The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis
As the population of the United States passes 300 million due to a continual swarm of immigrants wanting to get a piece of the good-life action, and the population of Russia declines from less than half that due in part to the steady emigration of people with talent, it is worth considering a time when the situation was exactly the opposite. In the early 1930s Stalin turned the Soviet Union, which had a substantially larger population than the USA, into one of the most desirable destinations for Americans deprived of work by the Wall Street crash and the subsequent Depression to emigrate to. The book under review is the story of what happened to those who made the trip to the socialist Utopia. If you like weeping, the fate of these good-hearted idealists should be enough to keep your cheeks wet until long after lights-out.
The early 1930s was the only time in the history of the United States when the country had an excess of emigration over immigration. It was also the only period when the Soviet Union seemed like a place where leading-edge industrial action was happening. For a brief period until the Great Terror disillusioned all but the mentally tramlined unteachables, a planned economy seemed to make more sense to fair-minded observers than the wild excesses and catastrophes of capitalism. A shining new future was being built by people who, if the propaganda was to be believed, were advancing in lock-step towards a world from which the serpent greed had been banished forever.
On Christmas Eve 1934, Time Magazine ran a story about Robert Robinson, a black man who had once been a machinist in the Ford plant in Detroit, but who had just been elected to the Moscow City Soviet. Robinson had moved to Stalingrad in 1930 to work alongside three hundred other Americans in the Red October tractor factory. He had left his homeland after his wages had been halved due to the Depression. He was worried that he might be laid off completely. The Soviet authorities offered him twice the pay that he was getting in Detroit, plus a maid, a car and month’s paid leave every year. Life was rosy—at least until he was assaulted for being black.
His attackers were two of his fellow Americans, who objected having to eat their meals at the same table as a “nigger”. A Russian witnessed the fight and reported it. The Stalingrad district court found Robinson’s assailants guilty, but spared them ten years in Soviet jails because, in mitigation, it allowed that they had been “inoculated with racial enmity by the capitalistic system of exploitation of the lower races.” Instead they were expelled from the USSR.
Robinson subsequently moved to Moscow where what Time Magazine called “Joseph Stalin’s coal-black protégé” became something of a celebrity. He was given work in a ball-bearing factory and that seat on the city Soviet (along with Lenin, who had been dead for ten years, and a Communist who was incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp at the time). Time quoted Robinson in surprisingly modern terms: “I am not interested in politics. In fact I have no idea what my duties will be as a Delegate in the Moscow Soviet.”
What happened after the two Americans were sent home is also interesting. One of them, Herbert Lewis from Alabama, gave an interview to the Chicago Tribune in which he said that his fellow workers had emigrated only for the money and not out of any love for communism, and that they were being “held captive by the Reds”. Unable to leave the country, they were paid miserable wages in worthless roubles, were overworked in dangerous, inefficiently-run factories, and often fell victim to serious diseases resulting from the unsanitary living conditions.
On these points at least, the nigger-hating Lewis was right. Even Robinson was not able to get out of the Soviet Union, despite desperate pleas to Paul Robeson, the Soviet-loving negro singer who was lionised in Moscow when he visited in the late 1930s. It was not until the 1970s that Robinson finally managed to escape. In 1988 he published a memoir in which he warned that the Soviet Union would never become a western-style democracy, and saying he thought Russians were incurable racists and chauvinists.
But Robinson was one of the lucky ones. Tzouliadis’s book is full of stories of other Americans who never made it out of Russia, usually because they were sent to the Gulag where they were tortured, beaten, starved and worked to death. It is a fascinating, if deeply depressing, story. The Soviet Union was never able to acknowledge, much less appreciate and reciprocate, the help it was offered by people who genuinely wished it well. The endless nastiness, suspicion and dishonesty finally overwhelmed every one of these idealists who bravely stepped into the unknown in the early 1930s, thinking they could help make a better world. There is not a single tale of hope in this exhaustively-researched book.
Arguably the worst of it was that the American Embassy officials in Moscow, who should have known better and were themselves completely safe, refused to help. In the 1930s they said they did not believe their fellow-countrymen’s stories of hardship and persecution. By the time of the Cold War, they worried that to try to help those they were told were still alive might cause diplomatic difficulties.