Wednesday, September 24, 2008

After watching the film 'Reds' again recently I have been wanting to find out more about Americans who decided to leave America to go and be in Russia during communist times. After reading this article on the Moscow Times, I'm very interested to get a hold of this book!
The Soviet Dream
Tim Tzouliadis bears witness to the thousands of Americans who were swept up in Stalin's Terror.
By Pang-Mei Natasha Chang
Published: September 19, 2008

Hindsight -- especially historical -- is twenty-twenty. Knowing what we do today, we can easily forget the glittering promise that communism held out to a world gripped by poverty and high unemployment in the 1930s: food for all, a worker's paradise. A new, well-researched group biography of Americans who left the United States for the Soviet Union during the Great Depression highlights the extent of the attraction. It also underscores the tragic timing of their choice, as these same hopeful Americans became captives of the Soviet system and were killed in the whirlwind of Stalin's terror.
In "The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia," documentary filmmaker Tim Tzouliadis takes us on the sorrowful but engaging journey of the thousands of Americans who were first let down by the American dream, only to perish in the Soviet nightmare. Adding to the tragedy, not all of the Americans who came to the Soviet Union in the 1930s were political fanatics. "Few paused to distinguish whether they were being pulled by an ideology or pushed by their need," Tzouliadis writes. "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."
In the early 1930s, Stalin was rapidly industrializing the Soviet Union, largely according to an American design. Upon arrival, most of the Americans -- among them, African-Americans accustomed to being treated as second-class citizens in their homeland -- were given jobs in factories. They settled not only in Moscow, but also in places as far-flung as Gorky, where the Ford Motor Company had built a giant auto plant, or Stalingrad, where the Detroit architect Albert Kahn had built a mammoth tractor factory. Set apart by their accents, novelty and the quality of their clothing, most Americans enjoyed quasi-celebrity status. Whereas back home they had been "regular assembly-line Joes," they were now welcomed as "experts" to fledgling Russian industries, and gave lectures on the United States -- usually the evils of American unemployment -- to Soviet factory clubs. They also pursued familiar expatriate activities -- reading their own English-language paper, the Moscow Daily News, sending their children to English-language schools, singing in the Anglo-American chorus and playing baseball. But any change of heart about coming to the Soviet Union brought a realization of how difficult it was for them to leave.
Tzouliadis tells of one group of American factory workers who were told upon their arrival in December 1931 to hand over their passports for registration, given registration forms to fill out, and then "abruptly informed that they had all become Soviet citizens." Others accepted working contracts in the Soviet Union only to be accused of espionage and required to take up Soviet citizenship to clear their names. Before November 1933, the United States had no diplomatic presence in Russia, and the main recourse for "captured Americans" was the power and pressure of the foreign press. But the revocation of U.S. passports was a touchy subject among journalists facing censors and expulsion, and this issue was among many that were under-reported. Even the existence of Ukraine's mass famine, which killed millions in the early 1930s, was in question for such reporters as Walter Duranty, the longtime New York Times Moscow bureau chief who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting.The U.S. Embassy opened in 1933 to a deluge of requests by Americans desperate to leave. But many of the would-be emigrants no longer held U.S. passports, or had become Soviet citizens, forcing diplomats to turn to the labyrinthine Soviet bureaucracy for answers that never came.
Through extensive archival research, including internal embassy memorandums, correspondences and files, Tzouliadis shows how hundreds of Americans were essentially forsaken by a government unable to protect them. Although the State Department had information concerning the theft of U.S. passports for the fraudulent entry of communists into the United States, and was aware of numerous reports that the Soviet authorities were issuing residency permits for ever shorter periods to force Americans to accept Soviet citizenship, Tzouliadis writes that its staff did little to negotiate with the Soviet Foreign Ministry even in the "honeymoon" years. By 1938, many Americans were simply being picked up by secret police officials just outside the embassy gates. A young officer by the name of George Kennan, later the architect of the U.S. policy of "containment" of Soviet communism, attached the following note in 1938 to the file of an American stuck in the camps. His ideas fell on deaf ears:

The Soviet Government has the administrative power to arrest and hold incommunicado indefinitely any American citizen in the Soviet Union ... Should this person have at the time of his arrest only American nationality the Soviet authorities apparently have only to notify us that he has been admitted to Soviet citizenship in order to create a situation in which under our usual practice we would not press further representations in his behalf ... The upshot is that in reality no American citizen resident in the Soviet Union has any assurance that we will be able to help him in case the Soviet authorities should take repressive action again him. The situation is such that these people are virtually at the mercy of the Soviet authorities ... Logically we should refuse to recognize the naturalization of Americans in the Soviet Union as voluntary and valid in the absence of confirmation of the voluntary character of the act on the part of the person concerned ... An alternative would be to give publicity to the real situation, with a view to relieving the Department and the Embassy at Moscow of further responsibility for the protection of our citizens resident in the Soviet Union.

Reading "The Forsaken," I was reminded of a comment that a Russian girlfriend of mine once made about the "naivety" of Americans, who "have values and think they can live by them." Oftentimes, history is more powerful than the people caught up in it. Perhaps Thomas Sgovio, who survived 16 years of imprisonment, most of them spent in Kolyma, relays this idea best when quoted at the end of Tzouliadis' book. Having learned from his newly-released file that his American sweetheart in Moscow had informed on him, Sgovio said, "She was not a very courageous person. It was a frightening time for everyone."Pang-Mei Natasha Chang is the author of the memoir "Bound Feet & Western Dress." She is currently writing a book on expats in China

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