American Victims of the Soviet Gulag

A Review of The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia

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With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and before that with the revelations of the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others, virtually every educated American not named Oliver Stone or Peter Kuznick now knows that the Soviet Union, particularly during the long period of Joseph Stalin’s absolute dictatorship, was little more than one big killing machine.  Stalin ruled through terror and fear, but also with a cult of personality in which he was regarded as a god-like father figure for the country and for worldwide Communism.  The main instrument of the terror was the precursor of the KGB, the dreaded NKVD.  The major victims were first the losers in the civil war, primarily the aristocracy and the supporters of the tsar, including the Orthodox Christian Church; then the small land owners who resisted the draconian collectivization program or just anyone who owned land; then in the 1930s the revolution turned in on itself with the years of the Great Terror, and literally no one was safe.

The slain of all nationalities numbered in the tens of millions.  Many were summarily executed with a bullet to the back of the head or neck.  A far larger number were done to death by a sentence, of whatever length, to one of the many work camps.  Conditions were often such that the prisoners were hardly expected to survive.  The food was typically inadequate for replacement of the calories used up in the labor, and the clothes often provided insufficient protection from the elements.  That was especially the case at Kolyma, perhaps the harshest of all the labor camps.  One reason author Tim Tzouliadis focuses particularly upon Kolyma is that American memoirist Thomas Sgovio, who managed to survive ten years there because of his artistic skills and amazing good fortune, has left us a very good description of the experience.  It was also the place that one of the heroes of Stone and Kuznick’s Untold History of the United States, Vice President Henry Wallace, visited in May of 1944 as part of his NKVD-hosted 25-day tour of the Russian Far East from which he returned with glowing reports on the Soviet pioneer spirit.

The American Common Man’s Route to the Gulag

It might have been a real American pioneer spirit that motivated some of the thousands of people who moved from this country to the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s in what Tzouliadis aptly calls a “forgotten exodus.”  For many, with the nation’s economy flat on its back in the throes of the Great Depression, it was simple desperation.  Tzouliadis reports that in the first eight months of 1931 alone, the Soviet trade agency, Amtorg, based in New York, received one hundred thousand American applications for emigration to the USSR.  “Ten thousand optimistic Americans were hired that year, part of the official ‘organized emigration,’ who received their good news with glee closer to lottery winners than economic migrants.”

Another reason why so many people made such an ultimately foolish decision was that they just didn’t know.  Virtually everything they had heard about the Soviet Union was positive, because almost everything anyone in the United States had heard at that time was propaganda.  Almost nothing had been published to counter the favorable impression of the Russian revolutionaries since John Reed’s very influential Ten Days that Shook the World in 1919.  Many had already left for Russia before the man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932-33, but news of that event was highly distorted by no less a powerful news organ than The New York Times, and the flow of migrants continued.

Heavily represented among the emigrants were Americans on the far left of the political spectrum.  Given the state of the economy at that time, though, the radical left perspective had a much broader appeal then than it does now.  For those good, patriotic Americans today who find it impossible to empathize with these thousands of ill-fated migrants to Russia, Tzouliadis has a good corrective at the end of his first chapter:

Few paused to distinguish whether they were being pulled by an ideology or pushed by their need.  Nor were these Americans merely a confederacy of political fanatics, hopeless idealists, or naïve adventurers.  Theirs was a reaction to the actuality and future threat of poverty, and to understand them we must place ourselves momentarily in a similar position of unknowing: when the idea of the Soviet Revolution was still filled with hope, and only the most perspicacious could discern the truth that lay beneath that promise.  It was an era when the political system of communism had yet to be fully tested, just as once upon a time democracy, too, had presented an equally radical affront to conservative opinion.  (p. 11)

That chapter is titled “The Joads of Russia,” after the main characters in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the fictional family that was forced to migrate from Oklahoma to California at about the same time as the migration to Russia took place.

