Pin It

The Forgotten American Emigrants to the USSR

Tim Tzouliadis' new book The Forsaken remembers the thousands of people who exchanged poverty for tyranny

The Forsaken, the new book by 40-year-old British documentary-maker Tim Tzouliadis, tells the story of thousands of Americans who fled the Great Depression for the false promise of prosperity in Stalin's Russia. Through official records, memoirs, newspaper reports and interviews, Tzouliadis reconstructs the lives of these ill-fated men, women and children, exposing the complacency of American diplomats and journalists in the face of terrible abuses by the Soviet regime.

Dazed Digital: In his review of your book in the Literary Review, Donald Rayfield writes that "It is not often that a new page of history is written." Do you think this is a new page?
Tim Tzouliadis:
These people did fall into one of those crevasses of history. When the Cold War began in the 1940s, the Soviets didn't want it publicised that so Americans had come over or that so many American industrialists had helped with the industrialisation of the Soviet Union. And it was also an embarrassment to the American government that all these Americans were trapped in Russia and that the State Department had manifestly failed to save them. So these people were ignored by both sides – they were victims of international politics as well as Stalinism. It's a forgotten chapter of twentieth century history, and yet the story tells you so much about the United States as a country, and about Americans as emigrants as opposed to immigrants, and about Stalinism.

DD: How was it researching the book?
It was a really long process. There were so many different aspects and different protagonists. A lot of the material was in the American archives in Washington DC, which holds the State Department archives. And there were also the transcripts of the NKVD confessional interviews that had been released in the early 90s, although they've since been closed again. The former Soviet archive has minutes of things like Henry Ford's emissary to Joseph Stalin: the emissary says, "Henry Ford would love to work with you again," and Joseph Stalin says, "Well, if I'd been born in America I probably would have been a businessman myself."

And the American archives were also fascinating because they have all this material that had been kept secret. For instance, one woman wrote a letter saying, "I managed to escape the Soviet Union but I was in a camp for a while and there was a guy there who's dying to get back to America." She enclosed a little bit of dried black bread that she said was from Russia and wrote, "This is what we had to eat." And the piece of bread is still sitting there in an envelope in the archives 70 years later. Another guy had been in a camp where the prisoners had to pack hides into crates which were then sent directly to the West, and he'd written on a wooden tag, "I'm in a camp in Russia, please help me", and signed his name. And they found this in Germany and delivered it to the American embassy. And the tag was sent to the State Department and put in this archive.

DD: Were the emigrants stupid to go to Russia expecting to be well-treated?
No. Looking back on it now, of course we know more about the true nature of Stalinism. But you have to remember that in 1931 the whole of western capitalism seemed to collapsing – and that wasn't the left wing point of view, that was the moderate point of view. 25% of the United States was out of a job, and the stock market had crashed so far that it would take 30 years to come back to 1929 levels. You had people queuing up for bread and living in coke ovens.

And then if you read in an American newspaper that in Russia they're opening up factories every day, that the workers are going to given great standards and great wages, that you won't be exploited, you'll work shorter hours, you'll free medicine, free schooling for your children… it would have sounded perfect. And at the same time there were respected Western intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw who were appearing on American radio programmes to say "Russia is the future, other countries will soon follow their model." I could see myself in that position saying, "Well, OK, I'll go for a year or two and find out."

DD: On the subject of Western intellectuals: in books like Martin Amis' Koba the Dread, the argument has been made that years of apologism for Stalin have put a permanent stain on the reputation of the Left. What do you think?
A terrible, shocking misjudgement was made about the true nature of Stalinism and the Soviet Union: this wasn't a workers' state, this was a totalitarian state where millions of people were killed in concentration camps. And among the left in every country there were people who saw through it all and said "It's not a utopia." George Orwell was among them, and in France there was Camus. But there were other people like Sartre who continued to apologise for Stalin, and said "The terror is exaggerated by critics of communism." Well, people do get things wrong and people do make mistakes. But no everything is clear now, there is no longer an argument, and when you get it wrong you have to hold up your hands and say, "I was wrong." Some people did that and some didn't.

Hopefully, though, we won't make the same mistakes in the future. Whether it's Russia or China, their policies today are a modern version of totalitarianism. It shouldn't matter if you're a liberal or a conservative, this is off the scale – it's just wrong to have a state where there is no democratic opposition whatsoever.

The Forsaken is out now from Little Brown.