Friday, June 24, 2016

Stalin’s Forgotten Victims – ‘the Special Settlers’ – Finally Get a Memorial in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 24 – The literature on the GULAG is enormous, but that about another group of Stalin’s victims, the “spetsposelentsy” or “special settlers,” is far smaller, even though several million people, men, women and children, of the “wrong” nationality, the “wrong” religion, or simply the “wrong” place of residence were deported to distant parts of the USSR.

            Among those subject to this distinctive kind of punishment were Poles, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Scandinavians, Volga Germans, Greeks, Italians, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Meskhetians, Karachays, and Kalmyks, to list only some of the victimized peoples.

            Also among the special settlers were members of religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the True Orthodox, and the Seventh Day Adventists, many of whose members had attracted the unwelcome attention of the Soviet state by refusing to join communist youth organizations or serve in the Soviet Army.

            Most of these waves of special settlers came during World War II, but others came after, including most notoriously the forced resettlement of Azerbaijanis from Armenia into Azerbaijan and of most Iranians who had been living in Armenia into the Georgian SSR.

            Members of these communities were seized by Stalin’s secret police, sent east in cattle cars in which many died, forced to live far from their homes, and denied the right of return until years later, but unlike GULAG prisoners, most of them were confined to villages or regions that did not have all the familiar hallmarks of the camp system.

            That makes them harder to classify or even count and has meant that except for those who were members of these victimized groups, they have been often memorialized and less widely studied – although there have been excellent Russian ones like Viktor Berdinskikh’s Spetsposelentsy:Politicheskaia ssylka narodov Sovetskoi Rossii  (Moscow, 2005) and Viktor Zemskov’s Spetsposelentsy v SSSR, 1930–1960  (Moscow, 2003).

            Now, that gap in the Russian Federation has been partially filled by a monument activists in the village of Zavodskoye in the Altay kray who have put up a memorial stone in memory of all those who were “subjected to political repressions, taken away from their native places, and sent there to work in logging” (

            Initially, Mariya Polivtseva, the initiator behind this effort, says, she and others in the Troitsky district put up memorial crosses and said prayers for the large number of the special settlers who died there and never had the chance to return home.  Now they have erected a stone with the simple but moving words, “To the victims of repression.”

            Many of those who were resettled there or their descendants came to the ceremony where the stone was uncovered.  They shared their memories of this terrible but sometimes forgotten crime and said, according to the report, that they all pray that “our grandchildren will never see what we survived.”

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