What Is The Nazino Affair?

The disastrous situation on Nazino Island ended for the Soviet authorities at the beginning of June when the settlement was dissolved and the surviving 2,856 deported were transferred to a smaller settlement on the other side of the Nazina River, so that 157 deportees could not be relocated from the island for health reasons. The settlement was dissolved and several hundred more of the deportees died during the transfer. About 6,000 people were sent to the island by the Soviet Union to set up a special settlement.

During a period of thirteen weeks, between 1,500 and 2,000 of the 6,000 deportees and settlers who were supposed to be on the island of Nazino also known as cannibal island died of hunger, exposure, disease, murder or accidental death. Among the dead are people who died or disappeared during their transport to the island. Another 2000 settlers disappeared and their whereabouts are unknown.

At the beginning of June, 2,856 deportees were transferred to a small settlement on the other side of the Nazina River, so that 157 deportees could not be brought to the island of Nazino for health reasons. In early July, the authorities built a new settlement employing undeported workers, and 250 Nazino settlers were moved to the new settlement. Several hundred deportees died during the transfer, 1,500 to 2,000 deportees on the island and hundreds of refugees disappeared.

Between March and July 1933, more than 90,000 Soviet citizens were reportedly deported from other parts of the Soviet Union, mainly from the Moscow and Leningrad regions. The vast majority of them were sent to Tomsk transit camps and farms, but more than 6,000 of them, known as “obsolete elements” were sent to the island of Nazino, a small, isolated area of West Siberia where the Ob and Nazina rivers converge. Two thousand of them were criminals sent to the island to relieve the Soviet prison system.

Between March and July 1933, 85,937 people living in Moscow were arrested and deported for not having a passport, and 4,776 people living in Leningrad were also deported. Those arrested in connection with the purge of Moscow on 1 May 1933, the May Day, were deported to the Tomsk transit camp, where many were taken to the island of Nazino. By the time the barge arrived, 27 deportees had already succumbed to hunger and poor conditions. The rest of the people were unloaded on the island of Nazino, a swampy patch of land three kilometres long and six hundred metres wide between two mighty rivers, which provided them with flour, leaves and other tools and supplies. The following day, twelve hundred more deportees were brought to the island, along with additional rations and equipment.

The first reports of cannibalism came three days after the deportees landed from the barren island, and the Soviet authorities, despite known illnesses and famines, allowed more and more people onto the island. The agreement lasted only a month before the Soviets pulled the plug and removed the deportees who were strong enough to walk. As Werth points out, central and local officials who knew that the social undesirables imposed by the entire Soviet Union on their provinces in Western Siberia were ultimately powerless to stop the flow of deportees.

Instead of the masses of social undesirables who were sent to the Urals in 1933, Werth concentrates on the 6,200 who were left to their own devices on the remote island of Ob near the village of Nazino. According to personnel records excavated by Werth, the deportees included a party member who was found with his party ID on the street, a document worker who had bought cigarettes with his invalid passport number, a 103-year-old man, the pregnant wife of a naval officer who had her passport in her hand when arrested and a 12-year-old girl who was waiting at the station for her mother to buy bread. The guards sent to deported recruits lacked uniforms, training, or shoes. Chaos broke out when guards sent with the deportees tried to distribute flour to them. The unloading of the deportees on an isolated, swampy island with little supplies did not proceed smoothly.

Every year, a small group of locals travel to Nazinsky Island in the middle of Ob River from Tomsk to lay a wreath on the foot of a wooden cross. It is a gesture of remembrance for the victims of the terrible events that took place there in the summer of 1933, and their dedication to this event is part of an effort to remind their Russian compatriots that an experiment in social engineering and self-sufficiency went horribly wrong, that many of the settlers were lured by Soviet authorities, and that Joseph Stalin’s brutal excesses were downplayed by the current Russian leadership, which favors a more conciliatory historical interpretation of the last three decades of rule. Eighty-five years ago, in May of this year, a small fleet of wooden barges carrying 3,000 settlers arrived on the island to set up a special settlement for them in a small corner of Stalin’s gulag, a network of labor camps that stretched across the Soviet Union, where millions of people were oppressed and killed.

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