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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lost in the U.S.S.R.

Forsaken Americans swallowed by cruel Soviet system

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To fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union’s system of arrest, imprisonment and torture was infamously easy for Americans who entered the nation from the 1930s to the 1950s. To get out was well-nigh impossible—short of death—and little help was to be found from U.S. authorities.

  In The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia (Penguin Press), Tim Tzouliadis, a documentary filmmaker born in Greece but educated and living in Britain, has written a book to raise the ire of decent people everywhere. The outrages and horrors recounted in the book, buttressed by bristling documentation, overcome any shortcomings of its workmanlike writing style.

  The author begins his story with Americans who were lured to the U.S.S.R. during the Great Depression, either through a desire for promised jobs in the so-called “workers’ paradise” or through ideological commitment to communism, or both. In the 1930s thousands of men, women and children left the joblessness of the United States for offers of work in Joseph Stalin’s Russia.

  Some went on their own; some through the auspices of Amtorg, the Soviet trade agency. But the jobs and the hope of better lives quickly proved fleeting, and when Americans sought to return to their native land, they discovered there was no way out.

  The Soviets routinely classified them as Soviet citizens, no matter what their passport status might say. They were labeled spies, traitors, anything: It didn’t seem to matter to Stalin’s minions. They did with their captives exactly what they—or rather Stalin—wanted.

  What the dictator ultimately wanted is hard to say, other than personal safety and slave labor. He ordered the executions of hundreds of thousands of people, and then the executions of the executioners. The captured Americans were sucked down the rabbit hole of this dystopian Wonderland.

  American citizens rarely got out alive. The great majority ended up in labor-camp prisons seemingly run by, not for, the criminally insane. Eventually they landed in the notorious Gulag. They were beaten, tortured, worked and starved to death—when not killed outright, most often by a bullet to the back of the head.

  Nor did it end with the Depression emigrants. Tzouliadis refers to three generations of American prisoners. During World War II American servicemen—allies, of course, of the U.S.S.R.—unlucky enough to fall into Soviet hands seldom got free. A similar fate befell Americans “caught” by various means in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

  Nor was it limited to Americans; among the millions in the Gulag were representatives of nearly every nation on Earth. It was madly non-ideological; Stalin imprisoned Spanish soldiers from Franco’s fascist forces alongside Spanish communists who had fled to Russia during the Spanish civil war.

  “The individual,” Tzouliadis says, “[was] meaningless beneath the towering ubiquity of the Great Leader.”

  Tzouliadis casts a wide net so as to demonstrate the enormity of the Stalinist deceit and brutality. Fellow travelers to the Soviet Union at that time, such as singer-performer Paul Robeson and New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who either chose not to see the cruelty or were taken in by the propaganda, are representative of the general indifference to the captives’ fate.

  But Tzouliadis’ emphasis is on everyday Americans—and on the virtual abandonment by their government. Again and again he shows how diplomats in Moscow and bureaucrats in Washington declined to put forth much effort toward rescuing their countrymen.

  Tzouliadis is critical, if not outright contemptuous, of such figures as U.S. Ambassador Joseph Davies and renowned diplomat George F. Kennan for what he considers their supine attitude toward Stalin and self-serving justifications for not offering help.

  The snatching of Americans mostly came to an end with the ascendance of Nikita Khrushchev. However, the captivity of those already ensnared did not—until the “Evil Empire” itself collapsed.

  A few managed to get out after decades of barbarous punishment. Tzouliadis focuses particularly on two: Thomas Sgovio and Victor Herman, whose stories illustrate the courage and stamina—and luck—that were required to withstand such inhumanity.

  The death toll of the Soviet system defies accurate measurement; the estimates of some respected scholars approach 20 million, with most of the victims being the U.S.S.R.’s own citizens. Revolutionary claptrap aside, the Soviets had simply ramped up the tsarist security apparatus built on secrecy, xenophobia and paranoia. And that, as we see from observing the Russia of Vladimir Putin, has scarcely faded away.