'The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia'

The tragic story of a group of Americans who sought a better life in 1930s Russia.

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One warm September evening in 1959 – in the depths of the cold war – I was out strolling in Moscow with two American friends.As we waited to cross at a busy street off Red Square, a man in his 20s with an American accent approached us and asked if we were from the United States.

He was dressed casually but looked nervous. Over the course of the next two days, we learned that this young man, who was born in the US, was one of the Americans portrayed in Tim Tzouliadis’s new book The Forsaken.

In the mid-1930s during the Great Depression, some 10,000 American citizens responded to Soviet-paid “help wanted” ads in US newspapers. Among them were this man and his parents.

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The migrating Americans included engineers, autoworkers, miners, barbers, plumbers, painters, cooks, farmers, professors, artists, and doctors. They were skilled and eager for jobs. The Soviets welcomed them.

Before long, these ex-pats, as well as similar migrants from Germany, Norway, and other countries, had erected a Ford-designed auto factory in Russia and were expanding oil fields in Azerbaijan. Soon an English-language newspaper, the Moscow Daily News, was being published. English-language schools were set up for the children of Americans and amateur baseball teams were established to help them feel at home.

Yet there were small warning signs along the way. The Soviets took away the immigrants’ passports as soon as they entered the country. Many were not paid what they had been promised.

But still – they had jobs and places to live.

Then gradually, without warning, the atmosphere in the Soviet Union changed. And soon, tragedy began to strike at ordinary Soviet citizens – and, along with them, the American immigrants.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had already executed countless farmers who had resisted Communist rule. Now, a new wave of roundups by the NKVD, or Soviet secret police, began – with midnight arrests, beatings, forced confessions, executions, and mass burials. Those arrested but not killed – an estimated 30 million – were often sent to remote labor camps where many eventually died.

As the killing spread, it was so mindless that the NKVD, to meet quotas imposed by  Stalin, was said to randomly select names from phone books. Making things even worse for the Americans, the US Embassy ignored their plight.

Three facets of “The Terror” portrayed in “The Forsaken” are most disturbing. First, was the murder of innocents. Stalin personally signed off on persons to be killed. After extracting false confessions, which sometimes took months of torture, it was common for the condemned to be marched to open pits, where they were shot in the back of the head.

(In one case in the Ukraine, a later examination of 9,432 bodies in a mass grave found that two-thirds of the victims required a second shot to kill them, while 78 were shot three times.)

Altogether, 7 million were killed by gunshot during this period.

The second horror was the Gulag, which was not a single place, but hundreds of mines and other remote sites where prisoners were literally worked to death. The annual death rate in the gulags was often over 30 percent.

The third tragedy was the blasé attitude of the American Embassy and its succession of clueless ambassadors, who let American citizens rot and die in Soviet jails and gulags, or be shot, without a murmur of official protest.

Back home, President Franklin Roosevelt, fed bad information by diplomats and apologists such as Walter Duranty of The New York Times, continued to cheerfully refer to Stalin as “Uncle Joe.” Whether this was FDR’s naiveté, or merely his diplomacy, is unclear.

Once World War II began, Roosevelt’s focus was on total victory, and Stalin, however evil, was an ally.

Through the angle of the story of the American victims, “The Forsaken” (with its 1,119 endnotes), provides valuable insights into a Stalin-led holocaust that rivals the worst deeds of Nazi Germany.

John Dillin is a former managing editor of the Monitor.

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