Forgotten Americans of the Russian North
Nearly 10,000 Finnish-Americans emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s to build a socialist utopia; a few remain, with bitter tales
PETROZAVODSK, RUSSIA — AROUND the living room table in their small but cozy apartment - the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee filling the air, and fingers sticky from homemade glazed doughnuts - Mirjam and Elmer Nousiainen settle back to tell their bittersweet tales.
Mr. Nousiainen was born in Michigan's Upper Peninsula during World War I, while his wife of 32 years hails from Vermont. But the two, who are of Finnish ancestry, have lived and suffered in the former Soviet Union since the 1930s - the innocent victims of their parents' political beliefs.
"They were crazy with idealism - they thought they would help build socialism here," Mirjam says. "It was a tragedy for every family that came here."
During the Communist state's early years, up to 10,000 Finnish-Americans emigrated to the Soviet Union to help build a utopia.
Most Finnish-American families settled in Karelia, a Russian region bordering Finland, according to David Hosford, a worker with the St. Petersburg-based philanthropic organization Project Harmony, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject.
Today, the Nousiainens are among about 20 elderly emigres still living in Karelia, relatively forgotten by both their native country and their reluctantly adopted homeland, struggling to preserve their American roots within the Russian reality. Bitter at times
For years, Elmer and Mirjam wanted to return to the US, but could not. Soon after arriving in the Soviet Union, Communist authorities forced them to give up their US passports. And during the cold-war years, the Soviet government refused to let them leave. Now, Russia has opened up, but the two pensioners consider themselves too old for drastic changes. "If we were all 20 years younger, everyone would have left," Mirjam says.
"It doesn't help to torture yourself with such thoughts," Elmer adds. "But at times I'm bitter. You curse [yourself] for leaving the States."
Yet after more than a half-century of hardship, the couple feels fortunate just to be alive.
For Mirjam, the difficulties began even before she left the US as an eight-year-old in the early `30s. She never wanted to live in the Soviet Union. "As the family was getting ready to leave, I hid under my bed. I thought my mother might forget me," she says. "They had to drag me on board the ship. I was hollering."
Elmer, who left in 1931 at the age of 15, considered emigration "an adventure." But like many other Finnish-Americans, he became disillusioned almost as soon as he arrived.
"I think about 90 percent of the people were disillusioned," he said. "A lot of folks got to the [Petrozavodsk] train station, saw what it was like, and went back."
Elmer's troubles really began in 1938, when he went to the US Embassy in Moscow, trying to obtain a new passport so he too could leave. The KGB secret police arrested him as soon as he left the embassy. "They didn't like the idea of a Russian visiting the US Embassy," he says.
What followed was an odyssey through the notorious Soviet prison system that writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn dubbed the "Gulag Archipelago."
The first stop for Elmer was the dreaded Lubyanka KGB headquarters, where he spent a night in a detention cell. After several weeks in Moscow's Butyrka prison, he ended up in a labor camp near the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, where he spent eight years living under horrible conditions.
Being sent to the labor camp could be considered a lucky break, he says, adding that all his friends were killed fighting in the Red Army during World War II.
Elmer's story is similar to other male survivors of the Finnish-American emigration wave.
Another American emigre in Karelia is Paul Korgan, the Michigan-born 68-year-old principal of a specialized English-language school in Petrozavodsk. He also spent time - from 1942-46 - at a camp near Chelyabinsk, having been deported from Karelia during World War II because the Soviet government, fighting Finland at the time, considered people of Finnish descent a security threat.
But for Mr. Korgan - who arrived in Karelia in 1934 - the suffering began long before deportation. In 1937, at the height of the Stalinist purges, the KGB burst into his home and arrested his father, a prominent American Communist activist.
"They [the KGB] turned everything upside down, searching for what I don't know," Korgan says. "Then they took him, and that's the last we saw of him." Two years ago, Korgan learned that his father was executed Jan. 8, 1938.
Even after the war, many deported Finnish-Americans, including Korgan and Elmer Nousiainen, were refused permission to resettle in Karelia. Their situation improved only after the death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953, and they all began to lead more-or-less normal lives.
In 1956, Elmer was rehabilitated during the de-Stalinization campaign launched by Communist Party boss Nikita Khrushchev. He later found work as a sound engineer at the television station in Petrozavodsk, the Karelian capital. Korgan and Mirjam Nousiainen, meanwhile, both taught at the specialized English-language school. American customs
Although by the 1950s they were resigned to living in the Soviet Union, Elmer and Mirjam kept American customs alive.
"The doughnuts I make are my grandmother's recipe, and I also bake apple and pumpkin pies," she says. "We celebrate Thanksgiving ... and send Christmas cards."
Times are still tough for Elmer and Mirjam, as Russia's economic crisis has reduced the value of their pensions to near zero.
"We get help from relatives in Finland and the United States," Mirjam said. "We've worked out whole lives, and it's a funny feeling to be dependent."
While Elmer and Mirjam are proud of their American heritage, they are not eager to publicize their position.
"The times are such now," he says, "that we don't tell people we have US citizenship. After all, all the former party bosses are still running things around here."
The silence of the American emigres in Karelia is one reason that their fate isn't more widely known, says Hosford.
"Many relatives back in the states were also afraid and ashamed to tell anyone [about relatives in Karelia,]" Hosford adds. "And for those who left for the Soviet Union and came back, they didn't say anything either because they felt ashamed at basically being duped."
Hosford says it's time Russia recognized the contribution of Finnish-Americans to the development of the Soviet Union.
"They brought with them a lot of advanced techniques for lumbering and paper mills [in Karelia]," Hosford says. "They were key to industrializing the area.
"Their contributions should be known," he adds, "so all their efforts won't have been in vain."