The title of the second chapter, “Baseball in Gorky Park,” captures what the migration experience was like for many in the early days.  There was a brief honeymoon period when the presence of so many Americans was a source of pride for the government and for many of the Russian people.  Baseball was at the peak of its popularity in the United States, and the young Americans brought their game with them.  Teams and leagues were formed.  The review of the book in The Telegraph of London has a heartbreaking photograph of the members of one such team.  It is heartbreaking because there is a very good chance that not a single young man in that photograph made it through the next decade alive, not only that, but their deaths were likely to have been quite agonizing.  The young players at that time, looking happy in the photograph like contented beef cattle clueless as to their eventual fate, could even read about their baseball exploits in the English language Moscow News.  The pro-Soviet Anna Louise Strong was the editor at that time and one of the reporters for a brief period was the later New Deal-connected business writer, Eliot Janeway.

To the extent that Kolyma is representative, there was a certain cruel politico-economic logic to the Great Terror that began in the later 1930s and swallowed up millions of people, including most of the Americans.  The rigidly planned economy produced little that anyone outside Russia wanted to buy.  The only desirable Soviet exports were raw materials.  The most valuable raw material, and the best form of payment for needed imports, was gold.  Much of the gold and many of the other raw materials were located in places with such a cold climate that no amount of money would lure workers to go there.  Prisoners were the solution.  At the same time, rigid political control required arbitrary arrests for the most trivial offenses, or in many cases, for no offense at all.  That assured an endless supply of prisoners.  The collective farms didn’t produce enough to feed both the free and the imprisoned populace, so the prisoners were underfed, died off, and were replaced by constant streams of new prisoners.  The author notes that many of the prisoners were transported to Kolyma in ships donated to the Soviet Union by the United States through the Lend Lease program.

What was done by the American government to rescue its citizens or “former citizens” from this horror?  The answer is precious little.  The government reacts to public pressure, but before there can be public pressure there must be publicity, and there was virtually none.  To be sure there were family and loved ones contacting their Congressmen and petitioning the State Department, but they might was well been the family members of American POWs abandoned in Southeast Asia almost a half a century later.  Even had there been strong domestic pressure, the obstacles faced by the American embassy in Moscow were daunting:

In Moscow, the American diplomats understood very well that low-level negotiation with the Soviet Foreign Ministry was entirely useless, given the fact that the entire Commissariat was petrified of the NKVD and were themselves frequent victims of the Terror.  Clearly more forceful intervention was required at the very highest levels of government.  Had the diplomats been willing, action might still have been taken, and the lives of the American emigrants might well have been saved.

But what was abundantly clear was that if this was about to happen, the “captured Americans” needed a heroically protective figure to intervene on their behalf—someone with the courage of Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg—someone willing to lend sanctuary, to hand out passports, to speak to the president, and to kick up a very loud and very public fuss in a time of peril.  Someone, in short, who might hold a protective hand over them when their lives were so evidently endangered.

What they got, instead, was Ambassador Joseph Davies.  (pp. 106-107)

The Biggest American Villains

In the whole sorry story there are few, if any, American heroes, unless you count the pitifully few survivors.  Certainly there were none in the U.S. government or among the U.S. reporters assigned to the Soviet Union.  Whatever they sent out had to pass through Soviet censors, and they knew that if they managed to smuggle out anything critical of their host country they would be finished as reporters there.  Even Eugene Lyons, whose under-publicized 1937 book Assignment in Utopia, written after his return to the States, finally gave Americans a look at Stalin’s horrors, followed the rules when he was in Moscow and kept the lid on the story of the American expatriates’ virtual imprisonment in the years before they were being sent off to the Gulag.

