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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the August 2014 issue

from “The Eternal Road”

Abducted from his home in Finland in 1930 by the radical Finnish right-wing Lapua Movement, the narrator escapes his captors and finds himself alone on the Russian side of the border. Russians discover him near death and take him to a hospital in Petrozavodsk in Karelia. Here the narrator has just left the hospital.

 

Strang stopped by to see me every day and asked if I was getting enough to eat where I was staying. On the evening of the third day I felt strong enough to go with him to the cafeteria intended for those who had come from America to build Karelia and those whose work was considered particularly important and who therefore were more equal than others in the workers’ state.

Strang had told me that in the cafeteria you got sturdier food than thin cabbage soup and potato gruel, because in America people weren’t used to that kind of food, in America they’d had steaks and potatoes fried in lard. The people who did the most important jobs couldn’t do their work on just rye bread and fish soup, either.

Strang explained all this again as we walked to the cafeteria. He also told me that the food would improve in Karelia once construction got underway for real, because Karelia held immeasurable riches. These had now been moved to the hands of the people who actually did the work, so that the riches would no longer lie swelling the wallets of capitalists. Strang spoke of the Karelian forests where there was plenty of work for a saw and an ax; timber was already being sold to Finland and more would be sold as soon as the logging got going seriously, and the log drives.

Strang was waiting for the Finnish lumberjacks from Northern Ontario who were on their way to Leningrad by ship. They were used to felling trees in Canada and would do so here. Strang said that the Ontario men had Canadian axes that were a hundred times better for logging than the Karelian ax stubs. The Onega machine shop would start making this kind of ax right away and they would be sold all over Europe, because nowhere on the old continent were there axes as good for logging as the Canadian axes.

Then Strang talked about the Kontupohja paper mill where Karelian wood would be processed into paper and sold throughout the Soviet Union, and the truth would soon be that Pravda in Moscow was printed on Kontupohja paper. Paper mill workers were also coming from Canada, Finns from the Soo and on the US side from Michigan, from Kalamazoo County, and they would bring with them all the expertise they’d acquired in the American paper mills.

A big collective forestry combine had already been established for America’s Finns in Matroosa, near Pryazha, and there were houses there waiting for the Finns, and it would not be long before wood for the Karelian sawmills and the Kontupohja paper mill came from there.

I told him that logging was not my field, I had only taken wood from my own forest in the winter for heating, and I had sold wood I’d felled myself to buyers who delivered it to sawmills and to the Schauman mill in Pietarsaari. Strang warned me not to brag too much about my fields and forests or my hired men and servant girls, because a harsh war against the kulaks was currently being waged throughout all of Russia. The kulaks did not want to relinquish their lands or their serfs and move to kolkhozes, the collective farms that belonged to the socialist system and were the smartest way to grow grain and other foods the country needed.

As we walked to the cafeteria, I noticed many dilapidated wood houses where people nevertheless lived, and I found myself pointing it out to Strang: Petrozavodsk did not appear to have improved in the ten years of Soviet rule, although I confessed I had not seen the town before the great revolution. Strang told me to calculate just how many hundreds of years the Russian people had been exploited by the exploiter class; chasms like that could not be closed in ten years.

We arrived at the cafeteria. It was in a stone building right on the shore of Lake Onega. We entered from the town side and went upstairs to the second floor. All the windows of the long cafeteria wall faced the water, so I could see the autumn lake in all its splendor as the September sun shone on it, sparkling on the tranquil surface that reflected the clouds and distant shores.

Strang explained to the cafeteria matron who I was. She was mistrustful; she was not sure I had the right to eat in this restaurant because I did not have the papers to do so and I had come via a circuitous route from America, not the direct route; I had paused for twenty years in Kauhava in Finland, as Strang phrased it. Nor did I have an American passport to show, to qualify for food here.

Strang asked the matron to find out whether I could be served food here, but to do so with the coming days in mind, because I planned to eat here every day from now on, but for today she could feed me without the papers, as a welcome meal.

The woman reflected for a moment and then agreed to bring me today’s meal, but for tomorrow I would have to have the document showing in black and white that I was entitled to eat in the restaurant for Americans. She was unable to say where to get this document but she presumed Strang would know, since he claimed to be here to handle the arrivals from America.

We sat at a window table with two men Strang knew. He told them who I was. Both said they had read about me and my adventure in the Red Karelia newspaper.

The food arrived, brought by the matron herself, who said it was stew: there was meat and big tender chunks of rutabaga and potatoes—American food, she told me.

I had not seen meat on my plate since I left home, and I cleared my plate without speaking a word. The men at the table laughed at my hunger and my silence. They said that even in the Karelian hunger fields, oases existed where honey flowed.

