Tuesday, August 19, 2008

American prisoners in the Soviet Union

I had heard of a US invasion of the former Soviet Union in a bid to abort the communist revolution- the invasion was ineffectual. But it's news to me that the Soviet gulag harboured last numbers of Americans.

I got to know this from a review of a book on the subject in the Economist. The Americans were workers who landed in the Soviet Union during the Great Depression, desperate for jobs. At first, they were welcomed with open arms. But later the mood of the Soviet authorities changed:

Initially lauded as welcome refugees from the miseries of capitalism (and as useful specialists who might help replicate the bits of it that worked, such as factories) from 1935 onwards they became enemies of the people, infiltrators and spies. A tiny handful, such as Paul Robeson, a singer, were tolerated as propaganda trophies. The rest sank into a living Hades of torture, rape, slave labour, starvation, frostbite and death, shared with millions of others.
American diplomats in the Soviet Union and also American journalists turned a blind eye to the fate of these unfortunate workers. 'Serves them right' for having forsaken the US for the Soviet Union seems to have been the attitude:

Even before their arrest, most of the Americans were, in effect, prisoners: with their passports confiscated they were involuntary Soviet citizens. But the only people who might have helped saw no reason to do so. Diplomats in America’s newly established embassy in Moscow regarded all the migrants as communist sympathisers who had thrown in their lot with the system.

... If the diplomats look bad, so too do the Moscow-based foreign journalists, who shunned the story as liable to risk their official accreditation; the debaucheries on offer nightly at the Hotel Metropol, courtesy of the NKVD secret police, may have led them to choose their own livelihoods over the lives of others.

There was a shabby postcript to all this: American prisoners of war, freed by Soviet troops in Germany, were also packed off to the Gulag. And even this did not evoke outrage in the US!

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