The Forsaken

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Tim Tzouliadis, Little, Brown, £20

The Forsaken were the US emigrants abandoned by successive governments to the systematic repression of the Stalinist USSR. Vivid first hand accounts of the few survivors are woven together with subsequent research which has begun to establish the full horror of the gulag prison camp system.

The first generation of US migrants were fleeing the Depression, which put 13 million workers on the dole. Masses heard of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan and hoped for ordered progress and secure jobs in place of free market anarchy. In the first eight months of 1931 alone, the Soviet trade agency in New York received 100,000 emigration applications.

Initially these "Yankees" were warmly received - the Soviet media was happy to advertise their choice as proof of Communism’s superiority. But the truth, which gradually dawned on many of them despite some initial privileges, was that hopes of creating a genuine workers' state had long been snuffed out by Stalinism. While the brutality of forced collectivisation took place out of the urban centres in which most Americans were based, there was no avoiding the Great Terror.

Foreigners were already being arrested, their allegiance suspected. The initially flourishing baseball league played its last games in 1936. But the full depravity was only unleashed by order 00447, the Politburo instruction for the target-driven mass murder of "anti-Soviet elements". In the space of less than two years more than a million people were executed, and countless millions more sent to labour camps to be worked to death. They were later joined by US prisoners of war and second generation immigrant victims.

Author Tim Tzouliadis is excoriating about the repeated failures of the US government and its ambassadors. In particular he paints a damning picture of Ambassador Joseph Davies, who lived the high life while lauding Stalin, even as the NKVD arrested US citizens turned away from his embassy. This former lawyer even gullibly confirmed the veracity of Stalinist show trials. Later ambassadors meekly followed the line of least resistance. Protection of its citizens - deemed safe while the USSR was an ally, then suspect for their "Red sympathies" during the Cold War - never became a priority.

Tzouliadis’ book brings alive a shocking subject with powerful personal testimonies. But his analysis is less effective. He condemns socialists such as Paul Robeson and Jean-Paul Sartre as Stalinist apologists without recognising the complexity of their positions. This stems from his view that, "The Terror was a historical continuity within a political system which glorified 'Bolshevik ruthlessness' and denigrated the value of human life." But The Forsaken does little to support this assertion, as it begins in the 1930s - a couple of Lenin quotes ripped from their Civil War context will not suffice. For a superior explanation read Mike Haynes and Rumy Hasan’s book, A Century of State Murder?