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As a newspaper created by and for Americans working in the Soviet Union, The Moscow News was at the centre of one of the 20th century’s most underreported tragedies: the entrapment and repression of thousands of American émigrés during the Great Purges of the 1930s.
And apart from a few survivors, who wrote about their experiences in the Gulag, very little is known about their fate – thanks to the fog of Soviet history and decades of official indifference in both Moscow and Washington.
That the Russian editors of The Moscow News were arrested and shot in Stalin’s purges (founding editor Mikhail Borodin was the last to go in 1949) is well documented. But of the several dozen Americans who worked at the paper in those times, we know next to nothing.
According to British journalist Tim Tzouliadis’s 2008 book, The Forsaken, least one American correspondent at the paper later committed suicide in the camps of Kolyma, an unknown number of others were arrested and disappeared, with distraught relatives bombarding the US Embassy with pleas for help and information, usually to no avail.
The Joads of America, as Tzouliadis dubs them in a nod to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, came to Moscow in their tens of thousands to escape the Great Depression, which had created 25 per cent unemployment in the United States. The first waves of desperate emigrants travelled with little information to a country that had no American consulate. (Diplomatic relations were established only in 1933, when the influx was in full swing.)
The fate of the Americans was ignored by the Western press corps in Moscow at the time, who were both censored and feted by Stalin’s regime. Led by celebrated New York Times journalist Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Moscow, they also covered up the Soviet famine of 1932-33 and often chose to turn a blind eye to the night-time purges carried out by the NKVD.
Duranty, who reportedly enjoyed scaring Muscovites by driving around the streets in his car, honking an NKVD horn, wrote in a glowing 1932 article that about 1,000 Americans a week were travelling to Russia.
While there are plenty of records about official emigration programmes to the Soviet Union organised together with the US government in the early 1930s, there are two key problems in keeping track of the American emigrants.
First, there is a dearth of information from the Russian and US authorities about what happened to the emigrants once they arrived in Russia; then there’s the fact that many foreigners were forced to surrender their American passports upon entry to the Soviet Union.
The US Embassy in Moscow today says it has no records of the Americans who travelled to work in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and were later persecuted.
“They probably avoided the embassy,” an embassy spokesman told The Moscow News.
The US State Department also said it could not provide any information about the emigrants, because its records did not go back to the 1930s.
Given the numerous corroborative accounts in Tzouliadis’ book of American-born emigrants seeking help at the embassy, however, this suggests that staff either did not keep proper records, or that they were later destroyed.
According to various accounts in “The Forsaken”, NKVD agents stationed outside the embassy on Mokhovaya Ulitsa, opposite the Kremlin, would arrest many Americans as soon as they left the embassy. Embassy staff routinely turned away applicants seeking to return home, saying they had “voluntarily” given up their US citizenship by entering the Soviet Union.
The historical society Memorial, which studies Stalinist repression and helps victims’ families find out about their relatives’ fate, said it only had the official NKVD figures of foreign citizens from 1937. These showed that just 98,800 foreign citizens were still living in the Soviet Union in 1937, of which 80 per cent were Greeks, Iranians and Chinese.
However, these figures are probably a gross underestimate of how many foreigners were in the country, as they do not take account of people who took Soviet citizenship.
The Moscow News, created in 1930 by American journalist Anna Louise Strong and Comintern official Mikhail Borodin, was a forum for the problems of American workers in the USSR, according to Tracy Strong’s biography of his great aunt.
In the early 1930s, the paper’s offices were a rowdy place to work, according to Borodin’s biographer Dan Jacobs. Borodin, charged by Stalin to oversee the mess, had to reign over “one of the most motley collections of malcontents, misfits and peripheral journalists ever gathered under one roof,” Jacobs wrote in his book, “Stalin’s man in China”.
The newspaper’s first anniversary was celebrated in October 1931 at the Foreign Workers’ Club with a party for 300 guests, a jazz band and a speech by Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, according to Tzouliadis.
The paper faced censorship from its very first edition, however. When the first edition came back from the censors ahead of its Oct. 5, 1930 launch date, a satirical story about problems in finding an apartment in Moscow was spiked for being “slanderous,” according to Strong.
With a staff of 60 by 1932, it was not clear how many suffered in the purges. Though many of the Americans were replaced by Russian-speaking typists in 1932, after their stints at The Moscow News many Americans found it difficult to return home.
The Stolar family serves as an example of many who wound up stranded, with little help from the US embassy. According to Tzoudialis, Abe Stolar’s father worked for the paper before his arrest and execution in 1937. Abe served in the Red Army, while his sister was sent to the Gulag.
Abe Stolar spent half a century trying to return to the States – finally leaving only in 1989.
Harry Jaffe, a New Jersey native, travelled to Moscow in 1933, when he began working for The Moscow News. When his regular letters home stopped abruptly in 1938, his relatives contacted the State Department, but were redirected to the Soviet Embassy because he had “expatriated” himself.
In 1939, a New York Times report said he was “believed by persons who knew him to have been arrested a year or more ago.”
According to Tzouliadis, inmates of a Gulag camp in Kolyma recalled that a day after Jaffe arrived at the camp he slashed his wrists with a razor and died.
That so many Americans were caught up in the purges is perhaps no surprise – but the indifferent attitude toward Stalin’s purges of the US Ambassador in Moscow at the time, Joseph Davies, is perhaps the book’s most shocking revelation.
Like most in the US establishment at the time, Davies – a friend of President Franklin Roosevelt who was married to a multi-millionaire heiress – regarded American emigrants to the Soviet Union as little better than unwelcome subversives who had embraced Communism. In fact, according to US government records, most emigrants gave “unemployment” as their primary reason for leaving.
Davies’ three-year posting in Moscow (interrupted by frequent holidays abroad and yachting trips on the Baltic Sea) was mostly distinguished by his glowing praise for Stalin and his front-row attendance at all of the infamous Moscow show trials. In a letter to the US Secretary of State, Davies pronounced the case against the defendants as proven “beyond a reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of treason”.
Davies’ real motivation was revealed on the eve of his departure from Moscow, according to his First Secretary, Loy Henderson. Finally receiving an audience with Stalin, Davies was overjoyed, gushing to Stalin that he was a “greater builder than Peter or Catherine” during talks over sales of US battleships to the Soviet Union. Davies later told Henderson that Roosevelt had instructed him that his main objective should be to “win Stalin’s confidence”.
Great power politics, it seems, were of far more importance than the fate of American emigrants in Russia for the US authorities at the time.
Tim Tzouliadis’s “The Forsaken: From the Great Depression to the Gulags: Hope and Betrayal in Stalin’s Russia” is published in paperback by Abacus.
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