The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia

“History,” in a sentiment credited to Voltaire, “is the lie commonly agreed upon,” and often the lie is one of omission. London-based journalist Tim Tzouliadis, in a gripping and eye-opening work of historical investigation, reveals the untold tragedy of thousands of idealistic, politically naive Americans who immigrated to the USSR during the Great Depression of the 1930s, seeking employment in “the workers’ paradise.” What they found instead was a totalitarian state fueled by the bloodthirsty paranoia of Joseph Stalin.

At first, writes Tzouliadis, the American newcomers were welcomed. Their very presence seemed to confirm the superiority of communism over the dying capitalism of Depression-era America. “The young Americans,” the author explains, “danced, played baseball, sang in choirs, acted in the Clifford Odets play Waiting for Lefty, fell in love with one another, and thanked their lucky stars that they had made the right decision to come to Soviet Russia.” But this early “honeymoon period” for the Americans would end quickly.

The Soviet authorities began small, by confiscating the passports of the Americans. These passport seizures made it difficult for the Americans to seek help from U.S. authorities. When the U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to the USSR in 1933 and set up an embassy in Moscow, American authorities began a decades-long policy of nonintervention regarding how the Soviets abused Americans inside the Soviet Union.

The American government (backed by prominent American businessmen like Henry Ford) placed good relations with the USSR above protecting naive Americans who were now ensnared in the labyrinthine Soviet police state: “The ‘captive Americans’ remained in stateless limbo…they were just ordinary people with little influence or access to the high circles of state. The Soviet apparatchiks guessed, quite correctly, they would soon be forgotten.” As the Stalinist terror began in the late 1930s, the U.S. government failed to lift a finger. Included among the thousands murdered during the height of the purges were many of these luckless Americans.

The terror itself centered upon the elevation of Stalin to an extreme of power. He “had built a Soviet religion with himself at its center: a god who demanded belief without rationale, obedience without a moment’s hesitation.” Tzouliadis relates bone-chilling scenes where Stalin tells a bad joke and those around him compete to laugh the loudest; or Stalin complains that he’s getting old and everyone eagerly reassures him that he’s never looked better. As Tzouliadis makes clear, those around the paranoid dictator understood very well that their lives literally depended on such groveling.

Tzouliadis has tirelessly researched Soviet archives and survivor accounts to tell the shocking story of Stalin’s systematic, calculated policy of “liquidating” anyone even remotely suspected of disloyalty. Victims were usually arrested at night, tortured, forced to confess to anti-Soviet crimes, and then shot in the head or sent to forced labor camps. Working with his head of secret police, Stalin was intimately involved in every detail: “Unlike Hitler,” Tzouliadis tells us, “the Soviet dictator never had any qualms about adding his personal signature to genocide.”

Using memoirs of the few “captive Americans” who survived their horrific ordeal, Tzouliadis exposes the entire apparatus that maintained this regime of fear. The very fact of their foreignness helped condemn Americans in the USSR. Americans like Victor Herman and Robert Sgovia simply disappeared one night and reappeared in a netherworld of constant beatings, slave labor, and Gulag brutality. As Tzouliadis tells it, Herman and Sgovia were the lucky ones who somehow survived. The overwhelming majority not only perished but have been lost in a historical black hole.

Most KGB archives, as well as Stalin’s personal archive, remain closed, so Tzouliadis is limited by this lack of information. (Once again, the Realpolitik of “good relations” between the U.S. and Russia — today under former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer — has trumped truth telling.) But his research has nevertheless unearthed many shocking and illustrative anecdotes. Some simply bring to bear a remorseless specificity on what might be labeled the ordinary brutality of the day: American Victor Herman, after his late-night arrest for anti-Soviet activities, refused to confess to things he hadn’t done, so the secret police dealt with him in typical fashion. “When Victor Herman refused to confess,” writes Tzouliadis, “he was taken to a basement cell and beaten by a gang of men with clubs. The next morning he was coughing up clots of blood, and the following night he was beaten again.”

The desperate poignancy of the situation for many comes through in a heartbreaking letter from a teenage American named George Sviridoff, who was arrested for trying to leave the USSR and found himself in a concentration camp above the Arctic Circle. Writing to his father in the U.S., the captive American explained: “Now papa my fate is sealed. I have left you, lost my country, lost my freedom, lost all the delights of life…there remains in addition only to lose my head.”

Other stories illuminate the tactics through which the secret police hounded their targets. Tzouliadis explains how the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was employed as a hunting ground to arrest unsuspecting Americans foolish enough to seek the help of their government: “Lurking outside the Embassy gates, the NKVD agents were waiting for them to emerge. Many Americans were arrested in this way, on the pavement just yards from the Embassy.”

Tzouliadis’ attitude about this state-run assembly line of killing is evident throughout. He saves much of his contempt for Americans like Ambassador Joseph Davies, a wealthy socialite and pal of President Roosevelt, who admired Stalin while consciously ignoring the Stalin-ordered deaths of his fellow Americans. The hyper-accommodating Ambassador Davies, Tzouliadis reveals, even invited Soviet secret police aboard his yacht to watch Hollywood movies. Equally withering attention is given to those who turned a blind eye to the tragedy of thousands of Americans and millions of Soviets, a comprehensive list that takes in the U.S. State Department, pro-Stalin reporters like Walter Duranty of The New York Times, and duped Vice-President Henry Wallace. Similar attitudes toward Stalin produced some strange bedfellows — such as the aforementioned auto maker Henry Ford and the leftist American singer Paul Robeson.

The Forsaken is investigative history at its best. Yet the complete story Tzouliadis tells will not be known until closed archives in Russia are made public. As it is, he has uncovered more than enough material to tell a story that will, and should, shock Americans who care about historical truth. That so many should be forsaken in life and utterly forgotten in death should trouble us all: Tzouliadis gives that disquiet a desperate purpose, as he puts before us the plain facts of how this tragedy unfolded.