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An American in Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”

He was a victim of cruel fate, a young American living in the USSR forced to endure unimaginable torture and brutal beatings, who would later be one of the many sources for Gulag Archipelago. In 1933 Alexander Dolgun’s father went to the Soviet Union to work as an automotive technician; however, when his short-term contract expired, he was not allowed to leave. Alexander and his sister Stella thus grew up in Moscow during the Great Purge and World War II. He started working at Embassy Moscow in 1943 at the age of 16. In 1948 he was apprehended by State Security and interrogated at the notorious KGB headquarters at Lubyanka on suspicions of espionage. He was brutally tortured and finally forced to “confess.” He was then transferred to Sukhanovka prison, which was known for being even worse than Lubyanka. His nightmare had only begun.

He survived several months of intense torture and was one of a very few who survived the prison with their sanity intact, using tactics such as measuring the distances he covered walking; he estimated that he “walked” from Moscow through Europe and halfway across the Atlantic Ocean.

Dolgun was eventually sentenced to 25 years in the Gulag, the network of prisoner work camps scattered throughout the Soviet Union, and ended up in Kazakhstan, where he was interned for several months until being called back to Moscow. His recall was initiated by the infamous General Mikhail Ryumin, No. 2 in the Soviet Union’s State Security Department, who wanted to use Dolgun as a puppet in a show trial. Dolgun was once again sent to Sukhanovka, where Ryumin personally tortured and beat him in an effort to get him to confess to a number of plots and conspiracies against the Soviet Union. According to Dolgun and others, his whereabouts were known by the U.S. government, which did nothing purportedly because bilateral relations were so fragile. For several months, Dolgun endured this torture without succumbing until political shifts resulted in a loss of interest in the show trial and Dolgun was shipped back to Kazakhstan, where he stayed until 1956.

After his release from prison, Dolgun returned to Moscow, where he was not allowed to contact American authorities. He discovered that both his mother and father had been tortured in an effort to pressure them to implicate him, driving his mother to insanity. He took a job translating medical journals into English and befriended several notable Gulag survivors, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn included some of Dolgun’s experiences in his work The Gulag Archipelago (referring to him as “Alexander D”). Dolgun married in 1965 and he and his wife had a son. His mother died in 1967, and his father in 1968. In 1971, through the efforts of his sister, Stella Krymm, who escaped the Soviet Union in 1946, and U.S. Ambassador to Austria John P. Humes, Dolgun managed to get an exit visa and relocate to Rockville, Maryland. (It was at this time that Norwegian journalist Per Egil Hegge, who was posted in Moscow, became the first person to interview Solzhenitsyn after he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970.)

Dolgun took a job at the Soviet-American Medicine section at the National Institutes of Health. In 1975, he published the bestseller Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag. In 1972, he received back pay of $22,000 from Embassy Moscow for the period of service from 1949 to 1956 and complained that he was paid “peanuts” for his time and should have, at the least, received interest on his salary. He died in 1986 at the age of 59 in Maryland. Peter Swiers served as a consular officer at Embassy Moscow from 1970 to 1972. He was interviewed beginning in 1994.

“There was no effort by the embassy to contact him for those 12 years”

SWIERS:  There was another case. It was most interesting and concerned Alexander Dolgun, who was an American citizen born in [the Bronx], New York, of Polish parents. He and his sister were born there. In the 1930s, the parents “returned” to the Soviet Union. I assume they had been born there before Poland became independent. They took their two children with them; they were one of those couples who had been attracted by socialism. The Dolgun children for some reason or another never accepted this philosophy and never became part of the system. I never explored the psychology of this in depth with Alexander. During the war, the parents were alive; the father became a chauffeur to some very high official, but there was something complicated in the life. The sister got a job with the British military mission during the war and Alexander was employed by our embassy. At the end of the war, the British got the sister out by putting her on a train to Helsinki, sitting between two British military liaison officers. The sister was willing to leave. I believe their father had died by then. When I later met the sister, she had married an Austrian working for the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and was living in Vienna.

Alexander, on the other hand, foolishly decided to stay on and take care of his mother. He had a good job at the embassy. He even had an apartment in the embassy complex. He was in this “never-never” status – he was an American citizen and he had an American passport but lived permanently in the Soviet Union. He had refused to accept Soviet citizenship. In 1948 he was, in the classic fashion, grabbed on what used to be Gorky Street and disappeared…. He was first taken to Lubyanka and then to Sukhanovka  which is even a worse prison, interrogated by the commander of the prison, who was a sadist. He nearly died and eventually was sent to the Gulag. Because of his illness, he was put into a hospital where he learned to be a practical nurse and developed a skill with medical books.

