Sirkka Rikka lived in a second floor apartment in petrozavodsk, just a few blocks from the hotel i was staying in. she was in her 80s and was getting a bit forgetful, but at one time she had been a famous singer known throughout the soviet union. she was known as the nightengale of leningrad.
she showed me the treasures in her apartment: a scrapbook of yellowed newspaper clippings about her concerts; records of her singing; a troll doll under a plastic dome that someone had sent her from America.
and she told me about her life: she was born in detroit, michigan, the daughter of immigrant finns. she emigrated alone to the soviet union in the mid-1930s, hoping to heed lenin's cry of "workers of the world, unite!"
she had two sons, one who moved to finland and sometimes sent her fresh finnish butter. the other son was mentally retarded, and he had lived with her up until a few years ago. she came home from the market one day and couldn't get her apartment door open. her son had dropped dead of a heart attack, and his body was blocking the door.
i think she was lonely; she talked and talked and talked, sometimes idly lapsing into russian when she grew thoughtful or nostalgic. a question from me would send her back to english. i was there a long time--12 hours. every time i told her i needed to go, she'd start telling me the story about coming home from the market and finding her door blocked. and i'd sit back down again.
finally she agreed to walk me back to my hotel. the hallway of her apartment was very dark--there were no lightbulbs in any of the lights--and i was glad for her guidance. by then the restaurant at my hotel was closed for the evening, so we went back to her apartment and she made us mashed potatoes. every time she got involved in a story, she stopped mashing and looked dreamily off int the distance. by the time we ate them, the potatoes were cold. but they were still very good, with that sweet finnish butter.
my hotel room was spartan. it had a saggy bed, a wide window sill where i would sit sometimes and stare out to the street, and a TV that didn't work. i was supposed to leave my key with the babushka who sat at the desk in the hallway night and day, but sometimes i'd forget and she'd holler at me. (i got hollered at a lot by babushkas.) the bathroom was a little scary, and i kept forgetting that with russian toilets you're supposed to put the used toilet paper in the wastebasket, not in the toilet. i'd forget and things would get clogged and i'd get hollered at.
during my 10 days there i interviewed about a dozen former americans. they all had the same story: they emigrated here in the 1930s with high ideals, surrendered their passports, and were trapped forever. many of the people i talked to had come as children, with their parents. over the next few years they saw their rights diminished, one by one--their travel was restricted. they were forbidden from speaking finnish. and finally, labeled "enemies of the people," their fathers and sometimes their mothers were taken away in the middle of the night and executed. stalin's purges of 1937 and 1938 hit the immigrant finns very very hard.
one afternoon, one of my contacts, a young man named igor, picked me up at my hotel to take me to kotkozero to interview elsa mikkonen. the gas station had been out of gas that morning, so igor traded two bottles of vodka for a tank of jet fuel. it seemed to do the trick. as we bumped down the forest road i noticed that his car had no windshield wipers; he laughed when i pointed that out and said they were under his front seat. if you leave them on the car, he said, people will steal them.
we drove a long way along a rough tar road that cut through towering forests. in kotkozero, he parked at a layby near the center of town. a tall statue of Lenin looked toward leningrad. igor made some inquiries and found that elsa was in the shop. he was gone a long time. when he came back, he told me that elsa had taken some persuading; she was reluctant and shy. but she finally agreed to talk to me. we met her at her house.
she was a tiny woman in an orange-flowered dress. she lived alone in one small room in a two-story communal building. she carried her battered tin kettle down the hall and filled it with water and made us tea on her hot plate. then she settled in her rocking chair and told me her story: she was from cape cod, massachusetts. she and her parents left for the soviet union in the mid 1930s; the night before their departure the finns threw them a big going-away party, and the KKK came and burned crosses on the lawn.
she became an english teacher and was sent to kotkozero, about 50 miles outside of petrozavodsk. she lived there the rest of her life. her father had died in the purges. she never married.
when i left her house, she took my hand. i will never forget her words. "i was afraid to talk to you, a journalist from america," she said. "but now i see that you are just a simple girl."
i did two and sometimes three of these interviews a day. everywhere i went, people were kind and brought out platters of food for me to share with them. it was always exactly the same food: sausage. sour brown bread. hard cheese. tomatoes with sour cream. hot tea. swiss roll.
on the fourth of july, another american finn, ruth niskanen, invited me to a party. there were seven of us there: ruth, who was born in northern minnesota. she and her brother were both conscripted into the red army; he died in the Winter War against his own people, the finns. her mother starved to death beyond the urals, where she was sent as an enemy of the people.
Aino Corgan, who emigrated from superior, wisconsin; her father, oscar, had been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the karelian movement, traveling the upper midwest in the 1920s and 30s, encouraging finns to emigrate. but he was killed in stalin's purges just months after bringing his own family to russia.
Aino's niece, stella sevander, sat at the end of the table--she was igor's wife, and the daughter of the woman i was doing research on. stella's brother Leo and his wife and daughter rounded out the party.
we ate sausage, and swiss roll, and drank hot tea. and then stella brought out a little casette recorder and popped in a tape. "you must be sad to be away from your country on this important holiday," she said.
she pressed PLAY and the tape started up. first i heard the rough whirrring of the wheels, and then the unmistakable sounds of barbra streisand's impossibly clear voice. it filled the little apartment. she was singing "God Bless America."
and the American Finns, trapped their entire lives inside the soviet regime, sang along.
4 hours ago