I wiped my plate clean with a piece of bread and said I didn’t want honey but a man did not do well on thin potato gruel alone. The men believed that there would be stew pots of meat in Karelia, too, once the comrades got here from the Canadian logging sites and the prairie grainfields to teach the Bolshies how to get trees to fall and fields to grow and mill smokestacks to smoke.

One of the men told me that they had come to Karelia from the town of Cobalt in Northern Ontario after having had enough of scraping silver from mine walls for American capitalists. They had sold their houses in Cobalt and come to Olonets, obtained land nearby and started a kolkhoz there just for Canadian Finns. It was said to be Russia’s best and to produce more food than any other collective its size in Russia.

The other man also spoke enthusiastically of the kolkhoz and said its name was Säde. Both men invited me to come to Säde if I enjoyed farm work and knew how to do it, and if I liked the taste of good rye bread with freshly churned butter on it.

About Petrozavodsk they spoke in such a way that Strang began to glance around to see how many ears could hear their talk. They explained that at the beginning of the century the world’s richest silver vein had been discovered in Cobalt, and twenty years later Cobalt was a fully built city where you could get anything you needed in life. The houses were neat and clean, the streets solid, and the stores full of food and clothes, whereas in three hundred years Petrozavodsk had been built into a village of shacks. The men believed, however, that Petrozavodsk and all of Karelia would be turned into a paradise once the American ships got here.

I asked why they had left Cobalt, and one of them said that the world’s richest silver vein had been drying up and the miners would have had to leave for other mines and mining towns. They had chosen Karelia and Säde, which miners and their families from Cobalt had founded back in 1925. Back then they had to build everything from scratch, but now they had a good foundation and they could work for themselves. That was why the men believed that people crossing the Atlantic from other places would also accomplish a lot here, because they could work for the best interests and wealth of the working people instead of for the bottomless bags of the bourgeoisie.

I listened with interest. They said they had come to Petrozavodsk to leave a message at the Karelian Technical Aid office saying that men and women who understood farm work could come live at Säde. At the Technical Aid office they had also heard that the people coming from America would be sent to three other collective farms, one at Hiilisuo near Petrozavodsk, another at Vonganperä in the north at Uhtua, and the third near Jessoila. That last one was called Silver.

The men left the restaurant before Strang and me, but they told me to visit Säde if ever I found myself in the Olonets area.

Strang told me after they had left, however, that the ships now coming from America were not carrying the kind of people who would be sent to Säde; that kolkhoz would have to manage on its own. It had already been decided to send the people on the ships to the new kolkhozes and collective forestry combines: timber was needed for the sawmills and for Kontupohja.

***

Rouvinen told us to leave the worksite right after noon. He said that at two o’clock a celebration would begin at the construction workers’ club for the arrivals from America. He told us to change into nice clothes and come receive the guests at the club and celebrate the arrival of the new builders of Karelia. Rouvinen said he would also be there, because he might be able to hire the best construction workers for his buildings before the Karelian Technical Aid commissaries began to assign men to worksites as they saw fit. Rouvinen told us to talk with as many men and women as we could at the celebration to ascertain whether there were any among the newcomers who knew how to handle a hammer and ax and saw.

Rouvinen was afraid recruiters from other worksites would also be coming because there was a serious shortage of good workers, although it was easy to find more than enough shovel-leaners and wall-sitters and vodka-bottle-tippers—all you had to do was go to any street in Petrozavodsk and talk with Russian passersby.

I said Rouvinen was saying exactly what Party man Kallonen hoped to hear. At the time we were walking away from the building site and Rouvinen was walking with us. He even pointed at people coming toward us and said they had been sent to his building site by the officials, but he’d had to send them away because they wrecked more than they erected. I left Rouvinen and the other men to continue on their way and I walked to Rantala’s house and went in. Einari Rantala and his wife Elma were also home and both had on their good clothes. They said that all the Finns at the machine shop had been given the rest of the day off so they could welcome the newcomers from America and celebrate with them this new phase of constructing the Karelian Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic. Einari had heard that Edvard Gylling himself would speak at the ceremony, and his wife had heard the same thing.

I went upstairs and changed into the pants and sweater I had bought the previous week at the American store, so I wouldn’t have to go about day and night in the clothes that Strang had brought me in the hospital. The new pants and shirt were not the sort of dress clothes I had been used to wearing in America and in Finland, but they were clean and not torn, and they fit me better than what Strang had bought, and better than the homespun coat I’d been given. I had also bought shoes to wear instead of boots and I pulled them on just as Einari Rantala called from below that it was time to go to the club. I came downstairs and the three of us set off.

