Episode 25: An American in the Gulag

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

With major campaign staffers for serious presidential candidates making bizarre claims that Stalin’s gulags weren’t so bad, we thought it might be a good time to review another memoir of life in these camps.   And this time, we’re going to look at the testimony of an actual American who survived 16 years in the gulag:  Thomas Sgovio, whose memoir “Dear America” vividly describes this experience.    Sgovio’s story is a fascinating one, giving a window into a little-known episode in American history:  the period in the 1920s and 1930s when faithful American communists actually believed they could improve their lives by emigrating to the Soviet Union.   Of course, you can’t really blame them, with so many celebrities and major media figures shamefully praising the Soviet system throughout that period— and sometimes winning Pulitzer prizes for it.    But the poor, deluded souls like Sgovio were the ones who ended up suffering the consequences. 

Sgovio was born in 1916 into a family of left-wing activists, and indoctrinated in Communism from a young age.   Growing up in Buffalo, NY, he often attended party meetings, and as the Depression began, it seemed more and more plausible that another system might be superior.    In 1935, after serving a jail term for assaulting police at a violent demonstration, his father fled to the USSR to avoid further prosecution.   Thomas joined his father there, along with the rest of the family, soon after graduating high school.   But as soon as he arrived, he started to notice that his observations didn’t quite match the glowing reports of the workers’ paradise he had been hearing from news stories and from his father.

We entered a large pionaia (beer parlor) filled with smoke, round tables with people sitting while they drank, smoked, and talked. We sat down and as I looked about, I felt like I had swallowed a ton of lead. I had never seen anything quite like this in all my life. I never saw so many drunken men and women in one place at one time. They were so poorly dressed, worse than the bums I had seen on the Bowery. I remembered my classes in Marxism at the Regional Training School. If I were to picture in my mind exemplifications of the lumpen proletariat - this was it. I remembered when the American communist leaders told us that drunkenness was a thing of the past in the Soviet Union.

(Kindle Locations 2375-2380)

His father explained that they were in a transitional stage, still building true communism.   But the Sgovios’ own lives were actually relatively good.  Stalin was trying to encourage foreign immigration at the time, to help support his official statements about the superiority of the Soviet way of life.    Thus the Sgovio family had a nice apartment and could shop in special stores.  With the help of some powerful friends, Thomas was able to begin working as an artist in Moscow and taking advanced art classes.   Furthermore, to get a taste of these privileges, hordes of beautiful Russian girls threw themselves at young male immigrants like him.   But it bothered him that in this land of supposed equality, he was living a life of privilege.   He soon began to realize that the local population had no illusions about the failures of their new system:

We made propaganda speeches describing the miserable workers' existence under capitalism ... and how fortunate the Russian workers were to live under Socialism! … I could not help noticing the contrast in the appearance of the Russian people at those meetings with the audiences in the communist meetings in Buffalo. First, I was struck by the uniformity in dress, then by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the plain, ordinary men and women beyond the first and second rows. There was not that spark which ignited eyes to gleam and bristle with fire, there was not that wild applause I had so often experienced back home….

Our guides constantly reminded us to shut our eyes to the somberness of the poor Russian people. They had been worse off under the Czar. How wonderful everything would be in twenty or thirty years! I noticed that the charwomen in the House of Political Emigrants lived very poorly… I felt so terrible when I saw those women sitting in a corner sipping a glass of hot water and nibbling on a piece of rock sugar. They could not afford to buy a glass of tea - and here we polit-emigrants had all the tea we desired.

(Kindle Locations 2525-2540).

As you have probably guessed, the good times didn’t last.   In 1937, as the illusions continued to break down and Stalin’s purges began to accelerate, attitudes about the immigrants grew increasingly negative, and the Sgovios were kicked out of their elite living quarters.   His father disappeared— arrested and deported to the gulag, though Sgovio would not know for sure until much later.   Every day Sgovio began to hear about friends and co-workers being arrested, and he decided he had to leave the country.   Foolishly, he thought he could just walk into the American Embassy and request a visa using standard procedures.   But as soon as he walked out, he was arrested as a suspected foreign spy, like nearly every Russian in those days who dared to enter a Western embassy without express orders from the government.

At the beginning of his imprisonment, he was held for questioning in the notorious Lubyanka prison, in conditions that would have been unthinkable in most countries.

We were no longer men. We became things. Refined men, snatched away from their loved ones in the early hours of the morning, feebly protested as they were hurled into cellars already crammed full to capacity. Those on the bottom sat groaning, twisting and pushing the bodies of those on top…  one hundred or so men squeezed in two hundred square feet. We were not taken to the toilet. The latrine bucket was constantly overflowing. Imagine those old professors, doctors and intellectuals – sixty and seventy years old with weak bowels. But one who is determined to survive must always think – not how bad conditions are; instead, how much worse they could be.

