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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

Wednesday, July 30


SPIBA continues their series of Look@It tours, which focus on the success stories of major brands in the St. Petersburg market. Today’s event will focus on the Gorky Golf Club and will also be held there. For more details visit spiba.ru



Thursday, July 31


Develop your leadership abilities during a lecture by famous Russian author and coach Radislav Gandapas. The event starts at 9 a.m. at 5 Lodeinopolskaya Ulitsa. The price for entry is 20,500 rubles ($570).


Relax and enjoy a Parisian atmosphere with some romantic and laidback jazz tunes during the Night of French Music at Lenny Jam Cafe, 63 Ligovsky Prospekt. The entrance fee is 250 rubles ($7).


The Women’s Business Club is hosting a Beauty Brunch where participants are invited to discuss the latest news in the beauty industry and listen to lectures by professional stylists in the business.



Friday, Aug. 1


Bikers from all around the world will gather to take part in a parade, extreme shows and rock concerts during the International Biker Festival that revs its engines today and runs through Aug. 3 near Olgino Hotel, 4/2 Primorskogo Shosse.


The Peter and Paul Fortress will be turned into an open-air cinema today and tomorrow as part of the 5th International Short and Animation Film Festival. A huge screen across the fortress walls will air short films non-stop with board games, photo sessions and other activities also on offer for visitors. For more information, visit www.opencinemafest.ru



Saturday, Aug. 2


Gatchina Palace Park Museum will host its second annual Night of Light, an impressive audio-visual show across the night sky. Tickets are 600 rubles ($16).


If graphic design is more your thing then check out Illustration Day, where you will be able to visit an exhibition, attend lectures by professionals and even show experts some of your own work. The event starts at noon at Zona Deystvia, 73 Ligovsky Prospekt. The entrance fee is 350 rubles ($10).



Sunday, Aug. 3


History lovers shouldn’t miss the chance to see reenactments of World War I battles in Pushkin at noon. Besides exciting war scenes, visitors can enjoy live music, historical costumes, an equestrian show and a fancy-dress parade starting from the Moscow gates.


Garage Sale, the popular and growing flea market where nothing is priced over 500 rubles ($14.11), starts today at noon in Loft-Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt. Be sure to get in early to score a bargain. Entry costs 50 rubles ($1.40)



Monday, Aug. 4


Continue the working week with a calm and steady mind with a free yoga lesson at 7 p.m. in the Bukvoed store at 23A Vladimirsky Prospekt.



Tuesday, Aug. 5


Visit The Romanov Dynasty doll exhibition today, where more than fifty porcelain dolls depicting Russian rulers, and made by Olina Ventzel, will be on show. The exhibition continues through Aug. 31 in Sheremetyev Palace, 34 Fontanka Naberezhnaya.



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