Caught in the lie of the worker’s par­adise

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -


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 al- ready 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, some- times 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 suc- ceeded 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.

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