The Siberian island of Nazino spreads over less than a square mile; yet it was home to a notorious Soviet gulag in the summer of 1933. Ever since, locals have kept calling Nazino « Ostrov lioudoedov » — Cannibal Island in Russian. Here’s why.
The last prisoners have departed more than 80 years ago, yet local villagers still talk about Nazino island with the same shaky voice… As if the nightmare of 1933 had cursed the entire area. None would guess, at first glance, that this peaceful region featuring freezing swamps and poplar trees had once been a Soviet gulag. The white Siberian taiga has no memory, it is believed. But some things may be harder to forget.
Stalin, captain of industry
The starting point to the Nazino affair was Stalin’s own initiative. In 1928, the communist leader launched a 5-year plan aimed at boosting the industrial sector, at a time when Soviet economy was still mainly driven by its agriculture. To speed the transition, Stalin ordered the collectivization of land resources — grain, livestock but also machinery and land itself — either to supply the cities or to export in exchange for money to be invested within Soviet industry. Stalin’s objective was to catch up with capitalist economies, as if to show off and tell them: ‘Da, socialism worrks just fine’. However, land collectivization resulted in a large-scale famine which killed between 3 et 7 million people.
There was more. Plagued by famine and epidemics, peasants gave up their homes to find jobs where employment was rising rapidly — in industrial cities. An unprecedented rural exodus followed, driving thousands of Russians out of the countryside towards the industrial suburbs, where crime and violence levels skyrocketed. As this massive influx of immigrants destabilized urban economies, Stalin ordered special militia to ‘clean up’ the streets of Leningrad and Moscow. During the spring of 1933, 70,000 ‘socially harmful’ people were either ordered back to their sterile croplands, or forcibly sent to ‘special settlements’ in Siberia or Kazakhstan. Either way, they would meet certain death.
On May 1, 1933, 6,000 petty criminals were evacuated from Moscow to join the ‘special settlement’ of Nazino island, in Western Siberia. Landscapes changed noticeably along the way, switching from smoke-covered cities to desolate regions punctuated with resinous trees and then, further up the Ob River, mangrove-like swamps. The ‘déclassés’ eventually reached Nazino — less than a square mile of muddy land covered with snow — and each received a pound of flour as his daily food ration.
Less than a month later, only a third of the prisoners were still alive – alive but exhausted, hungry, sick and cold. They had survived on their pound of flour mixed with dirty river water, spreading dysentery. Despite the snowy weather, none had received a hot meal since their arrival. In these conditions, it is no surprise that the detainees eventually competed with one another for food and clothing; murders were committed (sometimes by the guards themselves), and there have been occurrences of cannibalism among the prisoners. Hence the current nickname of Nazino, ‘Ostrov lioudoedov’ – Cannibal Island.
“Man turned into a jackal”
In early June, Soviet authorities ordered the ‘special settlement’ to be dismantled and the remaining prisoners to join yet another gulag. Most would die en route along the Ob River. Why was Nazino evacuated in the first place? Probably thanks to a letter written by a young Soviet officer, Vassily Velichko, who warned Stalin against the disastrous situation. “On Nazino Island, man ceased to be a man, he wrote. He turned into a jackal”.
Locals still remember the atrocities of 1933, and Ob navigators keep calling it by its infamous nickname, ‘Death Island’. This episode is only a short-lived nightmare compared to the monstrous chronicle of Soviet Purges; a mere six thousand neglected lives is nothing compared to the millions who died elsewhere – in Kazakhstan gulags, on the battlefield, or in the famine-plagued countryside. Without Vassily Velichko’s letter, which brought up further investigation, would we have known about Cannibal Island? How many similar crimes have been silenced? These are the questions that the ghosts of Nazino are still asking us — and they still haunt us to this day.
- Nicolas Werth, L’île aux cannibales (2006), Perrin.
- « L’île aux cannibales », Documentaire de Cédric Condom (France, 2009).
- Olivier Thomas, « L’enfer de Nazino », L’Histoire n°351, mars 2010.
- Nicolas Werth, “‘Déplacés Spéciaux’ Et ‘Colons De Travail’ Dans La Société Stalinienne”, Vingtième Siècle. Revue D’histoire, no. 54, 1997, pp. 34–50. JSTOR.
- Michael Ellman, “Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 Revisited”, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 59, no. 4, 2007, pp. 663–693. JSTOR.