Photograph of Victor Herman with his Russian family after they arrived in the United States ca. 1977. From left: daughter Svetlana, wife Galina, his Russian mother-in-law, daughter Jaana.
Victor Herman (September 25, 1915 – March 25, 1985) was a Jewish-American who spent 18 years as a Soviet prisoner in the Gulags of Siberia. He was one of thousands of Americans sympathetic towards Communism who went to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s to work but who met tragic fates during the Stalin purges. He briefly held the world record in 1934 for the highest parachute jump and became known as the 'Lindbergh of Russia'.
Herman was born in Detroit where his father, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, was active in organizing unions at Ford Motor Company. After Henry Ford made a deal with the Soviets, 300 Ford workers and their families from Detroit who held Communist sympathies were sent to Russia to help build a new Ford factory in Gorky. Victor Herman's family was among them.
In 1931 when Herman was 16, he moved with his family to Russia for a 3-year work shift, while retaining US citizenship. However, in 1934, the Great Purge began and many American expatriates were disappearing, or were arrested and deported. During these years Herman focused on his prodigious athletic talents and was noticed and recruited by the Soviet Air Force who taught him how to parachute. He was competitive and strove to be number one. On September 6, 1934 he achieved international notice after he set the World Record for the highest parachute jump, from 24,000 feet. He became known as the 'Lindbergh of Russia'.
Soviet authorities asked Herman to sign the World Record documents which included a blank space for citizenship which Herman filled in as "U.S.A." After continually refusing to change it to the U.S.S.R., he was arrested in 1938 for "counter-revolutionary activities" and spent a year in a local prison that included brutal tortures: he had to sit on a bench 18 hours a day unmoving and nonspeaking facing a door, he was beaten in his kidneys every night for 52-days straight, he was thrown into a cell with violent criminals who tried to kill him, the diet was starvation, among other things. Most of his fellow cell-mates died during this period from similar deprivations. Herman believed his youth and strength saved him.
Herman was then sentenced to 10-years hard labor in a Siberian gulag where he suffered extreme hardships including beatings, starvation, torture, freezing, extreme labor. He survived through various means, for example eating rats which lived on the frozen corpses littering the camp. He was briefly released from the Gulag system in 1948, but was required to stay in Siberia as an exile as part of his parole agreement. He broke his parole however when he married a local Russian woman, Galina, who then had a baby girl, Svetlana. He was re-interned, but this time his wife and child were allowed to live with him under less severe conditions. The death of Stalin in 1953 brought improved conditions for Gulag inmates.
In 1956, Soviet authorities claimed they had no file on Victor Herman, as if he had never been a prisoner, and he was free to leave Siberia but not Russia. Herman spent the next 20 years moving with his family to various locations in the USSR taking odd jobs as a boxing instructor, English-language teacher and farmer on a collective. Through it all he never gave up hope of returning to the United States. In 1976, after nearly a decade of filing applications with Soviet authorities who refused to recognize his American citizenship, he was allowed to return to the US. Galina, his 2 girls and his mother-in-law soon followed him.
Herman's mother died in Russia in the early 1930s, his father died there in the 1950s and his brother Leo died in Russia in 1974 after committing suicide. His sister remained in Russia for the rest of her life, she married a Russian and had a career researching pathologies. In 1978, Herman filed a $10 million lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. for the hardships he suffered, but the suit was unresolved at the time of his death. The memoir of the experiences, Coming Out of the Ice (1979) was ghostwritten by Gordon Lish. The book later became a TV movie in 1982 starring John Savage, Willie Nelson and Ben Cross.
- Alexander Dolgun (1926-1986) survivor of the Soviet Gulag who returned to his native United States.
- Robert Robinson (engineer) (1907-1994) Jamaican-born toolmaker who initially worked in the US auto industry in the United States but spent 44 years in the Soviet Union.
- Thomas Sgovio (1916-1997) American artist, and former inmate of a Soviet GULAG camp in Kolyma
- "Author Who Was Russian Prisoner Dies : American Victor Herman Held 18 Years; Ordeal Became TV Film". Los Angeles Times. Times Wire Services. March 29, 1985. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
- Ron Laytner (September 6, 1979). "Out From the Gulags of Russia". Deseret News. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
- Walter H. Waggoner (March 29, 1985). "Victor Herman, Exile In Soviet". New York Times. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
- Tim Tzouliadis (2008). "The Lindbergh of Russia". The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia. Penguin. p. 38. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
- Victor Herman on IMDb
- "Coming Out of the Ice (1982)". New York Times. Archived from the original on 2014-01-01. Cite uses deprecated parameter
- "Man Sues Ford, Claims He Was Left in Russia". Reading Eagle. Associated Press. October 1, 1977. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
- "24,000 ft. Record". Parachute History. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
- "Former Soviet prisoner dies". Associated Press. March 28, 1985. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
- Carol Sklenicka (2009). Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life. Simon and Schuster. p. 361. Retrieved July 23, 2014.