The little-known story of US citizens trying to escape the Depression
Mountainous Kolyma, only a few hundred miles west of the Bering Strait, is the coldest inhabited area on earth. During Stalin’s rule, some 2 million prisoners were sent there to mine the rich deposits of gold that lie beneath the rocky, frozen soil. In 1991, when researching a book about how Russians were coming to terms with the Stalin era, I travelled to the region to see some of the old camps of Kolyma, legendary as the most deadly part of the gulag, some of whose survivors I had interviewed. In a country beset by shortages of building materials, all of the hundreds of former prison camps accessible by truck had long since been stripped bare. The only ones still standing were those no longer reached by usable roads, and to see them you had to rent a helicopter.
I spent a full day being flown across this desolate territory, its gravelly mountainsides streaked with snow even in June. We descended into three of the old camps, finding rickety wooden guard towers, high fences of rusted barbed wire, and, in one camp, an internal prison of punishment cells. Its roof was gone, but thick stone walls still stood; within them were small windows crossed both vertically and horizontally by heavy bars, the intersections further cinched with thick iron bands. At the end of the day in Kolyma, as shadows filled the hollows like spreading ink,we flew back to the town where I was staying. I sat in the helicopter cockpit between the two pilots. Beyond every jagged ridge, it seemed, in every valley, were the ruins of another camp, the wood blackened by decades of exposure, as if an angry giant’s hand had scattered them across the harsh, bleak moonscape.
No one knows exactly how many Soviet citizens met unnatural deaths during the quarter-century that Stalin wielded absolute power, but adding together those who were sentenced to death and shot, died in manmade famines, or were worked to death in gulag camps like these, authoritative estimates put the total at approximately 20 million. Like the other great horror show unfolding in German-occupied Europe in the same period, the Soviet story was one of mass deaths on an almost unimaginable scale. But, unlike the Nazis, the Soviets, in their first two decades in power, were partly sustained by great idealism on the part of people all over the world who were fervently hoping for a more just society. The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis is a poignant reminder of this. For his account of the Stalin years and their aftermath is seen through an unusual prism: the experience of tens of thousands of Americans who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Many of them, like the Russians they lived among, fell victim. Bits and pieces of this story have been told before, mainly in survivors’ memoirs. But to my knowledge this is the first comprehensive history, and a sad and fascinating one it is.
Like the thousands of Western Europeans who arrived in the same period, these immigrants were driven by the Great Depression at home and the belief that a better, fairer way of life existed in the USSR. A quarter of the US labour force was unemployed, and millions of Americans were standing in line at soup kitchens or living in “Hooverville” shantytowns when they had lost their homes or farms. Was it not possible to construct a more humane society than this? Of course it was – and in Russia, apparently, they were doing it. Factories were hiring – particularly skilled workers and engineers, who were being offered what seemed to be lucrative contracts. And these factories were said to have nursery schools, clinics, libraries. Although many of the American immigrants had been socialists or Communists in the US, you didn’t have to be one to believe that somewhere in the world someone had been able to build a more sensible economy than the Depression-ridden American one. One of many intriguing facts Tzouliadis has unearthed is that an English translation of something originally written for Soviet schoolchildren, New Russia’s Primer: The story of the Five-Year Plan, spent seven months on the US bestseller list in 1931.
When the Soviet foreign trade agency advertised jobs for skilled American workers in Russia that year, 100,000 Americans applied. 10,000 Ten thousand of them were hired; untold thousands more headed for the country on tourist visas, hoping to find work when they got there. By early 1932, the New York Times was reporting that up to 1,000a thousand new Americans were arriving in Moscow each week – and that the number was increasing. The Times correspondent,, Walter Duranty, was a notorious fellow traveller and may have exaggerated; nonetheless, that year the number climbed high enough for the English-language weekly Moscow News to go daily. The Immigrants brought their children, and soon there were English-medium schools in at least five Soviet cities. For $40 million, Stalin bought 75,000 Model A sedans from Henry Ford, plus an entire Ford factory – which, of course, required expert technicians to run it, and so more Americans came.
