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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

Many of the men, including her father, Oscar Corgan, were shot, and many of the women were sent to prisons around the country.

Marvin Volat, who left his native Buffalo, N.Y., at age 20 to study violin in Moscow, was arrested after leaving the U.S. embassy on March 11, 1938.

"It is his doubtful claim that he is homesick for his parents, and therefore stopped by the U.S. embassy to get a visa to go to the U.S.," a secret police major wrote for the file.

Without further evidence, Volat was charged with counter-revolutionary activity and espionage. After two months of interrogation, he confessed to taking photographs of military planes taking off and landing at a Moscow airfield. He was sentenced to hard labor.

On the last page of his file, a faint scribble says he died the following February in a camp in the Far East. He was 28.

"I remember my father on the phone, calling people and talking to them about it when I was very little," said his nephew, Alan Volat, of Amherst, N.Y. "We had always hoped he was still alive out there, somewhere."

Marcella Hecker still lives in the vast timber house her father Julius built just outside of Moscow. Although she is 82, she has a vivid memory of Feb. 16, 1938--the day a long black car came and took her father away.

Born in Leningrad, Julius Hecker had emigrated to the United States as a young man. He became a citizen and earned a PhD at Columbia. In the 1920s, he returned to Russia with his American wife and three young daughters, gave up his U.S. citizenship, and taught philosophy at the University of Moscow. He wrote several books in defense of communism that circulated widely in the West.

After he was arrested, Marcella, her sisters and her mother were seized too. They were eventually released, but Julius Hecker never came back.

Marcella and her sisters learned little about their father's fate until the AP helped them find his 100-page secret police file. In it, he confessed to spying for the U.S. government. His pro-communist books, he said, were a cover for his espionage.

On April 28, 1938, the file shows, the secret police informed him he would be shot in two hours, then took his picture and put it in the file. He was 57.

"None of my sisters, nor I, could sleep after reading that," said Marcella, 82, as she sat in her father's library, surrounded by his books. "He was just an idealist, a very deeply idealistic man, and that just destroyed him.

"'I did not like learning what happened to him," she said, "but I think it is very important to know."

Randy Herschaft, AP investigative researcher, contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

15 Missing Americans

The cases of 15 Americans who disappeared in Russia during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and '40s were investigated in detail by the Associated Press. Some were American born; others were naturalized Americans. A few had renounced their American citizenship at the time of their deaths. Here is what was learned of their fates:

Arthur Abolin, 28, of Boston, was executed in 1938.

Carl Abolin, 25, his brother, also of Boston, was executed the same day.

Alexander Gelver, 24, of Oshkosh, Wis., was executed in 1938.

Ivan Dubin, 26, of Pottsville, Pa., was executed in 1938.

Lovett Fort-Whiteman, 44, founder of the American Communist Party's black affiliate, the American Negro Labor Congress, died in a Soviet gulag in 1939, about two years after his arrest.

Julius Hecker, 57, of New York City, was executed in 1938.

Frank Hrinkevich, age uncertain, a U.S. Army veteran who had lived for a time in New York City, was released after one year in a Soviet prison.

Ruth Ikal, 30, of Philadelphia, the American wife of a Russian spy, was exiled to a closed Soviet city in the south and was pleading, as late as 1958, to be allowed to return to America. Her final fate is unrecorded.

Arnold Preeden, 22, of Boston, was executed in 1938.

Walter Preeden, 24, his brother, also of Boston, was executed the same day.

Joseph Sgovio was arrested in 1938 and spent 11 years in Soviet labor camps. His health broken, he died in Russia shortly after his release.

Thomas Sgovio, Joseph's son, was one of the few Americans known to have survived the notorious prison camps in the Russian Far East. He was imprisoned for 16 years before his release, was allowed to return to the U.S. in 1960 and died in Phoenix last summer at age 81.

Elias Singer, 59, of New York City, was executed in 1937.

Arthur Talent, 21, of Boston, confessed to espionage after a 38-day interrogation and was executed in 1938.

Marvin Volat, 28, of Buffalo, N.Y., died in 1939 after a year at hard labor in a gulag.

Associated Press

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