Ryan Taylor Searching for signs of 'Karelia Fever'


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By Ryan Taylor

Karelia. Is it a place? Is it a singer with a hip-hop band? Is it a new brand of eye makeup?

Actually it is a place, the area where Finland and Russia meet up. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Karelia was depopulated and Stalin began a program of convincing emigrant Finns to return and take up land there.

With the Depression of the 1930s making jobs scarce, the prospect of a workers' paradise was inviting. 2800 Canadian Finns took the journey home. Unfortunately they were caught up in the problems of Stalinist Russia. Many were purged, sent to Siberia or simply disappeared.

A new book and a film focus on this period in Canadian Finnish history.

Karelian Exodus: Finnish Communities in North America and Soviet Karelia in the Depression Era (edited by Ronald Harpelle, Varpu Lindström and Alexis Pogorelskin, $24) is a collection of articles presented at a 2004 conference in Thunder Bay. It focused on Canadian Finnish experiences, although there were some American Finns who returned also, principally from Michigan.

The excitement generated by Stalin's invitation led to 'Karelia Fever'. At the time, Finns in northern Ontario were divided into two groups, Red Finns and White Finns. The Reds caught the fever, while the Whites told them they were crazy to trust the government in Moscow.

From our vantage point, it may be difficult to understand why it was so easy to catch Karelia Fever. The prospect of returning to a home without economic problems, and of putting the hand-to-mouth existence of 1930s Canada behind them will account for most people's enthusiasm.

The touching story of one of the migrants is shown in the National Film Board's Letters from Karelia, directed by Kelly Saxberg.

Aate Pitkanen went to Karelia while his sister, Taimi returned to Canada. Even when things went bad, Aate stayed on, using his electrical skills for the utopian state. Taimi continued to receive his letters until 1941, when the German invasion of the Soviet Union ended outside communication.

A Red Finn, Aate worked as a Soviet spy. The Finns caught and executed him in 1942. However, in prison he wrote final letters to his family in Canada, which he entrusted to the prison warden. They were never mailed.

But the warden kept them. In 1999, his sons found them among his papers and they began a journey which led to Aate's son Alfred and then to Taimi Davies, Aate's sister who was 90.

Having never known Aate's fate, Taimi was surprised to learn what had happened and that she had a nephew, Alfred. In fact, Alfred had never even met his father, let alone any other relatives. He is now a distinguished scientist in Moscow, specializing in DNA.

The National Film Board cameras follow Alfred as he comes to Canada, meets his family and visits places known to his father.

The book and film work together to provide a fuller picture of the Karelian adventurers. The book stands back, telling the whole story, from the first invitation to the sad end. The film moves in to remember one emigrant, tell his story and see the resulting effects on his family. Everything becomes clear at a distance of more than sixty years.

Karelian Exodus is available from the publisher, Aspasia Books (25040 Maple Beach Road, R.R.#1, Beaverton, ON L0K 1A0, telephone 705-426-7290; fax 705-426-5690).
Posted March 9, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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