With them, the newcomers brought baseball. Tzouliadis includes a group photograph of smiling young American players at Gorky Park in the summer of 1934, with the initials on their jerseys identifying their teams: the Moscow Foreign Workers’ Club and the Gorky Auto Workers’ Club. Paul Robeson, who had been a star college athlete before becoming a Communist and a famous singer, was named honorary catcher of one of the teams. Other American baseball teams sprang up everywhere from Kharkov in the Ukraine to Yerevan, Armenia. (A map in this book would have helped, incidentally.) The motif of baseball threads through The Forsaken, and some of its pages trace what happened to the men who played that day in Gorky Park.
Baseball caught on with Russians, and they began joining the American teams, or starting their own, although they considered the practice of stealing bases somewhat capitalistic. Then suddenly it was 1936, and the Great Purge had begun. Having already jailed, shot or exiled all his real political opponents, a paranoid Stalin now went after imaginary ones, in the process tapping a deep vein of Russian xenophobia. Waves of mass arrests swept across the country, with an estimated one out of every eight Soviet men, women and children being seized in the space of half a dozen years. At the show trials of high Communist Party officials, the charge was usually espionage for a foreign power. And so foreigners, or anyone connected with foreigners, were suspect. No more Russians joined the American baseball games. Very soon, there was no more baseball.
From Alexander Solzhenitsyn and other Russians who have borne witness, we know about the midnight arrests, the interrogations and forced confessions, the trains hauling packed boxcars of emaciated prisoners to the labour camps scattered across the Arctic, Siberia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Tzouliadis traces the story of the Americans who got caught up in this madness through a wide range of letters and documents, and the published memoirs of two men who played on American baseball teams in Moscow in the mid-1930s, Victor Herman and Thomas Sgovio. Unlike many of their fellow players, whom they occasionally encountered in the gulag, they survived their imprisonment: Herman in central Russia and Sgovio in Kolyma. No one knows how many of the American immigrants were caught up by the Purge and perished either in execution cellars or in the camps, although one mass grave with more than 140 American bodies was found in 1997 near the Finnish border. Tzouliadis does not try to estimate the total American dead. My own guess would be that the figure is in the thousands; if we add victims among Britons and other Westerners living in USSR at the time, the total would be in the tens of thousands.
The testimony of Herman and Sgovio has found its way into some histories of the gulag. But Tzouliadis’s most unexpected contribution is the sorry tale of how desperate pleas for help from captive Americans, some smuggled out of prison, some made by family members still at liberty who risked their lives by walking into the closely watched US Eembassy, were ignored by diplomats in Moscow and officials back in Washington. Tzouliadis has burrowed through hundreds of old State Department correspondence files for this evidence, finding even a wooden tag smuggled out of a camp with the words, in English, “Save me please and all the others”. Even though the conservative Ambassador of tiny Austria was able to save the lives of more than twenty Austrian left-wingers by sheltering them in his basement, US officials, contemptuous of the Americans who had come to Russia out of naive idealism, did virtually nothing. Yet they could have saved many lives if they had tried, for Stalin was shrewd enough to want to please a valued foreign trading partner. Again and again, the diplomats turned aside those begging for help, generally with the excuse that there was no proof that the prisoner involved was a US citizen. This was literally often true, for when Americans arrived to work in the Soviet Union, the Russians usually confiscated their passports – the better to exert control, and also to acquire a stash of US passports they could later doctor and use to send Soviet spies abroad.
Why were the officials so callous? For one thing, making too much noise might get you expelled from what was, for a rising young Foreign Service officer, a plum post. Beyond that, diplomats temperamentally are seldom troublemakers; the exceptions, like Raoul Wallenberg or Henry Morgenthau Sr, the US envoy to Turkey who did so much to publicize the Armenian genocide, are rare. And finally, behind those who played it safe at the US Embassy in Moscow in the late 1930s was another factor: their boss.
