What Happened on Nazino Island? The Cannibal Gulag

The short-lived Nazino Island Gulag was one of the most horrific episodes of Soviet history, wherein the inmates turned to cannibalism in order to survive.

Aug 6, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
nazino island gulag cannibal


SUMMARY

  • Over 6,700 prisoners were sent to the gulag on Nazino Island in Western Siberia with minimal resources, resulting in widespread starvation and cannibalism; 4,000 died within 13 weeks.
  • The island, intended as a part of Stalin’s plan to spread out the Soviet population and utilize prisoner labor for collectivization, faced logistical challenges, including a severe tool shortage, which contributed to the disaster.
  • Despite reports of the horrors on the island, officials initially turned a blind eye; when the tragedy finally came to light decades later, a memorial was erected to honor the victims, many of whom were not true criminals but unlucky citizens caught in Stalin’s harsh system.

 

In 1933, 6,700 prisoners were sent to a gulag on Nazino Island in the middle of the Ob River in Western Siberia. They were given only a few bags of flour to sustain themselves. Without tools to cultivate the land nor any clothing and supplies to survive the harsh climate, the gulag’s population resorted to the most depraved act of cannibalism. Within 13 weeks, 4,000 people had died on the island, and armed guards shot those who tried to escape. Nazino Island was, quite possibly, the worst gulag of them all.

 

The Origins of the Nazino Island Gulag

genrikh yagoda photo
Genrikh Yagoda (far left) was one of the major architects of Stalin’s system of gulags; from Russian State Film and Photo Archive in Krasnogorsk, via Russia Beyond

 

During the early 1930s, the Soviet Union wished to spread out its population to make use of arable farmland across the vast country. Relocating prisoners was a perfect way to do this. Collectivized farms sprang up across previously uninhabited parts of the country, and prisoners were used as the labor that would achieve this. With plenty of political enemies, there was no shortage of prisoners in the Soviet Union, and labor was easily attainable.

 

In February of 1933, the head of the OGPU secret police, Genrikh Yagoda, and Matvei Berman, the head of the Gulag system, proposed an idea to deport two million people to Siberia and the Kazakh regions to work on collective farms. They had done this before with the Kulaks, which had proven successful. 

 

This time, however, there was a severe shortage of tools. And this would prove to be a vital ingredient to the carnage that would follow.

 

forced collectivization workers
Forced collectivization was a brutal element of Stalin’s reign, via Medium

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In major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad, workers and other people providing important services were issued with internal passports. This system made it easy to identify unproductive, unwanted, and criminal elements of society. These undesirables were earmarked for deportation. Despite being a much-loathed feature of Tsarist Russia and done away with under the Bolsheviks, the passport system was reinstated under the rule of Stalin to devastating effect. It proved to be highly effective in streamlining productivity and reassigning the superfluous elements of society to more productive roles.

 

The authoritarian decrees and the arrest quotas the police had to fill ensured that being deported to one of the many gulags was incredibly easy to achieve. Between March and July 1933, 85,937 people were deported from Moscow alone. Being an avid communist and supporter of the system meant nothing if you left your papers at home. It was in this dynamic that the 6,700 prisoners destined for Nazino Island began their journey.

 

Logistics

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A group of deportees sent to the Narym region along the Ob River. The victims of Nazino included women and children; via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

 

Transportation hubs were set up in the cities of Tomsk, Omsk, and Achinsk. Rail convoys were created, which departed from Moscow and Leningrad. Daily rations on board the trains consisted of just 300 grams (11 ounces) of bread. Thuggery within the carriages meant that many went without rations, while those with muscle and a questionable moral compass had plenty to eat.

 

Those destined for Nazino Island then found themselves on barges, where for two weeks, they were crammed together for two weeks and fed only 200 grams (7 ounces) of bread per day. Twenty-seven people died en route to the island.

 

Arrival

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Nazino Island, also known as Nazinsky Island, sits in the middle of the Ob River in Siberia, via History Defined

 

On May 18, 1933, 322 women and 4,556 men disembarked at their destination, which was the last place most of them would ever see. The island was 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) long and 600 meters (660 yards) wide and could not feed the thousands of new residents. The only thing the prisoners had was 20 tons of flour. Fighting broke out as the flour was being unloaded and distributed, and the guards fired on the prisoners to restore order. Distribution was attempted again the next day with the same result.

