The Nazino tragedy in May 1933 involved the horrifying mass murder and mass deportation of approximately 6,700 prisoners to Nazino Island. This desolate island, situated on the Ob River in West Siberian Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union (now Tomsk Oblast, Russia), was designated as a “special settlement” where the deportees were expected to construct and cultivate.
However, they were callously abandoned with meager supplies of flour for sustenance, an extreme shortage of tools, and a severe lack of clothing and shelter necessary for survival in the unforgiving Siberian climate.
The conditions on Nazino Island rapidly deteriorated, leading to the widespread occurrence of disease, violence, and the unthinkable act of cannibalism. Within a mere thirteen weeks, over 4,000 of the deportees had tragically perished or mysteriously vanished, while the remaining survivors suffered from severe physical ailments.
Attempting to escape this nightmarish ordeal was met with brutal force, as armed guards mercilessly took the lives of those who dared to flee.
Initially concealed from the public eye, the true extent of the incident was finally brought to light in 1988, thanks to the investigative efforts of the human rights organization Memorial. The original report, initially compiled by Vasily A. Velichko, a Soviet propaganda worker, was transmitted to Joseph Stalin and other influential figures within the Politburo.
However, it remained classified until Memorial’s thorough examination, which occurred five decades after the tragic events. It wasn’t until 2002 that the tragedy gained widespread attention when reports from a special commission conducted by the Communist Party in September 1933 were published by Memorial, ensuring the Nazino tragedy would not be forgotten.
The Origins of a Battle Royale at Nazino
In February 1933, Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the OGPU secret police, and Matvei Berman, the head of the GULAG labor camp system, presented Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, with a proposal they dubbed a “grandiose plan.” This plan aimed to resettle a staggering two million individuals to Siberia and the Kazakh ASSR in what they referred to as “special settlements.”
The plan aimed to harness the potential of these sparsely populated regions by bringing over a million hectares (10,000 km2; 2,500,000 acres; 3,900 sq mi) of untapped land into agricultural production, with the goal of achieving self-sufficiency within a two-year timeframe.
Yagoda and Berman’s proposal drew inspiration from the previous three years of experience of deporting two million kulaks and other agricultural workers to the same regions as part of the dekulakization policy.
However, in contrast to the earlier plan, the implementation of the new proposal faced severe limitations due to the ongoing famine gripping the Soviet Union, which greatly strained available resources. Nonetheless, despite these challenges, the Council of People’s Commissars granted approval to the plan on 11 March 1933.
Soon after its approval, prospective deportees were reduced to one million.
The original plan for the resettlement targeted various groups, including kulaks, peasants, “urban elements,” and individuals residing in the agricultural regions of the Soviet Union’s western territories such as the Ukrainian SSR, the Lower Volga, the North Caucasus, and the Black Earth regions of the Russian SFSR.
However, the actual deportees deviated from this intended target group and instead comprised individuals from Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities who had been unable to obtain internal passports.
This discrepancy arose from the implementation of the Soviet passportization campaign, which commenced with a decision by Politburo on December 27, 1932 to issue internal passports to all residents of major cities.
One of the campaign’s objectives was to “cleanse Moscow, Leningrad, and the other major urban centers of the USSR of superfluous elements not connected with production or administrative work, as well as kulaks, criminals, and other antisocial and socially dangerous elements.”
The deportees predominantly consisted of the “lumpenproletariat and socially harmful elements,” encompassing former merchants and traders, peasants who had fled the ongoing famine in rural areas, petty criminals, and those who did not fit into the idealized worker class structure.
Due to their backgrounds and circumstances, they were denied passports and could be swiftly arrested and deported from the cities following a summary administrative procedure. Most of those arrested were transported to transit camps in the city of Tomsk, particularly those apprehended in relation to the cleansing of Moscow before 1 May 1933 (International Workers’ Day).
Between March and July 1933, 85,937 individuals living in Moscow were arrested and deported due to their lack of passports, while 4,776 individuals from Leningrad also faced deportation.
Arriving at Nazino, the Cannibal Island
As outlined in the plan proposed by Yagoda and Berman, the deportees were scheduled to pass through transit camps located in Tomsk, Omsk, and Achinsk. Among these, the largest camp was the one in Tomsk, which had to be reconstructed from scratch, beginning in April, to accommodate up to 15,000 deportees.
However, in an unexpected turn of events, 25,000 deportees arrived in that month, even before the completion of the camp, which was initially scheduled for May 1st. River transport to the final labor camps was halted until the beginning of May when the ice on the Ob and Tom Rivers cleared.
The first wave of arrivals consisted mainly of individuals without proper documentation, alleged kulaks, other agricultural workers, and people from cities in southern Russia. The sudden influx of deportees caused panic among the authorities in Tomsk, who viewed them as “starving and contagious.”
