AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY IN STALIN’S RUSSIA
By Tim Tzouliadis
Penguin Press, $29.95, 436 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
The jumping off point for this searing account of Americans caught up in the nightmare world of Stalin’s Russia and its gulag is a 1934 photograph of Americans playing baseball in Moscow. Behind this curiosity is what Tim Tzouliadis, a Greek-born British documentary film maker and television journalist terms “the least heralded migration in American history.”
For in the depths of the depression of the 1930s, Americans were so desperate for work that they were prepared to jump from the frying pan of struggling capitalism into the fire of communist reality in what New York Times Moscow correspondent and inveterate apologist for all things Soviet Walter Duranty called “the greatest wave of immigration in modern history.”
This was a period when so many really did think that communism was the future and that it worked! Mr. Tzouliadis quotes a 1931 speech by George Bernard Shaw, newly returned from a Russia full of starvation and oppression but with only stars in his eyes:
“[They] established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics exactly as Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and Franklin established the United States … Jefferson is Lenin, Franklin is Litvinov, Paine is Lunacharsky, Hamilton is Stalin. Today there is a statue of Washington in Leningrad; and tomorrow there will no doubt be a statue of Lenin in New York … proletarians of all lands are welcome if they can pull their weight in the Russian boat … there is hope everywhere in Russia because these evils there are retreating before the spread of Communism as steadily as they are advancing upon us before the last desperate struggle of our bankrupt Capitalism.”
And the usually iconoclastic playwright was not the only one to have such blind faith in Josef Stalin. None other than arch-capitalist Henry Ford built a huge auto plant in Nizhni Novgorod, a “deal … worth a staggering forty million dollars … 1930s millions paid for in gold at the height of the Depression. No other firm in the United States or even in the world conducted as much business with Joseph Stalin than the Ford Motor Company between 1929 and 1936.”
One of the greatest strengths of “The Forsaken” is its author’s gift for putting his amazing story in the full context of its time:
“For the first time in her short history more people were leaving the United States than were arriving. And as the cutting edge of poverty sharpened their determination, the desire to join this forgotten exodus turned … from a trickle into a flood. In the first eight months of 1931 alone, ‘Amtorg’ - the Soviet trade agency based in New York - received over one hundred thousand applications for emigration to the USSR.”
But he also knows that for a story to have its full effect, sociological, economic and historical, background however telling is not enough. Specificity is required: real flesh and blood people - and Mr. Trzouliladis gives us many heartbreaking case histories of what happened to these poor folk. For surprise - surprise! - the worker’s paradise turned out to be hell on earth for these hapless naive Americans, particularly those not lucky enough to be able to beat a hasty retreat home.
And therein lies the heart of “The Forsaken“‘s tale: American citizens abandoned by their government to lie in the bed of their own foolish but understandable making. Caught up in the Terror already sweeping the USSR when they arrived and which only worsened with the purge trials of the late 1930s, these Americans ended up in prison, often as slave laborers worked to death in the frozen wastes of the Soviet Far East, sometimes to produce gold destined for Fort Knox.
Deemed by the Soviets to have renounced their American citizenship, these hapless folk received scant help from U.S. diplomats in Russia or their bosses in Washington. Economic ties to the USSR in the Depression years were succeeded by the wartime alliance and both these imperatives left little room for individuals being persecuted by a regime being consistently courted and appeased.
Mr. Tzouliadis serves up many a chilling portrait from Henry A. Wallace to the sycophantic U.S. ambassador Joseph E. Davies (author of the pro-Stalin blockbuster book and movie “Mission to Moscow”), more concerned with buying up looted Russian art for his private collection than with looking after his fellow citizens. As the book progresses, Mr. Tzouliadis widens his focus to other Americans trapped in the Gulag: POWs and other hapless military personnel from World War II and the Korean conflict sacrificed to the “larger” issues of superpower relations in the Cold War period and left to rot.
But in this heartbreaking book, Mr. Tzouliadis focuses on two particular Americans, Victor Herman and Thomas Sgovio, both veterans of the voluntary wave of immigration in the 1930s, largely, as he admits, because they were fortunate enough to have survived the Gulag and so much more to tell their tale. But he is wise enough to make a crucial analogy to the point Bruno Bettelheim made about the Holocaust: “Concentrating on the few who survived must not draw out attention from the millions who were murdered.” “The Forsaken” truly honors all casualties of this monstrous chapter in 20th- century history.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.