How Finnish-Canadians Became Victims of Stalin's Purges

A SMALL SILVER trophy sits on a shelf in Taimi Davis's room in a Toronto retirement home. Decorated with an engraving of a man steering a plow pulled by two oxen, its inscription reads: "Presented to the Champion Pupil." Now frail with age, Davis, who turns 94 on Aug.

How Finnish-Canadians Became Victims of Stalin's Purges

A SMALL SILVER trophy sits on a shelf in Taimi Davis's room in a Toronto retirement home. Decorated with an engraving of a man steering a plow pulled by two oxen, its inscription reads: "Presented to the Champion Pupil." Now frail with age, Davis, who turns 94 on Aug. 3, won the cup in 1927 at the Kivikoski rural school fair. She was Taimi Pitkänen back then, living in a small rural community of Finnish immigrants, 14 km northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont. The following year, her brother, Aate, won an identical cup. It sits on a shelf half a world away in a Moscow apartment.

Aate's cup now belongs to his son, Alfred - a nephew Davis never knew existed until well after her brother's death. Letters Aate wrote in 1942, only hours before he was executed as a spy, finally reached her 58 years later, revealing that he had left behind a wife and infant son in the Soviet Union, where he had gone in 1931. These final missives, written on prisoner-of-war stationery, are now the subject of a National Film Board documentary, Letters From Karelia (airing on History Television on Aug. 1), and are part of a broader drama played out against the backdrop of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and the SECOND WORLD WAR.

Aate Pitkänen was just one of roughly 2,800 Canadians of Finnish heritage who set off for Karelia, an autonomous Soviet republic, beginning in 1931. Hoping to find work and a better life, they met with betrayal and, in many cases, death. Roughly 600 Finnish-Canadians fell victim to the Stalinist purges of the mid-1930s, most ending up in mass graves throughout Karelia. It's a little-known part of history that Varpu Lindström, a history professor at York University in Toronto, wished to shed further light on. She's been researching the fate of the Karelian immigrants, and wants to conduct a thorough comparison between records from the Finnish Organization of Canada, documenting those who left, and Russian archives containing files on the victims, including names and dates as well as the sentences meted out - invariably death or internment in a labour camp. "I would like to do an individual account," says Lindström. "No one has looked at this from the perspective of Canadians."

Only a few years before the purges, Karelia had been held up as a land of opportunity. In 1928, Stalin launched the first of his five-year economic plans designed to bring rapid industrialization to the Soviet Union. Timber quotas were increasing, and sparsely populated Karelia needed skilled manpower to harvest its vast forests. With the Depression bringing work stoppages to the lumber camps of northern Ontario, entire families packed up, hoping to build new lives for themselves. Martha Hoxell was only 17 when she followed her future husband to Karelia in 1933, marrying him a few weeks after her arrival. Hoxell, who now lives in Thunder Bay, grew up in the same Finnish community as the Pitkänens and recalls conditions there at the time. "Everything was at a standstill," she says. "It was a real depression. We were farm kids, so we didn't starve, but we certainly couldn't get ahead. And we had ambitions."

Other factors contributed to the startling exodus, known at the time as "Karelian fever." Finland had suffered its own civil war in 1918, on the heels of the Russian Revolution, but unlike in Russia, the White faction was victorious over the Reds. These divisions travelled with Finnish immigrants to Canada, where a large number were marked by a strong streak of pro-labour sentiment. (As a young woman, Davis marched in a May Day parade and ended up spending two weeks in the Sudbury jail after a street riot broke out because a hammer-and-sickle was flown. She ended up marrying the man who bailed her out.) Such socialistic leanings no doubt influenced many who undertook the journey to Karelia.

At the same time, nationalistic considerations also played a role. Historically, Karelia straddled the Finnish-Russian border. Karelian leaders were anxious to maintain the Finnish nature of the region. Rather than allow an influx of workers from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, they spearheaded a vigorous recruitment campaign of North American FINNS, aided by North American branches of the Communist Party, as well as sympathetic American and Canadian Finnish organizations. Approximately 7,000 people emigrated from North America.

When faced with the stark reality of life in Karelia - conditions were primitive, and there was a severe shortage of housing - some newcomers went straight back home. Others were more optimistic. Hoxell recalls it as "an active place, full of young people." Although she and her husband, Matt, lived in a small room in one of several large barracks, the jobs were there, as promised, along with cultural and sports activities. Matt worked as a truck driver. Hoxell took advantage of free schooling offered in her native Finnish and spent weekdays in the nearby capital of Petrozavodsk, upgrading her education and training to be a kindergarten teacher. Aate Pitkänen also found work quickly as an electrician for the telephone company. An excellent athlete, he became one of the Soviet Union's top skiers. Two years after his arrival, he applied for citizenship.

The promising start soon began to unravel. Although the workers recruited from North America enjoyed higher wages than the local population and such privileges as access to specialty stores, North American Finns chafed under the authoritarian system. Those who had been active union members in North America soon discovered that Soviet-style Communism brooked neither questions nor complaints. And then the purges came.

Between 1935 and 1939, Stalin unleashed a reign of terror unlike any in history. Tens of millions were executed or suffered crushing deprivation in labour camps. Stalin's victims included not only political and military leaders, but members of the general population and foreigners on Soviet territory. The nationalistic policy that had brought so many North American Finns to Karelia was denounced as leaving the Soviet Union open to infiltration. Finns were accused of spreading nationalistic propaganda and discontent, of holding illegal meetings, spying and sabotage. Hoxell and her husband were among the lucky ones, getting out in 1935 before the purges reached their full intensity. "They came at night, always," she recalls. "Someone was picked up and never seen again."

Aate Pitkänen stayed. He survived the purges, possibly due to his status as a star athlete, although his letters home became less frequent. But another threat was developing. In the early days of the Second World War, Finland had lost 10 per cent of its territory to the Soviet Union after refusing to hand over land voluntarily for Soviet military bases. The country retaliated, joining forces with Germany, and by 1941 had reclaimed not only the lost territory, but had pushed eastward, deep into Soviet Karelia. The Soviets drafted Finnish speakers in the region, including Aate, to spy on Finland and prepare for a counteroffensive.

Aate was captured by the Finns in 1942. From his prison cell in occupied Petrozavodsk, he wrote to his parents and sister in Canada. His first letter tells of his wife, Lilia, and their six-month-old baby. A second letter, written two days later, reveals Aate has learned his fate: "You don't need to write a reply. Tomorrow I will be free of my earthly worries." He was executed the following day.

As, strictly speaking, Canada was at war with Finland, prison warden Sakari Lehesvirta never forwarded the letters to the Pitkänen family. But he didn't destroy them either. His son, Jukka Lehesvirta, a Helsinki journalist, discovered the letters decades later and read them on Finnish radio. Listeners were moved by the story and wondered what had become of Aate's baby boy. Producers of Wait for Me, a Russian reality TV show that traces people lost during the tumult of the 20th century, tracked him down in 2001. Alfred, now 63 and a DNA scientist living in Moscow, was reunited with his Finnish cousins on the air.

But there was still more to come. Aate never met his young son, but he left him his silver trophy, one of the few things he had packed when leaving Thunder Bay. Letters From Karelia documents Alfred's journey to Canada to meet his aunt, Taimi Davis, bringing with him his father's treasured memento. "You finally find someone," Davis says, reaching for a phrase to sum up the moment. "You can't describe it." Side by side, aunt and nephew compare the small silver cups, relics from childhood and a time before the tragic events of a brutal period separated brother and sister.

Maclean's August 1, 2005