John Walker, who left his California home to join the Taliban, was hardly the first American citizen to be seduced to sign onto a foreign ideological movement. As America sank into depression in the 1930s, it also embarked on what would be called its “Red Decade” of infatuation with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This delusion would draw hundreds of American citizens to join up with Stalin’s cause. It was a fateful decision, as many of them ended up being executed.
In a syndicated exclusive Special Report from the Associated Press, Alan Cullison reported the results of the AP’s access to old Soviet secret police files, newly declassified U.S. State Department files– some that were declassified at AP’s request– and interviews with American survivors themselves.
The AP’s investigation into the deaths of American citizens at the hands of Stalin’s Terror was inspired by rumors that Americans had been deliberately killed in the Soviet Union and by the fact that, in contrast to other governments, including Germany and Austria, the United States government never inquired about the executions of its citizens by the Soviet state.
The Americans murdered in the Terror came to the Soviet Union believing in the mythology of Communism and saw in the bread lines and bank failures of the Depression the death throes of capitalism. The USSR, they believed, was the wave of the future. And the Soviet government actively recruited American immigrants, seeing them as valuable contributors to the industrialization drive, often even paying their passage.
They were artists, factory workers, teachers, and engineers. Some were American-born; some were Russian-born, but naturalized American citizens who returned to Soviet Russia along with their American-born children. Some were members of the Communist party, but most were not, and although some were deported by the U.S. for subversive activities, most went willingly. All of these were what Lenin called “useful idiots.”
Eventually Stalin’s paranoia about everything foreign and non-Russian turned these American immigrants from a Soviet asset to a liability, and so they began to disappear, arrested for such “subversive activities” as wearing American-made clothes, asking the U.S. embassy for help, or even talking about what life was like back home in America. The U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Bullitt, wrote to FDR in 1935, telling him that “almost no one dares have any contact with foreigners and this is not unbased fear but a proper sense of reality.”
In addition to the murders of hundreds of Americans by Stalin, the Associated Press also investigated in detail the fates of fifteen missing Americans–men and women who volunteered in the late ’20s and ’30s to help “Uncle Joe” Stalin build the “Worker’s Paradise,” and who vanished, leaving friends and loved ones to grow old without ever knowing what happened to them. The files of these fifteen tell that eight of them were executed, two died in labor camps, and the other five spent years in Soviet prisons.
One of Stalin’s American victims was Lovett Fort-Whiteman, who was the founder of the American Communist Party’s black affiliate, the American Negro Labor Congress. He was invited by the Soviet government in the 1920s to come to Moscow to work in the Comintern, where he labored to advance international Soviet Communism, until, in 1937, he disappeared after attempting to get permission to return to the United States. AP investigators found his secret police file in Kazakstan. His file told of his arrest for making anti-Soviet statements. For this he was internally exiled to the city of Semipalatinsk in the middle of Soviet Central Asia, but a few months later he was arrested again and sentenced to hard labor. Mr. Fort-Whiteman, a robust man and avid boxer, died, emaciated and broken, in the labor camp, on Jan. 13, 1939. He was 44.
Another of the fifteen victims was Alexander Gelver, who was arrested outside the U.S. embassy. He was afraid–people were disappearing everyday–and he just wanted to get back home to America. His interrogators wanted to know if he thought life was better outside the Soviet Union. Did he actually say this to his fellow workers at the local factory? Was this true? Gelver, who had been brought to Soviet Russia by his parents a few years before, said that it was. The secret police considered this an open-and-shut case of espionage. Alexander Gelver then disappeared. His file tells that on New Year’s Day 1938, Alexander Gelver of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was executed, most likely by the favored method of that time, a single bullet to the back of the head. He was just 24 years old.
Still another of the fifteen was Thomas Sgovio, one of only a few of the Americans known to have survived the brutal prison camps of the Soviet Far East. Thomas Sgovio’s story begins when, at age 19, he accompanied his father, Joseph, to Moscow after his father’s deportation as a communist agitator in 1935.
By day the duo would lecture workers on the horrors of the Great Depression in America, but by night young Thomas would dance in the hotel ballrooms with Lucy Flaxman, another young American who had been brought to Moscow by her parents. Life was good–for a while. But within just two years, foreigners began to disappear, including Joseph Sgovio. Again and again, Thomas tried to get the U.S. embassy to help him get back to America, and each time, he was told his case was under consideration. Then on March 21, 1938, he was told to come back after lunch and after he stepped outside the embassy grounds he was immediately seized by agents of the secret police.
Thomas Sgovio was put on a freight train with twelve other Americans destined for a labor camp. After a year spent in the Arctic mines, ten had died. Thomas’s father, Joseph, spent eleven years in a labor camp and died, a broken man, shortly after his release in 1948. Thomas Sgovio would spend sixteen years in the labor camps of the gulag, until he was freed and managed to emigrate to the U.S. in 1960.
The AP investigators showed Thomas Sgovio his secret police file. Thomas wanted to know what had happened to Lucy Flaxman. There, on page 80, he read that Lucy Flaxman had been an informer for the secret police all along, stooling not only on him but on many of her other fellow Americans. She reported that “Thomas slanderously swore that Soviet power wasn’t based on the love of the people, but on terror instilled by fear of being arrested.” Reading this, Thomas Sgovio remarked sadly, “She was not a very courageous person. It was a frightening time . . .” Thomas Sgovio died in Arizona in 1997, at the age of 81.
Also among the fifteen were four young men from Boston who had played on the same Russian-American baseball team in Moscow as Thomas Sgovio. They are four of the over 10,000 names known to have been shot at one execution grounds alone.
