Staunton, June 21 – The heroine of Nevil Shute’s classic novel, A Town like Alice, observes at one point that there is something worse than being a Japanese prisoner of war in a POW camp: it is to be a prisoner of war that the Japanese army is unwilling to admit to any camp as were she and the group of women she lived among.
That is because, she said, in the camps there was a certain kind of order, food however inadequate and shelter however shabby. But those who were classified as prisoners of war but not taken into a Japanese prison camp had none of those things and had to struggle for their existence even harder than some behind the barbed wire.
Something similar could be said about a category of Stalin’s victims that has attracted far less attention than the GULAG inmates. These were the special settlers, people who were deported from their home areas, dumped in places without food or shelter, and often allowed to descend into savagery before dying.
Andrey Filimonov of Radio Svoboda has therefore performed an especially noteworthy service by calling attention to the Nazin tragedy, which was as he points out “one of the most horrific pages of Russian history of the 20th century” and “a symbol of the senseless cruelty” of Stalin’s rule (sibreal.org/a/29293884.html).
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.
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