________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 6 . . . . November 10, 2006


Letters From Karelia: Father, Brother, Comrade, Spy. 

Kelly Saxberg (Director). Joe MacDonald (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2004.
76 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: C9104 209.

Subject Headings:
Communists-Canada-History-20th century.
Karelia (Russia)-History.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Julie Chychota. 

*** /4


My father, Aate Pitkänen, was born in Canada and moved from Canada to Russia, to Karelia to be exact. He came to improve his life and find a job. I just learned about it recently. I can honestly say, what I learned really moved me.

Alfred Pitkänen  (English subtitles) 

For Alfred, it is less important that his father’s dream was betrayed--so was every Soviet citizen’s, after all--than that he was brave and a Russian patriot.



It is difficult for most people today to comprehend why anybody would want to emigrate from Canada, but Letters from Karelia: Father, Brother, Comrade, Spy reconstructs for its viewers a time in which thousands of Canadians did just that. One such individual was Aate Pitkänen, an adventurous 18-year-old Finnish-Canadian from Kivikoski, ON. Disheartened by the deplorable economic conditions of the Great Depression, which for him epitomized the flaws of North American capitalism, Aate, like many of his fellow socialists, optimistically set out for Soviet Karelia and communism’s promise of a better life. Nobody anticipated the strange turns Aate’s life would take. In piecing together Aate’s life through letters, photographs, archival film, newspaper clippings, personal anecdotes, and a prison’s warden’s log, this documentary unearths “an episode of Canadian history that is all but forgotten,” as its narrator purports.   

     At first, those who made the 1930s exodus to the Russian province of Karelia felt they were realizing their dreams of a new life. Aate’s early letters home, for instance, brim with boyish enthusiasm for his gainful employment as an electrician and for skiing, his favorite leisure activity. The documentary even draws attention to the statue of Lenin erected by grateful Canadians in Petroskoi. Yet only a few years later, dreams metamorphosed into nightmares as Stalin’s regime began purging its political opposition, real or imagined. Reports of missing persons and suspicious “disappearances” trickled back to Canada before World War II effectively severed communication between the new Karelians and their families and friends.   

     The Pitkänens never heard from their son again. However, in 2000, as Taimi Davis, Aate’s sister, was approaching her 90th birthday, she received the surprise of her life: word of her brother--in the form of two letters he had written in a Finnish prison nearly 60 years earlier! Therein Taimi discovers that Aate married a Russian woman and fathered a son. Not long after, events transpire which result in Aate’s son, Alfred, traveling to Ontario to meet his aunt.   

     Through his Canadian visit, his conversations with relatives and family friends, and his subsequent fourteen-hour trek from Moscow to Karelia upon his return to Russia, Alfred puzzles out Aate’s fate with the aid of historical researchers and consultants. The film proposes a number of reasons why Aate survived the purges, among them that he had the good fortune to be away when the “collectors” called, that he held Russian citizenship, that he won favor for his athletic prowess as ski champion, or that he was the protégé of the influential Yuri Andropov under whose jurisdiction sport fell. In any event, Aate’s skiing and language abilities garnered recognition: he was soon recruited to spy for the Soviets in Finnish territory. For Aate’s bravery, Andropov recommended him for the Order of Lenin; however, Stalin refused to award the Order to a Canadian and a Finn. It was as a spy that Aate was imprisoned in Petroskoi and ultimately executed.   

     Letters from Karelia offers up a sympathetic and sobering portrayal of an idealistic “everyman.” By giving voice to Aate’s story, the documentary effectually frees up to be told more stories that may long have been suppressed. The director deftly places these émigrés and their beliefs into the context of the time without judging them based on hindsight, that is, in light of the eventual dismantlement of the Soviet Union. This film reinforces for its viewers that history is by no means a static discipline but is subject to revision as new information comes to light. 

     In terms of the camera work, time assumes fluidity in Letters from Karelia as the film flows from the vintage 1930s footage into the contemporary and vacillates between moving pictures and static photographs. The opening shot, for instance, is of a black and white snowy landscape passing swiftly by, affording only glimpses of a horse and sleigh, a farmyard, and trees. Visually, the past spills into and informs the present as these images transition into color film and the camera frames not only a man gazing out of a train window but also the sights he glimpses through the glass--a landscape not unlike the previous black and white one. 

