Tag Archives: gulag

The Depression Americans who went to the USSR

Back in the early 1930s, several thousand Americans packed up and went to work in the Soviet Union. Few ever returned. Few survived to the Cold War era.

When we look back on an historical decision that might seem nuts to us, we should subtract our hindsight and seek to understand what was known at the time before making judgments. In this case:

  • While there was some information about the large-scale suffering and death of the Holodomor and the liquidation of private agriculture, few Americans understood how bad it truly was, and few cared. We’re ass-ignorant of the world today, even though a network connects us with the news sources of our choice via devices held in our hands. Who would expect us to be less ass-ignorant back when the information was pre-selected by a newspaper publisher?
  • In 1933, the USSR was just sixteen years old. It presented itself as the fiery champion of working-class interests. In those days, working-class people were willing to strike, fight, and die for better conditions. It wasn’t insane for a typical American worker to wonder whether those Russians might not have come up with something good, even if at first they’d had a messy civil war. The more educated Americans realized that, to a large degree, our own revolution was a civil war with foreign intervention as much as it was a revolt against a foreign power. If our independence came with a civil war, why not that of other countries?
  • 1933 could be described as the heart of the Great Depression. Unemployment was the norm. Homelessness was commonplace. Workers with skills, such as laid-off Ford automotive employees, wanted only a place to use what they knew. The USSR was playing industrial catch-up, and that made them very receptive to Ford technology and those who understood it.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had not yet written The Gulag Archipelago. There was no way to foresee the purges of the late 1930s, still less the long-term pathology of penology as an economic and social control mechanism lasting into the 1960s. No one knew, either, that a wildly gesticulating little World War I Austrian corporal would, within six years, launch a war of genocidal conquest, much less who would be on which side. Americans were more concerned about ending Prohibition so that those who could afford to do so could legally escape into alcohol, long a very American habit. Hoover had failed, new leadership was in place, and it was hard to imagine anything worse.
  • There were no nuclear weapons; there was no Cold War; there was only one avowedly communist country in the world; the United States professed non-alignment. Eastern Europe had not been handed off to Stalin, who was relatively new to power. Mao Zedong was holed up in the mountains of northern China figuring out how to get into power against a powerful foe like Chiang Kai-Shek.
  • This country seems always to have had, and even to require, a designated enemy. Sometimes it’s a race, sometimes it’s an ideology, sometimes it’s a country–but this country has rarely if ever not had an enemy and I’m not sure it would know what to do without one. (Some of us think that if it doesn’t have one, one is designated for us, just to keep us marching along, but that’s a personal view.) The specter of world communism was an easy demonization, because: it tied into our own social dissent, it promised to run absolutely counter to the ruling interests, and it had already been seen–at least by those in the know–to bring on convulsion, shortage, repression, and state-sponsored murder. (That not everyone believed those tales is also a factor, but in this case the stories were if anything an understatement.)
  • With any designated enemy, there are two sides, usually both about half wrong. One side will always be making that enemy out to be less than human, meritless, the ultimate enemy of all that is decent, unworthy of the least sympathy. The other side will always be looking for mitigating factors, exceptions, reasons to believe otherwise. It’s still with us today. There are still people, for example, who will try to deny or minimize the Holocaust. But there are also still people who will make any excuse necessary for any people or nation that opposed the Holocaust. In 1930s US society, the side demonizing the USSR was obvious enough, though it also went so far as to view the average Russian (or other Soviet citizen; barely half were Russian) as a half-civilized Asiatic. The side mitigating for the USSR was not too ignorant to realize that the side demonizing the USSR and its constituent peoples had a vested economic interest in avoiding state-planned economics, in breaking organized labor, and in continuing to sit on its pile of inherited wealth. Reality: while some of the Soviet government’s actions were barbaric, a people who produce the cultural landmarks of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, and many more, are certainly not barbarians. And while a massive slave labor camp system and a period of mass starvation almost defying comprehension may fairly be said to overshadow any social advances, social advances there still were; they just were not sufficient for a balanced mind to consider them worth enduring mass starvation. I’m not sure what could be, since the dead are no longer around to enjoy social advances.

