It maybe the most powerful photograph ever taken. Its certainly one the most famous. The Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. The hopeless despair of a devalued life that has to go on, and somehow ,bring up the children. Its all in that lined handsome face. The human condition drowning in the Great Depression. Why this picture and all of Lange’s work came to mind is because I had just read Foresaken by Tim Tzouliadis(2008)

This the story of the thousands of Americans who  for ideological reasons, looking for work, as guest workers or out of curiosity went to Russia in the l930s. Many thought they were leaving a system about to collapse for a workers paradise in the making.

At first they were feted as part of the Brotherhood of Man, the International. National baseball leagues were formed. Ford sold a factory and  the Soviets recruited skilled  workers to set it up and get it going. But of course the dream turned into a nightmare. They found they had exchanged  poverty for tyranny

To work they had to become Soviet citizens and as such the US embassy washed its hands. Some had their passports stolen to be used by spies. If they made it to the US Embassy they were immediately picked up by waiting NKVD officers. But anyway the ambassador was much more interested in his yacht in the Baltic and collecting icons than the “flotsam and jetsam” who had turned their back on the stars and stripes.

Most perished in the Artic camps. One or two survived to tell the tale and their biographies form the heart of the book. But the indifference of the Embassy ,the complete fantasy of journalists and indifference of Roosevelt and others is brutally exposed. The buffoonery of Paul Robeson and other fellow travellers is well rehearsed..

A very small footnote to one of the world’ great tragedies. Stalin is credited with  organising  the deaths of 17 million. The few thousand Americans a drop in a sea of blood. But when you see Lange’s photos  you can almost feel the  despair which created the hope that those thousands must have felt. The idea of guaranteed work, a respect for workers rights, a society based on each according to their needs must have seemed like the promised land. It was of course just the gateway to a work camp and an early death.

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