Commentary Magazine

Gulag Story

To the Editor:

In his excellent review of David Evanier’s black comedy, Red Love [Books in Review, September 1991], Arch Puddington mentions a character named Antonio Carelli. The Carelli character appears to have been based on an actual person, Thomas Sgovio, who told his story in his little-known book, Dear America!: Why I Turned Against Communism (Partners’ Press, 1979). Sgovio grew up in Buffalo, New York. His father was a full-time Communist organizer and young Sgovio was an active Young Communist (arrested twice for street demonstrations). His father, an unnaturalized immigrant, was deported to the Soviet Union in the early 1930’s after disrupting a Buffalo city council meeting, and Thomas Sgovio, still a teenager, followed him there.

After several years of privileged treatment as refugees from capitalist oppression, Sgovio and his father fell victim to Stalin’s purges. Their arrest was part of the 1937-38 Yezhov purge that swept up many foreign Communists like the Sgovios, as well as Soviet citizens with foreign contacts (such as those who had relatives living abroad), stamp collectors who corresponded with foreign philatelists, and even students of Esperanto.

Sgovio was sent to the labor camps of the Kolyma gold-mining region in Siberia, among the worst the gulag had to offer. He attributes his survival in part to an artistic talent that allowed him to earn extra food and less taxing conditions by selling drawings and paintings to guards and the better-treated criminal prisoners. The book describes the horrifying conditions of the Kolyma camps and is illustrated with some of the drawings Sgovio made at the time. He also mentions the names of American radicals he came across in Moscow or in the gulag, noting the deaths of a number of them. In 1946 Sgovio was released, but later rearrested and rusticated to a Siberian lumbering region until 1954. In 1963 he was able to leave the Soviet Union and return to the U.S.

John E. Haynes
Wheaton, Maryland

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