The Victims of Communism Foundation's Blog



The distinguished historian John Earl Haynes recently joined VOC’s National Advisory Council. I interviewed him about secret Soviet subsidies to the Communist Party of the USA, why his work has been controversial, and Finnish Americans executed by the KGB in the tragic Karelian Fever. Here is Part I of our exchange.

DT: What was the most important discovery you made in your research career?

JEH: My research colleague, Harvey Klehr, and I were extremely fortunate to be the first historians to explore several major long-closed archives: the Communist International and Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) records in Moscow, the decrypted Soviet cables of the National Security Agency’s Venona project, and the KGB archival notebooks of Alexander Vassiliev.

Among the most surprising discoveries was that the Soviet Union’s secret subsidies of the CPUSA were much larger and lasted much longer than we expected, only ending in 1988 with a $3 million secret payment. In addition, the number of American sources recruited into Soviet espionage between 1935 and 1945 was much larger than we had earlier expected, and the extent of the CPUSA’s direct involvement in that espionage, making itself into an auxiliary of Soviet intelligence, was much more extensive than we expected.

DT: Despite your careful approach to the historical record, why have your conclusions been controversial?

JEH: Too large a segment of the academic world is inclined to a benign view of communism in general, and of the CPUSA in particular. They prefer to think of Communists as idealists interested only in social justice and peace. They resent historical accounts such as those Klehr and I produced that present archival documentation of the CPUSA’s totalitarian character and its devotion to promoting Soviet victory over the United States in the Cold War.

In particular, many historians resent our finding documents that firmly establish the guilt of certain Americans accused of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union such as Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Harry Dexter White. Even after the superb books by Ronald Radosh on the Rosenberg case and Allen Weinstein on the Hiss case, convincingly showing both men guilty, there remained in the academic world a vocal minority proclaiming their innocence and a larger group saying there was still doubt as to their guilt. Many textbooks for high schools and colleges promoted the doubt position. The documents Klehr and I found in the Venona decryptions and the Vassiliev notebooks closed both cases: they were guilty.

Today only a few pro-communist fanatics in the academic world hold for their innocence. However, in too many cases, the recognition in the academic world that Hiss, Rosenberg, and White were Soviet spies is given grudgingly. It interferes with the ideologically preferred narrative that Hiss and Rosenberg were liberal innocents wrongly convicted by evil anticommunists. They don’t like it that the documents Klehr and I found made maintaining that narrative impossible, and they certainly don’t thank us for establishing the truth.

DT: What is an area that deserves more research?

JEH: The tragic end to Karelian Fever might be worth some attention. In the early 1930s, thousands of idealistic Finnish Americans and Finnish Canadians migrated to the Soviet republic of Karelia to help construct communism. Estimates vary from at least 4,000 to as many as 10,000 of these migrants. Most had been born in Finland, migrated to North America, and then migrated back eastward to Karelia. But in their second migration they took with them their children who had been born and raised for some time and in the USA and Canada.

In 1937-38, Stalin launched a new phase of his Great Terror and Soviet security police arrested thousands of Karelian residents, including many hundred, perhaps a thousand or more, of this Finnish American and Finnish Canadian group (mostly adult males), accusing them of “bourgeois nationalism,” spying for Finland or some other foreign power, or plotting to detach Karelia from the Soviet Union and merge it with capitalist Finland. All of these accusations were fabrications invented by the Soviet security. Most of those arrested were secretly executed.

In 1997, a Russian organization dedicated to exposing Stalin-era crimes, Memorial, located a KGB burial site near Sandarmokh. The site contains more than 9,000 bodies in approximately 300 burial trenches. The position of the skeletons and other remains suggested the prisoners had been stripped to their underwear, lined up next to a trench with hands and feet tied, and shot in the back of the head. Documents in a regional KGB archive identify about 4,000 of the victims as Gulag prison laborers used to build the Belomar canal, 1,000 as prisoners from the Gulag camp at Solovetskiye, and about 3,000 as victims of the Karelian purge. More than 6,000 of the dead are listed by name.

Among the victims named are 141 Finnish Americans and 127 Finnish Canadians. Fourteen were American citizens by birth. Some of the others may have been naturalized American citizens. Among the American citizens executed and buried there are, for example, John Siren, born in Duluth, Minnesota, shot on February 11, 1938; Mathew Kaartinen, born in Ironwood, Michigan, and shot by the KGB on December 28, 1937; Andrew Hannula, born in the state of Washington and shot on December 28, 1937; and Enoch Nelson, born in San Francisco and shot on March 5, 1938.

Another was Helen Hill, born in Minnesota in 1917. Her parents took her to Karelia in 1932 when she was a teenager. She was working as a dispatcher at a lumber camp when she was arrested. A KGB executioner put a pistol to the back of her head on April 22, 1938. She was 22 years old.

It is puzzling that the murder of so many Americans is so little known. Aside from Harvey Klehr and I, about the only American historians who write about it are those who specialize in Finnish ethnic history, whose work is chiefly read by those of Finnish ethnicity. I think it deserves broader attention.