The Cold War began in the 1930s, to judge by this narrative of strange events within the borders of the old Soviet Union. It’s just that no one thought to tell the Americans.
British TV journalist Tzouliadis turns up an intriguing tale in the undocumented Depression-era migration that took tens of thousands of Americans to the Soviet Union, recruited for their technical skills in a time of widespread joblessness at home. They did not have to be persuaded; a Soviet trade agency in New York advertised 6,000 positions and received more than 100,000 applications, Tzouliadis reports. Few were communists or fellow travelers; most listed disgust with conditions at home as a more powerful reason than “interest in Soviet experiment” for their exodus. One reason for disgust was Jim Crow, and African-Americans fleeing racism figured prominently in the wave of migration. Once in Russia, the Americans lived as Americans do abroad. Some blended in, others banded together, formed baseball teams, searched out their compatriots—and they worried when their children seemed to be “turning out just a little too ‘Red’ ” after a spell in the Soviet school system. Things turned sour, though, after 1936, in the years of Stalinist purges, when all things foreign were suspect and the elite of Russian culture and politics were killed off. The Americans, one by one, started to disappear into the Gulag. Diplomat George Kennan observed that the Soviets justified this by unilaterally making Americans citizens of the Soviet Union, thus negating their rights. “Logically we should refuse to recognize the naturalization of Americans in the Soviet Union as voluntary and valid in the absence of confirmation,” Kennan wrote, but instead the U.S. government did nothing—and would do nothing when, a decade later, Americans taken prisoner during World War II, even though allies, were shipped to the Gulag, joined still later by POWs during the Korean War.
Tzouliadis’s narrative—though rather tuneless—holds the reader’s attention and illuminates an overlooked chapter in 20th-century history, revealing larger trends in relations between Russia and the United States that persist today.