The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Soviet Union’s Cannibal Island
The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island

The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island

Natasha sheldon - September 23, 2018

On March 11, 1933, a plan for a very different kind of gulag was presented to Joseph Stalin. Devised by Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin’s head of the Secret Service and Matvei Berman, the head of the Soviet Gulag system, the scheme proposed that the government resettle 2,000,000 political undesirables in self-sufficient settlements in Siberia and Kazakhstan. The idea was that the “settlers” would work to bring a million hectares of untouched land into agricultural production, thus helping famine struck Russia– and sustaining themselves. So, in May 1933 the first assortment of 6,000 political dissidents and petty criminals were loaded up into trains. Their destination was the isolated Western Siberian Island of Nazino.

The Nazino colony was meant to achieve self-sufficiency in two years. However, thirteen weeks after its conception, the project had failed spectacularly. For the settlers were abandoned in a hostile Siberian wilderness, under-resourced and unprepared. All too soon, anarchy, violence, and disease became rife in the community. When the authorities finally intervened, after the rejection of the plan by Stalin, they discovered that 4,000 of the original deportees were either dead or missing. Most disturbingly of all, however, was the number of survivors who had turned to cannibalism. Until Glasnost, the Nazino Affair remained buried. Since then, historians have revealed what happened on that remote Siberian Island.

The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island
Siberian Gulag. Google Images

A Different Kind of Gulag

Gulags were an essential part of the penal system in the Soviet Union of Stalin. They were concentration camps specifically designed for severe criminals and political dissidents. However, many prisoners were innocent of any crime -except falling foul of the Soviet system. In the early 1930s, the numbers of potential gulag prisoners began to increase. Some were peasants who had rebelled against the collectivization of the land in the 1930s. Others were former Kulaks, wealthy peasant farmers who had been declared “enemies of the people” for owning their land and employing people. However, the Gulags also began to swell with those newly deemed urban “undesirables.”

On December 27, 1932, the Soviet government issued a new kind of ID document. These ‘internal passports’ were denied to “persons not engaged in industrial or other socially-useful work from towns.” Officials believed issuing these documents would, help cleanse “towns from hiding Kulaks, criminals and other antisocial elements.” With such a passport, a person was an acknowledged Soviet citizen and allowed to move from city to city. However, anyone who refused one was trapped and liable to be rounded up.

Peasants were denied internal passports to prevent them from escaping to the city from the collective farms. So those already hiding urban areas were immediately caught out by the new system. However, passports were also refused to “superfluous elements not connected with productive or administrative work.” These included many members of the former upper classes who had no place in the new Soviet state. Passes were also denied to “antisocial and socially dangerous elements’- in other words, criminals.

The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island
Joseph Stalin, Secretary-general of the Communist Party of Soviet Union. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The question was, what to do with all these “antisocial elements”? The answer was a new kind of Gulag. Instead of camps, the government would set up new ‘labor villages” in the most inhospitable hinterlands of the Soviet Union. Although the settlements would be guarded so that none of their occupants escaped, they would be self-supporting communities- and passportless individuals would people them. The ‘aim of the game’ was to set up the new settlements “as cheap as possible.” As a result, the original target of 2,000,000 deportees over ten years was halved. However, worries about costs did not stop the deportations beginning immediately- even before Stalin had given his official approval.

In May 1933, 85,937 deportees from Moscow and 4776 from Leningrad were placed in a transit camp at Tomsk, waiting to be shipped out to their new homes. Many were peasant farmers, who would at least have had some inkling of how to eke out a living in an inhospitable rural environment. However, the rest were former merchants, traders and hapless urban citizens picked up without papers. In amongst them were also some of the overflows from Moscow and Leningrad’s overcrowded prisons. The Transit camp officials decided these urban deportees should be the first to go.

The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island
Russian Camp Guards. Google Images

Life on Nazino

On May 14th, 5000 people, just under 400 of them women set out for Nazino in western Siberia. Nazino was a small, swampy island along the River Ob some 800 kilometers north of Tomsk. The area was sparsely inhabited by the native Ostyak people who only visited the island intermittently. This was hardly surprising for, at 3 kilometers long and 600metres wide, Nazino was scarcely big enough to accommodate a large population.

The deportees were loaded into four river barges and kept below deck. Accompanying them were two camp commanders and 50 guards. All were newly recruited, untrained- and grossly unprepared for guarding the settlers -a third of which were hardened criminals. As to the rest, unused to hardship and lack of food, many were already weak and ill. It is little wonder that by the time the barges reached Nazino on May 18th, twenty-seven people were already dead.

