Stalin-Era Secret Police Documents Detail Arrest, Execution of Americans
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.
Arthur Talent was only 7 years old when his mother brought him to Moscow from Boston, but he had already developed a taste for American music. At age 20 or so, he somehow became acquainted with the wife of Paul Robeson, an American famous for his singing voice and left-wing politics. When the Robesons came to Moscow for a performance, she brought the young man a new suit of American clothes.
On Jan. 28, 1938, secret police files show, agents searched Talent’s apartment and seized the clothes, which they insisted were payment for his spying.
The first 11 pages of his interrogation transcript show him denying the accusation. At the end of page 11, the transcript says: “the interrogation has been interrupted.”
What happened during the recess is left to the imagination.
When the interrogation resumed, Talent was told: “You are arrested and accused of espionage activities in the USSR in favor of one foreign state. Do you plead guilty?”
His response: “Yes! I plead guilty of being involved in espionage activities for Latvia. After a 38-day denial I decided to tell the inquest the truth.”
A crumpled slip of paper, inserted near the end of the file, says Talent was shot June 7, 1938. He was 21 years old.
Death was not always so swift. Thomas Sgovio, one of a handful of Americans known to have survived the notorious prison camps in the Russian Far East, was a witness. He told his story in a recent interview.
Sgovio was 19 when he came to Moscow with his father, who the U.S. deported as a communist agitator in 1935. The Soviet government was delighted to have them, and at first, life was good. By day, they lectured Russian workers on the horrors of the American Depression. By night, Sgovio danced in the hotels with Lucy Flaxman, a young American who had been brought to Moscow by her parents.
But within two years, foreigners began to disappear. Among them was Sgovio’s father.
Thomas Sgovio made several trips to the U.S. Embassy to ask for help in returning to America. Each time, he was told his case was being considered. On March 21, 1938, he asked again and was told to come back after lunch. Sgovio walked outside and was seized by three secret police agents.
Soon, he was in a freight car with twelve other Americans, heading for a prison labor camp. After a year of work in the arctic mines, 10 of them were dead.
Sgovio’s father, Joseph, spent 11 years in labor camps. His health broken, he died shortly after his release in 1948. Thomas Sgovio was freed after 16 years in the camps. He managed to return to America in 1960 when U.S.-Soviet relations warmed briefly.
He died in Arizona this summer, at age 81. But before his death, he examined his 91-page secret police file, sent to him by the AP.
The first thing Sgovio wanted to know was what had happened to his girlfriend, Lucy. On page 80, he found out. She had been an informer for the secret police, regularly reporting on him and other Americans.
“Thomas slanderously swore that Soviet power wasn’t based on the love of the people, but on terror instilled by fear of being arrested,” she had said in one of her reports.
“She was not a very courageous person,” Sgovio said sadly. “It was a frightening time for everyone.”
Internal State Department memos show that the U.S. embassy in Moscow closely watched the arrests and sent reports of the terror to Washington.
George F. Kennan--later architect of the U.S. policy of “containment” of Soviet communism, but then a Moscow embassy official--declined to be interviewed for this story, but answered some questions in writing. Asked about the arrests, Kennan, now 93, offered a legalistic reply:
“I can recall no instance in which any of them who, being there for open and legitimate purposes and with a proper Soviet visa on their American passports, was arrested, confined for any length of time, or executed by Soviet authorities,” he wrote.
But, in 1931, a few years before the U.S. established its embassy in Moscow, Kennan compiled a confidential list of 85 “individuals residing in Soviet Russia, reputed to be American citizens but communist sympathizers.” A note at the top of the list warns that some “might no longer be entitled to protection without the special approval of the Department.”
The memo seems to indicate that the embassy was prepared to deny some Americans help because of their politics. Kennan did not reply to questions about the memo.
State Department records show that some Americans desperate to leave Russia were not allowed to renew their American passports because they couldn’t pay the small fee in American currency--dollars which would have been generally illegal to possess in the Soviet Union at that time. At least one American, the records show, was arrested for trying to buy some on the black market.
