Friday, August 16, 2019

The ‘Special Settlers’ – Stalin’s Other and All-Too-Often Forgotten Victims

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 14 – There are hundreds of books about those Stalin confined to the GULAG camps but only a handful about another category of his victims, those classed as “special settlers” who were forced to move from their homes and prevented from returning to them or to major cities.

            Perhaps the two best studies of this category available in English are Pavel Polian’s Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR (Budapest/New York, 2004) and Lynn Viola’s The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements (Oxford, 2007). 

            One of the reasons why there are so few is that there have been far fewer memoirs and studies in Russian of these people, who were “moved against their will” either to get them away from border areas, promote ethnic cleansing and mixing, or to provide workers for regions where there were too few.

            (There have been far more books and articles by non-Russians who were swept up in these forced movements, but all too often these studies, some of them quite remarkable and affecting, have remained untranslated and thus unavailable to those who know only English or Russian.) 

            But now the situation may be about to change thanks to the efforts of people like Irina Yanchenko and Gulnara Koryagina, residents of a village in Tomsk Oblast to which many special settlers were sent who inspired by a recent film have tracked down the graves of these people and now have organized a forum of and about special settlers and their descendants.

            Nikolay Loginov, a correspondent for Radio Liberty’s SibReal portal, reports on their first meeting and their plans for the future in an article entitled “This was an operation designed to destroy people” (

            Aleksandr Poluyanov attended as the great grandson of one special settler who together with his family was set to Tomsk during collectivization because the authorities had classified him as a kulak. He sought information in many places before finding some documents in the local archives. 

            Poluyanov said that “this was an operation to destroy people.” His great grandfather and great grandmother both died of dystentary. Their son, the returnee’s grandfather, fled from the village and went as far as possible – to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk – in order to survive.  That kind of flight was typical, Loginov says.

            Another descendant of special settlers in this one village now lives in Australia and has relatives in Moscow, the Czech Republic and Norway as well.  Such dispersal also works against collecting information about what happened to this category of Stalin’s victims. Local activists, however, are doing what they can to assemble evidence.

            They plan to erect “the first memorial to de-kulakized peasants ever” in Russia not only as a monument to the victims but also as a way of attracting more attention to the special settlers and thus gaining more information about them.

            “Not all residents of Palochka” are happy about this, Loginov continues.  One says that “history must be correct,” that not everyone who was repressed was a victim because “the majority of them were guilty.” The man says he doesn’t know what they were guilty of but that he is confident that no state can simply take an innocent person from the street and sent him off.”

            It is worth knowing where people are buried, of course, he continues. “But it is still early to put up monuments to them.” The time for that “hasn’t yet come and perhaps will never come.

            Russian historian Yakov Yakovlev says that “the history of the special settlers is the history of hunger.” His own grandfather and aunt died that way, and people should remember them. Those who now oppose doing that, he says, “are standing on the very same positions which stood the big and little bosses during the years of the special settlement program.”

            “The only difference is that the latter were dealing with living people while these are dealing with memories.”

            Another specialist on Stalin’s repressions, Vasily Khanevich who heads the Memorial Museum of the NKVD Investigation Prison, says it is important to tell the story of all special settlers and to get the testimony of their descendants.  He notes that a Latvian who participated in the recent meeting said his ancestors had survived only thanks to Russian special settlers.

            The Tomsk activists plan to create an information center and to hold another forum of the descendants of special settlers on October 30, the memorial day in Russia for victims of political repressions.

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