Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Forsaken - Tim Tzouliadis

With a title like The Forsaken, you know it's going to be a really cheerful read. And indeed, the book is broadly about the Soviet Union under Stalin, the show trials, the Terror, the state-sponsored fear, denouncing, torture, and of course, the Gulag.

Tzouliadis focuses mostly on Americans caught up in, many of whom had emigrated to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression because of the promise of jobs. Once there, they found it very difficult, if not impossible, to leave. And the State Department, even once the United States officially recognized the USSR as a country in 1934, was no help. In many cases, the emigrants passports had been collected when they arrived in the Soviet Union, and they'd unwittingly signed paperwork making them Soviet citizens. But even when that wasn't the case, the U.S. government basically sat on its ass. Frequently because the midlevel people felt it was useless for them to try negotiating Soviet bureaucracy, and their higher-ups were too busy trying to make friends with Stalin (at FDR's behest). It's incredibly galling, if not exactly surprising. The Soviets even helped themselves to American prisoners of war in Nazi POW camps the Soviets liberated, and the U.S. government basically did jack shit. Oh, they did send the Russians soldiers they had captured who had been forced to fight for the Nazis back to the Soviet Union. Where most of them were executed or sent to the Gulag, which is basically the same thing.

It's hard to fathom. Not that people can do that to other people, or even that a few could survive it, and a few of the people Tzoulidas follows do survive the Gulag, and even make it back to the U.S. Just the sheer scale of it, the number of people being denounced, arrested, tortured, shipped to the ass-end of nowhere and set to laboring until they die from the cold, the malnutrition, being shot, whatever. That the country could swallow up that many people, however many millions - Tzoulidas mentions a census done in the late '30s where the Soviet statisticians noted the population was only 157 million, when it had been projected for 176 million, which probably gives some sense of the number of lives lost, a number which soon included those statisticians - and continue to function.

If you would prefer to maintain any faith in humanity whatsoever, or you have blood pressure problems, I would not recommend this book. I had to stop fairly regularly to either shake my head at the imagery brought up by something Tzoulidas described, or to rage at incompetent diplomats. If those aren't concerns, and you aren't already well-versed in this dark corner of 20th Century history, give The Forsaken a chance.

'Around six months later, in the spring of 1933, Beal had made a second trip, this time to a Ukrainian collective farm, near the village of Chekhuyev, and walked several miles east. Here the atmosphere was thick with the cloying smell of death, hunger, and despair. By the side of the road, the Massachusetts-born trade unionist came across a dead horse still harnessed to its wagon, and a dead man holding its reins in his hands. Walking into an empty village, Beal looked into a peasant hut and saw a dead man still sitting by a stove: "His back was against the wall, he was rigid and staring straight at us with his faraway dead eyes." On one village door someone had written: GOD BLESS THOSE WHO ENTER HERE, MAY THEY NEVER SUFFER AS WE HAVE. Inside the house, two men and a child lay dead beside the family icon.'

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