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The American Zeks

lloyd071408.jpgJohn Lloyd, the former Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times, had an interesting dispatch this past weekend about the unknown fate of numerous American prisoners in Stalinist Russia.

Cold-shouldered By John Lloyd When, in 1992, I travelled to the far northern Russian city of Vorkuta – established as the administration centre for a vast hinterland of labour camps – I met a young Polish diplomat. He was on a mission to unearth the files of the many thousands of Poles who had been imprisoned there. As we talked in a café, I noticed an old man hovering a little way away, clearly wanting to communicate but torn between eagerness and fear. Finally, he plunged towards my acquaintance, explained that he had heard his compatriot’s Polish accent, and that he had been a zek, or convict, and stayed on. That many Poles had been seized from their eastern territories which the Soviets occupied after the Nazi Soviet pact was well-known. That Americans – three generations of them – had been inmates of the Soviet death camps, much less. In The Forsaken, Tim Tzouliadis’ clear, strong narrative discloses the terrible fates which awaited those – committed communists and apolitical innocents alike – who wandered into the Soviet sphere. Most never re-emerged.

The first generation of Americans were a mixture of communists – idealists who thought the Soviet Union was constructing a better life – and the desperate, who were among the 25 per cent unemployed at the time in the US. Real hunger stalked the streets and the farms of America; the “Joads” – so called after the family in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – were an army.Stalin’s workers’ state seemed much better. Besides, Henry Ford was building a plant there, in Nizhny Novgorod, a mini version of the vast complex at Baton Rouge in Louisiana. And so they went, were at first made much of, then, bit by bit, had their eyes opened. Deprived of their passports, they were made – often without their knowledge – Soviet citizens. They worked long hours, ate bad and scanty food, slept in filthy lodgings and soon became objects of suspicion of the secret police.Shockingly, they received no help from their own diplomats. Successive US ambassadors, led by the multi-millionaire Joseph Davies, were – following the example of President Roosevelt – themselves polite worshippers at the shrine of “Uncle Joe”. The desperate pleadings of their compatriots to be repatriated, both from those working in the USSR, and those living in the camps, were ignored. This was partly so as not to endanger Soviet-US relations; but also because, as documents from the archives show, the diplomats thought that these Reds should lie – even die – on the beds they had made for themselves.The diplomats were underpinned in their insouciance by the most distinguished US correspondent: Walter Duranty of The New York Times. In a black page in that newspaper’s history, Duranty routinely lauded Stalin, commended the show trials and dismissed the Ukrainian famine – in which more than 6m starved to death – as a fantasy. His sources were Soviet officials; other sources, he ignored.Tzouliadis does not spare us the details. The camps, especially those in Kolyma in the far north east, were places where death came agonisingly. They were killing grounds for some 20m people, mostly Soviets – but among whom the Americans fared no better, and sometimes worse, than the rest. They starved, froze, or were worked to death.This happened to the “idealists”; to those Americans taken from German POW camps “liberated” by the Soviets; and, in the third wave, to Americans captured in the Korean war, in which Russia fought as a proxy.The one thing to be thankful for in this grim, brilliantly told story is that it reads as from another time. It is inconceivable that any civilised diplomatic service would now behave like that. Nor that any decent journalism could produce Duranty-type whitewash. But – as my meeting in Vorkuta recalls – the victims are with us still.John Lloyd is a former FT Moscow bureau chief