The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island
The settlers were abandoned on a snowy island with no tools or food. Google Images.

As the survivors disembarked, snow was falling. There was no shelter for the new arrivals. Nor was there anything they could use to construct buildings. For Nazino’s new settlers soon discovered they had been marooned on the island without any tools or even cooking utensils. Nor was there any food. Onboard the barges, the deportees had been issued with 200 grams of bread a day. Now, they had nothing but 20 tonnes of flour- around 4 tons per person. For the first four days, even this was denied them. In these conditions, it is hardly surprising that in the initial twenty-four hours, a further 295 people died.

When the guards finally attempted to distribute the flour, there were riots as the hungry settlers began to fight for rations. Unable to restore order, the guards fired shots and moved the flour to the shore opposite the island while the settlers calmed down. The guards tried to distribute the supplies again the next day. However, once more fights broke out. Finally, it was decided to split the settlers into brigades of 150 people, each represented by a leader or Brigadier. These brigadiers were responsible for collecting the flour and distributing it. Unfortunately, many of these leaders were self-nominated criminals who appropriated all the flour for themselves. This inauspicious beginning was only the prelude to the horrors to come.

The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island
“The Survivors of Cannibal Island”. Google Images

The Cannibals of Death Island

Shortly after the settlers arrived on Nazino, Stalin finally rejected the idea of the labor settlements. However, on May 27, a further 1200 deportees joined the original settlers on Nazino. By this time order had well and truly broken down, with death, disease, and chaos in charge. Those settlers with a flour ration found that without utensils and bread ovens, there was no way they could bake bread. In desperation, they mixed their flour rations with river water and quickly contracted dysentery. Many, already weak died. However, some managed to escape illness. For them, there were just two choices.

The first choice was to escape. Some of the more able settlers constructed makeshift rafts and tried to escape by the river. Many drowned when the rafts came apart midstream. Others who survived the water found themselves hunted down like animals for the sport of the guards. However, anyone who made it across the water was left unmolested. This was because the terrain was so harsh and the escapees so ill-prepared for survival that they were deemed as good as dead.

The second choice was to stay on Nazino and survive whatever the cost. Murder became frequent as the survivors fought over the meager and ever diminishing resources. The guards were unable to control the gangs, which roamed the island and so left them to their murderous rampages, contenting themselves with punishing minor offenses amongst the weaker individuals. However, by the end of the first week, the starving settlers had already turned to cannibalism. The signs were first noticed by health officers who observed five corpses with body parts missing.

The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island
Skeleton. Google Images.

Perhaps the most chilling account of cannibalism comes from the testimony made in 1989 by an elderly Ostyak woman. In 1933, the woman was just 13 years old. She was visiting Nazino with her family as they did every year to collect poplar bark. Usually, Nazino was empty. However, this time, they found “people everywhere” and doing the most inhumane things. The elderly witness described how the lover of one of the camp guard, Kostia was set upon in his absence. “People caught the girl, “the woman recalled, “tied her to a poplar tree, cut off her breasts, her muscles, everything they could eat, everything, everything…. They were hungry…. they had to eat. When Kostia came back, she was still alive. He tried to save her, but she had lost too much blood.”

In early June, the authorities dissolved the settlement on Nazino. After less than a month on the island, just under 4000 people had died. The surviving 2856 deportees were moved to other settlements upriver. Meanwhile, the Soviet government held a swift and covert inquiry into events. Apart from the imprisonment of several of the surviving guards, the authorities swept the whole matter under the carpet. However, with the advent of Glasnost in 1988, the details of the tragedy became publicly available for the first time. However, the Ostyak people around Nazino never forgot the terrible events of summer 1933. To them, Nazino was and always will be Death Island.


Where Do We Get this stuff? Here are our Sources:

Stalin’s Gulag, Gulag: Soviet Forced Labour Camps and the struggle for freedom.

The famine of 1932-33, Andrij Makuch, Lubomyr A. Hajda and others, Encyclopedia Britannica, August 22, 2018

Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag, Nicholas and Steven Werth, Princeton University Press, 2007

Cannibal Island: In 1933, Nearly 5,000 Died in One of Stalin’s Most Horrific Labor Camps. Andrei Filimonov. RFERL. July 05, 2018

The HARROWING True Story of The USSR’s ‘Cannibal Island’. BORIS EGOROV. Russia Beyond. JULY 13 2021

Nazino Tragedy, Wikipedia