In the American practice of handing out ambassadorships to presidential chums and campaign contributors, never was there a more ill-fated choice than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s selection of Joseph E. Davies as US Ambassador to Moscow in 1936. Davies knew nothing about Russia; he had made a small fortune as a lawyer, defending corporations against government tax collectors during the boom times of the 1920s. He had then married the owner of a much larger fortune, the cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, known for her array of extravagant homes, one of which was the world’s largest private yacht, the three-masted Sea Cloud, with a crew of sixty-two.
Davies “loved bigness”, Justice Louis Brandeis once said, criticizing him for his failures on a government commission that was supposed to curb monopolies. In Stalin’s Russia, Davies found bigness that satisfied him completely. To the horror of other diplomats, he attended several of the Purge show trials and told the State Department that justice had been done. It did not seem to bother him when Soviet acquaintances vanished. One Russian diplomatic liaison officer had taken Davies’s daughter and some friends out for dinner and dancing when two men came to their table and tapped him on the shoulder. “He was never seen again”, Tzouliadis writes. Nor was Mrs Davies much disturbed by any of this, even though, she said years later, from their bedroom at the US Ambassador’s residence, she could sometimes hear women and children screaming in adjacent apartment buildings as men were arrested in the middle of the night. Her main interest was in collecting art, jewellery and china that had once belonged to the Russian aristocracy, something she was able to do on a lavish scale as the government raised hard currency by selling off confiscated collections.
In 1937, the peak year of Purge arrests, ’sDavies managed to spend most days of the year outside Russia, some of it cruising the Baltic on the Sea Cloud, with his astonished Soviet secret police guards along as his invited guests. At the end of his stay in Moscow, he was overjoyed that Stalin granted him a two-hour audience, after the dictator had refused to meet other Western ambassadors. “He is really a fine, upstanding, great man!”, Davies told an underling at the Eembassy. Of all the foreign deniers and abettors who helped Stalin get away with mass murder, this staunchly capitalist couple were certainly among the strangest.
There is a later chapter to Tzouliadis’s story, for a second wave of Americans entered Soviet prison camps – at least 2,800 of them, according to one Russian document he cites – at the end of the Second World War, as the Red Army overran POW camps in Germany, and a third, smaller wave as the Chinese turned over POWs captured in Korea. The Russians refused to give back these men or even to acknowledge their existence. With the Cold War now under way, the leverage that the US had once had over the Soviet Union was lost, and more Americans met their end amid snow and ice.
Tzouliadis apparently does not know Russian, but aside from a few odd transliterations and an infelicity in his subtitle (the acronym gulag refers to the entire network, not to an individual camp), this has not limited his research. Soviet officials who dealt with Americans during the 1930s are by now all dead, many of them Purge victims themselves; and Russian archives, once briefly accessible in the early 1990s, are again now mostly closed to foreign researchers. This is an American as well as a Soviet story, and in telling it skilfully from a wide variety of rarely used and mostly American sources, Tzouliadis has etched a small piece of a great historical cataclysm and reminded us of how Stalin’s regime devoured not just human lives but hopes, dreams, trust. Those American baseball players who came to Russia found themselves in a tragic game with no umpire – either in the Kremlin or the US Eembassy. This book makes me wonder whether the several mass-grave sites I saw in Russia – one full of earth-stained, bullet-riddled skulls in central Siberia, and one of bones bleached white under an electrical transmission tower on a foggy, wind-swept hillside in Kolyma – might have contained any of my countrymen who were once catchers, pitchers, or first basemen.
>From the Great Depression to the Gulags
Hope and betrayal in Stalin’s Russia
Adam Hochschild's books include The Mirror at Midnight: A South African journey, 2007, and Bury the Chains: A history of the antislavery movement in the British Empire, 2006.
Americans in the gulag (2)