The Personal and the Historical

One of my continuing interests is the intersection of the “ordinary” individual life and the historical moment. My own father, Meyer, or Mac, had many. Born in a small shtetl in Ukraine before the Russian Revolution, he emigrated to the United States, arriving, still a teen, in 1927. In the early Thirties, at the height of the Great Depression, he returned to Russia, to Moscow, to seek work. Mac was always very sparing with his memories, but one he often repeated was of living in a barracks-like apartment with a score of men without any heat. He recalled vividly the icicles on the wall beside his cot during the winter. I had always presumed that my father was lucky to have returned when he did – after about a year, the worker’s paradise having turned out to reside still farther east in the imagination than the Soviet Union. Now a book on the subject. The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, by Tim Tsouliadis, writes new history as it offers an account of the Americans (though my father did not gain his own citizenship until after his Second World War army service) who went to Russia during the Depression years and the thousands of them who died in the gulag. This review from Adam Hochschild at the Times Literary Supplement Online is the most current of many admiring accounts.