Our view of past times will always be more balanced when we remember what the people of the times did not know.

In this timeframe, in this economic situation, several thousand working-class Americans, mostly out-of-work automotive laborers, accepted the Soviets’ open invitation to come and work. A few were communist ideologues who had bought into one extreme of the pro-Soviet narrative, but most were more interested in a better way to provide for their families. The USSR was buying one of Ford’s old plants, and it would need workers familiar with auto manufacture. (The Soviet weakness in this area would persist for many years. During WWII, they considered our Lend-Lease tanks and fighter planes mostly substandard, but without our humble trucks, the Soviet Army would have had a far harder logistical time.)

The US government and industrial leadership generally did not care if a bunch of laid-off laborers wanted to move overseas. If they didn’t want to be at home, great; they were no longer our problem. If they represented useful propaganda for the USSR, oh well; there weren’t very many, and with or without them, domestic conditions were such that it was best not to draw the competing propaganda sword with a country lacking a free press. (Even into the 1970s, the USSR would use old Depression breadline photos and footage as anti-US propaganda. Then again, in the 1970s, I very well remember that we were still talking of the USSR as if the Stalin purges had never abated.)

What most of those Americans did not realize was that the Soviet government automatically granted most Soviet citizenship upon landing, whether or not they applied for it. According to US law, accepting a foreign citizenship meant renunciation of US citizenship. Ah, but what if they never accepted Soviet citizenship? If they were in prison, and the State Department asked about them, and the USSR said “They have become Soviet citizens and are no longer your concern,” there wasn’t much State could do about it unless permitted into prison to verify the situation.

In order to do that, the State Department–seen from its perspective of the time–would have to care about a bunch of lousy commie sympathizers who actually thought it was better to have a job with the commies than to be at home starving in the land of apple pie and baseball. (The Americans in the USSR in fact missed baseball enough to establish a league.) While the USA has rarely done much to prevent anyone from expatriating, it also rarely continues to care about anyone who does so. That went double for anyone who expatriated to a society whose ideology proclaimed capitalism an evil to be torn down, and most Americans felt likewise. They don’t want to be at home? Hope the door hit them in the ass, and they don’t come back.

Americans have never taken especially well to the notion that anyone would voluntarily choose to be anywhere but the United States, given a choice in the matter, because Americans have never taken too well to the notion that there could ever be any better place. Thus, in a case like that of these American expatriates, there would neither be government interest in their cause, nor any public groundswell to pressure it. Just a few isolated relatives writing to the State Department to beg its intervention on behalf of people it fundamentally did not want to assist, let alone get back.

Stalin’s purges began in 1937. They decapitated the Soviet Army, leaving corporals leading platoons (normally led by junior lieutenants) and majors commanding brigades (normally led by brigadier generals). They ripped through every ethnicity and social class, a concept the USSR had done nothing to eliminate. The pattern was arrest, beatings and torture, confession and implication of others, a show trial, and a sentence either of death or a quarter century at labor intended to cause death. Many were shipped to the Kolyma gold fields in eastern Siberia, where they died by the thousands. A good many were sent to mine uranium, with predictable outcomes. They came in waves, and it continued into World War II and after.

Against a sum of arrests reaching mid-eight figures, and eventual deaths estimated around twenty million, a few thousand Americans didn’t even count as an arrest wave. Many of the arrests were by quota in any case, with people picked up simply because this or that region had been estimated to contain 200 Enemies of the People, thus that many must be arrested. Any NKVD officer declining to do this was guaranteed arrest. Anyone who did comply would probably be arrested in turn later. It wasn’t genocidal in that it wasn’t specific or discriminate enough to target a particular class, ethnicity, faith, or whatever. Just because it doesn’t meet the definition of a genocide does not lessen its enormous brutality.

