July 01, 2009

Soviet Karelia

In 1931, hundreds of Finnish families across the US and Canada started packing. Lumberjacks, farmers and factory hands – most of them first-generation immigrants who had moved to North America only 10 or 15 years earlier – sold their newly-built houses and land, and embarked on steamboats back to Europe. Their crated-up possessions traveled in the cargo bays: double beds, Fords, grand pianos, professional and agricultural tools. They were going to Karelia – a new country of their own in the north of Russia.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the West followed the Soviet Union’s success story with amazement and disbelief. Far from falling apart soon after the Revolution of 1917, as many had predicted, the new, multinational Soviet state seemed to be delivering on its dreams. Once an agrarian monarchy where only one person in five could sign his or her name, it now boasted cutting-edge industry and intercontinental railways, a 90% literacy rate and international influence.

Of course, few foreign observers realized the uglier truths, that forced industrialization had already claimed millions of lives, and that the survivors often lacked basic human comforts in their struggle to secure the young country’s future. On their return from the land of the Soviets, common travelers and prominent public figures alike felt obliged to testify to the unprecedented progress made by this country of enthusiastic working people.
J. Neill Greenwood, professor of metallurgy at the University of Melbourne, wrote that, “having passed through Canada, the USA and England on the way to Russia, and having seen in those countries helplessness and despair – just the same as had been left behind in Australia – the unparalleled enthusiasm and optimism of Russia came as a refreshing change.”

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