Monday, November 16, 2009

Right Wing Book Club

By Tim Tzouliadis

An incredible book about Americans who found themselves caught up in the Soviet Gulag, a phenomenon that has largely been lost to history (although authors like Whittaker Chambers and IB Singer mentioned it). Hard as it might be to believe, thousands of American leftists moved to the Soviet Union in the Thirties, convinced it would be the vanguard of the future. Instead, they found a cruel, paranoid totalitarian state that would eventually arrest and kill them all. There are very few happy endings in this book. If you weren't shot, you were shipped off to the camps for re-education, but the camps were set up to be killing machines. You were simply worked to death, thousands of miles from anyone who could help.

Tzouliadis thoroughly traces the crimes of the Soviets, and his descriptions of the elements of the Stalinist Terror - from the late night arrests by the NKVD to the torture sessions in Lubynaka prison to the show trials to the brutal transportation to Siberia and beyond to the harrowing life of a slave laborer in the land of "social justice" - are masterful, not to mention harrowing; but special mention should be made for the American progressives who encouraged people to emigrate to the Soviet Union and then turned a blind eye when everyone they knew in Moscow was being arrested and "liquidated." There was Walter Duranty, the NY Times correspondent who never wrote a negative word during his years in Moscow. There was the US Ambassador Joseph Davies who wrote a memoir of his time in Moscow that was so obsequious the Soviet censors did not have to change a word. There was Paul Robeson, who literally sang songs to Stalin. And there was Henry Wallace - vice president in FDR's third term - who actually toured the Gulag (while in office!) and pronounced everything hunky-dory. All of these men would see their reputations destroyed during the McCarthy Era, which makes me think McCarthy may have been on to something. The connection between Stalinist Russia and certain elements of the American Left has never been presented more clearly or starkly.

While the story is certainly dramatic, it is enhanced by Tzouliadis' writing, which is of a very high quality. He manages to convey both the overall society-wide scope of the Terror, while also remaining focused on the experiences of the individuals caught up in its web. My only complaint, Tzouliadis refers to a number of photographs and documents that he viewed, but ... doesn't reproduce them in the book! Actually, that brings up my second complaint; the book is completely lacking in maps, which is frustrating since Tzouliadis ranges all over the Soviet Union to tell his tale. Nonetheless, this is one of the best books of the year, and highly recommended.

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