Most were stripped of their American passports soon after their arrival. Considered ideologically suspect by Stalin’s paranoid and totalitarian state, the foreigners were swept away in the Terror - and the American jazz clubs, the baseball teams, and English-language schools where they once gathered, quickly vanished with them.
During the early years, in public, the Americans had learned to follow the Russian example, and never mention the words “GPU” or “NKVD” aloud. Instead they cracked jokes about the Soviet secret police as “the Four-Letter Boys” or “Phi Beta Kappa” or “the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Bolshevism” or any other whip-smart euphemism designed to confuse the listeners and informers who surrounded them. The bar at the Metropol Hotel had once been the weekly venue for an American party, where young couples danced around a circular fountain kept stocked with fish.
Seven decades later in present day Moscow, the Metropol’s marble fountain still shines in the centre of its dining room. While the rest of the iconic locations of the American emigration remain clearly identifiable. In the green acres of Gorky Park, the American baseball teams once competed against each other in the summer evenings of the early 1930s. The American Ambassador’s residence, Spaso House, still flies the Stars and Stripes out front and young diplomats can be seen sipping cocktails on the terrace. The original American Embassy – a neo-classical building built on the site of a church destroyed during the atheist campaign – continues to face the Kremlin, although now it has become the headquarters of a Russian investment bank.
At the height of the Terror, the American emigrants besieged this building, begging for passports to leave Soviet Russia. Viewed with suspicion by the American diplomatic staff - described in one communique as “the flotsam and jetsam” of the Depression – they were turned away, only to be arrested on the sidewalk outside by lurking NKVD agents.
In the killing fields at Butovo, a suburb 27 kilometres south-east of Moscow, several of the American baseball players – whose lives I chronicle in The Forsaken - were executed during the Terror, and lie buried in mass graves. They were among the thousands killed in this one particular country backwater, whose present-day stillness belies the horror of a Revolution that has spun out of control. Wearing leather aprons and protective gloves, the NKVD guards had set about their nightly work methodically, killing young and old alike. Exhausted, they returned each morning to steady their nerves with their specifically-allotted quota of vodka, and douse their clothes in eau-de-cologne to remove the stench of death that clung to those who administered it.
The prisoners not executed in the Terror, were sentenced to work in the “corrective labour camps.” In the far northeastern corner of Russia, the city of Magadan became one of the epicentres for these transportations. Here, according to Alexander Solzhenitysn, was the very “pole of cold and cruelty of the Gulag.” At the infamous bay of Nagaeva, the American emigrants were among a myriad of nationalities, unloaded from the hulls of the decrepit steamers, the so-called “death ships of the Sea of Okhotsk.” Later during World War II, the same Gulag fleet was sailed across the Pacific for refitting in the shipyards of West Coast America, only to return to Vladivostok to pick up more prisoners. Nowadays the harbor at Nagaeva is quiet, save for a few fishing boats and the stray dogs that lurk where once hundreds of thousands of prisoners were assembled.
In search of the physical evidence of the Gulag camps, we travelled several hundred kilometres inland from Magadan, along the so-called “road of bones” built by the prisoners. The deterioration of the road forced us to walk the final three hours, until eventually we arrived at the camp of Butugychag. The barbed wire fence has withstood some of the coldest winter temperatures on earth, remaining standing in many places at about ten feet high. The main factory buildings are falling apart in a state of ruin, and yet many of the walls remain solid. Thousands of prisoners died in this brutal place, and a tangible presence of horror permeates the archaeological evidence of their suffering – it lies present in the abandoned camp buildings, in the isolator prison with its barred, narrow windows, in the guards’ quarters. Most of the wooden watchtowers have collapsed. One lies on its side in a tangle pool of barbed wire that seems to have wrapped itself around everything here. We walked past an empty plinth covered in undergrowth, where once there would have rested the inevitable statue of Lenin or Stalin.
At the far end of the camp, a primitive funicular runs up into the uranium mine. Built on a track of stone and wooden sleepers, this rusted piece of Gulag engineering has long fallen to pieces. I am fit and fairly healthy, and yet to climb this mountain exhausted me. I wonder how the prisoners would have coped in the long winters - forced first to build and then to work this mine, starved into a skeletal condition, physically abused, and wearing inadequate clothing in sub-Arctic conditions. On the side of this mountain, the ferocious cold alone must have killed many. Within the mine itself, the conditions were no less intolerable. All the Gulag camps had a utilitarian motive for their existence. But an essential part of their utility was always the eradication of the so-called “enemies” of the regime.
On a flat windswept plateau two kilometres outside the camp, the prisoners of Butugychag were buried in a makeshift cemetery. There are rows and rows of graves here, some of them marked by the remnants of rusted tin cans attached to wooden stakes that are crumbling away. Human remains once littered this site, but they have since been reburied by the Russian Orthodox church. A wooden cross was erected as a memorial, but its epitaph has been vandalized. The words of the plaque lie broken in pieces on the ground: “In nameless graves we ended our lives/Who can forget us if you are a human being?”
In camps such as these across the Soviet Union, the Americans lost their lives, alongside Stalin’s other victims. It was the final endpoint of their epic Depression migration. Only a lucky few ever returned home to bear witness to the fate of the others. Beside their accounts lies the documentary evidence of the archives, and the occasional artifact smuggled out by a desperate prisoner on which a shared plea had been written in English: “SAVE ME PLEASE AND ALL THE OTHERS.” This wooden tag was hidden in a shipment of Soviet exports, discovered in West Germany, and sent to Washington DC, where it remained classified in a State Department archive for decades, waiting patiently to be re-discovered. By then the Americans’ collective fate had become representative of a far broader Russian tragedy. They were just one forgotten tile on a vast mosaic of suffering.