What of the American embassy? There was no help there. Ambassador Davies, a political appointee who had married into a fortune, said and did nothing to upset Stalin or his Soviet hosts. He did spend a lot of time collecting artworks, but he and his staff generally ignored or dismissed the representations of family members concerned for relatives who had vanished. While the record indicates that Davies was a nest-feathering toady and complete invertebrate, we should remember that there was limited effective pressure at our disposal, as there would always be. Americans have the tendency to think of their country as all-powerful, that if we do not do something, it’s because we choose not to rather than we cannot. Let’s imagine an interview with the shade of Ambassador Davies, in which I come ready to blister his bureaucratic ass and have an accounting:

“Ambassador, the charge is simple. Americans went to the Gulag, most died, and you flitted about collecting art. Every one of those Americans deserved less than you to be in a Gulag.”

“That’s a very harsh charge, young man. Would you have had me go to Stalin and demand the handover of Soviet citizens?”

“They were not Soviet citizens by choice. It had been assigned to them.”

“So you say. You may well be correct. The only way for us to know that would be to interview the captives in a setting where it was safe for them to speak the truth, and you can say all you wish that we should have demanded that, but the demand would have been refused. And angrily; we would have been accused of calling them liars. Again, probably they were–but if they were, what then would you have had us do?”

“You’re telling me we had no economic pressure to bring to bear?”

“Not without harming our own country. Our ability to guide the economy through the late Depression depended in part on our ability to buy gold, and the Soviets were selling.”

“Gold often mined by your countrymen until their deaths from starvation, disease, and protracted abuse.”

“My former countrymen, all of whom on some level chose to live under the Communists rather than stay home. Just to put this in perspective.”

“All right; I’ll accept that you had no practical leverage to verify their changes in citizenship. You were appointed a diplomat. Could you not have made at least some representations on behalf of people?”

“I could have done more of that, at the risk of being expelled and the Russians completely cutting off all communication. They weren’t in a very forthcoming mood. As you may recall, they were killing their own people by the millions. But very well; let’s say we did that, and they told us to butt out of their internal affairs. What then? You cannot seriously be proposing that the United States should have gone to war over it. We had little economic leverage. Furthermore, there was the risk of driving them into Hitler’s camp, and with the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 it looked as though that had happened. Do you, my inquisitor from the lands of lumberjacks and cowboys, in your hindsight, believe that US interests would have been well served by forcing a longer and more enduring cooperation between a resource-rich USSR and a resource-poor but technologically advanced Nazi Germany?”

I would not be able to help seeing the old bastard’s points. That is why we put our history in the context of its times, so that we subtract our modern hindsight in the effort to make a reasonably informed evaluation of the past.

Few of the Americans ever saw home again, and those who did typically didn’t get home until the Khrushchyov era (beginning mid-fifties, ending mid-sixties). While the Gulags didn’t go away by magic when Khrushchyov admitted they’d gone way too far, they gradually became less brutal, less prevalent, and less indiscriminate. Make no mistake; a Soviet citizen still had to watch his or her words, and the Lubyanka and Lefortovo would remain dreaded into the 1990s. But there’s no evidence the repression maintained the Stalinist level. As a practical matter, it could not have; lest they run out of people to kill, or to guard those on their way to die.

And what of later inquiries into the fates of Americans, during and after Khrushchyov? In the first place, admitting an embarrassing truth with comfortable ease is not naturally a human trait, and it is especially not a Russian cultural trait. Where records had been kept in full, many had been destroyed by people seeking to cover their own culpability. Many were falsified, as in “died of stomach cancer” could mean “died during gang rape when thrown to criminals” or “starved and fell dead on the spot while mining gold.” Sometimes it helps to ask nicely, rather than make demands; the one making demands may puff up with his or her Great Moral Rightness, but s/he doesn’t get what is desired. A lot of French nationals all went missing, and the evidence indicates that many of their fates were eventually learned. Many of ours’ fates still remain unknown or obscure. It may be that the French weren’t as pushy and rude as our people.

