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Donald Rayfield
The Forsaken: From the Great Depression to the Gulags - Hope and Betrayal in Stalin's Russia
By Tim Tzouliadis (Little, Brown 472pp 25)

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It is not often that a new page of history is written. Nobody supposed that more than a handful of Americans fell victim to the NKVD's executioners and the Gulag, and even then that handful were assumed to be Communist converts who invited their fate. In 2000, the International Foundation for Democracy in Moscow published a collection of documents and statistics for the Gulag that gave, for October 1937, the height of the Great Terror, a figure of just two British subjects and zero Americans imprisoned in the Gulag (although more may be swallowed up among the 437 'miscellaneous nationalities'), and for 1 January 1942, when Britain and the USA were allies of the USSR, five British subjects and six Americans.

These statistics from an unimpeachable group of Russian reformers determined to expose the truth about totalitarianism appear, unfortunately, to be wrong. In The Forsaken, Tim Tzouliadis tells the story of American workers in the Soviet Union, some of whom were laid off by Henry Ford in the Depression and then offered work assembling Ford cars in Nizhny Novgorod (then Gorky), others who were lured by the prospect of well-paid work helping the Soviets industrialise, and others (not necessarily the majority) who believed Stalin's myth and went to build a socialist paradise. This account has no statistical apparatus, since it is based on the testimony of a few lucky survivors and whatever could be gleaned from reluctantly and briefly conceded access to the files of the Soviet secret police and prison administration. Nevertheless, it is clear that the number of 'captive Americans' in the 1930s was certainly in the high hundreds and possibly in the low thousands, and that the NKVD records are false.

For a British reader, of course, the first question that arises is: 'Were there forsaken captive Britons?' It was assumed, given the release of the British engineers 'convicted' at the Metro-Vickers 'trial' in Moscow in 1933, and the fact that British members of Comintern (like Harry Pollitt) escaped the massacre inflicted on the Eastern European and Asian members of Comintern, that the British were immune from the Gulag. This is clearly untrue. The story of May Freeman and her daughter Maisie Peters-Freeman was first told not in Britain but in Latvia, and it is probably not in the least unique. May married Jacob Peters, one of the killers in the Sidney Street siege of 1911 who was acquitted and later left England for Russia. Peters became deputy head of the Cheka and invited his wife and daughter to join him: when they got to Russia, they found Peters had a new Russian family. Maisie spent the 1950s in the Gulag and, despite her desperate appeals to British foreign ministers, died, still hoping for an exit visa, in 1971. A British Tzouliadis is urgently needed to follow up the story of our own forsaken.

This book is a fine narrative, full of ironic, sometimes black humour; it is thoroughly researched, sympathetic to the victims and merciless to the perpetrators, and sketches in the now only too familiar background of lies and terror with deadly precision. Any reader will be led to draw the following morals:

1) Never have dual nationality, for whenever you are oppressed by one of the countries you are subject to, the other will refuse to help you;

2) Never trust a multi-national corporation (Henry Ford is strikingly, but probably not exceptionally, ruthless) to lift a finger to help an expatriate employee;

3) Never expect your embassy (in this narrative the Austrian embassy is an exception) to save you from execution or torture if this might interfere with their prospects of concluding a trade deal;

4) Rambo is just a story: no government will go to much effort to recover its MIAs (missing in action), however heroic their behaviour and however certain it may be that they are still alive;

5) A state that has renounced its totalitarian past will still do all it can to understate the violence and injustice it let loose on its population.

Tzouliadis is very much on the side of the little men. The Americans who went to assemble Ford cars in factories built from the rubble of demolished Russian churches worked cheerfully in appalling conditions; they introduced baseball to Russia (until it was forbidden as a capitalist game); they became stuntmen or virtuoso musicians. Conversely, the great and the good earn Tzouliadis's savage contempt. Walter Duranty, like a few subsequent Pulitzer Prize winners, turned out to be a turncoat and liar of the first order, second only to ambassador Joseph Davies, who fawned on Stalin and denied all the evidence of his eyes and ears. Both were happy to let the 'flotsam and jetsam' of America's workers go to their deaths in the socialist paradise they praised. Of George Bernard Shaw, who never ate so well as during the Great Famine, no more need be said. Duranty and Davies, however, were not so disastrous for the world as Roosevelt, who ignored everything he was told and convinced himself, like a rabbit persuaded that it can hypnotise stoats, that he had Stalin eating out of his hand, thus condemning millions, not hundreds, to slavery.

It is the individual stories salvaged from the wreckage that save this account from completely depressing the reader. Thomas Sgovio was one of the handful of prisoners who survived decades in the goldmines in the Kolyma permafrost (a few Americans had also survived by actively denouncing their colleagues to the secret police). Although the American and British authorities (and the Red Cross) had, even in 1956, a policy of refusing to enquire after prisoners of the NKVD (to avoid being 'a source of annoyance, if not embarrassment'), Sgovio managed to contact relatives in America who did the interceding for him. He returned home, as did the stuntman parachutist Victor Herman. Henry Ford had died in 1947, not disgraced by the extraordinary fact that his company had produced motor vehicles in both Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia until 1941, but the Ford Motor Company successfully defended itself against compensation claims from its surviving workers. The toughness and the magnanimity of the few survivors, some of whom forgave those who had denounced them, are the bright spots of this fine and important book.

Donald Rayfield is Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary University of London, and author of 'Stalin and his Hangmen' (Penguin, 2005).