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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stalin's Lost American Victims

Alexander Gelver was afraid. People around him were getting arrested. He wanted to get out of the country, to go home to the United States, 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 in 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 police declared.


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


Gelver was just one of hundreds of American leftists who had moved to the Soviet Union 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.


Now some answers finally are emerging, documented in moldy secret police files, revealed in recent interviews with people who survived the Stalinist purges, and told in old U.S. State Department documents.


On New Year's Day 1938, his file shows, Alexander Gelver, 24, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was executed. 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 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 or asking the U.S. Embassy for help.


Some were U.s.-born. Others were Russian-born, naturalized Americans who went back to the Soviet Union and took their U.s.-born children with them.


Some were deported by the United States because of their subversive politics, but many went willingly. The Soviet government recruited them by the hundreds as advisers to fledgling Soviet industries.


Arthur Talent was only 7 when his mother brought him to Moscow from Boston. 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, 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 U.S.S.R. 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.


Internal State Department memos show that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow closely watched the arrests, but officials were unable or unwilling to do much about it.


State Department records show that some Americans who came to the embassy for help were turned away because they lacked up-to-date photographs or the few dollars in U.S. currency needed to renew their U.S. passports.


Russian-born Ivan Dubin became a U.S. citizen after his family moved to Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Returning to Russia for a visit, he fell in love and got married. He was trying to arrange to bring his bride home to the United States 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 photographs.


His wife later 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.


George Kennan, later the architect of the U.S. policy of "containment" of Soviet communism, was a Moscow embassy official during the purges. Now 93, he responded to some questions in writing. It was difficult for the embassy to help Americans who had obtained Soviet passports, as many of these victims had, Kennan said.


The Soviets regarded such persons as Soviet citizens and did not recognize that the United States had a legitimate interest in them.


Marvin Volat, who left his native Buffalo, New York, 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.


Volat was charged with counter-revolutionary activity and espionage. After two months of interrogation, he confessed to taking photographs of military planes and 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.