There are American villains aplenty, though.  If one counts Walter Duranty, an Englishman, as an honorary American because he worked for The New York Times when he wrote the award-winning cover-up stories that helped lure the migrants in the first place, the top three would be Davies, Duranty, and the famous black athlete, singer, and actor, Paul Robeson.   (Curiously, the aforementioned Strong, who was a prolific promoter of Soviet Communism, gets a virtual pass from Tzouliadis.  He mentions her only once.*) Davies and his heiress wife at the time, Marjorie Merriweather Post, come across as decadent royalists of the let-them-eat-cake variety.  Davies is best known for his embarrassingly gushing book, Mission to Moscow, which endorsed the Moscow show trials as legitimate and was made into a wartime movie by Warner Brothers, upon the personal insistence of FDR to Jack Warner.  Post, for her part, spent most of her time in Russia buying up art and antique treasures that had been plundered from the murdered or exiled aristocracy.  They now fill up her Hillwood Estate in Washington, DC, open for public viewing.

Robeson is a particularly sad case.  Like Strong, he was brilliant and seemed to have only the very best intentions, but also, like Strong, he was ultimately led astray by rigid adherence to ideology.  He had every reason to know the true story of the Soviet tyranny because he made a number of visits to the country.  On one such visit the black American automobile worker, Robert Robinson, encountered him personally in a desperate attempt to enlist Robeson’s assistance to get him out of Russia, but Robeson gave him the cold shoulder and did nothing.   Worse than that, he defended Stalin’s Soviet Union his entire life.

Paul Robeson’s steadfast campaign for civil rights in America made his acquiescence to Stalinism all the more tragic.  There were many American communists who recanted once they understood the nature of the crimes committed in the USSR.  There remained, however, a psychological conflict among those who understood, yet whose pride or ideology could not allow them to admit their error.  Robeson’s actions and speeches had justified, and therefore contributed to, the crimes of Stalinism, and for that at least, he was morally culpable. (p. 327)

The Tragedy Hits Home

When it comes to psychological reactions, it is perhaps a natural thing for all of us to want to put some distance between ourselves and unbearable tragedy, whether it be in the Soviet Union or anywhere else..  Tzouliadis makes it harder for Americans to do that than Solzhenitsyn did.  Early on, he tells us that the emigrants came from every state in the union.  From the stories I had heard from my mother about her farm family’s deprivations in North Carolina during the Great Depression I could easily see how she or her siblings would have found an opportunity to go to the purported “workers’ paradise” of Russia attractive.  But then I noticed that nowhere in the book is anyone mentioned among the migrants who came from the South.  As Richard M. Weaver has observed, “Southerners are not a traveled people.”  Steinbeck’s story of the Joads was a lot closer to home to me, both literally and figuratively, than this one was, that is, until I reached Chapter 23 entitled, “Citizen of the United States of America, Allied Officer Dale.”

That chapter is full of reports by witnesses in the Gulag of sightings of American prisoners in the 1950s.  Our government apparently knew that the Chinese were sending prisoners captured in the Korean War to the Soviet Union.  George Kennan, working in the U.S. embassy in Moscow sent a letter to Washington urging that the matter be publicized.  Instead, his letter was stamped “Secret” and eventually buried away in the archives. 

Tzouliadis has unearthed minutes from a Politburo meeting with China’s Chou En-lai in which Stalin recommends that the Chinese hold back 20 percent of the Korean War POWs:

In the early 1950s—well before the Sino-Soviet quarrels—if Stalin’s “advice” had called for the retention of 20 percent of UN prisoners of war during the Korean War, then to the Chinese such a “proposal” carried the sanctity of a commandment from the “Great Leader” of the Communist cause.  It was Joseph Stalin, after all, who had armed the sixty Chinese divisions poured into the conflict in Korea.

My mother’s younger brother, William Gray Bell, who went by his middle name, was a draftee who served with the U.S. Army occupation forces in South Korea after the end of World War II.  He got an early hardship discharge of a few months when his father died.  He was needed back on the farm where there were two much younger twin brothers, and an even younger sister and a step-sister.  His mother had died at age 36 during the Great Depression.  When the Korean War broke out, as a reservist, he was called back to active duty and sent into the fray.  Not long after his arrival in Korea he was reported missing in action.  We never heard from him again.  He was, to my recollection and from all I have heard about him, a prince of a man.  I have eulogized him with this short poem.  It chills me to think that he could have been one of the Gulag victims.

