Russia is a vast nation, with huge expanses of undeveloped land in parts of the country that are generally considered to be difficult or impossible to cultivate. Soviet leaders were not unaware of the possible untapped potential this uninhabited land presented, so in 1933, Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the Russian secret police and Matvei Berman, head of the Gulag or Soviet labor camp system, devised a plan to establish settlements throughout Siberia and Kazakhstan.
The Soviet Union began with the forced relocation of kulaks, which was a class of farming peasants that lost favor with the Soviet regime for failing to hand over their harvests to local government officials. These farmers met extremely limited success on the lands they were forced to occupy, due in large part to drought and their methods of share cropping. The limitations, however, did not dissuade the Soviet regime from continuing to expel those they deemed unworthy of inclusion in proper Soviet society.
In the Spring of 1933, Soviet troops, under the direction of Yagoda and Berman, began rounding up “socially harmful elements” in Moscow and Leningrad. Some of these citizens were petty criminals, but most were merchants or traders. Some were chosen simply because they did not appear to fit the idealized image of a communist citizen. Arrests were primarily due to failing to acquire or present domestic travel passports, even when arrested within the communities they resided in. Deportees were processed and transported within two days of their arrest, not allowed to communicate with anyone, and could give their loved ones no notice of their expulsion.
Between March and July of 1933, it was reported that more than 90,000 Soviet citizens were deported to other locations in the Soviet Union from the Moscow and Leningrad areas. The vast majority of these deportees were transferred from the Tomsk transit camp to farms elsewhere, but more than 6,000 that were given the label “outdated elements” were sent instead to Nazino Island, a small and isolated patch of land in Western Siberia where the Ob and Nazina Rivers meet.
Among that six thousand people were nearly two thousand criminals, sent to the island in an effort to “decongest” the Soviet prison system. The majority of the remainder were “urban outdated elements” – people expelled from major cities and transported with no food, tools or supplies. Their trip was divided into two legs; the first was by train, where each deportee was given a daily ration of three hundred grams of bread. The second leg was by barges designed to ship wood, where each deportee’s ration was cut down to two hundred grams of bread.
Crime among the deportees began almost immediately, as hunger pushed them toward desperation. The barges carried twenty tons of flour (enough to give each deportee almost nine pounds), as well as fifty or so newly recruited guards.
Nazino island, a three kilometer long, six hundred meter wide, swampy patch of earth amid two powerful rivers offered no shelter, farmable land, or sufficient tree growth to harvest firewood. When the barges arrived, twenty-seven deportees had already succumbed to the hunger and poor conditions. The remaining people were unloaded onto the island, provided their rations of flour, and left with no other tools, equipment or supplies. The following day, about twelve hundred additional deportees were delivered to the island with no additional rations or equipment.
Because they had no means to cook the flour they had, many simply mixed it with the river water in order to eat it, leading to widespread infections that led to dysentery for many. Criminal elements immediately began establishing territories and confiscating rations from those too weak to stop them. Some attempted to build rafts in order to make their escape, but because the powerful current could only take the rafts back to Tomsk, most accepted their fate and chose to remain. Those who attempted to leave were hunted by guards on patrol. Accounts from Nazino survivors tell of the bodies of hopeful escapees washing back up on the shores of the island by the hundreds. Two hundred and ninety-five people were buried on the first day alone.
By May 21st, only eleven days after the majority of the deportees arrived on the island, three health officers observed five confirmed cases of cannibalism between the island’s new forced residents. Although there were no other available sources of food on the island, the guards immediately banned the practice and began arresting those they observed killing and eating one another. Within the next thirty days, they arrested fifty more people for cannibalism.
One survivor account explained that while many of the guards killed the island inhabitants without hesitation, some did establish bonds with the starving people. One guard was reported to have even been courting a young woman on the island. When he was called away, he asked a friend to watch over her, but the friend proved unable.
“People caught the girl, tied her to a poplar tree, cut off her breasts, her muscles, everything they could eat, everything, everything…. They were hungry, they had to eat. When Kostia came back, she was still alive. He tried to save her, but she had lost too much blood.”
Unbeknownst to those left on the island, Stalin was presented with the updated plan at nearly the same time they were beginning to arrive. He rejected it out of hand, but the gears of Soviet Russia were slow to turn, and fate of thousands had already been sealed.
By June, only 3,013 of the estimated 6,700 island inhabitants were still alive. The majority of the survivors were relocated to smaller, better supplied settlements, but 157 proved too weak to leave the island at all, with many more dying en route to their new camps. Once there, many more succumbed to typhus infection. By October, Soviet records indicate less than three hundred were still capable of any kind of work.
In 1988, the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, began a government transparency program commonly referred to as Glasnost. Through this program, records of what occurred on Nazino Island were released to the public, proving that the events that had prompted folk songs and legends throughout the nation had actually occurred. Although the records included the number of people brought to the islands, as well as the number confirmed dead, the names of the deportees were never recorded, leaving the families of those who died forever unsure as to the fate of their loved ones.
The Russian Memorial Society as well as local organizations surrounding Nazino Island have since erected a cross on the site of this tragic chapter in Soviet history. The simple stone monument reads only, “For the innocent victims of the years of unbelief.” In 2012, during a ceremony, the Memorial Society read off the names of those few who could be confirmed to have died on the island, but the identities of most may never be known.
Image courtesy of HistoryBuff.com