A report by Vassily Arsenievich Velichko, the local Communist Party head in the Narymsky District of West Siberian Krai, provided examples of twenty-two individuals who had been deported. However, due to the confiscation of declared documents at the time of arrest, by police at detention centers, or by criminals on the train, the exact number and identities of the deceased were difficult to ascertain.
Some deportees did manage to bring their documents with them, including party and party candidate cards, Komsomol cards, passports, and certificates from factories. However, these documents did not prevent their apprehension.
The journey to the labor camps involved rail convoys departing from Moscow on April 30th and Leningrad on April 29th, arriving on May 10th. During the trip, the daily food ration per person was a meager 300 grams (11 oz) of bread. Criminal groups among the deportees would target non-criminals, subjecting them to beatings and stealing their food and clothing.
The authorities in Tomsk, unfamiliar with urban deportees, anticipated trouble and decided to send them to the most isolated work sites. Two nights after their arrival in Tomsk, a disturbance broke out when they demanded drinking water, but mounted troops were deployed to quell the riot.
Many of the urban deportees were later transported to Nazino Island, a remote swampy river island on the Ob River, approximately 800 kilometers (500 mi) north of Tomsk. This desolate region was inhabited by only a small number of indigenous Ostyak people.
On May 14th, four river barges, originally intended for timber hauling, were filled with approximately 5,000 deportees. Around one-third of the deportees were criminals sent to “decongest the prisons,” while about half were lumpenproletariat from Moscow and Leningrad.
The authorities in charge of the labor camps were informed of their arrival on May 5th. However, they had never worked with urban deportees and lacked the necessary resources or supplies to support them.
During the river journey on the barges, the deportees were kept below decks and reportedly provided with a daily ration of 200 grams (7 oz) of bread per person. Although twenty tons of flour were transported, averaging about 4 kilograms (9 lb) per person, the barges lacked any other food, cooking utensils, or tools.
The supervisory personnel, including two commanders and fifty guards, were newly recruited and ill-equipped, without shoes or uniforms.
The Nazino Tragedy
During the afternoon of May 18th, the barges unloaded their passengers on Nazino Island, a small island measuring approximately 3 kilometers (1.9 mi) in length and 600 meters (660 yd) in width. There was no official record of the deportees disembarking.
Still, upon arrival, 322 women and 4,556 men were counted, along with the discovery of 27 bodies of individuals who had died during the journey from Tomsk. More than a third of the deportees were so weak that they could not stand upon arrival.
An additional 1,200 deportees arrived on May 27th, leading to a fight. Guards fired upon the deportees as twenty tons of flour were being unloaded on the island, and distribution attempts resulted in further conflicts.
The flour was transported to the shore opposite the island, and another distribution attempt was made the following morning, which once again led to fighting and gunfire. Subsequently, all flour was distributed through “brigadiers” who collected flour for their brigade consisting of approximately 150 individuals.
Unfortunately, many of these brigadiers were criminals who abused their privileges and consumed the flour themselves. Initially, there were no ovens to bake bread, so the deportees consumed the flour mixed with river water, which eventually caused dysentery to spread. Some deportees attempted to escape by constructing primitive rafts, but most of these rafts were unstable and collapsed, resulting in numerous corpses washing up on the shore.
Guards treated the escapees as prey, hunting and killing them as if they were mere animals. Due to the lack of transportation options to the rest of the country, except upstream to Tomsk, and the inhospitable conditions of life in the taiga, any escapees who managed to cross the river and evade the guards were presumed to have perished.
Shortly after the deportees had already arrived on Nazino Island, Stalin rejected Yagoda and Berman’s plan.
Order on Nazino Island quickly disintegrated as the majority of the urban dwellers had no knowledge of basic agricultural practices required to make the island habitable. Scarce resources led to the formation of gangs that terrorized and dominated weaker settlers.
Murders became frequent occurrences in fights over food or money, and the bodies of those possessing valuable items, such as gold tooth fillings and crowns, were often looted. These items were then exchanged for food and cigarettes by members of the gangs.
Meanwhile, the guards established their own reign of terror, extorting settlers and executing people for minor offenses, despite showing little concern toward the gangs. Even the doctors sent to monitor the island’s population, who were meant to be protected, began to fear for their lives.
The severe lack of adequate food and the increasing death toll by late May led to the widespread occurrence of cannibalism, to the point where settlers began murdering individuals solely for the purpose of consuming their flesh.
On May 21st, the three health officers recorded seventy new deaths, with evidence of cannibalism observed in five cases. Over the following month, approximately fifty people were arrested for engaging in acts of cannibalism.
