Digitizing Karelian Fever:
New Strands in the "Web" of Historical Scholarship

Alexis E. Pogorelskin

Controversy (By Way of Introduction)

"Nonsense," declared one of my colleagues after I had delivered a 40-minute lecture on Karelian fever, encapsulating extensive archival research. My colleague upheld conventional wisdom that the Finnish-Americans recruited to Karelia between 1931 and 1934 were idealistic radicals who went to assist in the building of socialism. The fact that nearly all were Finnish was relevant, he maintained, only in so far as the Finnish-American community boasted more radicals than almost any other immigrant group before or after World War I. He would give no credence to my argument that the Finnish ethnicity of those recruited explains both why they received an invitation to Karelia and why so many accepted it.

Since 1991 I have conducted research on Karelian fever, a term which denotes the recruitment of North American Finns to the Karelian region of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. Relocated to the region bordering Finland, former Canadian and American Finns were to contribute to the building of the new socialist state. I have so far produced four scholarly articles (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/index2.html [Further Reading]) as well as three articles for the Finnish-American newspaper New World Finn. (e-mail: NWF@Finn.st). In the fall of 1999 I launched a comprehensive web site on Karelian fever (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/), incorporating both my scholarship as well as interviews with survivors [Survivors] (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/index2.html) and with historians [Historians Speak] (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/index2.html) at Petrozavodsk State University in Karelia who have conducted their own research on the topic. I have included the interviews both as text files and as streaming video [Video Archive] (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/index2.html). At the same time I have been at work on a video documentary entitled "Karelian Fever: the Search for a Finnish-American Homeland."

I have therefore produced or am producing the results of my research in three different media. In this essay I will share that experience and
    examine this "scholarly web"
    compare and contrast the three media (Link to Choice)
    suggest the choices that underlie the selection of material for each (Link to Choice)
    note their advantages (Link to Choice and Opportunity) and disadvantages (Link to Limitations)
    discuss the relationship each has to the other (Link to Choice and Conclusions)
I will begin with the issue of scholarly controversy. A web site can play a unique role, both in controversy and discussion in the field of history. For example, by the use of streaming video on my Karelian fever web site, I am able to place my own interpretation in a larger context of research. The comments of other historians can confirm the direction that I have taken. Historians Speak (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/index2.html), that is streaming video of interviews with historians in the field, creates a forum in which scholars address the questions that I consider most relevant to Karelian fever. Their comments therefore
  • confirm my work
  • extend it
  • expand upon it
  • argue with it validate it legitimize it place it in a larger scholarly context suggest new directions of research suggest alternative interpretations

    The results are quickly and universally available. They transcend the value of a complimentary (or derogatory) footnote in a scholarly journal for which one can wait years. For instance, both Professors Pashkov and Afanasieva emphasize the primary importance of Finnish ethnicity and identity in Karelia in the 1920s and 1930s [Historians Speak/Text Files]

    (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/index2.html), confirming my basic argument. Now that I have established an electronic presence, I can reach the historical profession, augmenting the results of my research with this new strand in the web of scholarship. By digitizing Karelian fever, I am able to disseminate almost a decade's worth of work in minutes. At the same time, my work does not stand alone. My web site presents a dialog between myself and scholars at work on the same topic. While still imperfect, the format remains persuasive; and even better, suggests yet more avenues of research.

    The web affords the historical profession the opportunity to digitize controversy, facilitating debate and discussion. The web thus presents historians with unique opportunities. For example, journals could launch a web site with streaming video to complement an issue with a particular focus or devoted to debate on a particular topic. Redundant? Hardly. An editor (interviewer) could transform the discussion by streaming video of interviews or debates onto the journal's site. Both rapid response as well as universal accessibility would result.

    The medium nonetheless imposes its own constraints. The necessity to compress a statement of one's position into an oral presentation under three minutes would facilitate many a historical debate. The notion of concision leads me to my next topic.

    The presentation of historical narrative and analysis in any medium raises at least some of the following questions:
    How much information will the medium bear?
    What will the medium's platform support?
    What are the technological limitations of the medium?
    What are its economic limitations?
    What are the limitations (informational and technological) of potential users?
    At what pace do you present information?
    What do you include?
    What do you exclude?
    How do you organize it?

    My own experience with web, print, and video allows me to make the following comparison in terms of some of the questions posed above:
    Web Print Video Documentary
    Speed scroll and click narrative flow interrupted by footnotes no more than 6 seconds on screen for any one visualization (my rule)
    Progression diverse and self-selected linear linear Documentation discretionary (although professional style manuals now regularize format) mandatory none Visualization central minimal, if at all central (no statement without accompanying image)
    Audience ! specialized and selective ! Level of Information limited saturated limited Learning Style textualaudio/visualdiverse text-basedvisual audio/visual Video documentaries, like web sites, are relatively new to the historical profession and bear further comparison to each other. A web site and a documentary have much in common in that they inherently rely on visualization of material. But a web site can also showcase text and can therefore be as linear in its presentation as a journal article [Gylling]

