- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2008

In early 1931, as the Great Depression tightened its grip on America, the Soviet trading company Amtorg published newspaper advertisements offering jobs for 6,000 skilled workers to come to the USSR. The response was overwhelming: Mail poured into the New York offices of Amtorg, a sort of unofficial Soviet “embassy” given the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the USSR.

In the first eight months of 1931, Amtorg reported receiving more than 100,000 applications for emigration to the USSR. “At the Amtorg officers in Manhattan,” a New York Times reporter found, “crowds of workers jammed the corridors with their wives, children, and pets, pleading for a passage out to this ‘promised land.’ ” Some 10,000 of them were hired. The reporter scanned through applications received in one morning alone: They ranged from auto mechanics to printers, aviators, salesmen, even “one funeral director.” The “principal reasons” jotted on the applications were “1. Unemployment. 2. Disgust with conditions here. 3. Interest in Soviet experiment.”

To be sure, these ranks included a good number of American communists and leftists, products of the John Reed Club and various radical groups. But, in the main, they were ordinary citizens who had fallen victim to hard times and “were drawn east to Russia like a beacon, a flickering flame in the white night of the Depression.” This remarkable exodus, and its truly awful aftermath, is told by Tim Tzouliadis in The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia (Penguin, $29.95, 456 pages). The Greek-born author is now a TV producer and journalist in London. And, despite the millions of words written about Soviet oppression, he has found a gripping story previously unnoted by historians.

The backdrop: At the same time the U.S. economy was in free-fall, many media figures lauded the “Great Experiment” under way in the USSR, with ruler Josef Stalin’s Five Year Plan promising prosperity for all. Foremost among his press cheerleaders was Walter Duranty of The New York Times, who eagerly briefed President-elect Franklin Roosevelt on the “new Soviet paradise” and helped persuade FDR to establish diplomatic relations. In his briefings, Duranty did not mention the millions of deaths caused by Stalin’s agricultural policies and the terror felt by the citizenry. (Dishonesty sometimes pays: Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize.) Many of us who have detested the odious Duranty over the years now find a hint as to how the Soviets kept him in whorish thrall: During their Moscow days, the American businessman/communist Armand Hammer knew that Duranty “had a weakness for young girls … and kept him supplied.”

Stalin was shrewd enough to realize that he could not build a modern industrial society with a labor force that was emerging from agricultural peasantry, hence his appeal to skilled Americans for help. And, for a time, his scheme seemed to work. The transported Americans even formed enough baseball teams - for instance, the Foreign Workers Club and the Autoworkers’ Club - to warrant a league. The voluntary exiles’ initial interviews with American correspondents were cheerful, along the lines of “I’d rather be here than in the soup line in New York.” Miners, lumber jacks, shoemakers - enough of them, in fact, to warrant a weekly English-language newspaper.

But Stalin looked beyond hiring individual workers. He wanted entire American industries.

As Mr. Tzouliadis writes, “Stalin loved to buy American. Considerations of practicality were all but subsumed by the desire for symbolic achievement, with each new scheme designed to surpass the scale of the American original, and rechristened ‘the Soviet Detroit,’ … or ‘the Soviet Muscle Shoals.’”

He persuaded auto magnate Henry Ford to build - and staff - a mammoth auto factory along the Volga River. Although Americanswere promised twice their Detroit wages and free housing, among other benefits, living conditions were primitive, and food in short supply. And when the first cars rolled off production line, they “emerged missing a fairly crucial element, spark plugs and steering wheels in particular… . But at least the Five Year Plan was a little closer to being fulfilled. The Plan called for cars; it did not stipulate whether they arrived with their steering wheels attached.” Within months the Red Army had to be summoned to “restore order” occasioned by food strikes.

Paradise soured. And then, to their dismay, the immigrants found the Soviets would not permit them to go home, earlier promises notwithstanding. They had surrendered their passports on entry into the USSR, giving the Soviet intelligence services a plethora of documents they would exploit for years. Ambassador Joseph Davies was of no help. I do not overstate when I call the man “an ardent idiot,” whose very presence gave Stalin’s show trials an undeserved patina of validity, despite warnings from diplomats from other nations that he was being bamboozled.

So, in the end, Americans who came to Russia to escape poverty found themselves in Stalin’s slave camps, or shot - ignored not only by their own embassy but by officials in Washington.

Tzouliadis found enough materials left by the few survivors to put together a sickening story – of false Soviet promises, and of betrayal (by indifference) by their own government. A sobering and shameful read.


To be sure, Stalin was not the man who carried out the mass executions and consigned humans to the purgatories of the Gulag. Such was the province of the man who ran his secret police from 1937-38, at the apogee of the Great Purges. The blood-splattered story of Nilolai Yezhov is told by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumovin (Yale University Press, $35, 320 pages, illus.)

Contrary to previous interpretations, Yezhov was no simple Stalinist pawn.At first blush a “pleasant and friendly little man” who was known in his youth as “Nicky the bookworm,” Yezhov must rank as one of the grander mass murderers of all time. Ordered to cleanse the USSR of “class enemies” such as kulaks, he gave orders for the summary executions of 70,000 people and the imprisonment of 102,000. Not enough to sate his thirst for blood. By the time this “first phase” ended, 385,000 humans had been shot and 316,000 sent to camps from which few emerged.

And he never showed a twinge of conscience. The authors give the best explanation I’ve seen as to how Stalin et al could justify what they did: “According to the Bolshevik ‘algebra’ of guilt, anyone who opposed the Bolsheviks was objectively and by definition opposing the Revolution, opposing socialism, and opposing human welfare, regardless of that person’s subjective intent.” The American expatriates cited above disliked the Soviet system - the equivalent of sabotage, in Yezhov’s view. Hence they died, by the thousands.

Eventually, of course, having served his purpose, Yezhov was hauled down into the basement and shot. Let me end with a macabre hope: During the serial killings which he ordered, “Yezhov took each spent bullet from the execution, carefully wrapped it in paper, labeled it with the victim’s name, and put it in his desk drawer.” Does there exist, somewhere in Soviet archives, a twisted wad of paper containing a chunk of lead and marked, “Nikolai Yezhov?”

Joseph Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected] aol.com

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