The Forsaken: From the Great Depression to the Gulags

 Rob Attar looks at the US citizens lost to Stalin's prison camps

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Reviewed by: Rob Attar
Author: Tim Tzouliadis
Publisher: Abacus
Price (RRP): £10.99

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When the Depression was biting hard in 1930s America, thousands of unemployed people left their homes to find work in the Soviet Union. At first, crossing the ideological divide paid dividends. The Americans found jobs, settled into their new lives quite happily and were even playing baseball in Moscow’s Gorky Park.

But it wasn’t long before the immigrants discovered the true nature of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. As the decade progressed they became swept up in the Terror, where the dictator rounded on millions of supposed enemies of the state in murderous fashion. The foreign-born workers were deemed to be especially suspect ideologically and so, with little fuss, they were herded into the vast GULAG camp network. Few would ever return.

Tim Tzouliadis’s brilliant investigation into the fate of Stalin’s American victims is both gripping and horrifying. Even for those versed in the history of the Soviet Union, the appalling treatment of innocent civilians by the state authorities still has the power to shock. What is most surprising however is the lack of protest from the USA about the plight of its former citizens. The desire to maintain good relations with the USSR combined with an almost wilful refusal to believe the extent of Soviet depravity meant desperate cries for help fell on deaf ears. Americans who pleaded with their embassy to help them leave the country were turned away, only to be picked up by the Soviet secret police on the street outside.

Because several Soviet archives are as yet unopened, the picture painted by The Forsaken is not a complete one. It is nonetheless an important, thought-provoking book that reveals how quickly a dream can turn into a nightmare.

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Rob Attar is features editor of BBC History Magazine