5 Questions About: Search for a Socialist El Dorado: Finnish Immigration to Soviet Karelia from the United States and Canada in the 1930s

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Alexey Golubev discusses Search for a Socialist El Dorado: Finnish Immigration to Soviet Karelia from the United States and Canada in the 1930s, which he co-wrote with Irina Takala.


Read Barbara W. Sommer’s review of Search for a Socialist El Dorado: Finnish Immigration to Soviet Karelia from the United States and Canada in the 1930s online and in issue 47.1 of OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Our book is a story of enthusiasm, hope, belief, and betrayal. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, for the first time in history, people in North America looked back across the Atlantic at Soviet Russia thinking for the first time that, perhaps, the Old World might after all have a promise of justice and equality, which many of them had failed to find in the United States and Canada. The socialist propaganda of the 1920s intensified this political idealism, which was particularly strong in the Finnish communities in North America, which was a target for multiple propaganda campaigns in support of Soviet Karelia – an autonomous region in the North-West of Soviet Russia which at that time was headed by Finnish Communists (Edvard Gylling, Kustaa Rovio and others) who aimed to build a socialist society based on Finnish language and culture. Soviet Karelia was also rich in natural resources, the most important of which was timber, and had to play an important part in the Soviet industrialization plans (First Five-Year Plan), yet it was sparsely populated and lacked labor force, especially skilled forest works. Unsurprisingly, when the Great Depression broke out in 1929 and many Finnish-Americans and Finnish-Canadians became unemployed, the government of Soviet Karelia decided to use this opportunity to bring skilled and experienced workers from North America, as well as Finland and Sweden. Two recruitment offices were established in New York and Toronto, and the response was so enthusiastic that newspapers spoke of the “Karelian fever” in Finnish communities in North America. Over the next five years, almost a hundred thousand applications were submitted for the immigration program to Soviet Karelia. Only a fraction was approved: by 1935 six and a half thousand Finns moved to Soviet Karelia from the United States and Canada. While the immigration flow was much smaller than the Soviet Karelian authorities hoped for, the immigrants made an immense contribution to industry, agriculture, and cultural life of Soviet Karelia by introducing new technologies, methods of work, tools and machines; and educating local workers. Yet their hopes for a better life were shattered, first when the Finnish immigrant community became a target of the Soviet security forces during the Great Purge of 1937-38, and later during World War II when Finland allied itself with Nazi Germany and many Finnish immigrants were deported to labor camps in Siberia. Our book provides the first comprehensive English-language account of this fascinating story, and its Russian translation was published in 2019 in one of the leading academic publishers in Russia, Nestor-Istoriya. 

How does oral history contribute to your book?

My first encounter with the topic of the book occurred in 2004 when I became Director of the Oral History Center of the Petrozavodsk State University (PetrSU) in the Republic of Karelia (former Soviet Karelia), and some of my first respondents whose oral histories I took were Finnish immigrants from the US and Canada. From 2006 to 2008, the PetrSU Oral History Center published four volumes of oral histories recorded by the faculty and students affiliated with the center. The second volume (in Russian) published in 2007 and co-edited by Dr. Irina Takala of PetrSU and myself included five interviews with the Finnish-American and Finnish-Canadian immigrants to Soviet Karelia, who were, perhaps, the last living witnesses of the “Karelian fever.”  Their testimonies inspired us to launch our book project in the first place. While the book itself relies primarily on archival sources and press due to the time span of seventy years between the immigration (1930s) and our work (late 2000s), as well as the heavy losses in the Finnish immigrant community in Russia due to the Stalinist repressions and World War II, oral history still adds a valuable perspective from below that archival sources would be unable to provide. Oral histories were particularly valuable for the last chapter of our book that deals with the life in the immigrant community after World War II: we were able to learn about such aspects as food, education, leisure, and cultural activities in the community only through oral history.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Oral history provides access to those parts of the historical experience that written sources often ignore, address only in passing, or intentionally silence. For example, the Soviet Union had a heavily centralized bureaucratic system that left a heavy paper trail – a blessing for historians – but at the same time the interests and biases of the Soviet bureaucratic machine meant that many important historical questions, e.g. pertaining to class in Soviet society (which was proclaimed “classless” as early as the 1930s), remained almost unaddressed in official documents. Another example is marginalized groups, which in the Soviet context included working-class youth, peasants working in collective farms, and sexual minorities, who were often invisible in the official discourse. Oral and family history helps to address the historical experience of these groups giving us knowledge that would otherwise have been lost. 

The second reason is that oral history avoids the hierarchy of genres that written personal sources (diaries, letters, memoirs) cannot escape. As a Russian Formalist scholar, Vladimir Propp, suggested for folklore, and Hayden White later expanded to historical narratives, writing always involves certain narrative structures that organize the material and can interfere with how historical experience is presented, i.e., what should be told and what should not be told (the dictate of the form). Sure, oral history interviews have their own narrative structures, but they also have an important advantage of being a collaborative product between the interviewer and the respondent, where the interviewer has a luxury to be able to intervene in the narrative.

Third, as a university professor I value the pedagogical potential of oral history. Since recently, I started introducing oral history interviews as optional course requirements. For example, in my course Europe since 1900, instead of writing a course paper, students could opt for interviewing members of the Czech immigrant community in the Greater Houston area. In addition to contributing to the archive of the Czech cultural center of Houston, this assignment gave students an important experience of dealing with the course subject through personal perspectives of their respondents.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

This book is an interesting example of a comprehensive historical project (which included extensive archival and library research) that was inspired and driven by oral histories of the very few living members of the North American immigrant community in Soviet Karelia. In this sense, our book shows how even relatively distant (Great Depression era) historical events could be traced back through oral history.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Even though Soviet history is often treated as a historical deviation and a civilizational “dead end,” our Finnish-American and Finnish-Canadian respondents made it very clear that they do not think of the contribution to the Soviet project in terms of failure. Instead, they were proud for the work in Soviet Russia, and they recognized that socialism did provide them and their children with the opportunities that were unavailable for them at that time in North America including, most importantly, education. It was the difference between socialism and Stalinism that they emphasized suggesting that Stalinism was an aberration, rather than a historical destiny of the Soviet project. This is an important lesson that I learned from them and would like readers to remember about the book.