But even then, in the second place, here’s the question that can’t be evaded. Suppose we had become insistent, from the 1950s even to today. Fine; and what if they just said “go to hell”? Would we then move closer to a potential nuclear exchange? Invade? Stop selling them grain (hardly good news for our farming industry)? In the end, if the Soviets or their successors didn’t or don’t want to answer, nothing realistic could compel them. And there’s more, one of the most uncomfortable realities to face, one with implications hard to face even today.

To wit: let’s imagine you are a foreign leader aware of an embarrassing number of carefully sequestered American prisoners your country holds. If proof were released of their survival–that your country had held them all this time just because letting them go would be to release a thousand accounts condemning your country’s deceit and inhumanity–what would you do? At some point, acting in brutal self-interest and national interest, what is there to stop you from doing the most logical but brutal thing? I think it very likely that this occurred in Vietnam, for example, that some of our POWs remained in captivity into the 1980s, and that when it came time for relations to thaw, the Vietnamese government most likely made all traces of them disappear. How much easier would this be in a country whose territory includes the vast expanse of Siberia?

It follows that, if that had occurred, there will never be an admission of it. If proof even exists, it may always be beyond our reach.

So yes: several thousand Americans disappeared into the Gulag system. Most may safely be presumed to have died before Stalin, based upon those fates we do know. A few eventually found their ways home during political thaws. Yes, they were naïve to buy into the bright future offered by Stalin’s USSR, but very few ever renounced US citizenship in a conscious way, nor ever meant harm to the country most still considered theirs. And they were fools indeed if they imagined that FDR would aggravate Stalin by lifting one finger on their behalf, especially (as we now know) with presidential advisor Harry Hopkins either a Soviet agent or near enough to render the difference unimportant. I find it very uncomfortable to face, but some truths are uncomfortable: as much as my evidence about Davies makes me loathe everything the man stood for, I don’t have an answer for the ultimate question in any era: “Okay, smart guy. Tell us how we do that without blowing up the world and screwing our whole country. I’ll wait.”

It doesn’t make Davies a fundamentally decent man who wanted to do the right thing. He wasn’t and didn’t; he didn’t want to do anything for anyone but himself, as it looks to me.

Perhaps you know you are getting near to some historical understanding when you uncover enough nuances to destroy any clear-cut feelgood angels-vs-demons outcome.

Even if you uncover demons, their enemies are not always angels.

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A great book you have not read: Transit Point Moscow

Some years back, I happened upon Transit Point Moscow in a used bookstore.  Synopsis:  an American, on the spur of the moment and with great impulsive idiocy, agrees to try and smuggle heroin through Soviet-era Moscow–and it doesn’t go well.  I guess that’s in the category of “young, dumbass stunts we pull that cost us ten years of our lives.”

Why it’s great:  the writing style is clear, often funny, and skillfully descriptive of the transition from arrest to imprisonment.  The book also offers a lot of cues to Russian culture.  I wouldn’t describe Amster and his cronies as sympathetic characters, but there’s a sense of honesty in that.  One does pose the question of how much of Amster’s story we believe.  I’m more inclined to believe someone who paints himself as a complete ass than as a dashing hero, and there isn’t much glory in Amster’s self-portrait.  The book is better for it.

What got me thinking about it was a more recent read, Alexander Dolgun’s Story.  I got turned on to this in a strange way, for it was on the guest room nightstand at some friends’ home.  I didn’t read it, just glanced at it, but noted the title and ordered a copy.  Dolgun was in the Gulag in the late forties and early fifties, when life was a lot harder there.  Even accounting for the temporal separation (Amster did his Gulagging over a generation later), there was enough in common between the two accounts for me to recognize terms, prison subcultures and practices.

You can learn things about a country’s mentality from its prison system.  For example, from the sheer magnitude of ours, one begins to suspect that our national mentality is that we should all be incarcerated in it. From its deep division between country club pokies for those who steal billions, and PMITA hard time for people who grow dope, one suspects that we consider having a good time (or relieving pain) without buying the drug from a corporation a horrific crime, but that if you steal a few bill, hey, that’s how we roll, shouldn’t have gotten caught.   I still haven’t figured out what the Gulag says about Russia’s mentality, honestly.