The Nazino affair (Russian: Назинская трагедия, romanized: Nazinskaya Tragediya) was the mass deportation of 6,000 people to Nazino Island in the Soviet Union in May 1933. The deportees, mostly political prisoners and petty criminals, were forcibly sent to the small, isolated island in Western Siberia, located 540 kilometers (340 mi) northwest of Tomsk, to construct a "special settlement". They were abandoned with only flour for food, and little in the way of tools, clothing, or shelter, and those who attempted to leave were killed by armed guards. The conditions of the island led to widespread disease, abuse of power, violence, and cannibalism. Within thirteen weeks, over 4,000 of the deportees related to Nazino Island had died or disappeared, and a majority of the survivors were in ill health.
The Nazino affair was virtually unknown until 1988, when an investigation by Memorial began during the glasnost reforms in the Soviet Union. The events were popularized in 2002 when reports of a September 1933 special commission by the Communist Party of Western Siberia were published by Memorial.
|Near the island of death, (in Russian, 29 minutes)|
In February 1933, Genrikh Yagoda, head of the OGPU secret police, and Matvei Berman, head of the GULAG labor camp system, proposed a self-described "grandiose plan" to Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, to resettle up to 2,000,000 people to Siberia and Kazakhstan in "special settlements." The deportees, or "settlers," were to bring over a million hectares (10,000 km2; 2.5 million acres; 4,000 sqmi) of virgin land in the sparsely populated regions into production, and become self-sufficient within two years.
Yagoda and Berman's plan was based on the experience of deporting 2,000,000 kulaks (wealthier land-owning peasants) and other agricultural workers to the same areas that had occurred in the previous three years as part of the Dekulakization policy. However, unlike the previous plan, resources available to support the new plan were severely limited by the ongoing famine in the Soviet Union. Despite this, the new plan was approved by the Soviet Council of People's Commissars of the USSR on 11 March 1933. Shortly after the plan's approval, the number of prospective deportees was reduced to 1,000,000 deportees.
The original plan targeted several types of kulaks, peasants, "urban elements," people living in the agricultural areas of Soviet Union's western territories such as the Ukrainian SSR, and the Lower Volga, North Caucasus and Black Earth Region in the Russian SFSR. Instead, many of the deportees were people from Moscow and Leningrad who had been unable to obtain an internal passport. The passportization campaign in the Soviet Union began with a decision by the Politburo on December 27, 1932 to issue internal passports to all residents of major cities, and one of their objectives was to "cleanse Moscow, Leningrad and the other great 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."
Deportees were primarily "Déclassé and socially harmful elements", meaning former merchants and traders, peasants who had fled the famine in the countryside, petty criminals, or anybody who did not fit into the idealized communist class structure. Their backgrounds meant they were not issued passports, and they could be arrested and deported from the cities after a summary administrative procedure. Most of the arrestees were deported within two days. Between March and July 1933, 85,937 people living in Moscow were arrested and deported because they lacked passports, while 4,776 people living in Leningrad were also deported. Those arrested in connection with the cleansing of Moscow prior to the May 1, 1933 May Day holiday were assigned to the transit camp in the city of Tomsk.
According to the plan of Yagoda and Berman, the deportees would pass through transit camps at Tomsk, Omsk, and Achinsk. The largest camp was at Tomsk, which had to be rebuilt from scratch, starting in April to hold 15,000 deportees. 25,000 deportees arrived in April even though the camp was not scheduled to be completed until May 1. River transport to the final labor camps was closed until the start of May until ice on the Ob and Tom Rivers cleared. Most of the first arrivals were kulaks and other agricultural workers, and people from southern Russian cities. The arrival of so many deportees panicked Tomsk authorities, who viewed them as "starving and contagious."
A report by Vassily Arsenievich Velichko, the local Communist Party head in Narymsky District of the West Siberian Krai, gave 22 examples of people who had been deported:
It is hard to tell how many, even who (died), because declared documents had been confiscated at the time of arrest, or by police organs at the detention centers, or on the train by criminals who used them to smoke. However, some of them brought their documents with them: party and party candidate cards, Komsomol cards, passports, certificates from the factories, factory passes, etc ...
- Novozhilov, Vl., from Moscow. Kompressor works. Driver. Awarded bonuses three times. Wife and child in Moscow. After work he was getting ready to go to the cinema with his wife. While she was getting dressed, he stepped out to smoke a cigarette and was apprehended.
- Guseva, an old woman. She lives in Murom. Her husband is an old communist, chief officer of the Murom railway station, who has worked there twenty-three years. Her son works there as an apprentice engine driver. Guseva came to Moscow to buy a suit for her husband and some white bread. Her documents did not help her....
A rail convoy holding déclassé deportees left Moscow on April 30, and a similar convoy left Leningrad on April 29, with both arriving on May 10. The daily food ration during the trip was 300 grams (10 oz) of bread per person. Criminal groups among the deportees beat the other deportees and stole their food and clothing. The authorities in Tomsk were unfamiliar with urban deportees, and expected trouble from them, so decided to send them to the most isolated work sites. Two nights after their arrival in Tomsk, a disturbance broke out as they demanded drinking water, but the riot was put down by mounted troops. Many of the urban deportees were later sent to Nazino Island (Russian: остров Назино), a river island on the Ob River located 800 kilometers (500 mi) north of Tomsk, in a particularly empty part of Western Siberia inhabited by only a small number of indigenous Ostyak people. Four river barges, which were designed to haul timber, were filled with about 5,000 deportees on May 14 1933. About a third of the deportees were criminals who were sent in order to "decongest the prisons." About half were déclassé people from Moscow and Leningrad. The authorities who were to be in charge of the labor camps were first informed that they would be sent on May 5. These authorities had never worked with urban deportees and had no resources or supplies to support them. The deportees were kept below decks on the barges and apparently fed a daily ration of 200 grams (7 oz) of bread per person. Twenty tons of flour - about 4 kg (9 lb) per person - were also transported, but the barges contained no other food, cooking utensils, or tools. All supervisory personnel, two commanders and fifty guards, were newly recruited and had no shoes or uniforms.
