Santeri Nuorteva – A Political Transnational

Santeri Nuorteva

Santeri Nuorteva

In the past couple of decades, there has been a proliferation of studies in humanities and social sciences using the theoretical framework of transnationalism to examine various historical and societal processes that extend beyond the boundaries of nation-states. In scholarship on international migration – the field that Professor Emeritus Auvo Kostiainen represents – the term “transnationalism” became widely used in the 1990s. The pioneering work of three anthropologists in 1992 ignited a surge of multi-disciplinary studies on transnational migration. With Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Christina Blanc-Szanton’s edited collection Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration emerged a new theoretical model for studying global migration. The product of a 1990 conference, the editors and contributors to the collection provided key working definitions and a framework for scholars to think about the migration process, migrant incorporation, and identity formation. Glick Schiller, Basch, and Blanc-Szanton defined transnationalism as the “emergence of a social process in which migrants establish social fields that cross geographic, cultural, and political borders (p. ix).” Later on, researchers of transnationalism have examined, for example, formations of border-crossing communities, transnational consciousness marked by multiple identifications, modes of cultural reproduction, transnational political activity, webs of social fields that connect transnational actors to many localities, and capital flows spurred by transnational corporations (see Vertovec 1999).

One of the key arguments of these early works on transnationalism was the claim that it was not possible to examine it outside of the context of global capitalism. In this, these scholars made a clear separation between contemporary migration and the movement of people during the mass migrations of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Current transnationalism” Glick Schiller, Basch, and Blanc-Szanton wrote in 1994, “marks a new type of migrant experience, reflecting an increased and more pervasive global penetration of capital (p. 24).”

Migration historians quickly contested the idea that transnational connections and consciousness were new phenomena, simply tied to the modern expansion of global capitalism; as Mae M. Ngai wrote in 2005, “the transnational did not drop from the sky or simply appear as part of the recent interest in ‘globalization’ (p. 59).”  Even before modern communication technologies and modes of transportation, migrants created and maintained transnational ties in various ways and in different areas of life. Well before Schiller et al.’s publication, migration historians employed a transnational perspective to interrogate cross-border migratory activity, without using the term “transnationalism.” For example, already in the early twentieth century United States, a group of scholars trained by Frederick Jackson Turner began to study migrants of European descent “from the bottom up.” These “ethnic Turnerians” (as they were named by historian Jon Gjerde) may be called as the first migration historians who conducted transnational research as they looked at the economic and cultural transformations taking place both in the homelands of migrants and in the receiving regions.

Scholars of Finnish migration to the United States – including Professor Emeritus Auvo Kostiainen – have also analyzed processes and activities that extended beyond the borders of the nation-state well before research on transnationalism became “vogue.” Peter Kivisto’s 1987 article on Finnish Americans’ political activism between 1918 and 1958 effectively analyzed Finns’ political engagements from a transnational perspective. As Kivisto later notes himself (2014), Finns were “political transnationals” to a significant degree during the first half of the twentieth century. This political transnationalism was particularly evident in the activities of Finnish leftists in the United States – a group that Auvo Kostiainen has extensively studied. Political transnationalism among Finnish migrants was evidenced for example through the transnational leadership among “Red Finns” in the United States and, more broadly, in terms of frequent exchange of ideas and ideals between Finns on both sides of the Atlantic.

Toveri, editor Santeri Nuorteva (center), Astoria, Oregon, ca. 1912. University of Minnesota, Immigration History Research Center.

Toveri, editor Santeri Nuorteva (center), Astoria, Oregon, ca. 1912. Photo: University of Minnesota, Immigration History Research Center.

A concrete example of Kostiainen’s research on political transnationals before the term “transnational” was introduced is his 1983 study on Santeri Nuorteva, a Finnish journalist and politician who played an important role in the socialist movement both in Finland and the United States, and, later in his life, also in Soviet Russia. Kostiainen’s study fleshes out on an individual level the extent to which many Finnish migrants were engaged in politics both in their home country and in the country of settlement, and even beyond. Nuorteva, born in Vyborg in 1881, served in the Finnish Parliament as a representative of the Social Democratic Party until he fled to the United States in 1911; he faced a threat of imprisonment by the czarist government because he had written defamatory comments about the Czar in a newspaper. In the United States, Nuorteva became the editor of the widely-read socialist Finnish American newspapers Toveri and Raivaaja, and played a prominent role in the Finnish-language socialist movement. As an excellent speaker and a connoisseur of multiple languages, he had influence beyond the Finnish migrant community as well. For example, he became the spokesman of the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic in Washington, D.C., in 1918-1919. In 1920, under a threat of deportation, Nuorteva left the United States for Canada and subsequently to England. In the same year, he was deported from England to Soviet Russia, where, after first being arrested and jailed, he received a significant post as the chairman of the Soviet Karelian Central Committee in 1924. He died in Leningrad in 1929.

Nuorteva’s life – as documented by Kostiainen – is a prime example of a migrant deeply engaged in transnational political activism. Not only was he a “transmigrant” himself – moving from one country to another multiple times in his life – but he also actively tried to influence political development in many countries: in Finland, the United States, and Soviet Russia. The socialist movement, in itself, naturally had a transnational scope, as it strove to bring together the “workers of the world.” Kostiainen’s careful analysis brings out these nuanced ways Nuorteva’s life reflected migrant transnationalism. While the concept of transnationalism has provided scholars with important theoretical and analytical tools to analyze processes that cannot be studied within the confines of the nation-state, research such as Kostainen’s 1983 study exemplify how it would be incorrect to claim that these processes are completely new – migrants often lived in a thoroughly “transnational social space” even before the expansion of global capitalism and the introduction of modern modes of transportation and communication.

Johanna Leinonen, Ph.D., Research Coordinator, John Morton Center for North American Studies


Glick Schiller, Nina, Linda G. Basch, and Christina Blanc-Szanton. Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States.  Langhorne: Gordon and Breach, 1994.

Glick Schiller, Nina, Linda G. Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton. “Towards a Definition of Transnationalism: Introductory Remarks and Research Questions.” In Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration: Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Nationalism Reconsidered, edited by Nina Glick Schiller, Linda G. Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton. New York, N.Y: New York Academy of Sciences, 1992.

Kivisto, Peter. “The Transnational Practices of Finnish Immigrants.” In Finns in the United States: A History of Settlement, Dissent, and Integration, edited by Auvo Kostiainen. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014.

Kivisto, Peter. “Finnish Americans and the Homeland, 1918-1958.” Journal of American Ethnic History 7, no. 1 (1987): 7-28.

Kostiainen, Auvo. Santeri Nuorteva: kansainvälinen suomalainen. Helsinki: Suomen historiallinen seura, 1983.

Ngai, Mae M. “Transnationalism and the Transformation of the ‘Other’: Response to the Presidential Address.” American Quarterly 57, no. 1 (2005): 59-65.

Vertovec, Steven, “Conceiving and Researching Transnationalism,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 22, no. 2 (1999): 448-456.

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