Hollywood’s First Gulag Movie

The Way Back, Hollywood’s first-ever movie about the Gulag system, recently opened in theaters. Anne Applebaum, author of the excellent history Gulag, has an informative column on the movie in the Washington Post. Applebaum served as a consultant on the film. As she explains, the escape story is at least partly fictional. However, the portrayal of conditions in the Gulag system itself is very accurate. The BBC has an interesting article about the making of the movie.

The fact that it took Hollywood 70 years to make its first Gulag movie is itself a telling indication of our longstanding neglect of communist crimes. After all, the Gulag system was an episode of mass murder that took as many lives as the Holocaust and possibly even more. And we are still waiting for the first Hollywood movie about the even larger Soviet mass murder of the forced famines of the 1930s, to say nothing of the Chinese communists’ repetition of this atrocity, probably the biggest mass murder in all of world history. Scott Johnson of Powerline notes two previous Gulag films. But one of them was a little-known 1970 Swedish film, and another a low-budget 1980s HBO TV movie. For obvious reasons, neither had anywhere near the impact that a full-scale Hollywood production might have.

Interestingly, one of the three main characters in the film is an American Gulag prisoner. Quite possibly, he was included in order to give American filmgoers a character they could identify with. However, it is in fact true that several thousand Americans were imprisoned in the Gulag system, most of them dying there. These people were skilled workers lured in by the Soviet government in the early 1930s with promises of high wages, along with some leftists who moved to the Soviet Union for ideological reasons. Within a few years, most of them were arrested and sent to the Gulags (or in some cases just executed) on trumped up charges of being spies or “enemies of the people.” Historian Tim Tzouliadis tells their story in his fascinating 2008 book, The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia.

To me, the most surprising part of Tzouliadis’ book was not that several thousand Americans ended up in the Gulag. That fact has long been known from Gulag survivor memoirs and work by previous scholars (though Tzouliadis tells the story in much greater detail). The real surprise was Tzouliadis’ meticulous documentation of the State Department’s near-criminal indifference to the issue over a period of some twenty years, even though officials in both Washington and the US embassy in Moscow knew very well what was going on. With very rare exceptions, they refused to even raise the problem with the Soviets, even during periods when the USSR’s need for good relations with the US gave the State Department substantial leverage with Stalin.

Tzouliadis points out that a few diplomats representing much less powerful Western states did successfully lobby the Soviets to release their own nationals who were caught up in Stalin’s purges under similar circumstances. The State Department could have achieved at least comparable results had they tried. In many cases recounted by Tzouliadis, they actually turned away desperate Americans who showed up at the US embassy seeking help. As Tzouliadis explains, a few of the diplomats chose to ignore the issue because they were ideologically sympathetic to communism. In most cases, however, their neglect seems to have been primarily the result of bureaucratic inertia and incompetence. Being a libertarian, I’m not easily surprised by tales of inefficient or callous government bureaucrats. This example, however, shocked even me. The Stalin-era US embassy in Moscow makes even the worst DMV office seem like a shining paragon of devotion to duty by comparison. Their superiors in Washington also deserved a hefty share of blame.