i'll end what has accidentally turned into Russia Week on a sweet story. and then i really must get back to the dogs.
ruth was born in northern minnesota. ernest was born in the copper country of upper michigan. both were finns. they were good friends. they each had emigrated to the soviet union with their parents during the Great Depression. they had hard lives; ruth served in the red army and lost her mother, stepfather and older brother during the Great Patriotic War. she raised her little brother single-handedly. when i met her, she had a small apartment in petrozavodsk, where she grew tomatoes in a pot on her balcony. she was fluent in english, finnish and russian and worked as a translator. she was 72.
ernie had one of those great, rubbery, expressive faces that you instantly like and trust. he lived in a dacha outside of matrosa, a logging town that had been built by immigrant finns. it was about 30 miles outside of petrozavodsk. he, too, was in his 70s. because his russian wasn't very good when he was a young man, he had not been allowed to go to university. still, he had built a career for himself as an engineer, largely self-taught, and he had worked in radio and TV.
neither had been allowed to go back to the united states. now that they were old and glasnost had relaxed the restrictions, the government would no longer prevent them, but neither had the financial means. they had grown up, and grown old, in russia.
i spent a lot of time with ruth when i was in petrozavodsk; she was kind and helpful and intelligent and she knew all of the other immigrant finns. i drove her crazy my first day in town; i called her several times from my hotel but kept getting what sounded, to me, like a busy signal. it turned out that the sound was actually the phone ringing in her apartment; she kept racing to answer it but by then i'd hung up. again and again.
at her apartment, we ate swiss roll from the bakery and leafed through her photo album while she told me about her Minnesota childhood. she grew up in Palo, on the iron range, in a cozy farmhouse hand-built by her father, right on the banks of the st. louis river. she had not seen it since she was eight years old, the day her stepfather locked the front door and they all set off for the soviet union.
one day she took me with her to the russian orthodox church, a small white building with sky-blue onion domes. the walls were covered with hundreds of gilt-edged icons. small, elderly women wearing headscarves and carpet slippers kissed the icons and whispered amongst themselves while the priest chanted from behind the closed doors of the altar.
and then the doors swung open and you could see the ornate and gilded altar revealed as the robed priest glided out, swinging his incense shaker, followed by a choir of singing boys. a service like that could make an atheist feel religious.
the day that igor took me to kondopoga, we stopped at ernie's dacha on our way back to town. he and ruth were there, and ernie told me his life dream: to start a museum that would recognize the sacrifices and contributions of the american finns in karelia.
he and igor and ruth and i sat in the dacha's airy front room and ate more swiss roll and drank tea and talked about the wrongs that had been done the finns. ernie told me about the many friends from his youth who had been killed in stalin's purges and in the war.
when i got back to minnesota, i did a lot of writing about the finns. i wrote stories for the local newspaper, and for a couple of magazines, and for a finnish-american newspaper. i was also working on a book, the memoir of one of the american finns.
as word got around about these american-born finns who were trapped in russia, people decided to raise money to bring some of them back for a visit. the annual Finn Fest celebration was being held in duluth the next summer, and generous duluthians raised enough money to bring a dozen of them back home. ruth was one. ernie was another.
one day in late june 1992, i drove ruth and ernest back up to the iron range to Palo, to the little house on the banks of the st. louis river. (you can read the story here.)
the next day, ernie took a Greyhound Bus back to upper michigan, where the local paper did a front-page story about him. "Haapaniemi returns to Copper Country," the headlines read.
when he returned to duluth, he and ruth stayed at my house. i slept in the basement on a futon with my dog toby, and gave ruth and ernest my bedroom. the next morning, they told me their news: they were engaged. at 72 and 74. after a life of hardship and loss, they were getting married, each for the first time. i was proud and thrilled that he had proposed to her in my house. (whether or not it was in my bed i didn't care to know.)
Addendum: Ruth and Ernie went back to russia, where they were married. ernie did, indeed, put together a museum exhibition commemorating the accomplishments of the immigrant finns. a few years later, they emigrated to Finland.
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