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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

Friday, Aug. 29


Park Pobedy will feature the sights and sounds of the world outside of Russia during the Open Art International Festival today. Taste foreign cuisine, learn how to make tea like the Chinese or relax in a hammock during the free event. Although entrance is free, you must register beforehand if you wish to attend.



Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in Downton Abbey if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russias best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russias most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkins, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontovs short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library Systems website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Clubs weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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