C – Mobilities, migrations, and transnational actors

Transnational minority lives: Experiencing socialism and minoritisation in the 20th century

Event Details

  • Date

    Thursday, 25 June - 15:30 – 17:30

    Friday, 26 June - 9:00 – 11:00

  • Venue
    tba
  • Theme
    C – Mobilities, migrations, and transnational actors
Convenor
  • Aleksi Huhta (Åbo Akademi University)
  • Mats Wickström (Åbo Akademi University)
  • Anna Sundelin (Åbo Akademi University)
  • Matias Kaihovirta (University of Helsinki)
  • Liisa Lalu (University of Turku)
Chair
  • Aleksi Huhta (Åbo Akademi University)
Commentator
  • Ana Moledo (Leipzig University)

Papers

  • Aleksi Huhta
    Provincial Radicals in a Global Metropolis: Swedish Ostrobothnian Communism in Depression-Era New York

    Provincial Radicals in a Global Metropolis: Swedish Ostrobothnian Communism in Depression-Era New York

    The paper explores how New York as an urban, globalized space shaped the thinking and practice of young immigrant radicals from provincial Swedish-speaking Finland during the Great Depression. Finnish immigrants to the United States and Canada were among the most radical immigrant groups in North America, but the vast scholarship on Finnish immigrant radicalism has tended to ignore the Swedish-speaking part of the immigrant population. The present paper examines the Swedish-speaking immigrants’ radicalism in the context of New York during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, New York had a sizable immigrant population from Swedish-speaking parts of Finland, mostly from the rural Ostrobothnia province and the autonomous Åland Islands. In 1929, a group of young Ostrobothnian immigrants established in the Bronx the Finnish Youth Federation (Finländska Ungdomsförening), a radical youth society that co-operated closely with the Communist party of the United States and its many affiliate organizations. The paper examines how activists in this organization navigated between regional, national and class identities in their activism. His analysis foregrounds two activists in this organization, Aili Holm (later Backlund, 1910–1998) and Georg Backlund (1905–2002), who later married and became after their return to Finland leading figures in the Swedish-language organizations of the Communist Party of Finland. The paper examines how Holm, whose mother tongue was Finnish, and the Swedish-speaking Backlund negotiated complex questions of class, language and nationality in their activism and personal relations. The paper draws on documents of the Finnish Youth Federation, press material and the personal correspondence between Holm and Backlund between 1932 and 1936.
  • Matias Kaihovirta
    Experiences, Connections and Minority Identification in the Life-Story of Allan Wallenius (1890–1938)

    Experiences, Connections and Minority Identification in the Life-Story of Allan Wallenius (1890–1938)

    Matias Kaihovirta’s panel paper explores interlinked questions of transnational communism, minority identity, and political exile by focusing on the case study of Allan Wallenius (1890–1938), a librarian, journalist, and Finland-Swedish exile communist. Wallenius was one of the most influential Swedish-speaking Finnish socialists during the Civil War in Finland in 1918. In his paper Kaihovirta analyses Wallenius’ experiences after the Civil War, his connections to communism in Sweden, USA and Soviet Union in the 1920’s and 30’s. He concentrates especially on the role of a Finland-Swedish minority identification in the life-story and political activism of the communist exile migrant Wallenius.
  • Liisa Lalu
    “Young Girl in a Blue Shirt.” Belonging and Gender in the Radical Youth Communist Movement in 1970s Finland

    “Young Girl in a Blue Shirt.” Belonging and Gender in the Radical Youth Communist Movement in 1970s Finland

    This paper examines the experiences of young radical communist girls and women in 1970s Finland. They participated in a Marxist-Leninist student and cultural movement, connected to an interior, pro-soviet opposition of the Finnish Communist Party. This radical communist movement attracted a lot of youths, students, and artists at the beginning of the 1970s, and together these conservative minority communists, revolutionary youth and cultural radicals created a phenomenon still dominating the image of the whole decade in Finland. This movement is commonly seen as dangerous, dogmatic and naïve, but the reminiscence of participants is often full of nostalgia and longing: a longing for belonging. This paper focuses on the concept and process of belonging through life narratives of former youth communist women. These narratives often begin with the joy of finding like-minded people and the strong sense of belonging – but also experiences of exclusion, minoritisation, and separation are described. The paper analyses these experiences and processes of belonging and not belonging, and how these processes are connected to gender. I ask, how it was to be a young Marxist-Leninist woman – a young girl in a blue shirt of Marxist-Leninist youth and student organizations – and how, why and where it ended.
  • Anna Sundelin
    Mats Wickström
    The Transnational Minority life of a Communist Finland-Swedish Family: The Nordgrens and the Struggle for Socialism from New York to the Åland Islands and Helsinki

