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North America's Finns Caught Karelia Fever

Published: November 26, 2002 (Issue # 823)



  • Many of the Finns who emigrated to Petrozavodsk lived in sturdy frame housing in the Amerikansky Gorodok, or American Town.
    Photo: For The St. Petersburg Times

PETROZAVODSK, Karelia - School No. 17 in the capital of the Republic of Karelia has been known since its inception in 1967 as one of the best schools in Russia for English-language instruction.

And no wonder. Its long-time principal, Paul Corgan, is a native English speaker, and the school's teachers were trained at the Petrozavodsk Pedagogical Institute by Paul's sister, Mayme Sevander.

Paul, Mayme and their sister Aino, the children of a prominent Finnish-American communist, were all born in the United States and came to Karelia as children in 1934. Although their father, Oscar Corgan, was killed in Josef Stalin's purges and their mother died in 1946, all three children have spent the rest of their lives in Petrozavodsk.

The Corgan family was not alone. In a little-known chapter in Soviet history, thousands of Finnish-Americans and Finnish-Canadians left North America in the 1920s and 1930s to forge a new life in far northwestern Russia.

Some simply sought adventure. Others were homesick and thought that Karelia would bring them closer to Finland. Many, though, were committed political activists who were convinced that they could live out their socialist ideals of fair wages, good health care and free education only in the Soviet Union.

"It was that communist movement," Ruth Niskanen, a native of Minnesota, said in a telephone interview from her current home in Joensuu, Finland. "My mother married a man who was a communist, my stepfather. My mother thought that she would never be able to give an education to her [elder] son because she didn't have the money, and she thought, in the U.S.S.R., he'd get a free education."

Niskanen was in seventh grade when she came to Karelia in March 1932 with her mother, stepfather, older brother Raymond and younger brother Roy. She said Raymond, then 14, was known as "Genius" at their school in Minnesota because he was so smart, especially in math.

Finnish migration to Karelia began in 1918 after the Finnish Civil War. Red Finns fleeing the victorious Whites crossed the border to Karelia and, in 1920, the Karelian Labor Commune was formed under the leadership of Edvard Gylling, a Finnish patriot who took Soviet citizenship.

Gylling began to gather Finns for a Finnish-Karelian autonomous region and, by the early 1920s, the Karelian Revolutionary Committee and Soviet People's Committee were discussing bringing foreign workers in to develop the Karelian economy - and maintain its ethnic-Finnish character.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Saturday, Nov. 29


Cats, dogs, birds, rodents and reptiles are just some of the things that will walk and crawl at Lenexpo convention center this weekend as part of Zooshow, a two-day exhibition featuring not only man’s best friends but a four-legged fashion show, as well as a food fair that will help pet owners find out more about which kibbles are best for their hungry pets.



Sunday, Nov. 30


Remember the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 during today’s reenactment titled “Winter War: How it Was.” More than 200 people will take part in recreating the opening salvoes of the battle for the north in Kamenka, a small village situated between Vyborg and St. Petersburg, using authentic equipment and vintage vehicles from the era. The faux battle begins at 2 p.m.



Monday, Dec. 1


Serbia filmmaker Emir Kusturica is the featured guest this evening at the Lensovet Palace of Culture the Petrograd Side. Fans of the director will get the chance to watch his movie “Black Cat, White Cat,” as well as ask questions about his award-winning filmography. Tickets for the event, which starts at 7 p.m., start at 2,000 rubles ($42.50).



Tuesday, Dec. 2


Today is the final day of “Takoy Festival,” a three-week program of plays based on the works of Dostoevsky, Remarque and other famed European writers, whose work is transcribed for theatrical performances. Tonight’s festival finale is “Fathers and Sons,” a two-act drama staged by the Novosibirsk Academic Drama Theater based on Turgenev’s classic about familial relations.



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