Finally, in 1956, he was pardoned, not released, and forced to accept a Soviet passport. Then he made a living as a translator at a Western medical publications office until his sister managed to visit Russia in 1968 and relocate him. Then began the process of getting them out. I arrived in 1970 and through a very difficult process we tried to convince the sister and the ambassador in Austria that this was not a case to go public with. Something about the case bothered me and I felt that if we went public we might lose or harm both of them.

We kept putting pressure on the Soviets to release him as an American citizen. The Nixon visit was coming up and finally in September of 1971, we were informed that Dolgun would be allowed to visit the embassy. I will be leaving quite a bit of this story out because there are some sad parts to it.

I have some reservations about how our government originally handled the case; there are some participants who are still alive and I don’t want to talk about them at this stage. But there was something about the case that disturbed me. There had been no real effort by the embassy to contact Dolgun between 1948 and 1956. When he resurfaced in 1956, there was a decision to not contact him. When he came in to get what was left of his effects from the embassy, it was a surprise visit and there was no further contact with him until his sister arrived. That decision for those 12 years (1956-1968) may have been correct, maybe not. But certainly I disagree with the decisions that were made.

“He got out in the nick of time”

I remember Dolgun coming to the embassy. I went outside to the police who were always in front of our embassy to “protect” us and I said to one of the officers: “I don’t want to get into a debate with you, but there is a man by the name of Alexander Dolgun arriving at 11:00 in the morning and

he has full permission to enter and I don’t want a hard time about it. Would you please go to your superior and tell him that?” And he said: “Oh, we never stop anybody from coming in; we’re here to protect you.” I said: “Look, let’s skip it today and just do what I tell you.” I phrased a little bit more politely than that, but he got the message. As I walked back, I could see him signaling to a fellow officer and had him come in while he ran to the phone. At the appointed time, when I came out again (our embassy had two archways), I could see Dolgun walking and I knew him instantly, even though I had never seen the man before, because he looked like an American. It’s something I confess that still gives me a certain emotion today. He had his head up high while a Soviet would come past the embassy slightly hunched over. There was something in him that made you realize that he was an American in spite of the fact that he had lived in the Soviet Union since he was a teenager. The clothing he was wearing was Russian, but he was an American. It was the most extraordinary feeling.

I went out and put myself between him and the militia and brought him into the embassy. He started to tell me a story of what had happened. It was sort of an opening of things and I just pointed and told him that we would have plenty of time in the future to talk about this.

Q:You knew that the place was bugged?

SWIERS: Yes, there was no way that we could carry on a conversation, particularly if he wanted to say anything sensitive, because I’m sure all of the bugs were on unless we had cleared them out. We simply assumed, even though there had been a major effort to clean out back in the 1960s, that there were still bugs.

It still took another three months to get Dolgun out. They kept throwing up obstacles at the visa registration office. We couldn’t quite figure it out. In particular, his new wife’s mother had refused to give permission for him to get out. Your parents had to provide permission to emigrate if you were a Soviet (if you can imagine this) even though you were an adult. Finally, in December 1971, we got Dolgun out, but even at the airport they were still giving him a hard time at customs. I intervened and he wrote in his book later that I had leaped over the scales to come to him. I didn’t quite leap, but I did come pretty fast and I flashed my pass and we went right in. I literally walked him to the plane and we got him out to Vienna and to his sister.

It’s interesting now that he can finally tell the full story. First of all, his wife’s father was a KGB officer. He and his wife were divorced, but nevertheless it really upset the KGB that this was happening, since they had a little son. More importantly though, as we learned a few months later, there was a report that a woman in Leningrad who had been one of the messengers for Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag who had hanged herself [probably Solzhenitsyn’s typist, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, who was arrested by the KGB, was released, and then hanged herself a few days later, in August 1973]. A Norwegian correspondent named Per Egil Hegge, whom we knew, was PNGed after that [declared persona non grata and forced to leave the country]. He had gone up to Leningrad to see this woman. She had been one of his contacts and I assume Per Egil Hegge was one of the couriers that helped to get Solzhenitsyn’s book draft out of the country.

Q:We’re talking about the book, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

SWIERS: The last time that Per Egil Hegge got to Leningrad he was accosted by hoodlums, who beat him up and more specifically smashed his eyeglasses. He was quite myopic and he had no choice but to go back to Moscow and then he was subsequently PNGed. In fact my wife and I were at lunch at his house when he was late coming home; he had been called to the ministry. We were having lunch with his wife, who was Danish, when he showed up to announce that he was PNGed. He laughed and said that he had completed his work, which I assume was being the courier for The Gulag Archipelago.

When you read The Gulag you’ll notice that one of the principal sources for Solzhenitsyn’s description of Lubyanka and Sukhanovka interrogations was “AD” or “Alexander D.” That was Dolgun. I think the KGB had a sense that there was something there, but they didn’t have the facts. Dolgun literally got out in the nick of time, because when the book was published they would have noticed the reference and I’m not sure we would have ever seen Dolgun again. It was a very close one.