    The Transnational Minority life of a Communist Finland-Swedish Family: The Nordgrens and the Struggle for Socialism from New York to the Åland Islands and Helsinki

    Anna Sundelin’s and Mats Wickström’s paper explores the intertwined experience of global communism and local minoritisation in the life of the Nordgren family from the early 1930s to Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956. The Åland Islander Aili Salminen and the Ostrobothian Runar Nordgren met and married in New York during the Great Depression, where they, together with their friends Aili and Georg Backlund, became radicalized. Upon returning to Finland, Aili and Runar Nordgren had four children and settled on the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands. Aili debuted as a proletarian author in 1940. She would later become the first Finland-Swedish author to be published in translation in the Soviet Union. Aili and Runar became members of the legalized Communist Party of Finland in 1945. They were tasked to establish the party on the very conservative and anti-communist Åland Islands, taking up leading positions in an ideological minority on the Islands and proudly upholding a red home. In 1947, the family moved to Helsinki, where Runar became the secretary of the Swedish section of the Finnish People's Democratic League and Aili the Swedish secretary of the Finland-Soviet Union Society. In the bilingual capital of Finland, the family, especially the children, experienced minoritisation in two ways. As communists, they were an oddity among the Finland-Swedes of Helsinki and as Finland-Swedes they were a rarity in communist circles. At the same time, the family were part of a powerful and progressive worldwide movement, a belief in which not even Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin could destroy.

Abstract

This panel explores the formation of minority experiences within transnational networks of twentieth century socialism and communism. While the theoretical relationship between Marxist internationalism and nationalism has received wide scholarly attention, there is still little research on how ideas about internationality and nationality, and the complex relationship between them, were experienced on the ground, in the everyday-lives of socialists and communists. The papers in this panel seek to bridge this divide between ideas and experiences by analysing biographies of socialist and communist activists who identified themselves as part of a minority. The papers centre particularly on the experiences of travel, migration and displacement in these individual biographies. In this way, they highlight the transnational and process-like formation of minority identities. Exploring minority experiences within transnational networks of interaction helps to overcome the notion of minorities as self-sustained and self-evident entities confined to individual nation-states, and to appreciate minoritisation as a contingent and context-dependent process. Moreover, the focus on minority experiences within transnational socialist and communist movements allows the highlighting of radical and working-class activists’ diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Focusing on transnational experiences of minority-identified radical activists, the papers in this panel tackle a series of interlinked questions: How the social experience of minoritisation was connected to other social experiences, such as class, gender and political allegiance? How did cross-border communication, travel, and migration shape experiences of minoritisation and radicalism? Finally, in what ways does a biographical approach shed light on the practice of transnational politics, in general, and the processes of minoritisation, in particular? This panel assembles four papers that approach these general questions from different perspectives, through case studies of individual minority-identified socialist/communist activists. Aleksi Huhta explores communist activism among immigrants from Finland’s Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia region in the 1930s New York, examining how New York as an urban, globalized space shaped the thinking and practice of young immigrant radicals from provincial Swedish-speaking Finland. Matias Kaihovirta’s paper examines the Finland-Swedish exile communist Allan Wallenius, who was one of the most influential Swedish-speaking Finnish socialists during the Civil War in Finland in 1918. Kaihovirta analyses Wallenius’ experiences after the Civil War, his connections to communism in Sweden, USA and Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s and the role of Finland-Swedish minority identification in his life-story and political activism. Liisa Lalu’s paper considers the experiences of young radical communist girls and women in 1970s Finland, focusing on the concept and process of belonging through life narratives of former youth communist women. Anna Sundelin’s and Mats Wickström’s paper analyses the intertwined experience of global communism and local minoritisation in the life of the Finland-Swedish Nordgren family from the early 1930s to Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956, exploring their minoritisation as communists among Finland-Swedes and as Finland-Swedes within communist circles.