The Forsaken’s Tragic Flaw

For all the book’s importance and general praiseworthiness, it does have one major shortcoming.  Interestingly, it is the same shortcoming that I noted in Stalin’s Secret AgentsWe must state it bluntly.  Like M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein, Tim Tzouliadis covers up for Franklin Roosevelt.  The cover-up is not as central to his book as it is theirs, but it involves the same episode and he is perhaps even more dishonest about it than they are.  Here is what Tzouliadis writes on page 282:

As early as September 2, 1939, Whittaker Chambers, a former American Communist Party member and Soviet military intelligence agent, gave a long interview to Adolf Berle, the assistant secretary of state, revealing the names of several Soviet agents working inside the State Department and other branches of the U.S. government, including Alger Hiss and his brother, Donald.  According to Chambers’ account, Adolf Berle immediately passed this information on to Roosevelt’s secretary, but Berle had been unable to take seriously the notion that the “Hiss boys” were planning to “take over the United States’ government.”

At that point there is an endnote that leads one to p. 466 of Witness: An Autobiography by Whittaker Chambers.  The quote from Berle is indeed there, at the top of page 466, but Tzouliadis has taken it completely out of context so as to virtually reverse its meaning.  Let us look at the full passage, starting at the bottom of page 465 to reveal the trickery:

After midnight, [Isaac Don] Levine and I left.  As we went out, I could see that Mrs. Berle had fallen asleep on a couch in a room to my right.  Adolf Berle, in great excitement, was on the telephone even before we were out the door.  I supposed that he was calling the White House.

In August, 1948, Adolf A. Berle testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities not long after my original testimony about Alger Hiss and the Ware Group.  The former Assistant Secretary of State could no longer clearly recall my conversation with him almost a decade before.  His memory had grown dim on a number of points.  He believed, for example, that I had described to him a Marxist study group whose members were not Communists.  In any case, he had been unable to take seriously, in 1939, any “idea that the Hiss boys and Nat Witt were going to take over the Government.”

At no time in our conversation can I remember anyone’s mentioning the ugly word espionage.  But how well we understood what we were talking about, Berle was to make a matter of record.  For when, four years after that memorable conversation, his notes were finally taken out of a secret file and turned over to the F.B.I., it was found that Adolf Berle himself had headed them: Underground Espionage Agent.

What follows in the second half of page 466 through two thirds of page 469 are the actual notes, which follows with this summing up by Chambers:

These notes are obviously rambling and garbled…

But if the notes are studied carefully, it will be seen that the essential framework of the conspiracy is here even down to such details as the fact that [Vincent] Reno was working as Colonel Zornig’s assistant at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.  It is equally clear that I am describing not a Marxist study group, but a Communist conspiracy.  The Communists are described as such.  The reader has only to ask himself what he would have done, if he had been a security officer of the Government, and such information had come into his hands, or even if he had been told no more than the address for cables to the Soviet apparatuses, which is the meaning of one of the entries, or the fact that a Communist was working on the bombsight.

Contrary to the impression left by Tzouliadis, Berle took the revelations of Chambers every bit as seriously as he should have.  So what happened?  Did that unnamed secretary of Roosevelt sit on the information?  That’s not possible because Tzouliadis has made that part up from whole cloth.  Chambers makes no mention of any intermediary between Berle and the president.  Let’s pick up his story at the bottom of page 470:

The same night that I talked with Berle, I returned to New York.  For the second time in two years, I had laid my life in ruins.  I had only to wait for what would happen next.  One of the things most likely to happen, it seemed to me, was my arrest.

