Depression Blues Got a Whole Lot Worse in the Gulag; Hard Labour: Inmates Arrive at a Soviet Camp

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Lewis

SHOCK. Horror. For once these reactions can be volunteered without a trace of irony. This is, literally, an appalling book, one to shudder at. It turns the spotlight on a page of Soviet history that has been ignored until now.

It explores the fate of American citizens who emigrated to Russia in the 1930s. They were victims of the Depression America had 19 million unemployed, and they were sick of queuing for handouts at soup kitchens. They had touching faith in the Communist revolution's promised land.

They left home for the prospect of work under Russia's Five-Year Plan. They emigrated in hundreds, maybe thousands not just factory workers, but teachers, doctors, artists. Only a handful ever returned.

At first, all went swimmingly. The work and wages were there. There were enough of them to support their own newspaper, the Moscow News, and to turn out baseball teams to play in Gorky Park.

In Nizhni Novgorod, then renamed Gorky, Henry Ford no less was building an automobile factory with a workers' city alongside. He was well-rewarded for it 40 million U.S. dollars paid in gold. No one did more business with Stalin than Ford.

'We respect American efficiency in everything,' said Stalin.

In 1933, America installed diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia, and President Roosevelt signed documents apparently guaranteeing U.S. citizens their rights to liberty and free speech in their adopted homeland.

So it went until Stalin denounced 'saboteurs, divisionists and spies', signalling the start of the Terror at the end of 1934. Americans, who could be automatically put in these categories, began to disappear, along with other 'enemies of the people' seized by the secret police, the NKVD, in the small hours of the morning.

Many were peremptorily shot.

Others lingered in jail, before being sent to the camps of the Gulag. Those who wanted to go home found that they had walked into Catch 22.

Being promised 'dual nationality', they had surrendered their American passports, which were never returned. Instead, they were deemed Soviet citizens. When they besieged the American Embassy, they were told nothing could be done to help them because they were no longer Americans.

TIM TZOULIADIS has shown great energy and initiative in tracking down what happened to some of these people through Russian archives, obscure memoirs, reports and interviews with survivors' relatives. These are stories of unrelieved cruelty and misery.

Two in particular, Thomas Sgovio and Victor Herman, survived 16 years in the camps and eventually made it home to America, where they published little-known, first-hand accounts of the treatment of themselves and their friends, almost all of whom had perished.

Thanks to Sgovio, we are introduced to the Kolyma camps, hitherto a symbol of the Gulag at its worst in the farthermost north-eastern corner of Siberia, where temperatures dropped below -50F, colder than at the North Pole. …