Once, while travelling in an odd part of Siberia, I was told of a place called ‘the English colony’. A remote spot — it was said to be several hours from the nearest town, but trains were infrequent and roads non-existent — the ‘English colony’ was the site of a former Soviet camp: a small piece of the gulag where the prisoners had been British. Or so the story went. Allegedly, a railwayman had once found the remnants of a British uniform on the site of the former barracks there, but no one was quite sure what had happened to it. Supposedly, some of the locals had once heard the prisoners singing English songs.
Later, in Moscow, I tried to find a mention of the ‘English colony’, or something like it, in the Russian archives, but I could not. And that, unfortunately, is the fate of many such stories. Rumours of American or British or other foreign prisoners in the Soviet gulag have been around for as long as the gulag itself, but they have always been hard to substantiate. Even today, those who research the fate of such people often discover that the records are missing, or the place-names have changed, or the files have been moved. Or perhaps they never existed at all. But there is no way to prove it.
In The Forsaken, Tim Tzouliadis sets out to establish the existence of a significant group of Americans in the gulag, and in that he succeeds. Though he does not appear to have had any more success with the Soviet archives than anyone else, he has painstakingly put together all of the memoirs, all of the recollections and all of the Western records — the State Department letters, the diplomatic despatches — that are available, and has used them to tell the tragic story of the ‘least-heralded migration in American history’: the hundreds of American communists who left the United States during the Great Depression, crossed the ocean and moved themselves and their families to the Soviet Union.