The construction workers’ club had flags out for the ceremony; Karelian, Soviet, and American flags waved on the flagpoles. There were lots of people on the street already, all pushing to get inside. We went up the steps with the crowd and through the open double door into the club foyer. There was a coatrack there where some left their outerwear, but I had on only a collarless shirt under my sweater, so I couldn’t take it off, even though it was hot in the club’s big hall, where hundreds of people had squeezed in to sit or stand.

The arrivals from America had been seated on the stage in front, which was high enough that they could be seen from every part of the hall.

There were no more seats left. The Rantalas and I stayed standing at the back of the room, where we had a clear view over the heads of those sitting, but Einari Rantala said he would not be able to stand for as long as he thought this would last, and he began asking the young men in the back row whether any of them would sell their seats to him and Elma. The transaction went through and he paid two men who rose to stand beside me. They joked about Einari, who was so bent over that he could not sit in a normal position because his head would have been between his knees, and who was trying to arrange himself in the chair so his gaze could take in the Americans on stage. He had to lie against the chair on his hunched back but then he said he couldn’t see over the people in front of him. Elma explained to him what was happening in the hall and on the stage.

I told the young men to stop laughing at Einari. I told them to pray that such an affliction never befell them and if it did, that they would be able to live with it as heroically as Einari Rantala. The young men asked me if I was a preacher come to spread the church’s word. They asked if I was a minister. I said I could take up that calling, too, I was a man of many talents. The men said they belonged to the Karelian Atheists’ Society, whose mission was to rid Petrozavodsk of anything that reeked of religion. But they had to stop talking because the brass band struck up the fanfare and the Soviet, Karelian, United States, and Canadian flags were carried into the hall.

All those seated now stood, and I didn’t see the flags being mounted on stands on both sides of the stage, but when the fanfare finished and the crowd sat down again, I saw a tall, thin man walk to the podium between the flags. He limped with one leg. Einari Rantala turned to look at me and said that was Edvard Gylling.

Gylling spoke for a long time. He did not simply bid the comrades from America welcome to build Karelia and the Soviet Union, he also talked of the work Karelian Technical Aid had done in the United States and Canada and about how there was great excitement on the American continent about moving to the working people’s own kingdom to build a better life. Here no one had to go hungry or beg on street corners for a few coins from passersby or ruin their health in the fumes and dust of the mines or freeze in winter forests or listen to their hungry children crying at night.

Gylling listed a lot of numbers proving that the building of Karelia was progressing and that Karelia would soon be feeding the Soviet Union’s other regions and especially the city of Leningrad, the cradle of the revolution. Gylling believed that the newly arrived forces from America would raise all the production counts to new levels, particularly in forestry, a field with work in Karelia for anyone who knew how.

When Gylling finished, the crowd rose and clapped for a long time. The people who had come from America also rose on stage and clapped for Edvard Gylling, who at that time was the chairman of the Karelian People’s Commissary Council. Later, people would call him “Karelia’s tsar.”

The people from America arranged themselves in rows on stage, with the women in the front two rows and the men in the three rows behind them. The smaller children stood in front of their mothers but the bigger ones lined up in the women’s and men’s rows. I counted over a hundred people there. They started to sing the “International” in Finnish. It sounded very nice, though I had always been of the opinion that singing and playing music would not much advance the construction of the world.

Those seated in the hall stood up and sang along with the Americans. They stood through the whole song. When it ended they clapped, as did those on stage.

Then the people sat down, and one of the women who had come from America also spoke for a long time. She brought greetings from comrades across the Atlantic who were suffering through the great depression that was taking place in the capitalists’ world. That was the reason there was such interest in Karelia, and everyone understood that a dream was being realized in the Soviet Union that had been the dream of all working people throughout history from the time of building the Egyptian pyramids and the hanging gardens of Niniveh: liberation from slave labor.

Again there was hearty applause for the speaker when she finished, and many in the hall rose to stand while they clapped. I was at the back of the hall in standing room anyway, so I did not need to rise to express my approval.

One of the young men who belonged to the Karelian Atheists’ Society shouted into my ear over the thunderous applause and asked if I had noticed how different and true Gylling’s speech and the speech of the woman from America were compared to the babbling of ministers and religious people. I was not about to yell a reply, so he shouted the same thing into my ear again. He thought I hadn’t heard his question. I covered my ear with one hand and with the other hand indicated that I had indeed heard the question. But I didn’t try to reply even after people sat down again and the hall became quiet.

The arrivals from America began to sing again, this time in English. I knew the song from my own years in America. When the song came to an end the crowd in the hall tried to clap, but the woman who had led the singing on stage signaled that they were going to sing another song, and the people who had already started to clap, stopped.

From Ikitie. Helsinki: Otava 2011. © Antti Tuuri and Otava Publishing House. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2014 by Jill Timbers. All rights reserved.

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