BASEES Annual Conference 2022

In search of a better life – Finnish illegal immigrants’ letters from the Gulag

Fri8  Apr03:00pm(20 mins)
CWB Syndicate Room 1


Ira Jänis-Isokangas


Between 1930 and 1934, over 12 000 Finns illegally immigrated to Soviet Union for work and better life. They were sentenced to forced labour in different places of the evolving gulag system. Camps and special settlements in Karelia, the Urals, Siberia, and Kazakhstan provided them work but not freedom.

Rich material from the Finnish and Russian archives includes letters from these camps. The Finns wrote actively to their relatives in Finland and to the Finnish and Soviet officials describing the situation they were forced in. This material reveals everyday life of Finns in the camps and special settlements. Written by both men and women in their native language these letters illuminate how the Finns understood their situation and what strategies they adopted to survive.

Recent studies have discussed blurred boundaries of gulag – between gulag camps, special settlements and the Soviet society. By studying the case of illegal immigrants from Finland, this study analyses how the gulag inmates discussed work, freedom, and citizenship in the Soviet society of the 1930s.