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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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