the communist utopia. Many were so taken in by the moment that they gave up their American passports and applied for Soviet citizenship. This impulsive act would prevent those people from returning to the United States. Worse yet, the immigrants were targeted for the pogroms of 1937–1938.

Life in East Karelia was a cultural adjustment. Most of the Finnish-Americans who immigrated to Karelia had lived in their own homes in the United States. As such, adjusting to the primitive living conditions in Soviet Karelia was a shock for many. The political leadership in Karelia was fully aware that a move to Karelia would be a disaster for the Finnish-Americans. Aino Kuusinen was the wife of politburo member Otto Wille Kuusinen (see appendix C p.156.). She wrote in her memoirs that she considered the Karelian Fever to be a “Monstrous swindle” and refused to join her husband to participate in it. She knew that “a wretched fate awaited them, and how would their children survive the food shortage? I knew only too well that people were starving and that even in Petrozavodsk, the capital, these newcomers would not find a decent place to live.”93

Many of the newcomers had to live in barracks where they slept along the walls in mattress bags filled with hay.94 The workers at the Kontupohja paper mill were allocated an 11x11 foot space.95 Sometimes, two to three families were housed in the same room, and one washstand might service three barracks. Not all rooms were lit, and the barracks attracted both vermin and insects. 96

The food provided was another cultural adjustment for immigrants. The Kontupohja workers had to eat in a common dining hall. In a letter, one immigrant explained, “Life is not very good. They are constantly putting pressure on us, and do not care about our nutrition. Local meals can hardly be compared to those given to an unemployed American. The first course is some washy soup, the second course some fish.” The poor quality of food caused illness and, in some cases, even death, due to poor healthcare.97

The immigrants who were sent to prison camps were metered out work norms, which only the strongest were able to fulfill. The punishment for a shortfall in meeting the norm was a cut in food allowances. The resulting decline in health made the persons susceptible to infectious diseases such as typhoid and spotted fewer. 98

Spencer Residents in Karelia

Victor Rajala moved as a bachelor to Spencer from Crosby, Minnesota. He worked as a farmhand for relatives. He then moved to New Jersey, where he met and married Saima Lehto. They returned to South Danby where they bought a farm. The Rajalas has a son. The Rajala family left South Danby on June 3, 1931, to emigrate to Karelia. Spencer Historian Jean Alve recorded interviews of those who knew the emigrants. In one such interview, discussing Victor Rajala, Matt Ahola noted, “He was just the nicest guy, but he was all enthused about Russia. Rajala sent a desperate letter from Karelia to his brother John who lived on Railroad Avenue [In Spencer].” Victor wrote: “See if there is anything you can do to get us out of here.” Ahola continued: “He was not a United States citizen and once he went back, there was nothing he could do. Nobody ever heard from him again. His wife was with him, and a son.” 99 A second account affirms the story and notes, “Victor Rajala was my mother’s cousin. After two letters from there they disappeared. Nobody heard a word from them. 100

Noting that the Rajalas had a son, while one would think that children would not be subject to the pogroms, an April 1935 decree by Stalin allowed death sentences to be carried out on children under the age of 12.101

Despite their Cousin Walter’s efforts at convincing them to stay, brothers Edward and Renne Herrala left Spencer for Karelia on January 26, 1932.102 They were first generation Finnish-Americans with roots in Haapajärvi. When settled in Soviet Karelia, they worked in a ski factory in Petrozavodsk. Working conditions in the factory were hard, and the American relatives were told that the younger of the two brothers, Edward, had starved to death. There is also a record if Edward working as a carpenter at the Solomennye power plant and having been executed there on April 3, 1938. 104

Renne was outspoken about poor conditions in the Soviet Union and made plans to leave. He unsuccessfully requested to have his confiscated passport and US dollars returned to him. He contacted his cousin Walter Herrala in Deposit, NY and asked for shoes to be sent to him as well as help to extract him from the Soviet Union. The NY governor was contacted for assistance, but as Renne was not a US citizen, nothing could be done.105 His vocal dissent resulted in his removal from the ski factory and sentence to a work camp in Siberia. He managed to escape from the work camp but was caught and told that if he escaped again, he would be shot.

Despite this threat, Renne did escape and spent the next two years traveling to Finland by foot. He lived off the land, eating, amongst other things, the inner bark of trees. By this time, everyone thought that he was dead. Upon his arrival at his mother-in-law Vilma’s house, his wife Martta fainted, thinking she was seeing a ghost. After two years on the road, he had long hair, was unshaven, and had lost 100 pounds. Renne remained in Finland, had a family, and lived to old age.106

The fate of several Spencer families is unknown. Alfred and Anna Wendala from Van Etten also moved to Russia, leaving on October 29, 1931. Helmi, Paavo, and Julius Lindroos left Spencer for Russia on August 11, 1932. Julius was a good wrestler and participated in the matches held at the Spencer Picnic. In the latter portion of the Karelian Fever, Matt and William Kaskela, left Spencer on May, 17, 1933.106-1 The fate of these seven former Spencer residents is unknown. Only one of the families who left during the Karelian Fever managed to return to Spencer. On August 18, 1931, William and Grace Wendela, along with their sons William and Eino, sold their belongings in a public auction and moved to East Karelia.107 William was the brother of the previously mentioned Alfred Wendala whose fate is unknown. Grace was a teacher in Spencer while also acting as a correspondent for the communist paper Työmies.

