I am interested in the repression of western communists (traveling to or residing in the USSR) during the Stalin era. How extensive was it? What were the justifications from the Soviet point of view? Did the western governments object imprisonment and executions of their citizens? Was it known to western public, at least to the communism sympathizers?

As per the title, I am mostly interested in the western reactions (Stalin possibly viewed the Revolution as an international affair and/or tried to secure his grip on the Communist movements worldwide - the strategy that paid off during the WW2.) Specifically:
Did the western governments object imprisonment and executions of their citizens?
I suppose the western governments/politicians were not too eager to protect the people intent on reversing the existing political systems, but they would have been still obliged to uphold the rights of individuals, especially their citizens. (The situation is somewhat akin to the treatment of westerners having joined the Islamic State in our times, although the view on individual rights might have been somewhat different more than half a century ago.)

Was it known to the western public, at least to the communism sympathizers?
Many westerners, including many high profile intellectuals, sympathized with the Communism, to the extent of supporting Stalin. This support had significantly diminished after the Stalin's policies were renounced by Khrushchev in 1956 (see also thread What was the reaction of Western Communist Parties to Krushchev's 1956 speech denouncing Stalin?). However, were the repressions (and their scale) really a secret before that?

My departing point here was really a fiction novel, which describes a Spanish Communist traveling to the Soviet Union and ending rounded up and sent to the Nazino island, together with thousands of average Russians. This is obviously a made up plot device. Yet, although at first it sounds incredible that foreigners could be treated as average Soviet citizens, such repression apparently did happen - e.g., Milovan Djilas in Conversations with Stalin mentions that Bulgarian Communists were "decimated" during the purges. There was also the repression taking place in regard to other foreigners, as discussed in thread Is it true that there were American POWs in Soviet captivity after the Second World War? and Wikipedia article Americans in the Gulag

Added from comments: Wikipedia article on Hotel Lux contains more details on the repression of non-Soviet Communists. Several interesting specific cases are provided in the answer by @Evargalo, so I do not reproduce them here.

Clarification in response to comments:
By focusing on Western governments I meant mostly the liberal democracies who are supposed to care for their citizens, and whose intellectuals are expected to care for human rights. This significantly narrows down the range of Communists in question, excluding (probably)Chinese, Mongolian or Latin American ones, although all of them had tight connections with the Soviet Union. This probably discards as well some European states - e.g., German government after 1933 probably didn't bother much for the fate of German Communists.

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    Does "Western" include German? I am pretty sure (but without source) that the German government at that time would have known and did not care.
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 10:21
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    (relevant wp link, but does not contain answers re. knowledge and reactions: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Lux)
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 10:23
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    I am confused by the examples given. Are Bulgarian communists counted as "western" communists ?
    – Evargalo
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 11:01
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    The case of Lovett Fort_Whiteman might be of interest: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lovett_Fort-Whiteman . AFAICT, the US government did nothing to protect him, and he himself didn't ask for US protection (although he had tried to leave USSR for the USA when he understood he was a soon-to-be-target of Stalinist purges).
    – Evargalo
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 11:33
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    @MCW I tried to address these suggestions in the edited version.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 14:39

1 Answer 1


For US citizens detained in USSR :

Legal frame

Since 1933, USA and USSR had established a protocol according to which each country has to inform the consul of the other one

whenever a national of the country which he represents is arrested in his district [or] if a prisoner is transfered from one place of detention to another.

It is mentionned at the highest state level, in this extract from correspondance between Roosevelt and Litvinov.

The case of Isaiah Oggins

The American communist Isaiah Oggins was arrested by the NKVD on February 20, 1939, after having spied for USSR for about 13 years. Notwithstanding the 1933 protocol, it is only after his being sentenced on January 5, 1940, to 8 years in prison for espionage and deported to the prison camp Norillag in Norilsk that the US authorities learned about his case.

US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Ambassador of the USA in Moscow Standley enquired about his fate. It is apparent in this telegram from Hull to Standley:

Please take up this case informally with the Soviet authorities and since Oggins is an American citizen request permission for an American Foreign Service Officer to visit him as provided for in the 1933 agreement, or that Oggins be allowed to appear at the Embassy.

Those efforts had some effects since on December 8, 1942, Oggins received visits from American diplomats at the Butyrka prison in Moscow. However, he wouldn't ever be released until his assassination in 1947.


This is part a many efforts of the US Embassy to monitor the fate of US citizens (some of them, but not all, being communists) in detention in the USSR.

Earlier, Lovett Fort-Whiteman was another American communist, settled in Moscow and victim of the Stalinist purges in 1937. I found no trace of any US diplomatic activity to enquire about his fate. No hit either for Thomas Sgovio, who survived 16 years in the Gulag and later left Russia for the USA where he published his story in 1972.

You may also want to check how the US authorities treated the case of Noel Field, who was arrested and detained not in the USSR but in Czechoslovakia.

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