The barges unloaded their passengers during the afternoon of May 18, on Nazino Island, a swampy island about 3 km (2 miles) long and 600 meters (650 yd) wide. There was no roster of the disembarking deportees, but on arrival 322 women and 4,556 men were counted, plus 27 bodies of those who died during the trip from Tomsk. Over a third of the deportees were too weak to stand on arrival. About 1,200 additional deportees arrived on May 27. A fight broke out and guards fired on the deportees as the twenty tons of flour were deposited on the island and distribution began. The flour was moved to the shore opposite the island and distribution on the island was tried again the next morning, with another fight and more firing resulting. Afterward, all flour was distributed via "brigadiers" who collected flour for their brigade of about 150 people. The brigadiers were often criminals who abused their positions. There were no ovens to bake bread, so the deportees ate the flour mixed with river water, which led to dysentery. Some deportees made primitive rafts to try to escape, but most of the rafts collapsed and hundreds of corpses washed up on the shore below the island. Guards hunted and killed other escapees, as if they were hunting animals for sport. Because of the lack of any transportation to the rest of the country except upstream to Tomsk, and the harshness of life in the taiga, any other escapees who made it across the river and evaded the guards were ultimately presumed dead.
Shortly after the deportees had already arrived on Nazino Island, the Yagoda and Berman plan was rejected by Stalin.
Society on the island quickly broke down and devolved into chaos: the majority of the population were city dwellers, most of whom knew nothing about basic agricultural practices such as clearing and cultivation that would make the island properly habitable. The sparsity of resources led to gangs forming, who began using violence to dominate the island. People were frequently murdered in fights over food and money, and the bodies of those in possession of anything of value such as gold tooth fillings and crowns were often looted. The guards established their own reign of terror, extorting settlers and executing people for minor offences despite being apathetic towards the gangs. The guards were also assigned to keep the settlers in, and killed people who attempted to escape. Even the doctors sent to monitor the island's population, who were supposed to have protection, began to fear for their lives. The lack of proper food and the frequency of death by late May led to cannibalism becoming widespread, to the point that settlers eventually began murdering individuals for the sole purpose of consuming them.
On May 21, the three health officers counted 70 new deaths, with signs of cannibalism observed in five cases. Over the next month, guards arrested about 50 people for cannibalism.
The dire situation on Nazino Island was finally ended by Soviet authorities in early June, when the settlement was dissolved and the surviving 2,856 deportees were transferred to smaller settlements upstream on the Nazina River, leaving 157 deportees who could not be moved from the island for health reasons. Despite the settlement being disestablished, several hundred more of the deportees died during the transfer. People who survived the transfer found themselves with few tools, little food, and there was an outbreak of typhus. Most deportees refused to work in the new settlements due to their previous treatment.
In a period of thirteen weeks, of the roughly 6,000 deportee settlers intended for Nazino Island, between 1,500 to 2,000 had died due to starvation, exposure, disease, murder, or accidental death. Another 2,000 settlers had disappeared and their whereabouts untraceable, so they were presumed dead. The death tolls include people who either died or disappeared during their transportation to or from the island.
In early July, new settlements were constructed by the authorities using non-deportee labor, but only 250 Nazino Island settlers were transferred to these. Instead 4,200 new deportees who arrived from Tomsk were housed in these settlements. A report on the events which was sent to Stalin by Velichko was distributed by Lazar Kaganovich to members of the Politburo, and was preserved in an archive in Novosibirsk. It stated that 6,114 "outdated elements" (also known as "déclassé and socially harmful elements" or classless people) arrived on the island in May 1933, and at least 27 people died during the river transport. There was no shelter on the island; it snowed the first night, and no food was distributed for four days. On the first day 295 people were buried. Velichko’s letter to Stalin on August 20 claimed only 2,200 people survived out of about 6,700 deportees that he calculated had arrived from Tomsk. Velichko’s letter resulted in a commission by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to study the affair. In October, the commission estimated that of the roughly 2,000 survivors from Nazino Island, half were ill and bedridden, and that only about 200 to 300 were physically capable of working. There were attempts by local officials and guards at the island to dispute Velichko's report but were instead reprimanded, receiving prison sentences ranging between 12 months to 3 years.
The events that occurred at Nazino Island highlighted issues with Soviet colonization projects, and the Soviet leadership began to doubt their quality and efficiency. In 1933 alone, there were 367,457 known untraceable "special resettlers", of which 151,601 were dismissed and 215,856 simply disappeared from their settlements. Nazino Island directly led to the end of large scale settlement plans in the Soviet Union, and to the end of using deportees from "urban déclassé elements" and criminal backgrounds for future settlement plans.
After the initial investigations in late 1933, the events at Nazino Island were largely forgotten as they were not made public, and only a small number of survivors, government officials, and eyewitnesses knew of their occurrence.
In 1989, an eyewitness reported to Memorial:
They were trying to escape. They asked us "Where's the railway?" We'd never seen a railway. They asked "Where's Moscow? Leningrad?" They were asking the wrong people: we'd never heard of those places. We're Ostyaks. People were running away starving. They were given a handful of flour. They mixed it with water and drank it and then they immediately got diarrhea. 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.
The French historian Nicolas Werth, who earlier co-authored The Black Book of Communism, published the book Cannibal Island about the affair in 2006. It was translated into English in 2007. In 2009 a documentary L'île aux Cannibales (Cannibal Island) was made, based on the book.