The Red Finns

From the book Finnish-Americans in War and Peace. Copyright 2015 Rainer Långstedt.

The Red Finns

Upon arriving to the United States, many of the Finnish immigrants took work as miners and lumberjacks. Work in these industries was arduous, and the pay was low. As it is common for populations of workers struggling to get by, the Finnish immigrant workers were receptive to socialist ideologies, believing these might be the answer to their current struggle. Some immigrants believed that socialism, in practice, could form a utopian society. One attempt at socialist utopianism was the “Kalevan Kansa” commune. Started in 1902 near Vancouver Island, Canada,28 “for each by his needs” was actually practiced at Kalevan Kansa, with the 350 members all eating the same food and living in barracks. Though promised hourly wages, food was the only compensation they received. It is likely that many joining Kalevan Kansa did not realize that sharing was also to extend to spouses. 29 In the end, the attempt at a socialist utopia ended with the commune going bankrupt in 1905.30

Finnish American Socialism

The first Finnish workers party local “Saima” was founded in Fitchburg, MA in 1894. It was a socialist organization, as were the many other workers party locals that sprang up in Finnish communities. The movement grew, and by 1905, there were 50 Saimas with 2,700 members.

In 1906, the Finnish-American socialists created an umbrella organization: “The Finnish Socialist Federation.” Membership in the federation grew to 13,000 before splitting into factions.31 The first to leave the federation was a subgroup called the Syndicalists. The Syndicalists enhanced the effect of a strike by sabotaging the machinery at their workplace. Syndicalist railroad workers in France went so far as to derail a passenger train between Paris and Le Havre. In 1915, the Finnish Socialist Federation lost between 6,000 and 7,000 members to the Syndicalists Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W) who were also called “The Wobblies.”32 The Finnish Socialist Federation had originally been social democrat in ideology but, as the federation evolved, its new orientation was pointedly communist. They applied for membership in the Communist International, but they were turned down by Moscow. The Russians did not believe that they were ready for an “open and revolutionary struggle for Communism through the Dictatorship of the Proletariat by means of the worker’s Soviets.”33 That hindrance was eliminated in 1921 when 3,500 social democrats left the federation to join the socialist party. The remaining 4,500 members joined the American Worker’s Party which was the nationwide central organization for Communists.34 Other foreign language federations joined the communist Workers party, but the Finnish federation was by far the biggest. Of the total communists in the USA, the Finns counted for 40-50% in 1922-1925.35 The Finns were 0.34% of the total US population at that time. Thus their portion of communists is way out of proportion. The Finnish immigrants at the time were special from other nationalities in that almost all of them could read. The Lutheran church had a proviso that to be married, all persons had to be able to know Martin Luther’s Catechism.36 This was a powerful incentive to learn to read. With several Finnish language newspapers printed in the United States, the immigrants were approachable by the printed word.35-1

Previous employment in mining, logging, or as farmhands often resulted in the re-settlers arriving to Spencer radicalized. Living in Spencer in the 1930s, Leo Balander estimates that a third of Finnish residents in town were communists.37 His estimate could indicate that there were less Finnish communists in Spencer than in the rest of the country. In 1930, there were seven Finnish language daily newspapers printed in the United States. The communist papers were Työmies, Toveri, and Eteenpäin. The three communist newspapers had more than half (53%) of the readership. A social democrat paper Raivaaja had circulation in the East. The other papers were either nonpolitical or in support of the American form of government.38

With the transition to farming, one might assume that the Finns would move away from socialist beliefs. Oddly, many Finnish American farmers remained communists despite Lenin’s declaration that kulak landowners were “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who secure famine.” In Russia, “kulaks” were farmers who owned at least 7.9 acres of land. In communism, where everything is supposed to be evenly distributed, private ownership of a means of production, such as land, cannot exist. Kulak farmers were ran off their land and sent to labor camps. Kulaks were often murdered due to class envy while others were executed by the state. In August 1918, Lenin sent out the following directive as how to treat the Kulaks: “Hang, hang without fail, so people can see no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men bloodsuckers . . . Do it in such a way that for hundreds of versts (one verst = 0.66 miles) around people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks.”39

It is unlikely that the Finnish American communists ever heard these declarations, with the communist newspapers selecting and framing content that resonated with their target audience.

Files from the Spencer Co-op indicate that an overwhelming majority of members of the Communist Cooperate Society in Spencer were Finnish-American farmers. Every one of them owned at least 7.9 acres of land, so they would have been classified as “Kulaks” by Lenin. Despite the hypocrisy of their actions, at the outbreak of the Winter War, the Spencer Cooperative Society reportedly sent a letter of congratulations to the Soviet regime. Thus, members of this society supported a foreign government, which had brutally eliminated their fellow farmers in Russia.

The Suomalainen Työväen Yhdistys Hall in Van Etten NY.

A former Baptist Church on 29 Main St. in Van Etten was purchased by Finnish communists around 1925. Thereafter, what would be called STY Hall would be the center for communist activity in the area.40 STY was an abbreviation for “Suomalainen Työväen Yhdistys” or “Finnish Workers Society.” The hall was used for political and cultural activities. As the following event posters illustrate, members of STY held conviction in their communist beliefs.

The last sentence may be interpreted as an invitation to bring weapons to the meeting. The movie mentioned is a propaganda film that is freely available for viewing on YouTube. (Flyer courtesy of Colonel William A.J. Mackie). The communist Finns sided with the Soviet Union in World War Two. In November of 1942, Finnish American communist organized a Victory Rally in the Spencer School. An auction raised $368, which was sent to benefit the Red Army’s medical aid. The door receipts of $101 were divided between Chinese War Relief and the United Service Organizations.41

Local residents performed plays at the hall, and the organization had a chorus that sang songs in Finnish. Nationally renowned Finnish-American artists such as accordionist Viola Turpeinen performed in Van Etten as well.

The youth of the area were drawn to dances held at the hall every Saturday night. The music was provided by an accordionist, and sometimes by a small band.

STY Hall, Van Etten New York (Photo: Jean Alve)

Non-communist parents advised their offspring not to go to the STY Hall. Their parents’ advice largely ignored, one former Spencer resident recalls having openly dated a nice girl until his family put a “cease and desist” order on the relationship. His parents attempted to explain, “You don’t understand, she is from a red-hot communist family, you cannot go out with her.” The young man ignored their orders.

Flyer courtesy of Colonel William A.J. Mackie