"Americans in the Gulag"
December 30, 2008
I found this article courtesy of A Step At A Time - Americans in the Gulag: The little-known story of US citizens trying to escape the Depression. The whole article is well worth reading. I'm going to quote just one train of thought, the baseball story:
...No one knows exactly how many Soviet citizens met unnatural deaths during the quarter-century that Stalin wielded absolute power, but adding together those who were sentenced to death and shot, died in manmade famines, or were worked to death in gulag camps like these, authoritative estimates put the total at approximately 20 million. Like the other great horror show unfolding in German-occupied Europe in the same period, the Soviet story was one of mass deaths on an almost unimaginable scale. But, unlike the Nazis, the Soviets, in their first two decades in power, were partly sustained by great idealism on the part of people all over the world who were fervently hoping for a more just society. The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis is a poignant reminder of this. For his account of the Stalin years and their aftermath is seen through an unusual prism: the experience of tens of thousands of Americans who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Many of them, like the Russians they lived among, fell victim. Bits and pieces of this story have been told before, mainly in survivors’ memoirs. But to my knowledge this is the first comprehensive history, and a sad and fascinating one it is.
...Although many of the American immigrants had been socialists or Communists in the US, you didn’t have to be one to believe that somewhere in the world someone had been able to build a more sensible economy than the Depression-ridden American one....When the Soviet foreign trade agency advertised jobs for skilled American workers in Russia that year, 100,000 Americans applied. 10,000 Ten thousand of them were hired; untold thousands more headed for the country on tourist visas, hoping to find work when they got there...
With them, the newcomers brought baseball. Tzouliadis includes a group photograph of smiling young American players at Gorky Park in the summer of 1934, with the initials on their jerseys identifying their teams: the Moscow Foreign Workers’ Club and the Gorky Auto Workers’ Club. Paul Robeson, who had been a star college athlete before becoming a Communist and a famous singer, was named honorary catcher of one of the teams. Other American baseball teams sprang up everywhere from Kharkov in the Ukraine to Yerevan, Armenia. (A map in this book would have helped, incidentally.) The motif of baseball threads through The Forsaken, and some of its pages trace what happened to the men who played that day in Gorky Park.
Baseball caught on with Russians, and they began joining the American teams, or starting their own, although they considered the practice of stealing bases somewhat capitalistic. Then suddenly it was 1936, and the Great Purge had begun. Having already jailed, shot or exiled all his real political opponents, a paranoid Stalin now went after imaginary ones, in the process tapping a deep vein of Russian xenophobia. Waves of mass arrests swept across the country, with an estimated one out of every eight Soviet men, women and children being seized in the space of half a dozen years. At the show trials of high Communist Party officials, the charge was usually espionage for a foreign power. And so foreigners, or anyone connected with foreigners, were suspect. No more Russians joined the American baseball games. Very soon, there was no more baseball.
From Alexander Solzhenitsyn and other Russians who have borne witness, we know about the midnight arrests, the interrogations and forced confessions, the trains hauling packed boxcars of emaciated prisoners to the labour camps scattered across the Arctic, Siberia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Tzouliadis traces the story of the Americans who got caught up in this madness through a wide range of letters and documents, and the published memoirs of two men who played on American baseball teams in Moscow in the mid-1930s, Victor Herman and Thomas Sgovio. Unlike many of their fellow players, whom they occasionally encountered in the gulag, they survived their imprisonment: Herman in central Russia and Sgovio in Kolyma. No one knows how many of the American immigrants were caught up by the Purge and perished either in execution cellars or in the camps, although one mass grave with more than 140 American bodies was found in 1997 near the Finnish border. Tzouliadis does not try to estimate the total American dead. My own guess would be that the figure is in the thousands; if we add victims among Britons and other Westerners living in USSR at the time, the total would be in the tens of thousands.
The testimony of Herman and Sgovio has found its way into some histories of the gulag. But Tzouliadis’s most unexpected contribution is the sorry tale of how desperate pleas for help from captive Americans, some smuggled out of prison, some made by family members still at liberty who risked their lives by walking into the closely watched US Eembassy, were ignored by diplomats in Moscow and officials back in Washington. Tzouliadis has burrowed through hundreds of old State Department correspondence files for this evidence, finding even a wooden tag smuggled out of a camp with the words, in English, “Save me please and all the others”. Even though the conservative Ambassador of tiny Austria was able to save the lives of more than twenty Austrian left-wingers by sheltering them in his basement, US officials, contemptuous of the Americans who had come to Russia out of naive idealism, did virtually nothing. Yet they could have saved many lives if they had tried, for Stalin was shrewd enough to want to please a valued foreign trading partner. Again and again, the diplomats turned aside those begging for help, generally with the excuse that there was no proof that the prisoner involved was a US citizen. This was literally often true, for when Americans arrived to work in the Soviet Union, the Russians usually confiscated their passports – the better to exert control, and also to acquire a stash of US passports they could later doctor and use to send Soviet spies abroad.
Why were the officials so callous? For one thing, making too much noise might get you expelled from what was, for a rising young Foreign Service officer, a plum post. Beyond that, diplomats temperamentally are seldom troublemakers; the exceptions, like Raoul Wallenberg or Henry Morgenthau Sr, the US envoy to Turkey who did so much to publicize the Armenian genocide, are rare. And finally, behind those who played it safe at the US Embassy in Moscow in the late 1930s was another factor: their boss. ...
Geez, MLight, this was a major downer. Not sure my food wants to digest anymore. How totally sad! But even though I have to go to loldogs for awhile so I can breathe deep again, I appreciate knowing about these stories. I had never heard much about those years before. Could you post a happy garden photo to ameliorate any future devastatingly sad posts?
Posted by: Summer | December 30, 2008 at 09:10 PM
I'll remember that for next time. My mother's family just barely made it out of Estonia before the Soviet Union took it over, and they very likely would have ended up in the Gulag if they hadn't escaped so this story is more personal for me.
Posted by: M Light | January 02, 2009 at 04:27 PM
I'm glad they made it. Andrew's grandfather was killed by the Soviet Union, but that was much later, during the Korean war. It's good to tell these hard stories, of course. But they are so sad!
Posted by: Summer | January 02, 2009 at 10:00 PM