There is a small piece of land, a tiny island imprisoned in the frozen waters of the Ob and Nazina rivers during the long Siberian winter that, in May 1933 turned into hell and where around 4,000 people died in 13 weeks. The cause of death was horrendous:
due to starvation, of cold or slaughtered like a piece of meat by their very companions
From that point, the Island of Nazino is sadly known as the “Cannibal Island”. The story though spread only in the 80’s, after the dismantling of the communist regime, when the secret archives of the soviet government were finally accessed by historians and researchers.
Between the 1932 and the 1933, in Soviet Union a drastic famine hit the population, due to the farmers who disagreed of cultivating their lands and the extermination of the disliked class of the Kulak, peasants owning some lands, perhaps with some machinery, who were able to hire at times the farmers for a few days.
At the beginning of the 1933, the head of the secret police and the one of the gulag presented to Stalin a “great project”: 2 millions of people (then reduced to only one million) would have been forced to move to Siberia and Kazakistan, so that those many acres of wide uncultivated soil could have been exploited. The colonists would have created new communities which would have been self-sufficient in about 2 years time, sent to confinement under the control of the Soviet police of the camps: the Gulag, Glavnoe upravlenie lagerej (General Lager Direction).
Who were the people supposed to turn into reality the majestic project though?
Obviously they were farmers and Kulak as well as political opponents, criminals and thousands of unwanted people, the “downgraded elements” who lived in the city without the necessary “inner passport”. Only in May 1933, Stalin denied the authorisation to forward the project, but it was too late, millions of people had been already deported to Siberia.
Above: picture by NordNordWest via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0 de
In those first months of the 1933, the camp of Tomsk was collapsing. In there, 25,000 people were kept instead of the expected 15,000 because the Norther destinations were not accessible until the ice would have been melted. On the 10th of May, further 6,000 people from Moscow and Leningrad arrived; during their journey to the camp they gave them 300 gr of bread each, but not everyone had managed to eat it as the harshest could have stolen food and garments from the other miserable men.
At the camp of Tomsk there was neither ration of food nor garments for the new people coming to face the rigid climate. On the 14th of May 5,000 people ( one third made out of criminals), were embarked on some barges heading towards the island of Nazino. There was not any type of equipment and they had no other garments if not the ones they had on. On the other side though the food ration had lowered to a daily 200 gr each. On the 16th of May they got to the island but 27 of them were already dead whilst 250 died throughout the first night due to the cold. 20 tons of flour were sent along with the prisoners but the tools to cook were lacking. However only 4 days after the arrival they started distributing the flour, episode which caused numerous brawls amongst the colonists and ended up with the execution of the most riotous. The people had to mix the product with the river water and eat it raw, detail which caused a epidemic of dysentery. But, despite the diseases and the lack of food, on the 27th of the same month new 1,200 prisoners were sent over.
Below: Island of Nazino enlightened in yellow
After only 3 days, they found on the corpses signs of cannibalism, but the situation worsened up even further. The island had by then turned into an infernal cage, where people were killed for their ration of food or to extract they golden teeth. The guards would mock the weaker ones but they were not doing anything about the violent bands who, since the end of May, had started killing defenceless people just to eat them. Some would improvise some rafts and try to leave the island and the guards would follow them as game to hunt. The few ones who could run away where death either way.
Who could really survive the glacial Siberian Taiga?
At the begining of June only 2856 people were left in Nazino, transferred in other camps, even though most of them died during the trip. Within 13 weeks, out of 6,000 colonists in Nazino, 2,000 were missing, hence probably dead, and 1,500-2,000 died due to starvation, disease, or purposely killed.
A Soviet labour camp
Above: public domain
In August only 2,000 were the deported survived, half of whom resulted in being severely ill and anyway, amongst the others, only 200-300 were actually able to work.
These tragic numbers came out from the report sent to Moscow in August by the head of the communist party of the district. This lead to an investigation and later on to the sentence for the local executives and the guards which had operated in the island.
Everything though fell into oblivion, the report archived and never made public. Only the few survivors and some executives would remember the horrors of Cannibal Island. Then in 1988, thanks to glasnost,many secrets of the Soviet Union were unveiled, but the case of Nazino was published only in 2002.
Terrible tale of an eyewitness, member of the Siberian native population of Ostyak:
“They were trying to escape. They asked us “where is the station?” we had never seen a station. They asked “where is Moscow, Leningrad?” they were asking to the wrong people: we had never heard of those places. We are Ostyak. People were running away for starvation. They received a handful of flour, they were mixing it with water, they ate it and got diarrhoea right away. All the things we have seen! People would die everywhere, they were killing each other.. On the island there was a guard named Kostia Venikov, a young boy. he had fallen for a girl that had been sent there and so he was courting her. He would protect her. One day he had to leave for a while and said to one of his companions “look after her”, but with all those people there the companion could not do much.. The people captured the girl, tied her to a poplar tree, cut off her breasts, the muscles, all that could be eaten, all.. They were only starving, they had to eat. When Kostia came back she was still alive. He tried to save her, but the blood leaked was way too much”.
Today the island of Nazino is known in Russia as Cannibal Island as well as death island: a hidden piece of land turned into a branch of hell.