Unearthing Key Stories

Samira Saramo Commemorates Chapter of Soviet Karelia History

Find a copy of Building That Bright Future at Entershine Bookshop or utorontopress.com. By Lindsay Campbell



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Samira Saramo has always searched for the beauty in her Finnish heritage— no matter the time or place. Growing up as a Finnish immigrant in New Brunswick and Thunder Bay, she saw Finnish-Canadian identity take its own authentic form. Later, pursuing an academic career studying Finnish migrants in Canada and the United States, she came across the little-known stories of those in Soviet Karelia. “I just became completely hooked and felt so deeply compelled by this moment in time,” she says. “I’ve held onto the stories of these people for quite awhile now, and feel deeply attached to them.” Inspired by well over a decade of historical research, Saramo has attempted to honour the story of Finns of Soviet Karelia in a new book, Building That Bright Future. Through letters, memoirs, and archival information, the book gives an intimate account of approximately 6,500 Finns from Canada and the United States who moved to Soviet Karelia, on the border of Finland, in the 1930s. Their goal, at the time, was to build a Finnish workers’ society. Soviet leadership recruited them for their mechanical and lumber expertise, as well as their familiarity with the socialist cause. By 1936, however, Finnish culture and language came under attack, and ethnic Finns became the region’s primary targets in the Stalinist Great Terror via mass arrests and executions. “It’s quite a tragic story,” Saramo says. “But I think this is a chapter in Finnish history, and I would argue North American history, that is lesser known, and it shouldn’t be. It’s also, I think, a story about sense of self and belonging.” Saramo, who launched the book at Thunder Bay’s Entershine Bookshop on August 18, says she felt it was important to celebrate its release in a city with strong cultural ties to Finland. Without divulging too much information, she said those living in the city and its surrounding region might be surprised to encounter some mention of Finnish folk who lived in the region. But more than that, she hopes there’s a larger takeaway from the historical account—one that could perhaps be useful in the context of today’s world. “These migrants decided to take a big risk, unsettle themselves, and face discomfort because they believed that they […] could actually build a brighter future,” Saramo explains. “We have a lot of daunting tasks to confront in climate crises and social injustices. I think we can learn from the migrants [of] Soviet Karelia by giving a bit more of ourselves and our comfort to build a more sustainable, equitable, and brighter future for us all.”