We know that history holds many surprises. One does not expect to learn more about the secret history of the Gulag than we already know from both Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History. This feat, however, is exactly what the Greek-born British documentary filmmaker Tim Tzouliadis has accomplished, in a book that should be placed alongside the others as a must-read account of the horrors Joseph Stalin inflicted upon his victims.
What Tzouliadis offers is a dramatic account of the previously unknown story of the thousands of American citizens who, during the Depression, sought employment and a better future in the “worker’s paradise” built by the Russian Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. All kinds of Americans joined the exodus. Some of them were ethnic American Communists or fellow-travelers who wanted to help build socialism. The majority, however, were average Americans who could not help but be tempted by the offers coming from Moscow: Skilled workers were promised paid passage, jobs at high pay, paid vacations, and free medical care. When the Soviet agency Amtorg advertised for help in American papers in 1931, they got over 100,000 applications for slightly over 10,000 advertised jobs. The flood of immigrants included not only steelworkers and auto-assembly-line workers (including Walter and Victor Reuther) but also teachers, clerical workers, dentists, and doctors.
Some were blacks, like the Communist leader Lovett Fort-Whiteman, fleeing the segregationist South for a land where color would be no barrier. But, once in the Soviet Union, Fort-Whiteman was disappointed to find that his fellow American migrants were thoroughly racist. For the crime of beating up a black worker, two white workers were deported by the Soviet authorities back to America. They were the lucky ones. Within a few years, Fort-Whiteman would be arrested and hauled to the Gulag, where he would be viciously beaten and soon killed. How could he have foreseen, the author asks, “that by being deported back to the United States for their assault, [the two white workers] would have their lives saved, while he, by staying on, would have his own condemned?”
Unlike political pilgrims — who visited Communist countries, took Potemkin tours, and then reported back to their countrymen the great accomplishments they had witnessed — the American migrants to the Soviet Union learned the bitter truth soon after their arrival. There they found not a worker’s paradise, but near-starvation standards of living, lack of adequate or even slightly decent housing, and little to purchase with the meager funds they were actually paid. When they arrived in the Soviet Union, the Americans were asked to “temporarily” give up their passports. Realizing their mistake and seeking to return to the United States, they were told they were now Soviet citizens subject exclusively to Soviet law, and were not free to come home. Turning for help to the American embassy (after FDR’s administration had recognized the Soviet Union in 1933), they were astonished to find that the personnel treated them, as one diplomat put it, as the “flotsam and jetsam” of America who deserved the fate handed them, and that their own government would not do anything to help them.
Stalin, of course, had his own reasons for not allowing the Americans to return. He could ill afford — so soon after the establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. — to have thousands of Americans returning who knew the truth about the revolution. Stalin knew, as Tzouliadis writes, that “every American emigrant carried with [him] the threat” to reveal that truth to the world. Most shocking, however, was the fact that as Americans joined the millions of Russians arrested in the middle of the night and sent to the Gulag, knowing embassy personnel continued to look the other way, under orders from the ambassador level on down. FDR’s first ambassador, William Bullitt, had begun his tenure sympathetic to the Soviet experiment, but, seeing the truth, quickly soured. As he told the president in his last dispatch before departing, the Soviet leaders were determined “to produce world revolution and the ‘liquidation’” and “mass murder” of all potential opponents. Bullitt had seen his Moscow friends suddenly disappear, and his aides had witnessed thousands forced into cattle cars and sent off to Siberia.
Bullitt’s replacement was Stalin’s dream candidate: the naïve, pro-Soviet diplomat Joseph Davies. When a campaign began in the U.S. to intervene on behalf of Ruth Rubens, an American woman who had disappeared in Moscow and was being held in Butyrskaya Prison, the embassy staff was so distraught about Davies’s inaction that they contemplated mass resignation. When Davies, who was out of the country, returned to Moscow, he apologized to the Soviet ambassador to the U.S. — and to FDR — for his staff’s attempts to help her.
When Davies’s wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post, was woken up at night by gun blasts across the street as NKVD agents murdered prisoners, her husband would explain that she was hearing the sound of drilling for Stalin’s new Moscow metro. Other victims were dragged off by the NKVD in the new Soviet-built Ford Model A cars in which they brought their prey to the secret police’s infamous Lubyanka Prison. “In Russia,” the author writes, “the Americans were carried away in the very cars they had left Detroit to build.” Henry Ford had signed his contract with the Soviets in Dearborn, providing the NKVD’s entire fleet. Davies commented to the media: “The Soviet Union is doing wonderful things. The leaders of the government are an extremely capable, serious, hardworking, and powerful group of men and women.”
Davies was notorious, of course, as the man who validated Stalin’s great purge trial in 1936 as fair, and proclaimed the witnesses’ forced confessions to be genuine and uncoerced. Roosevelt, intent upon welcoming the Soviets into a new alliance of friendship, preferred not to challenge his observations.
The long list of apologists for Stalin’s terror — who denied its very existence — included the Asian scholar Owen Lattimore, Vice President Henry A. Wallace, the Communist baritone Paul Robeson, and the New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Walter Duranty. All of them did their part to hide the truth and paint a false picture of a benign Stalin who was America’s best friend. Tzouliadis devastatingly portrays the harm they did, and their moral culpability in the crimes of Stalinism.
America’s wartime policy did more than just prettify Stalin. Lend-Lease aid was used to supply and repair the Liberty ships sent to the Soviet Union for wartime use, supposedly for the war against the Nazis. Half of them, we learn, were actually sent to Soviet Far East ports, such as Magadan, where they were used to send new slave laborers to the arctic Kolyma camp. “NKVD steamers,” Tzouliadis writes, “were reconditioned at the expense of the American taxpayer, before their quick return to service as the ‘death ships of the Sea of Okhotsk.’” One ship was overhauled at the cost of half a million dollars in 1942, after a fire caused it to sink. American workers opened the holds to find evidence that hundreds of prisoners had been locked inside. Yet the ship was returned to Vladivostok, where more prisoners were picked up to be sent to the Kolyma prison camp. “Without the NKVD fleet,” Tzouliadis notes, “the operations within Kolyma would have been impossible to sustain. The ships were an essential link in the mechanism, required to replace the prisoners who had died, and to expand still further the network of concentration camps. It was as if the Reichsministry had arranged to have its railway engines repaired in Philadelphia and then shipped back . . . to recommence their journey to Auschwitz.”
Reviewing The Gulag Archipelago in The New Yorker in 1974, George Steiner wrote that “to infer that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism is not only a brutal oversimplification but a moral indecency,” revealing with those words the vast blind spot of Western Left intellectuals. Despite Solzhenitsyn, that blind spot continues. As Tzouliadis notes, it has enabled the story of what happened to the Americans who sought work in Soviet Russia to disappear down the memory hole. And since so many continue to believe that the Soviet repression was hardly comparable to that of the Nazis, many will deny that in the Soviet Union, as the author concludes, its defining story “was the murder of millions of innocent citizens by the state.” Unlike Germany, the former Soviet Union never had any war-crimes tribunals to make these horrors known to its own public, nor any “truth and reconciliation” commissions in which the still-living torturers came forth to testify. And there was never any photographic evidence available to help visualize the accounts written by the few survivors.
Tim Tzouliadis has done a great service by making the truth known. His book deserves the widest circulation and readership.