By 1932, the previously illustrated poor conditions in East Karelia brought about a movement to return to the United States or Finland. People realized that they had been shamelessly deceived. By 1935, around 1,500 people had left East Karelia. The Wendelas were fortunate to leave before the pogroms against ethnic Finns began. A neighbor credits Grace Wendela with the family’s escape. “A lot of people threw their passport in the water – but she was smart enough to know . . .” 108

More information about the Wendelas can be found in the Appendix. B, page 153.

The Finnish Americans who returned from Russia

Around 1,500 Finnish Americans who had emigrated to Russia were able to return to the United States before the pogroms began. Many of them were silent about their suffering in the Soviet Union out of concern for the consequences that this may have on relatives who were still there. They returned to the communist social circles they had been a part of when they left. These circles continued to believe that the Soviet Union was the worker’s paradise and could not fathom how anyone could not flourish there. To remain in their social circle, the returnees generally avoided criticism of the Soviet Union.

Despite the threat of losing their social circle, some returning Finnish-Americans did speak out about the misery they had endured. For contradicting the paradise that the communist newspapers had promised, the credibility of the returnees needed to be destroyed. The communist press was ruthless toward the returnees. According to them, the conditions in the Soviet Union were perfect, so if anyone returned from there, they were unworthy of living in the worker’s paradise.

The communist newspaper Työmies declared that the returnees had been rejected by the Soviets because they had tried to use their sharp elbows to get unfair advantage in Karelia. That was not allowed in the Soviet Union, so the unworthy came back.109 On May 19, 1934, Työmies also suggested a preferred way to behave against the returnees:

Those who have returned from Karelia can be marked down as turncoats. The organized labor must treat them as enemies. They have no spine, it is therefore impossible for organized workers to give them any credit.

The pressure from the press worked. One returnee related the treatment he received from former friends like this:

We met a few comrades and acquaintances in town, but they avoided us like we were criminals. Some of them even told us that we should have stayed in Karelia. Their attitude toward us was, as we would have escaped from a prison camp. Some former comrades tried to understand our situation. They wanted to approach us as friends and ask about goings on, but they did not dare, because other stool pigeons were watching them, so they could not befriend people returned from Karelia. 110

The knowledge of the certainty of ridicule and shunning upon return discouraged people from returning to the United States. Making the choice to stay was in the end the worst decision they could make.

The descriptions of the conditions in Soviet Karelia threw the Canadian and US communist bosses in full panic. A Canadian communist leader demanded action from Moscow: “If we want to retain a Finnish progressive movement in Canada and prevent its total destruction by those who have returned to their homeland.”111 All Moscow could do was to publish in the paper Pravda an article describing what a wonderful life Canadian loggers enjoyed in Karelia.112 The denials by the communist press were successful. Even after early returnees had had published books on the conditions in Karelia, the facts were dismissed as tales and the exodus continued. 113

Extermination of the Ethnic Finns

On August 5, 1937, Stalin gave an order to “strengthen the fight against the enemies of the people.” While cryptic in its ambiguity, this order started an unspeakable terror against the Finns and Finnish-Americans living in the Soviet Union. What followed has been called the great purge, ethnic cleansing and pogrom. It is estimated that in Eastern Karelia alone, 8,000 to 11,000 ethnic Finns and Finnish Americans were killed. Totally 25,000–30,000 ethnic Finns were executed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.114 By late 1939, the Finnish community in Karelia was decimated, and some had been moved to inner Russia. Their experiences from the Ural region are described later.115

The two overarching reasons for the elimination of the Finns in Russia were their nationality and fear of a power struggle. The Russians were suspicious of other nationalities, even requiring Finns, Jews, and others to carry identity cards specifying their nationality. As noted previously, Finns desire to retain cultural autonomy made Stalin suspicious. In 1937, the Finnish language was declared to be a counter revolutionary, bourgeois, nationalistic language. The use of the Finnish language was prohibited and a Russification program was established.116

Finnish-Americans had another trait that made them susceptible to KGB abuse. Used to freedom of speech they were outspoken critics of corruption, incompetence and suppression of freedom. That often led to their execution. 116-1

Finnish settlements in the Soviet Union were not limited to Karelia, with some settlements as far inland as in the Ural Mountains. The settlers in these communities were either Finnish-Americans or Finnish-Canadians who came to Russia legally with a passport or Finns who crossed the border without documentation. As we will see, the “border hoppers” were most likely to be murdered by the Russians whereas the people with passports had a better chance for survival.

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