As a teenager, Arvo Kustaa Halberg faced harsh working conditions in lumber camps near his Iron Range roots — including once having to share his bunk with a dead logger.
By 1929, not yet 20, Halberg was hitching rides and hopping freights across the Upper Midwest, delivering revolutionary speeches about Marx, Lenin and working-class struggles as a Communist youth organizer.
He spent the early 1930s studying sabotage and guerrilla tactics at the Lenin Institute in Moscow before returning home to find the United States gripped in the Great Depression, an abyss he believed could be escaped only through revolution.
Soon he decided to Americanize his Finnish name to Gus Hall — launching a long career that would lead him to become general secretary of the American Communist Party and a four-time presidential candidate.
Lowell Ludford, a Minneapolis reader of this column, recommended Hall as a topic nine months ago. Then last month, Finnish journalist and historian Tuomas Savonen e-mailed me from Helsinki to say he'd successfully defended his 500-page doctoral dissertation about Hall. Titled "Minnesota, Moscow, Manhattan: Gus Hall's Life and Political Line Until the Late 1960s," Savonen's 15-year "hobby project" is online at tinyurl.com/GusHallpaper.
The fifth of 10 children, Hall quit school at 15 to work as a lumberjack to help feed his family. His Finnish-born father lost his job as a miner and was blacklisted after joining a strike led by the radical Industrial Workers of the World; he later ushered Hall into the American Communist Party.
"When you work in the woods literally from sunup to sundown and it's 50 degrees below zero and you eat slop and you make $30 a month," Hall once said, "then what was said at home begins to make sense."
In 1929 when he was still Halberg, the young Communist was a hot-tempered, barrel-chested teenager leading a farmers' hunger march from the Mesabi Range to Duluth, protesting farm foreclosures and facing off against cops with tear gas.
In Ely for an International Youth Day rally to defend the Soviet Union, he was arrested just one sentence into his speech and locked up with a dozen comrades. Halberg was a "husky, strapping youngster — never afraid of anything or anybody," a fellow revolutionary recalled.
When the Ely jailer loudly asked the next morning what they wanted for breakfast, Halberg shouted back: "Bacon and eggs and the Communist Manifesto."
Imprisoned in the 1950s for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government after jumping bail to Mexico, Hall spent time behind bars in Leavenworth, Kan., in a cell next to gangster George "Machine Gun" Kelly.
After his climb to the top of American communism, Hall was treated like a celebrity on his annual treks to Moscow, where Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev gave him a portrait of Lenin and invited him to address the 26th Party Congress in 1981.
Savonen's opus is filled with tasty anecdotes, like the Ely jail scene, and includes digestible summaries of different periods of Hall's rich life that took him from Minnesota to Ohio and finally New York City. He was married for 65 years, raising two children with his wife, Elizabeth.
"Although the dissertation is an academic work, I tried to make it as readable as possible and interesting also for a layman," said Savonen, 52, whose day job is with Finnish News Agency STT.
Savonen made seven U.S. trips to augment his research, including two to Minnesota, where he visited Halberg's birthplace in a sauna his father built behind the family home in Cherry, a hamlet 10 miles east of Hibbing.
In Finland, Gus Hall is one of the most famous of Finnish-Americans, said Savonen, who first learned about the Minnesota-born Communist as a preteen in the 1980s.
"Already then I thought that he was quite an interesting character and a bit of a paradox: Why would anyone want to be a communist in the United States?" said Savonen, who traces his dislike for the Soviet Union to his grandfather's fighting against the Red Army in World War II. American movies, music and TV, conversely, gave Savonen warm feelings about the U.S.
When he first looked for a Gus Hall biography in 2004, Savonen was surprised he couldn't find one.
"Gus Hall's life story with all its twists and turns should be studied carefully and a proper biography should be written," he said. "As nobody else seemed to be interested in such a project, I decided to start working on it."
He's now working on a full-length Hall biography, which he'll write in Finnish, including a big chunk of Hall's Minnesota childhood.
When Hall died in 2000 at 90, the New York Times said that while FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover had considered him "a powerful, deceitful, dangerous foe of Americanism," Soviet leaders "delighted in the presence of this unmistakably American comrade, an authentic product of the working class, nearer in spirit to Joe Sixpack, it seemed, than to Joe Stalin."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.