Jean Singer, who moved to Russia from New York in 1932, with her father, Elias Singer, remembers that they both gave up their U.S. passports four years later because they could not pay the renewal fee. He was arrested and shot a year later, at age 59.
She has spent the rest of her life in Russia. At age 84, she lives there still, in the city of Nizhny Novgorod.
“We would have left if we had the $2" for the passport renewal, she said in a recent interview. “I didn’t come to stay in Russia. I thought I would be going home one day.”
Ivan Dubin, a native-born Russian, became a U.S. citizen after his family moved to Pottsville, Pa. Returning to Russia for a visit, he fell in love there and got married. He was trying to arrange to bring his bride home to America when the purges began. On March 1, 1938, he came to the U.S. Embassy to renew his passport but was turned away because he lacked the required passport photographs.
Dubin promised to return the next day, but never did. His wife called the embassy to say he had never returned home. Dubin’s secret police file, discovered in Moscow, shows he was arrested outside the embassy, accused of espionage and shot. He was 26.
State Department records show that in 1939, the embassy compiled a list of 18 missing Americans, many of whom disappeared after leaving the embassy building. Dubin’s name was among them.
Kennan said it was difficult for the embassy to help Americans who had obtained Soviet passports, as many of these victims had. The Soviets regarded such persons as Soviet citizens, maintained that they couldn’t leave the country without government permission, and did not recognize that the U.S. had a legitimate interest in them. The U.S. embassy tried to resolve the citizenship issue with the Soviet foreign ministry. But by mid-1937, so many ministry officials had been shot in the purges that the Americans had no one to negotiate with, says Zhuravlev, the Russian historian.
Embassy records show officials did try harder to help a few Americans.
For example, the embassy pressed for the release of Frank Hrinkevich after officials visited him in prison and reported that “nothing in his attitude gave rise to the belief that he might have been a labor or communist agitator while in the United States.”
U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, for one, was not convinced that Hrinkevich was worth the trouble. “Frankly, I have no personal interest in the return of Hrinkevich,” he wrote to the State Department in June 1938. “I more than suspect that he is the type who makes trouble.”
After a year in a Soviet prison, the U.S. Army veteran was released and allowed to leave the country with his wife and child.
Consular files show that the U.S. embassy tried unsuccessfully to get the Soviets to release Ruth Ikal, then 30, of Philadelphia, who was wanted for questioning in the United States in connection with an espionage investigation. Ikal, whose husband was a Soviet spy, wanted to go home; but before she could do so, she was arrested by the secret police in December 1937.
The embassy demanded to see her. When the Soviets finally permitted it two months later, an American attache found that “she was listless and her spirit seemed to be broken.”
Ikal refused all help and said she wanted to remain in Russia to await the release of her husband, who was also arrested. She was being treated kindly, she said.
Her file, which includes a prison photo of her with one eye slightly swollen, tells a different story.
“My sole occupation is thinking very unhappy thoughts,” she wrote the head of the secret police that June, in an appeal for help. “I am very lonely for my daughter, I worry about my future and my husband’s. My parents I shall never see again.”
Her husband later died in a prison camp. She was exiled to a closed Soviet city in the South. As late as 1958, she was pleading to be allowed to go home to America. There the paper trail ends; her final fate is unknown.
“She was just a common woman, didn’t know anything about communism,” says her brother, Frederick Boerger, 87, of Naples, Fla.
Like several other relatives of the dead, he never knew what happened to his sister until he was contacted for this story. Some relatives had clung to hope that, somehow, their loved ones survived. There was little reason to hope; the survival rate was low.
Memorial, an advocacy group for Russian purge victims, found a list of 10,000 people who were shot at one of the regime’s Moscow execution grounds. Among them: four young men from Boston who had shagged flies with Sgovio on a Russian-American baseball team in Moscow.
Mayme Sevander was 11 when her parents brought her to a settlement in Karelia, near the Finnish border, where several thousand Americans and Canadians had moved to help develop the Soviet timber industry. Seventy-four now and living in Superior, Wis., she remembers days of terror in 1937 and 1938 when secret police descended and arrested several hundred Americans.
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.
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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.