Into the arms of Uncle Joe
Many Americans fled the
Great Depression for
Soviet Russia, but all they
found was the Gulag
Terror and eau de Cologne somehow went together in Stalin's Russia. After a night's work shooting innocents in the neck on the edge of a burial pit in the Thirties purges, NKVD executioners washed off the blood from the back-spray and doused themselves in the cheap scent provided, before falling on litres of vodka (another perk of the job). One official killer invented a noiseless execution by forcing his pistol down his victims' throats, a method, he remarked, that splashed him with warm blood 'like eau de Cologne'. Andrei Vishinsky, the erudite prosecutor at the Stalin show trials who screamed obscenities at trembling defendants after condemning them to death, was also an aficionado of eau de Cologne, though of superior quality.
The smell was a mask of death and Tim Tzouliadis shows how the US press and government had their own means to disguise the truth about thousands of Americans who fell into the great dictator's maw. The now forgotten US immigrants to the Soviet Union in the early Thirties were communist sympathisers or, more often, desperate victims of the Depression. In 1931 alone, more than 100,000 Americans applied to the Soviet trade agency in New York to emigrate to Russia and 10,000 - engineers, factory workers, teachers, artists - were hired. At first, they were feted; baseball was made an official sport. Waves of repression, however, ensured that they and their descendants ended up either in Russia's prisons or as inmates of the Gulag.
Drawing on recently released archives, Tzouliadis traces harrowing cases of arrest, torture and death, as well as the stories of several victims who miraculously survived. One, Thomas Sgovio, came to join his father in 1935. Arrested two years later, he was sent to Kolyma in the far north east to work a 14-to-18-hour day in freezing goldfields. 'Labour in the USSR is a Matter of Honour, Courage and Heroism,' proclaimed a banner in the camp. Released after Stalin's death in 1953, he was later re-arrested; his Russian girlfriend was working with the secret police. On a prison loudspeaker, he heard Paul Robeson, the black American singer and fervent communist who adamantly refused to put in a word for his fellow citizens. Sgovio finally escaped the USSR, via Italy, in 1960.
Tzouliadis devotes as much space to life outside as inside the camps. American recognition, growing trade (Henry Ford was establishing a car industry for the Soviet state) and the carpe diem atmosphere bred by repression resulted in a foreign community in Thirties Moscow that could resemble Weimar Berlin in its extravagance and moral dissolution. There was Walter Duranty, British-born correspondent of the New York Times and a highly esteemed pillar of mendacity, whose columns playing down starvation and the purges influenced a generation of American liberals and were gospel in Hollywood. The first American ambassadors were not up to much either. Rich proteges of Roosevelt, they were ready to overlook anything in the cause of their careers. As they spooned caviar and caroused to American jazz at Gatsby-like parties, the last thing on the minds of diplomats, journalists or businessmen were the frantic appeals for protection, release or repatriation of working-class Americans or their descendants dying from forced labour, -50C temperatures and malnutrition.
Diplomats pined for a moment in Stalin's company; ambassador Joseph Davies got two hours, and never recovered. A liberal lawyer married into money, Davies attended the show trials and reported to Roosevelt: 'The confessions bore the hallmark of credibility.' His respect for Stalin was pathologically beyond the call of duty: 'His eyes are exceedingly kind and gentle. A child would like to sit on his lap...'
Meanwhile, in Kolyma, prisoners were detailed to hack the hands off frozen corpses and hang them on hooks to thaw, ready to be fingerprinted before mass burial. After Stalin became a wartime ally, hulks transporting prisoners across the Sea of Okhotsk were refitted in US shipyards under the Lend-Lease programme, and skeletal Americans looked on as NKVD guards feasted on tins of Campbell's pork and beans.
Roosevelt's indulgence towards Stalin was challenged by few around him. Harry Hopkins, his most trusted adviser, was later revealed as Moscow's most influential agent. Alger Hiss, a State Department official who accompanied the President to Yalta, was for years defended as a victim of McCarthy; intercepts of Soviet telegraph traffic from New York (the Venona project) released in 1995 confirmed he was a spy.
Vice-President Henry Wallace was no spy, but a passionately deluded dreamer full of futuristic schemes for US-Soviet co-operation. Wallace toured Kolyma and met fit, well-fed, snugly dressed prisoners whom he failed to recognise as members of the NKVD. National ridicule was his punishment when the truth came out in the Fifties.
This is a powerful, important and highly readable book. The Gulag is no novelty, but Tzouliadis brilliantly links high politics to the torment of innocents, adding devastating detail. The notion that Stalin 'betrayed ideals', he shows, makes no sense when the 'ideals' in question justified dictatorship and mass repression. Beyond the great show trials, Tzouliadis reminds us, stood the father of Soviet terror, Lenin. Like the bloated corpse inching its way centre-stage in Amédée ou comment s'en débarrasser, Ionesco's play about guilty memory, both Stalin and his mentor are enjoying a well-deserved comeback.
Source: The Guardian
(R) thedailystar.net 2008