Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Thomas Sgovio




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 life-long 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-30s, 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 Yezhovschina (Stalin’s Great Purge).
The architects of Kolyma: Nikolai Yezhov and friend
 
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.

"Frostbite"

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.
"Wood Detail"
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.



4 comments:

  1. Great post. These victims of the workers' predesigned to be remembered. Thanks for also pointing out how Communism's sympathizers in the West closed their eyes and minds to the awful reality.

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  2. Pardon the typo. Please read, "victims of the workers' paradise deserve to be remembered."

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  3. I had not heard of Sgovio before reading this post and commend you for making his story better known. The general reluctance of the academy to confront the atrocities of 20th century Leftist despotism is a continuance of the injustice and can itself be deemed a crime against humanity -- albeit of a pipe and tweed jacket variety -- inasmuch as the sufferings of the innocent are denied, ignored, or defended by those whose task it is to get at the truth and make it known.

    It is no coincidence (as the Marxists say) that many of the survivors' testimonies exist only in self-published form or as the products of obscure publishing concerns. One telling example is that of the German priest Gerhard Fittkau, who was imprisoned in the forced labor camp at Vorkuta in Siberia, and whose memoirs were printed by Fidelity Press in South Bend, Indiana (1958). A favorite passage therefrom:

    The percentage of quota reached by each brigade, and by the best and worst workers in each brigade, were posted every day. Each evening the top two workers from each brigade and the leader of the best brigade were singled out for special reward. They ate on a raised platform at the end of the mess hall where everyone could see their servings of millet cakes as big as their fists. ... The farce was played out in all seriousness in spite of the inescapable coincidence that night after night the same cronies of the brigade leaders turned up at the special table. The limit was reached one evening when an amiable big blonde who shared her favors regularly between the same camp officers was brought up in front of us and given a Stakhanovite eulogy for having exceeded 150 percent of her quota. Dispirited, disgusted, and exhausted as we prisoners were, this announcement caused a wave of laughter to pass through the ranks.

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  4. This book is now easy to find. I got it from sgovio.com 2 weeks ago for $38.95 (with overseas shipment to New Zealand included). I found it pretty well written (without any ghost writer), dense, but easy to read, and hard to put down.

    Apart from Kolyma years, there is lots of interesting details about the Communist movement in the U.S., life in Moscow in the 30s, as well as the author's final odyssey to get out. He failed to enroll in the art institute (though some famous friend of his dad's friend tried to help), and he exited Kolyma way before the death of Stalin.

    I also find his drawings quite skillful, and they are likely to be one of the very few actual graphic evidence of the reality as it was that we have.

    All the best.

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