The Forsaken, by Tim Tzouliadis

American dreamers wake up in hell
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The Independent Culture

One of the depressing aspects of contemporary Russia is the adulation accorded by many Russians to Joseph Stalin. In The Forsaken, Tim Tzouliadis has not only written a particularly vivid and harrowing account of what Stalin's Terror meant to its victims, but has shown that the dictator and his system were no respecters of origin. The story uncovered by Tzouliadis is one both Americans and Russians might prefer to forget.

It begins in the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression. In "the least heralded migration in American history", many thousands of Americans from all walks of life – "professors, engineers, factory workers, teachers, artists, doctors, even farmers" – set sail from a land of unemployment for the brave new world of Soviet Russia. Under the Five Year Plan, they were assured, there were jobs for all in well-run factories with every amenity.

One early result of the American influx was the emergence of baseball as a "national sport" of the Soviet Union. But within a few years the games had disappeared – as had most of the young men who participated in them. American birth turned out to be no defence when faced with an NKVD interrogator demanding a confession of anti-Soviet activity. If anything, it could be taken as proof of being a spy or a "wrecker", particularly if the accused had asked for help from the American embassy. Not that such help was ever forthcoming. The ambassador, Joseph Davies, was more concerned with cultivating Stalin's good opinion than intervening. In any event, most US migrants had accepted Soviet citizenship.

While much of Tzouliadis's material comes from NKVD archives, he has also made use of the testimony of one of the very few survivors. Aged 19, Thomas Sgovio travelled from Buffalo to Moscow in 1935 to join his father Joseph. Within three years Joseph had been arrested and Thomas was desperately asking for help at the US embassy. After a visit, he was seized by NKVD agents and driven to the Lubyanka for interrogation and torture.

Three years to the day since he had waved goodbye to the Statue of Liberty, he was transported to the frozen wastes of Kolyma. Thomas survived the Gulag by good health, fighting ability, and luck. Amazingly, he found his way back to Buffalo. Tzouliadis has helped ensure his story, and those of the "captured Americans", will not, after all, be forgotten.