(Kindle Locations 318-328). 

Sgovio almost laughed as he recalled his youthful Communist activism in Buffalo.  After damaging a fruit stand during a protest, and being fined 5 dollars, he had loudly protested American oppression and ranted about “capitalist injustice”.    Now, he was packed tightly in an overcrowded cell, being occasionally removed for irrational interrogation in which his claims to be innocent of espionage were dismissed out of hand.   Much later, he realized why his protests were futile.

WE DID NOT REALIZE THEN THAT THE INVESTIGATIONS AND INTERROGATIONS WERE A FARCE! We could not realize it! There would be no trials and reviews of our cases. There was only ONE reason for our being incarcerated: TO BE SENT OFF AS SLAVE LABORERS TO THE CONCENTRATION LABOR CAMPS!
(Kindle Locations 968-970).

After two months of interrogation, Sgovio found out he was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp for espionage.   Then came a journey across the country in a crowded cattle car, at the end of which he and his fellow prisoners arrived in a mining camp in the remote Kolyma region.   By this point, prisoners had few if any possessions left, most likely ragged clothes and poor-quality mattresses and blankets issued by the guards.   But on the first night, upon returning from their day of labor in the mines, they were in for another nasty surprise.

Following the others into the barracks, I heard cries of bewilderment and indignation - "Where's our things?" We hurried to our spots. All our personal belongings, including the new blankets, striped sacks, and pillowcases, were gone. Someone went to the gate-house to complain. 

The Camp Elder, accompanied by two guards, entered our barracks. …”Sure,” said the Camp Elder. "Why don't you write a complaint? - and I'll tell you something else ... You're all accountable for the blankets, mattresses, and pillow-cases which you received yesterday. The cost will be deducted ten-fold from your accounts."

(Kindle Locations 3694-3702).

They had learned the hard way that the common criminal gangs, often just referred to as the “thieves” or the Russian “blatniye”, were completely in charge of the other prisoners.   The common citizens in there for political crimes had no hope of competing with the thieves’ organized, systematic alliance of theft and violence— and if they tried to complain, their very lives were in danger.   The political prisoners were sent out for long hours of back-breaking labor in the gold mines, and always penalized at mealtime due to their output not meeting assigned norms, while most of the thieves had special jobs in camp and were exempt from this system.   

We had just fallen asleep after the third night, when the Camp Elder, the Work Allocation Leader, and several guards woke us up and ordered us all to get on our feet. The names of all those who had less than a 40 work fulfillment was called. My name was one of them. They led us out of the compound, back to the gold-fields, and to work. Here it was - the third morning… I had worked twelve hours in the night shift, plus two more deepening the drainage ditches, and now I was being penalized with more back-breaking work.

(Kindle Locations 3742-3746).

After these long hours of work, Sgovio’s much-reduced rations were issued from the small portion of the food supplies not stolen by the thieves, and he saw his health quickly declining.   After a few months, he realized he was declining into the state known as a “dokhodyaga” or “fitil”, loosely translated as a “goner”.

It is difficult to translate the words into English. Yes, even the free-citizens of Russia at the time were unfamiliar with the terms, the more so because prior to the Soviets, dokhodyagas did not exist. I believe that nowhere in history will you find the equivalent - only in Soviet Prison Camps can they be found.   Literally, dokhodyaga means a person who is nearing the end of his walk; fitil-- is the wick of the candle…

The first sign was when a prisoner lost hope. … It was written all over their faces, their manner. They neglected themselves, did not wash - even when they had the opportunity to do so. … The wick was oblivious to blows. When set upon by fellow [prisoners], he would cover his head to ward off the punches. He would fall to the floor and when left alone, his condition permitting, he would get up and go off whimpering as if nothing had happened. After work the dokhodyaga could be seen hanging around the kitchen begging for scraps…

And then, on hands and knees, they fought and scraped until the last bit of precious food was stuffed into their mouths. To amuse themselves, the blatniye would sit down in the mess-hall after receiving their soup and gruel portions. After taking a sip or two, they pushed the plates away. When dokhodyagas leaped for the leavings, the blatniye picked up the plate and hurled the contents at the face of the nearest one. Then they guffawed.

