Hidden Connections, Unintended Consequences: American Jews, Contraband Trades, and Soviet Borders

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On a cold early spring night in 1926, one Gerchik Botvinnik was apprehended by Soviet border guards while riding in his horse-drawn cart along a Belorussian country road. Among the wads of bills that the soldiers found stuffed in his pockets were some 405 US dollars (approximately $6,000 today). An investigation determined that Botvinnik obtained the dollars earlier that night by selling saccharin that had been smuggled in from nearby Poland. Botvinnik’s case was one of hundreds of thousands of seizures of contraband effected by Soviet authorities in the 1920s in a far-reaching struggle against smuggling. But the US banknotes that financed his operations were some of the millions of dollars that American Jews sent to their Soviet brethren with the Soviet government’s own encouragement.

The mixing of these two flows—the legal transatlantic remittances and the cross-border contraband—in Botvinnik’s pockets was no accident, and no exception. Drawing on original archival research in Europe and the United States, Andrey Shlyakhter uncovers the role that American Jews played, both wittingly and unwittingly, in the contraband trade that flourished across the Soviet borders. Linking philanthropists, bankers, union organizers, seamstresses, and furriers in New York and Chicago with politicians, merchants, trappers, smugglers, and everyday consumers in the Soviet Union and its neighbors, this is a history of hidden connections and unintended consequences.

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