But nothing at all happened.  Weeks passed into months.  I went about my work at Time.  Then, one day, I am no longer certain just when, I met a dejected Levine.  Adolf Berle, said Levine, had taken my information to the President at once.  The President had laughed.  When Berle was insistent, he had been told in words which it is necessary to paraphrase, to “go jump in a lake.”

The thought crossed my mind that the story might have been put out to conceal the Government’s real purpose.  Surveillance and investigation were necessary.  It might be some time before the Government was prepared to act.  Meanwhile, it would watch and check.

I tried to believe that that was the fact.  But I knew that it could not be, for if the Government were checking, it could not fail also to check with me.

What Tzouliadis has done, besides lying about Berle passing the information on to FDR’s secretary instead of FDR himself is that he has collapsed what Adolfe Berle said in his cover-up testimony of August 30, 1948, into how he reacted on the night of September 2, 1939, and immediately afterward.  Why would he do such a thing?  His brief biography in the front of the book might provide the answer:

Tim Tzouliadis is a writer and filmmaker.  Born in 1968, he read philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford and went on to pursue a career in television current affairs and documentary making for the BBC Channel 4, NBC, and the National Geographic Channel. (links added by me, obviously)

Unfortunately, in this day and age, working for such organizations is not a very reputable way to make a living.  The fact that the paperback edition has 33 favorable blurbs for the book from across the mainstream political spectrum is also not the best of signs.  One has to wonder if the book would have been so well received had Tzuoliadis told the full truth about the complicity of Roosevelt in the Soviet horror.  One can be almost certain that no mainstream reviewer has faulted him for what I have pointed out here, a dishonest use of a source that I can only characterize as journalistic and scholarly malpractice.

The Publisher’s Spin?

There is another possibility.  Maybe the publisher—Penguin Books (2008) in this case—changed his original manuscript to cover up for Roosevelt.  This is a possibility that I would not have thought of had I not followed up on a suggestion that Tzouliadis makes in his acknowledgments at the end: 

All memoirs from the survivors of the camps are invaluable, but I would like to acknowledge two books in particular as primary sources for this one:  Thomas Sgovio’s Dear America and Victor Herman’s Coming Out of the Ice.  I would encourage all interested readers to search out and read these authors’ firsthand accounts.

I tracked down a reprint of the Herman book.  It is a 1983 paperback version by Freedom Press, Ltd., of Oklahoma City, OK.  The original publisher in 1979 was Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  My version has a typewritten message stuck to the inside cover.  It is a jaw dropper.  I have added emphasis where deemed appropriate, and I would remind the readers that Victor Herman came from an American Jewish family.

This book is a special edition of COMING OUT OF THE ICE, prepared especially for Dr. D. James Kennedy and Coral Ridge Ministries.

Expletives have been deleted and replaced with an asterisk (*).  It should be noted, however, that the expletives were not those of the author.  They were inserted by the publisher.

Certain portions of this book are somewhat sensual in nature which we and others may find objectionable.  But, like the affair of David and Bathsheba, these passages need to be considered in the light and context of the entire message.

Please also note that Victor Herman’s original manuscript contained an account of his conversion to Christ.  This portion was deleted by the publisher.

Out of millions of Americans, God raised up this one man to live through this experience and share with us the story of his imprisonment and torture in the Soviet Union.


David Martin

February 26, 2013


*”By the winter of 1931, sufficient numbers had arrived for a weekly English-language newspaper to be established in Moscow with the aim of reporting the ‘truth about what the Soviet government is trying to do.’  Staffed by young American journalists keen to salute the progress of the Five-Year Plan, The Moscow News was the ramshackle brainchild of its editor, Anna Louise Strong, a redoubtable progressive and personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.  On her trips back to the United States, Strong was an occasional guest of the White House, where the ever-curious president would pepper her with questions about Soviet Russia.  How, Roosevelt asked, could Stalin afford to buy all those factories?” (p. 13)


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