(Kindle Locations 4000-4020)

As he saw his health declining, Sgovio was greatly relieved when one day he was taken from the work brigade and told he would be an orderly in a new barrack, populated by Muslim prisoners.    He couldn’t believe his luck— after a few hours tidying up in the morning, he was even able to take a nap.   But when he woke up, he discovered he had been set up.   The barrack had been completely ransacked, the newly arrived Muslims now stripped of all their possessions— and as the one supposedly watching the building, he was responsible.   He knew the prisoners would have no qualms with murdering him in revenge.      About to lose hope, he decided on one final, desperate measure— he went and asked the thieves themselves for help.

Surprised by his approach, the thieves asked him whether he was there to accuse them of something.   But Sgovio insisted he was just there to ask for advice, since they were so knowledgeable about the ways of the camp.   They were now fascinated by him, having never spoken to an American before.   They asked if he had ever seen Al Capone, and he started telling them all the stories he could remember, including new stories about other famous American criminals like Dillinger.    When he mentioned he was an artist, they also asked him to draw some portraits of them— cameras and photography were unheard of in the gulag.   His drawings turned out to be pretty good.   By the end of the evening, they had fed him some precious white bread, otherwise unavailable to non-thieves, and invited him to come back the next night.

The end result was that Sgovio became a favorite of the thieves.    He visited them regularly, telling them stories and drawing for them.   When they discovered his art talents extended to creating tattoos, and to creating realistic drawings of naked women, his survival was further ensured, and he managed to survive the winter of his first near-goner status relatively healthy and well-fed by gulag standards.    He continued to be horrified by the treatment of the other prisoners though, as in the case of one young thief who had lost his cushy camp job after some misbehavior, but decided it was too undignified to work at general labor and loudly refused to head to the mines:

Vassya fought back as he lay on the snow-covered ground. Four guards held him while two others undressed him. They tied his hands behind his back, picked him up, and tied him to the sled. Vassya, clad only in his underdrawers hollered all kinds of anti-Soviet epithets. 

A cold chill pierced my soul. I could not believe what I was seeing. Here I was freezing, stomping the ground to keep my feet warm, how long could a naked man last in the frost - a minute - two minutes? And not one of us raised his voice to protest. The horse dashed through the gates, driven by the Senior Officer Guard, and Vassya's cries were strangled by the frost. He froze to death. Commandant Sergeyev yelled out to us, "Let that be an example to all other work refusers!"

(Kindle Locations 4357-4363).

But Sgovio himself was still in more danger than he realized.   He discovered the hard way that prisoners are liable to be transferred to another camp at a moment’s notice— he suddenly found himself removed from his circle of protectors.   Over his sixteen years in the camps (yes, his term was arbitrarily extended when it was time for him to be freed) he was continually moved from one place to another.   In some camps he found barely livable conditions, with a soft camp job as a propaganda artist or with the help of thieves who valued his art and storytelling.   But in other camps, he was sent back to general labor and near-starvation.    Here is a piece of his description of one of the bad ones:

All winter we breathed frozen ice particles. By mid-December more than half my comrades from Srednikan had perished. 
When we awoke in the morning, we glanced at the fellow next to us. Was he alive? If he was dead, we hurriedly took his rags and covered the corpse…
The bodies were piled like logs. When three or four hundred accumulated, holes were bored, and blasting took place. The corpses were thrown into a mass grave, then covered…
When I looked at my bones I was scared. I was worse than any of the walking skeletons in the Srednikan recovery barrack. There was no flesh on my bones - only gray, scaly skin. Someone told me to sit down and wait my turn. I could not sit-it hurt terribly. I felt my buttocks - there were none…
The doctor pulled me aside from the others. In a low voice he said, "Tomas, to look at your body - it's as emaciated as any I've ever seen. It is fearful to look at your bones - but I can't find anything that will justify my listing you in the infirmary.
(Kindle Locations 5326-5476).

Miraculously, a thief who wanted drawings of nude women came along with an offer of a steady supply of food, and Sgovio’s life was once again saved.   He continued to experience these kind of ups and downs, with just enough good luck to keep him alive until the end of his extended sentence.    By the time he was able to return to his family in Moscow, his father was dead.    Even then, he was subject to rules of internal exile, and it was not until 1960 that he and his mother managed to get out of the USSR.   Eventually he managed to return to the United States and wrote his memoir.

<Closing conversation with Manuel>

As always, we’ve just given you a bit of a taste of Sgovio’s book.   It is full of similar unbelievable incidents, near-death experiences, life-threatening scrapes, sudden reversals, and some moments of unbelievable good fortune, or at least relative good fortune in the context of the gulag.   We’re all fortunate that Sgovio survived to write it.    And next time someone suggests to you that the Soviet gulag was simply a set of harmless re-education camps for serious criminal offenders, be sure to point them to Sgovio’s “Dear America”.    As always, you can find a link to the book and to the website I mentioned, along with today’s transcript, at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of communism for today.