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

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