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Stalin-Era Secret Police Documents Detail Arrest, Execution of Americans

History: Soviet case files describe 15 victims, many captured outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Diplomats appeared less than sympathetic. Some people died for want of $2 to renew passports.

November 09, 1997|ALAN CULLISON | FOR THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

MOSCOW — Alexander Gelver was afraid. People around him were getting arrested. He wanted to get out of the country, to go home to America, so he went to the U.S. Embassy for help.

But outside the gates, he was stopped--by the secret police.

Was it true, his interrogator demanded, that Gelver thought life was better in the United States than the Soviet Union? Had he actually said as much to his fellow workers at a local factory?

All true, said Gelver, who had been brought to Russia years earlier by his parents. An open-and-shut case of espionage, the secret police declared.

Then they made him disappear. His fate remained unknown for 60 years.

Gelver was just one of hundreds of American leftists who had moved here in the 1920s and 1930s to help Josef Stalin build the new worker's paradise, and who then vanished, one by one, from the face of the earth.

Their friends and relatives have grown old without ever knowing, for certain, what happened to them.

But now, the answer is emerging, documented in moldy secret police files obtained by the Associated Press, revealed in recent interviews with people who survived the Stalinist purges, told in old U.S. State Department documents, some declassified at the AP's request.

On New Year's Day 1938, his file shows, 24-year-old Alexander Gelver of Oshkosh, Wis., was executed. His last moments were not documented; the favored method was a single shot to the back of the head with a small-caliber pistol.

There is reason to believe that hundreds of Americans met a similar fate. The files of 15 missing Americans whose disappearances were investigated in detail by the AP show that two died in Soviet labor camps and eight others were executed. The other five spent years in Soviet prisons.

They were artists, factory workers, teachers and engineers. They were arrested after engaging in such subversive activities as wearing American clothes, asking the U.S. Embassy for help or talking about life back home.

U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow chronicled the terror in a series of internal memos but were ambivalent about helping the victims, in part because American fears of communism were already in full bloom. Declassified State Department records show that some Americans who came to the embassy for help were turned away because they lacked an up-to-date photo or didn't have the few dollars in American currency required to renew their passports. Some of them were then arrested by secret police agents lurking outside the embassy gates.

In recent years, there have been scattered reports of Americans executed during the Stalinist purges; but until now, details have been few and the role of the American embassy has remained unknown.

Sergei Zhuravlev, a historian at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says other governments including Germany and Austria long ago launched formal investigations into the fates of countrymen who disappeared in the purges, which also took the lives of several million Soviet citizens. The United States has made no effort to find its victims of the Stalin era.

One of the victims, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, was well known in America in his day. He was the founder of the American Communist Party's black affiliate, the American Negro Labor Congress.

The Soviet government invited him to Moscow in the 1920s to work in the upper reaches of the party's international arm, the Comintern. For nine years, he worked in Moscow, but he disappeared in 1937 after trying to get permission to return to the United States.

His file, found by the AP in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakstan, shows he was accused of making anti-Soviet statements and exiled to the city of Semipalatinsk, in distant Soviet Central Asia. A few months later, he was arrested again and sentenced to hard labor.

American friends described Whiteman as a robust man, an avid boxer and dancer. But in the labor camp, he was emaciated and had lost his teeth, according to a fellow prisoner who was released years later. Whiteman died in the labor camp at 1 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1939, according to his file. He was 44.

The rest of the victims were a varied lot. Some were American-born. Others were Russian-born, naturalized Americans who went back to the Soviet Union and took their American-born children with them. Some were members of the Communist Party; most were not.

Some were deported by the United States because of their subversive politics, but many went willingly. As America sank into the Great Depression, they interpreted the bank failures and bread lines as the death throes of capitalism. The Soviet Union, they believed, was the future.

The Soviet government recruited them by the hundreds as advisors to fledgling Russian industries, often paying their passage. But before long, Stalin's paranoia about anything foreign overcame his need for expertise.

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