Some writers I have met think of the books they have written as their children, and even speak of them in such terms. Given the effort a book takes to nourish, the high hopes with which it is launched into the world, not to mention the sober adjustments with which those hopes must eventually be aligned with reality, it is a plausible way of thinking. I myself have a different paradigm: that of childhood friends, old schoolmates, or one-time neighbors from a far-away place you once lived long ago. With a few of these people you may maintain a lifelong relationship of sorts; but for the most part it’s out of sight, out of mind until now and then there is a chance crossing of paths in an airport that draws you up short. Then what you say is “We must have lunch” while what you are thinking is “My God, do I look like that?”
A few years ago I published a book entitled “The Anti-Communist Manifestos,” for the composition of which I had to read widely in the political history of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Having gone on (or back) to other things, I don’t think much about those materials these days except when prodded by periodic public efforts emanating from our intellectual class to exonerate Julius Rosenberg or beatify Dalton Trumbo or undertake some such other annoying good work. A few days ago I had such a strange encounter when by accident I stumbled across some of the Kolyma drawings of Thomas Sgovio on the Internet.
Perhaps not a household name? Thomas Sgovio, an artist, was a first generation Italian American born in Buffalo in 1916. He died in Arizona in 1997. It was what happened in between that was so interesting. Around 1900 his father Giuseppe emigrated to America from impoverished Apulia, settling in Buffalo. Like his more famous fellow pugliese, Nicola Sacco, Giuseppe Sgovio was a political radical, a Communist agitator. In the mid-1930s, just as young Thomas was graduating from the arts high school in Buffalo, the government moved to deport the father. The Sgovio family, like so many others in similar situations, opted for the Workers’ Paradise. Once in Russia, Thomas enrolled in the Art Institute, where he developed his skill for three years before running into the buzzsaw of the Yezhovshchina (Stalin’s Great Purge).
Thomas Sgovio, like untold thousands of others, was shipped off to the goldfields of Kolyma in the remotest tundra and taiga of Siberia, where a para-universe of dozens of slave-labor camps became first the torture chamber and then the graveyard for millions. The horror of the Jewish Holocaust has come to be typified in a single place name: Auschwitz. That the name of Kolyma remains comparatively unknown is one testimony to the vestigial reluctance of some academic historians to see very much in common between Hitler and Stalin.
The experience of Kolyma beggars the imagination. It began with enclosure in a cattle car for a month or more, the time needed to haul the convicts to Vladivostok on the Pacific. Then the horrors began in earnest. Grotesquely overcrowded slave ships hauled the prisoners for more than a thousand miles across the frigid Sea of Okhotsk to Magadan, the port nearest (but not very near) the camps. The political prisoners were subjected throughout the voyage to constant abuse and/or neglect by their warders, and to the unceasing reign of terror exercised by desperate gangs of actual criminals. I shall not try to describe what has been so well described by eye-witnesses. Kolyma was often a death sentence, but the numbers involved were so large that there were survivors, some of whom wrote books. I recommend two in particular: Elinor Lipper’s “Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps” and Eugenia Ginzburg’s “Journey into the Whirlwind.” Both authors were intellectuals, well-educated European Communists, the one Swiss, the other Russian; and Ginzburg in particular is a fine writer. You can find excellent historical treatment in Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag” and in Robert Conquest’s more focused “Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps.”
Thomas Sgovio was not an intellectual. His touching autobiography, “Dear America! Why I Turned against Communism,” brought out by an obscure publisher in 1979, is not well written. It is hard to find, and in any event has become prohibitively expensive on the second-hand market. I do not own it. But it would draw tears from a stone. Sgovio exited Kolyma only after the death of Stalin, though even then his ordeal was by no means over. Even at that time the official position of all Western Communist parties, a position shared by many other leftist intellectuals, was that there was no system of forced labor in the Soviet Union, and that rumors to the contrary were vile lies and anti-Soviet propaganda. It was only with the publication in the West of the first volume of Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” in 1973 — nearly twenty years later — that the truth came to be generally acknowledged, sometimes grudgingly. So long had a purity of political belief been able to withstand the cataract of evidence that appeared in the wake of World War II.
Though not a great writer, Thomas Sgovio did leave another kind of memorial of his experience: a trove of paintings and drawings done from memory and now archived by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The truth is that he was not a great visual artist either. After all, his only formal training had been in “Soviet Realism.” But his work is not without its power. Some of his pieces circulate in the art market and show up from time to time on eBay. I wouldn’t want one on my living room wall, but they ought not be consigned to our cultural amnesia either.