The Forgotten American Victims of Stalin’s Great Terror

In the chaos of war, hardly a soul knew or cared about the solitary deaths of such victims.”

In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, poverty was rife in America and many Americans struggled to find work or feed themselves. Therefore, it was no surprise that an advertisement from a Soviet Trade Agency promising a secure job, paid vacations and free medical care went on to attract over 100,000 applications.

Out of these, around 10 thousand Americans were selected. Yet, thousands more unofficially would be granted access on a tourist visa. As they and their family left the states hoping to seek a better future in the Soviet Union, the great majority of them would never be seen or heard of again.

Recommended Reading: The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia by Tim Tzouliadis

But life was indeed good for the first few years for the immigrants. Compared to the failing banks and businesses, the mid-west dust bowl, and the long breadlines back home, the lifestyle many Americans enjoyed in the Soviet Union was certainly far better. The immigrants even established some of the Union’s first jazz clubs, English schools, and baseball teams to feel more at home.

American baseball team in Moscow
American expatriates playing baseball near Moscow, 1932.

However, this ‘Socialist Paradise’ was not to last as Stalin’s growing paranoia let to the start of his violent purges, targeting anyone and everyone even mildly deemed to be a threat to his iron rule.

Alex Gelver was among the many young men who had come to the Soviet Union to work at the factories. But when people started disappearing, he became afraid and went to the embassy for help. Instead, just outside the gate, he was stopped by a bunch of strangers, who asked if he had told any of his fellow workers that life was better in the United States? Naively, Alex would reply in the affirmative and that would be enough to conclude his disappearance afterward at the hand of Stalin’s secret police.

marvin volat. Soviet american victim
Photo of Marin Volat, a native of Buffalo, NY, he moved to Moscow to study Violin and was arrested when he tried returning. He died shortly a year afterward in the gulags.

Another American named Arthur Talent was arrested by the secret police on charges of espionage.  Earlier he had been given a new suit of clothes by the wife of Paul Robeson when they arrived in Moscow. The soviet agents searched up his apartment, found the clothes, and insisted that it was his payment for spying. A declassified document file revealed that he has interrogated and tortured for weeks until he was finally forced into confessing the crime he did not commit. A crumpled slip of paper, inserted near the end of the file, reveals he was soon shot dead afterward. He was only 21 years old.

Thousands of more Americans would meet similar fates like Alex and Arthur, arrested, tortured, and summarily executed, the ‘luckier’ ones would be sent to the gulag to perform hard labor. At the height of the purges, armed police in black cars in the dead of the night would arrive at the home of many immigrant families, taking away their male members to interrogate and execute.

Declassified records show that the American government clearly knew of this but remained ambivalent of helping its own trapped citizens, repeatedly turning them away from the embassy to be preyed upon by NKVD agents lurking outside. Labeled as ‘communist sympathizers’, they were to “no longer be entitled to protection without the special approval of the Department.”

Victor Herman with his family
A photo of Victor Herman with his family returning to the U.S. Once a famed parachutist, Victor spent 18 years as a Soviet prisoner.

The reality was that the overwhelming majority of Americans that came to the Union did not so out of any devotion to communism. Rather, most had simply come in search of a better life for themselves and their family, to escape racial or gender persecutions or had been first-generation migrants coming back to reunite with their relatives and loved ones.

For two more generations, the surviving Americans would continue to be prosecuted in the Union. Some of them would finally be facilitated to return home to the States in the 60s when relations between the two counties momentarily grew less hostile.

While other Western countries launched a formal investigation into the disappearance of their countrymen, the American government made no such attempt. The fate of the many American people who perished in the purges remained unknown for decades, leaving their friends and loved ones back home to grow old without ever knowing what happened to them. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union, did documents on the victims became public.

 

 

 

 

 

A. R. Usmani

Historian | Researcher | Likes to live in the past because housing is much cheaper

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