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The Forsaken By: Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, September 01, 2008

The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia,
By Tim Tzouliadis

The Penguin Press, $29.95

During the 1930s, work was hard to find in the United States and for the first time more people were leaving than arriving. Many opted for the USSR, the vaunted worker’s paradise where, as legend had it, scientific socialism prevailed, as opposed to the chaos of capitalism. The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, tells their story, and a lot more.

Some were committed communists but most were ordinary American workers, mechanics, machinists, electricians, a multi-tasking group. They arrived full of enthusiasm and played baseball in Gorky Park, unaware that their exploitation had already begun and their demise would not be long delayed. They may have got a hint when the Soviets grabbed their passports, which the regime later used to insert spies into the United States. 

In the USSR, the Americans became “witness to, and victims of, the most sustained campaign of state terror in modern history.” That judgment comes in the early going, a clue that author Tim Tzouliadis sees this horror story with clarity. No moral equivalence between USA and USSR in this account.

The master terrorist was Stalin, who targeted the Americans as wreckers, spies and saboteurs. According to the logic, socialism is perfect so if things are not going well, and they weren’t, it can only be due to deliberate sabotage. The Americans not summarily executed disappeared into prisons and slave labor camps. It was terror on a scale that beggared belief, and the author, a documentary filmmaker and television journalist, has assembled the tragic stories. There is no photo section, which would have given faces to the names.

Consider the case of Arthur Talent, a gifted violinist who came to study at the Moscow Conservatory. He was arrested, tortured, and executed at the age of 21. In other cases, the Soviets reasoned that if they released a certain prisoner he might be used to criticize the USSR, so they killed them. Many others perished in the Gulag, where they had been transported in American ships and American trucks, to work in conditions far worse than any slavery to that time. These Americans were truly forsaken, by their own government.

Tzouliadis shows how Joseph Davies, Roosevelt’s ambassador to the USSR, knew full well about their cases but did nothing. The forsaken Americans got no help from Harry Hopkins, Henry Wallace or Stalinist devotees such as Paul Robeson. For the Soviets’ alibi armory, the attitude was your country, right or wrong. Any criticism would play into the hands of anti-communists, and the forsaken Americans were on the wrong end of that dynamic, which lives on to this day.

Some of the material, such as Walter Duranty’s New York Times falsification of the Ukraine famine, will be familiar to those well acquainted with the literature. The Forsaken will serve as a well-documented gateway to the wider literature, and its account of Stalin’s fathomless evil is particularly chilling. Tzouliadis goes the second mile on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the murder of the Polish officers in the Katyn forest, Stalin’s show trials of the old Bolsheviks, and the wider historical background. It will be good for readers to know that the Soviets took over some of the same concentrations camps the Nazis had used, and deployed them in the same deadly cause, with the same efficiency. Here the Soviet regime comes off as much worse, and of course it lasted much longer than National Socialist Germany.

Stalin’s Great Terror did not end in the late 1930s. Here are the stories of American servicemen who had been taken captive by the Germans and whom the Soviets carted off to the Gulag, where they stayed through the Cold War.  American general John Deane wrote them off as “spoils of war, won by the Soviets. They may be robbed, starved and abused – and no one has the right to question such treatment.” As the author noted, the Americans unacknowledged presence would remain an official secret, guarded by the American and Soviet governments, until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Some of those who had played baseball in Gorky Park, such as Thomas Sgovio, miraculously survived past that time. What of the countless others?  The best hope, according to Tzouliadis, is the archives of the former KGB, where “three quarters of the archival evidence has yet to be examined.” Unfortunately, “while the KGB archives and Stalin’s personal archives remain closed, there is little cause for optimism.” The author is well aware that Vladimir Putin is a former KGB boss and that Stalin is enjoying a revival while journalists get murdered in Russia.

“In the Soviet Union there was never a victorious army to expose the consequences of Stalin’s rule,” writes Tzouliadis, “nor would there ever be a Nuremberg. Instead the victims of Kolyma and every other terminal point of the Gulag remained concealed even as the killings continued unabated.”

The Forsaken is indeed an American tragedy but also a cautionary tale and chronicle of shame. The United States should own up to the way it abandoned its own citizens in deference to a totalitarian state and its gangster rulers. It is perhaps too audacious a hope that some American president should press for revelations and even reparations.

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

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