    (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/index2.html). I believe that for a web site to be effective, text and visualization should reinforce each other [Survivors and Text Files] (http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/). The same is true with regard to the narrative and visualization of a documentary. Web site imagery nonetheless remains limited in its applications. For example, video material streamed into a web site lacks the continuous explanation and narrative commentary of a video documentary. In addition, there are other drawbacks to web site video such as: downloading compressed video files can be slow and frustrating. picture and sound quality are too easily compromised. observer tolerance is low: 1 - 3 minutes for static subject video. Given the drawbacks to the use of lengthy video segments on a web site, I found that the issue of selection was critical. My original interviews with survivors and historians ranged in length from 20 to 90 minutes, unacceptable for any of the media under review, but especially true for a web site. I therefore established the following criteria for the material that I selected from the survivor interviews. Such material should include some or all of the following:
    contain accounts of dramatic or graphic events complement or reinforce a point made elsewhere as text or visual encapsulate and thus reinforce a theme or themes of the site as a whole

    For example, in the interview with Ruth Niskanen, she spreads her hands to depict the length of the telescope that her brother built to show the heavens to their neighbors in Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia. [Survivors/Ruth Niskanen] Raymond Niskanen's telescope is also central to the web site's dedication. [Dedication] The repeated image of the telescope helps the web site to cohere. It also goads the visitor, who must begin with the dedication, to explore the web site to find its meaning. At the same time the repeated image captures the themes that I have tried to develop throughout the web site: The North American Finns brought to Karelia their technological expertise and idealistic generosity of spirit. Raymond Niskanen not only crafted a telescope out of almost nothing, he constructed it to share a new way of seeing the world with others. Raymond's own fate, dying on the Finnish front in 1941, typified the tragic irony of Karelian fever for so many of its idealistic victims.

    My criteria for selecting streaming video for Historians Speak [Historians Speak] were somewhat different. I sought to
    complement my interpretations as text or video elsewhere on the site
    refute criticism concerning my emphasis on Finnish identity and ethnicity
    As with the Survivor Interviews, I also sought to complement and re-state the themes that give coherence to the site as a whole.

    In utilizing streaming video, I would recommend the following:
    no more than 1 to 3 minutes running time for any one segment or interview
    accompany streaming video with a text file in order to encourage brevity
    provide substitute information if the compressed video fails to download or is otherwise compromised
    The speed and visualization with which a web site conveys information impose limits on
    what can be conveyed
    how much can be conveyed
    Web site speed and visualization also open vistas of opportunity.

    I would argue that a web site can be a significant complement to a topic of serious scholarly research. In the case of my research on Karelian fever, the complementary web site
    permits direct communication with a limitless audience [Contact Us]
    such contact enables me to learn of those who may have gone to Karelia and returned possess family photos, letters, and diaries relevant to my research
    have observed the recruitment or heard about it
    be able to recount the life of Finnish-American at the time of recruitment to Karelia
    functions as a memorial to the idealism and destruction of one of the 20th century's many groups of victims [Dedication]
    addresses the rift over Karelian fever that has divided the Finnish-American community in order to heal it with documented evidence [Why Karelian Fever?]

    The events of the last century coincide with the emergence of new technologies to convey them. The historical record can live again by employing them. The century's technologies can resurrect and immortalize those destroyed by its all too numerous cruelties. An immense opportunity for historians exists to wed the technologies of the 20th and 21st centuries to the record of historical events.

    Limitations (web site):
    They may be summed up in terms of what can be conveyed and how much can be conveyed.

    What can be conveyed?
    I would recommend that text be attached to visualization or linked to it text files accompany streaming video a distinction be made between research web sites which address scholars in the field facilitate research educate on a topic of research teaching web sites which address students contain explicit or implicit assignments complement course content On the last point, compare Karelian fever to my Time Travel 1940 (http://www.d.umn.edu/~apogorel/TimeTravel.html).

    How much can be conveyed (web site)?
    The current level of technology is self-limiting. This is especially true of streamed video. (Link to Choice) There should be enough information on any one screen to encourage scrolling or clicking to the next. Each section should cohere with the rest, permitting multi-directional movement within the site without loss of continuity. [Navigation Bars] http://www.d.umn.edu/hist/karelia/index2.html) Accompany photo with text wherever possible. Observation:
    Cyberspace has richly endowed the historian. It is both limitless classroom and the most accessible of archives. But there is no admissions test for one's students and little, if any, validation of sources.

    1. To produce my work on Karelian fever in three media creates a "web of scholarship."
    2. Each medium complements the other.
    3. The web site "works" because research gives it integrity.
    4. The web site draws material for both the video documentary and further research/publications
    5. Diversity of formats enhances accessibility.
    6. The broader the audience, the greater the homage afforded to the events under discussion.
    7. Wedding historical events to the new technologies makes history live.

    Alexis Pogorelskin
    University of Minnesota Duluth

    ~ End ~

    Digitizing Karelian Fever: New Strands in the "Web" of Historical Scholarship
    Copyright © 2000, 2001 by The Journal for MultiMedia History

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