Two remarkable books have appeared in the past few years that have shone a bright light on the US-Soviet relationship during Stalin’s genocidal reign. Stalin’s War by Sean McMeekin and The Forsaken, An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia by Timothy Tzouliadis, are based on recent research regarding the millions of deaths orchestrated by Stalin and his henchmen during his 25-year dictatorship. While the former focuses on the unprecedented level of military and agricultural aid provided to Stalin by the Roosevelt administration, the latter details the horrors experienced by American citizens who were abandoned to their fates by their own government.
As the Great Depression began, several thousand Americans decided to take up employment offers in the USSR and moved with their families to participate in Stalin’s industrialization drive. The bulk of these emigrés were either members of the American Communist Party or non-party supporters of the Soviet experiment. At first, the Americans were treated well and even started a baseball league in Moscow and other large cities, which sparked an interest in the sport on the part of the Russians. Many of the Americans were Jewish and generally felt welcomed by their new Soviet employers and fellow workers. More ideologically leftist American technicians and managers arrived after the U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union and the decision by large US companies, most notably Ford, to build factories to manufacture cars in Russia. By 1934, as the full rigor of Stalin’s police state took hold, many of the new arrivals began to disappear into the vast Soviet forced labor camp system overseen by Matvei Davidovich Berman known by the acronym “Gulag”. Entreaties on the part of relatives and friends of the disappeared fell on deaf ears at the US embassy, headed by the notorious grifter Joseph Davies. Davies, a friend of FDR’s, had managed to marry Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress. Trump eventually purchased Post’s Palm Beach estate, Mar a Lago. The Davies’ spent much of their time collecting Russian antiques and art seized from the aristocracy after the October Revolution, at bargain prices. They also hosted several extravagant parties attended by many in the Soviet elites, although the ambassador only secured one meeting with the elusive Stalin.
Many embassy staffers knew what was going on, but they realized it was best to keep quiet, especially as embassy staffers were occasionally detained by the NKVD for questioning.
In 1938, Yagoda was arrested and executed and was succeeded by the bloodthirsty dwarf Nikolai Yezhov, famous for being at Stalin’s side in the notorious photo that later was edited with his removal.
After 1938, the NKVD arrested millions of Soviet citizens and liquidated the majority of the Red Army command. During this paranoid period, hundreds of American expats disappeared into the Gulag, most notoriously Magadan, in the Soviet Far East.
After the Great Terror period of Yezhov, known as the Yezhovshina, Stalin calmed things down slightly and accused Yezhov of overzealous measures, leading to his arrest, torture and execution in the very same Lubyanka prison where so many thousands received a bullet in the occipital nerve under his orders. His successor, the Mingrelian Lavrenti Beria, would survive Stalin’s death in 1953, only to be executed by Marshal Zhukov on Khrushchev’s orders in December 1953.
While the disappearance of the American Communists and fellow-travelers was regrettable, in some respects they brought this on themselves as a result of their initial naive devotion to the Soviet ideology. What was truly tragic was what ensued during the war. Both McMeekin and Tzouliadis report that hapless US airmen who made emergency landings at Soviet bases after bombing missions over Japan were then arrested by their Soviet “ally” and sent to the Magadan mines as slave labor. This, while the US delivered billions of dollars of war materiel to the USSR, even to the point of forcing margarine on the American civilian population since Stalin demanded butter since, as he told Roosevelt, the Red Army would be repelled by margarine on their rye bread.
Not surprisingly, the Roosevelt administration was riddled with Communists and fellow travelers, including Harry Dexter White, Harry Hopkins and the repulsive State Department dupe, Sumner Welles. Welles visited the Magadan region during the war and reported on how well the “volunteers” were treated in the mining camps. It turns out that Welles was a closeted homosexual on whom the Soviets had kompromat.
The most appalling chapter occurred when the Red Army “liberated” German POW camps in the eastern part of Germany and seized American officers and sent them to the Gulag. The treachery of the US administration was stunning. The same treachery was later witnessed when Stalin demanded that US officers and pilots captured during the Korean War be sent to the USSR for slave labor. When Japanese and German POWs were repatriated in 1955, they reported that they encountered Yankees in the Gulag.
Before reading these two books, and before the invasion of Ukraine, I was mildly Russophilic, notwithstanding my long-term revulsion regarding the USSR. However, I, like many others, have come to believe that there’s some kind of inherent cruelty and attendant passivity when it comes to Russians. Even Khrushchev estimated that 18 million people died in the Soviet Union from the early 1920’s to the mid 1950’s, including 3-5 million Ukrainian kulaks and peasants in the early ‘30s during the Holodomor. Centuries of servitude to the Mongols, the Tatar Golden Horde, tsars and boyars, sociopathic Bolsheviks and the current oligarchy/kleptocracy of Putin have bred a singular sense of cruelty and attendant serf-like servility in the Russians. I’ll write about what the ultimate fate of this Eurasian megastate is likely to be in a future post.