The Forsaken: The American Emigration to Soviet Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis, is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. Tzouliadis uncovered a forgotten migration and wrote this moving account of these Americans’ story. It’s easy to scoff at its premise; after all, we have the hindsight of history to prove us right. During the depths of the Great Depression, a group of several thousand Americans bought into the Soviets’ propaganda that there were jobs and opportunities in the Soviet Union for those willing to take the trip. The Americans weren’t wrong. There were jobs to be had, at a cost. The cost was that they were moving to a country ruled by Joseph Stalin and the NKVD (grandfather to the KGB), right before one of the longest and most comprehensive periods of state terror the world has seen. To this day, historians still don’t know how many people were killed by Stalin and his polices. Estimates put the number of executed political prisoners and the dead in the gulags near twenty million. Tzouliadis remarked at one point that statisticians reported a massive drop in the Soviet population in 1938. (The first wave of arrests began in 1937). Stalin had them shot, and the next group “fixed” their numbers to reflect what the General Secretary wanted to see.
The Americans did find jobs. Surprisingly enough, many found jobs at the automobile factories that Stalin bought from Henry Ford. I was surprised to learn that bit of trivia, considering how far to the right Ford was. Its further proof that capitalism trumps ideals every time. But as early as 1934, people started to disappear. It just got worse from there. The NKVD encouraged people to inform on each other. Teachers taught their students to inform on their parents. Tzouliadis remarks that there were some people who denounced others for not making denunciations. It was a weird, dangerous world. The Americans were marked because they were foreigners. If you were a foreigner in Russia in the 1930s and you didn’t have diplomatic or journalistic credentials you were, frankly, screwed. It was just a matter of time before someone came knocking at your door in the wee hours of the morning.
The fact that there was an American embassy in Moscow was no help to the immigrants since the first ambassador, Joseph Davies, totally bought into the persona Stalin presented to the outside world. He even believed that the show trials were real, and not political theater. The majority of immigrants were forced or talked into giving up their American passports and becoming Soviet citizens. In addition to the attitude that “they made their bed, they should lie in it,” was the attitude that it was more expedient to placate the Soviets; especially during World War II, when the Soviets were our allies. Even when American diplomats heard eyewitness report that American soldiers captured by the Russians at the end of the war were being held in the gulags, nothing was done. Even in the 1990s, when an American-Russian committee convened to find out what happened to those guys, bureaucrats with secrets to hide locked up relevant archives and cast doubts on the eyewitness accounts. To this day, we still don’t know what happened.
And neither were the children of the immigrants safe. The book uses the story of Thomas Sgovio as an exemplar of what happened to so many immigrants and their children. First arrested in 1938, Sgovio ended up spending over a decade in the gulags over the next two decades. Sgovio only managed to get out of Russia in 1960 when he got his hands on an Italian passport. I feel the most pity for the kids, who had no choice. Granted their parents thought they were doing what was best for their families, but those poor kids were doomed after about 1934. It’s a bit like what happened to German Jews in the 1930s. No one thought it would ever get that bad; they lived in civilized nations. The problem was that they didn’t realize the depth of the Great Leader’s psychosis. Not only were Hitler and Stalin genocidal paranoids, but their cabinets were full of other genocidal paranoids. Hitler had Himmler and Heydrich. Stalin had Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrentiy Beria.
As I read through the accounts of what happened in the Lubyanka and in Kolyma, where most of the gulags were, I wondered how the hell Stalin got into power. I read his Wikipedia article and even before the 1905 revolution, Stalin was bandit and criminal. He left the party at one point because they wouldn’t let him rob banks. I know how Hitler came to power: political cunning and making the right promises to the right people. But Stalin was a mystery. It seems to be that Stalin used his position as the editor of Pravda to become one of the Communist Party’s leaders. Then it was just a matter of being more ruthless than everyone else. After Lenin died, Stalin edged out everyone else to become the General Secretary of the party. In the 1930s, he consolidated his power by sending the NKVD after Old Bolsheviks–members of the Party before 1917–and rewriting history to give himself a more prominent role during the Revolution. Stalin died in 1953, just as he was beginning to round up Jews. His death saved their lives and there were strong rumors that Stalin was murdered.
Just like when I read novels and books about the Holocaust, I just want to tell the characters or people involved to hold on, to survive until it’s over. But Stalin’s terrors and the whole corrupt, psychopathic system lasted so long that was a miracle that people survived it. And just like the Holocaust, there are still so many people who died in unknown places and their families don’t know what happened to them.
The other thing that I thought about when I read this book was why am I so interested in the history of the Soviet Union? And I think my answer is that it fascinates me to see this idea, this revolution, go so very, very wrong. Communism has failed to achieve its goals everywhere it’s been tried and has spawned extremely repressive states where saying the wrong thing or believing the wrong thing or even talking to the wrong person could land you in prison, or worse. I don’t know why this happens. Which is why I keep reading about Russia, I suppose.