     Figuratively, too, the past seeps into the present through memory and memorabilia. In close-ups of Alfred, Taimi, Martha Hoxell, and others, the camera closes the distance between subjects and viewers, rendering the conversations more personal and meaningful for the latter because of the nuances captured in the facial expressions of the former as they reminisce. Furthermore, for Taimi and Alfred, photographs, letters, and a trophy cup, items representative of Aate, elicit a sense of connection with their brother and father, respectively, because of their immediacy, tangibility, and materiality. 

     Sound contributes to the film in an understated yet conspicuous way. From the soft, hauntingly delicate strains of a music box to the buoyant exuberance of a full orchestra, music accentuates the “foreign” elements of Letters from Karelia. The film conveys, by turns, confidence, restraint, boisterousness, enthusiasm, uncertainty, terror, calmness, and reflection; the formal, classical notes play up those emotions and confirm that beneath the shifting moods runs a current of Soviet pride. In addition, the narrator’s voice is not that of the authoritative and omniscient male of traditional documentaries, but that of a female. Consequently, the voice is more likely to be perceived as tentatively inviting rather than imposingly didactic.   

     As the credits attest, an enormous commitment of time and resources went into making this film. Listed along with eight translators, numerous researchers, 12 centres, nine organizations, three actors who re-enacted scenes of Aate’s imprisonment, and three skiers, are an additional 51 names of people who receive “Special Thanks.” Historical researcher and consultant Dr. Varpu Lindstrom provided her expertise on “Karelia Fever,” the Canadian exodus to Karelia in 1931 and 1932, to this undertaking. Lindstrom’s professional background, the personal testimonies of Alfred, Taimi, Martha Hoxell, and the Hietalas, as well as material artifacts--letters, log books, and newspapers--lend credibility to Letters from Karelia

     With this documentary, director and editor Kelly Saxberg opens channels for further historical exploration. For example, the film skims over events that precipitated a journalist’s reading Aate’s letters on the radio and thereby locating Alfred. It begs the question what other remarkable documents are waiting to be discovered in archives throughout the former Soviet Union? Given the increasing trend toward openness about the past in those countries, one expects that such life stories will continue to emerge. It would be interesting to compare the content of Letters from Karelia with other accounts of life under Stalinist rule, such as Karl Tobien’s Dancing Under the Red Star, for instance, in which the author writes of his mother’s experiences in a Siberian gulag.   

     Letters from Karelia offers a measure of consolation for the brutal and unnecessary slaying of numerous transplanted Karelians in that the truth of their tragic fate is finally acknowledged publicly after decades of cover up. Interestingly enough, the narrator relates that “For Alfred, it is less important that his father’s dream was betrayed--so was every Soviet citizen’s, after all--than that he was brave and a Russian patriot.” The film itself, on the other hand, seems to convey a great sense of loss due expressly to that betrayal of a dream, for its conclusion revisits the images of skiers, thus commemorating the youth, optimism, and heroic idealism of earlier scenes.   

     Libraries, schools, and individuals with a passion for history or a fascination with the Soviet Union, will benefit from watching Saxberg’s documentary. However, Letters from Karelia will not be appropriate for all audiences since it does contain images of war, weapons, bodies, and mass graves. Yet the film should be commended for not shying away from difficult topics like patriotism and genocide and for asking its viewers to exercise their empathetic powers.  

     Finally, the film grants unique insights into a section of Canada’s cultural mosaic, the Finnish-Canadian population. Indeed, the narrative follows the all-too-frequent Canadian formula in which individuals gain distinction elsewhere before they gain it in their native country. Aate Pitkänen’s determination, courage, and athleticism make him a favorite for not only Russians and Finns to recuperate but also for Canadians to reclaim as one of their own. Letters from Karelia is a fine example of the powerful nature of documentary to inform and transform. 


Julie Chychota is a graduate and current employee of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB. 

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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