The Aftermath of the Nazino Tragedy
The situation on Nazino Island came to an end in early June when Soviet authorities dissolved the settlement. The surviving 2,856 deportees were transferred to smaller settlements upstream on the Nazina River, while 157 deportees who were in poor health remained on the island.
Unfortunately, several hundred more deportees died during the transfer. The survivors faced dire conditions in the new settlements, with limited tools, scarce food, and a typhus outbreak. Many refused to work due to their previous mistreatment.
In early July, new settlements were constructed with the help of non-deportee labor, but only 250 Nazino settlers were transferred there. Instead, the settlements housed 4,200 new deportees who arrived from Tomsk.
Within a span of thirteen weeks, out of approximately 6,000 deportee settlers initially intended for Nazino Island, between 1,500 and 2,000 had died from starvation, exposure, disease, murder, or accidents. Another 2,000 settlers had disappeared, and their fate remained unknown, leading to the presumption of their death. These death tolls encompass individuals who perished or vanished during transportation to or from the island.
The report on the situation at Nazino Island, originally sent to Stalin by Velichko, was distributed by Lazar Kaganovich to members of the Politburo and preserved in an archive in Novosibirsk. According to the report, in May 1933, 6,114 “outdated elements” arrived on the island, and at least 27 people died during the river transport.
The island lacked shelter, and snowfall occurred on the first night, with no food distributed for four days. On the first day alone, 295 people were buried. Velichko’s report estimated that only 2,200 individuals survived out of the approximately 6,700 (6,100 plus an additional 500-600) deportees who arrived from Tomsk.
This report prompted the establishment of a commission by the Communist Party to investigate the incident. In October, the commission determined that half of the roughly 2,000 survivors from Nazino Island were sick and bedridden, and only around 200 to 300 were physically capable of work.
Local officials and guards on the island attempted to challenge Velichko’s report but were reprimanded instead, receiving prison sentences ranging from twelve months to three years.
The events on Nazino Island exposed flaws in Soviet colonization projects, leading to doubts about their effectiveness and efficiency within the Soviet leadership. In 1933 alone, there were 367,457 known cases of “special resettlers” whose whereabouts were untraceable, with 151,601 being dismissed and 215,856 simply disappearing from their settlements.
The Nazino incident directly contributed to the discontinuation of large-scale settlement plans in the Soviet Union and the abandonment of using deportees from “urban déclassé elements” and criminal backgrounds for future resettlement endeavors.
After the initial investigations in late 1933, the events that took place on Nazino Island were effectively silenced and suppressed, known only to a small number of survivors, government officials, and eyewitnesses. It wasn’t until 1988, during the period of glasnost in the Soviet Union, that the details of the tragedy began to emerge and became accessible to the general public, thanks to the efforts of the human rights organization Memorial.
In 1989, an eyewitness account was reported to Memorial, shedding light on the desperate attempts of the deportees to escape their dire circumstances. The deportees, unaware of their location and cut off from familiar cities like Moscow and Leningrad, sought assistance from the local Ostyak people.
However, the Ostyaks themselves were unable to provide any guidance. Starving and given only a small handful of flour mixed with water, which led to severe diarrhea, the deportees faced unimaginable suffering. Desperation took hold, and acts of violence and cannibalism occurred among the starving population.
The eyewitness recalled a guard named Kostia Venikov, who fell in love with a girl sent to the island and tried to protect her. However, when he was briefly absent, the girl was subjected to horrific violence, including mutilation, as people resorted to cannibalism due to extreme hunger.
As to what happened to her, it’s written:
The things we saw! People were dying everywhere; they were killing each other … On the island there was a guard named Kostia Venikov, a young fellow. He fell in love with a girl who had been sent there and was courting her.
He protected her. One day he had to be away for a while, and he told one of his comrades, “Take care of her,” but with all the people there, the comrade couldn’t do much really… 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.
In 2006, French historian Nicolas Werth, known for co-authoring The Black Book of Communism, published a book titled Cannibal Island, specifically addressing the events that unfolded on Nazino Island. This book was subsequently translated into English in 2007. In 2009, a documentary titled L’île aux Cannibales (Cannibal Island) was produced, based on Werth’s book.
Today, Nazino Island, now located in the Alexandrovsky District of Tomsk Oblast, Russia, is often referred to as “Death Island” due to the haunting and tragic events that transpired there.
Even though Cannibal Island is horrifying, it’s important to keep in mind that the agony Stalin inflicted on the world for two decades predates it. Even now, suffering is not appropriately addressed.
We can find tales like this to be unsettling, if not ghostly. We can opt to turn our heads, as many others did. But the fact is that catastrophes like this have occurred more frequently than we would want to acknowledge in recent history.
It might be a mysterious swampland area in the middle of a far-off river. Yet the world ought to make every effort not to forget Cannibal Island.
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