Over a few weeks in May-June 1933, he recalls, “on an island in the middle of the Ob River died from hunger 5,000 special settlers. Many of them became victims of cannibalism” as others struggled to survive in a place with no food or shelter. Today, a church has been erected where they died, “the innocent victims” of Stalin and Stalinism.
Most of the people sent to this island appear to have been caught up in a sweep by the special services to round up those who had violated the passport regime the Soviets had introduced a year or two earlier or who were especially dangerous recidivists on whom the authorities decided not to waste time on trials but simply to exile.
Both earlier and later, the Soviet state deported and exiled portions of numerous ethnic and religious minorities, hoping thereby to get them out of the way and to boost the population of Siberia. But so many died in the process that this goal was not really achieved – and it may be that Moscow didn’t even care if it was.
Those on the island in the Ob were sent east in cattle cars to Novosibirsk and then put on barges to travel down the Ob to the north. They were not dressed for this nor was much food provided for them. And the special settlers began suffering almost immediately, with deaths beginning even before they arrived.
Local people and even local Bolsheviks knew what was going on and as the people on the island died in droves, they began to call the place “Cannibal” or “Death Island.” Investigations were carried out in summary fashion shortly after all 5,000 died and then with more care by Memorial activists in the summer of 1989.
In his article, Filimonov quotes liberally from these reports which document the horrific nature of a system that drove people to cannibalism and then their deaths. They deserve to be remembered alongside the other victims of the GULAG, and Filimonov deserves to be praised for contributing to that task.