And then there was Jean Singer, who in 1932, at age 19 and along with her father, Elias, moved from New York to Moscow. Both unfortunately gave up their U.S. passports four years later when they couldn’t pay the renewal fee. A year later, Elias Singer, 59, was arrested and shot. “We would have left if we had the $2 for the passport renewal,” Jean Singer said. “I didn’t come to stay in Russia. I thought I would be going home one day.” Jean Singer has lived the rest of her life in Russia and was 84 years old when she was interviewed about her father.
The victims also included was a family torn apart by the Terror. Julius Hecker was born in Leningrad but immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. He earned a Ph.D, at Columbia University, but in the 1920s, he returned to Russia with his American-born wife and three young daughters to teach philosophy at Moscow University. He gave up his U.S. citizenship and wrote several books defending Communism that were published in the West.
His daughter, Marcella, still lives in the house her father built outside Moscow and vividly remembers the day a long black government car came and took her father away. That was the last time she ever saw him. Marcella, her two sisters, and her mother were arrested, but eventually released.
After that, his daughters knew nothing of what happened to Julius Hecker until AP showed them his 100-page secret police file. It said that he confessed to being a spy for the U.S. His Communist books were said to be merely a cover for his espionage. The file also tells that on April 28, 1938, two and a half months after he was seized, Julius Hecker was told he would be shot in two hours. He was 57.
Marcella talked about her father: “He was just an idealist, a very deeply idealistic man, and that just destroyed him. I did not like learning what happened to him, but I think it is very important to know. None of my sisters, nor I, could sleep after reading that.”
The Associated Press investigation revealed not only how the Terror swept away hundreds of American citizens, but also the shocking lack of action by the U.S. embassy in Moscow to pleas and appeals for help from Americans fearing for their lives.
The documents unearthed by the AP investigation show how the U.S. embassy staff carefully chronicled the Terror’s toll on people in Russia, making detailed notes and memos and official reports for Washington, but how it vacilated in any decision to help the victims, citing the growing fears of communism back home in America. As we have seen, Americans were denied documents because they couldn’t afford the fees (and U.S. dollars were a crime to possess, anyway), or they lacked an up-to-date photo for their passport. Many were arrested by secret police agents planted outside the embassy gates.
Revealed for the first time was the role of George Kennan, famed author of the doctrine of military and political containment of Communism, which, as Joseph Stromberg has observed, seemed more like U.S. containment of Germany and Japan, delaying their reemergence as economic and political competitors.
George Kennan was the embassy secretary during the Terror and was interviewed by the AP investigators about his role in the government’s connivance to trap certain Americans behind Soviet lines. Although he declined to be questioned in person, he did answer written questions. To the question of Americans being executed by the Soviet government on his watch, Mr. Kennan gave what the reporter termed a “legalistic answer”: “I can recall no instance in which any of them who, being there for open and legitimate purposes and with a proper Soviet visa on their American passports, was arrested, confined for any length of time, or executed by Soviet authorities.”
But in 1931, George Kennan compiled a list of eighty-six “individuals residing in Soviet Russia, reputed to be American citizens but communist sympathizers.” A note above the list of names suggests that they “might no longer be entitled to protection without the special approval of the Department.” The reporter, Alan Cullison, believes that the memo seems to imply that the embassy was willing to place politics before people and deny certain Americans assistance in escaping Stalin’s Terror. Mr. Kennan did not reply to the questions about his memo.
However, he did write that it was difficult for the embassy to help Americans who had obtained Soviet passports, as many had, as the Soviets then considered these Americans to be Soviet citizens and beyond the jurisdiction of any U.S. claim.
The U.S. embassy did try to resolve the issue in 1937, but so many officials had been shot as the purges swept through the ranks of the Soviet government that the embassy had few officials left to negotiate with. The toll of the purges on the Soviet government are confirmed by many, including a Russian historian, Sergei Zhuravlev, who was interviewed by Mr. Cullison.
The late 1930s was the period of the great show trials, which, amongst other purposes, were designed to convince the Soviet public of the omnipresent threat of foreign spies and subversive “wreckers” working to bring down the Soviet worker’s state. Accordingly, the Terror tore through Soviet society like a tornado, sweeping up nationals and foreigners alike.
Entire ethnic communities in whole towns were arrested as spies for “their” governments–Finns, Germans, Poles, Estonians, Chinese, Italians, and many others, including, as we now know, Americans. And along with foreign residents, the Terror was lethal to those Soviet citizens and nationals who returned to the USSR, and those who had dealings with foreigners, such as government officials, both high and low, whose official duties required interacting with foreigners.
And as we have seen, no group of people was terrorized more than the foreign Communists who had settled in the USSR. Entire ranks of the German, Polish, Jewish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Yugoslav, Estonian, Latvian, Greek, Romanian, Italian and others, including American Communists, disappeared one by one or en masse.
In a letter to H.G. Wells, Stalin once explained the need for the Terror: “…state power is needed as the lever of transformation. The new state power creates a new legality…”
These American Communists and their children placed their trust in one legal system after another and when betrayed by one sought protection by the government and society they spurned. However, this faith was not reciprocated and as usual the state chose to sacrifice people to the whims of politics and propagandizing the public. And in the case of John Walker, a man who joined the Taliban while the US government was funding it to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, he is now presented as a scapegoat for all the evils of the Taliban –a de facto US ally before Sept. 11.
The lesson should be clear: Never pin your hopes on the consistency or fairness of any government, at home or abroad.