 

After leaders were designated amongst the prisoners, the flour was handed out. However, most of these leaders would simply hoard the flour for themselves.

 

With no ovens on the island, the prisoners ate the flour with water from the river, and as a result, dysentery spread through the gulag.

 

It was around this time that the plan for the Nazino Island Gulag was rejected by Stalin. But it was too late for the deportees. Yagoda and Berman had already put their plan into action.

 

Many tried to escape via flimsy rafts but drowned in the icy waters of the Ob. Those who did manage to make it to shore were hunted by guards as if it were a sport. Those who managed to escape were presumed dead, as the wilderness around the area is extremely inhospitable.

 

The guards were equally violent. They allowed the gangs to operate and executed prisoners for minor infractions. The violent situation on the island also hindered the doctors on the island, as they feared for their lives too. The guards made little attempt, if any, to keep them safe.

 

Chaos Breaks Out

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Soviet prisoners in a gulag; from Cordon Press, via National Geographic

 

It did not take long for violence to become rife and for order to completely break down on the island. Cultivation of the soil was impossible without tools, and as most of the deportees were city-dwellers, they knew very little about survival in the wild.

 

The more violent members of the new society formed gangs and took control, exploiting the weaker members. Anything that could be traded for food was taken, including gold teeth. Fights broke out over food, and murder became a daily occurrence.

 

Barely one week after being confined to the island, doctors started reporting incidents of cannibalism. News of this was sent back to Tomsk, but the response was not positive. Instead of sending help, the authorities sent another 1,000 prisoners and no extra food. This was probably due to a bureaucratic mistake rather than a willful decision to make the situation worse.

 

Meanwhile, the guards would regularly throw bits of bread into the starving crowds and watch as fights broke out. Their cruelty extended to shooting at the prisoners on the island for sport while they sat in the safety of their boats, getting drunk. They even traded cigarettes and bread for sex from female prisoners.

 

They did, however, take action when they heard reports of cannibalism, but they were almost powerless to prevent the atrocities.

 

The Horror of the Cannibalism

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A map of Tomsk Oblast in which Nazino Island is located, via Medium

 

Those who died from accidents, fights, or being shot by the guards were eaten in desperation, but this body count wasn’t enough. Roving gangs hunted and murdered for food. They skewered their victims on sticks and roasted them over fires.

 

Interviews with the local Ostyak people later revealed harrowing stories. In one account, Feofila Bylina’s parents received a visitor from the island one night. A 40-year-old woman was at their door, and the Bylin family took her in and discovered that the poor victim’s calves had been cut off.

 

Another account tells the story of a 13-year-old Ostyak girl who went to the island to gather firewood. She witnessed a woman being tied to a tree, whereupon her breasts, calves, and other bits of her body were sliced off. The girl hurriedly alerted the guards, but the victim died before she could be helped.

 

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Visitors to Nazino Island arrive to pay their respects, via #MemoriasSituadas Project Interactive Map

 

A communist instructor living on the banks of the Ob, Vasily Velichko, began to hear rumors of what was happening on Nazino Island and, without waiting for permission from the authorities, decided to investigate the situation. When he arrived on the island in August, a grim picture of the situation greeted him. He found half-eaten bodies hiding among the tall grasses. He followed up by conducting interviews with the Ostyak people living nearby and built up a picture of what had happened. He sent a report to Moscow. For his efforts, he was kicked out of the Communist Party and fired from his job. The report was then hidden in the archives.

 

Action, however, was taken, and the gulag was closed. The 50 guards overseeing Nazino Island also had their Party membership rescinded, and they were all jailed for negligence and being complicit in the horror that unfolded.

 

“I only ate livers and hearts. It was very simple. Just like shashlik. We made skewers from willow branches, cut it into pieces, stuck it on the skewers, and roasted it over the campfire. I picked those who were not quite living, but not yet quite dead. It was obvious that they were about to go — that in a day or two, they’d give up. So, it was easier for them that way. Now. Quickly. Without suffering for another two or three days.”
One of the survivors 

 

The Aftermath

nazino memorial cross
The second memorial cross was erected in 2008 after the original, erected in 1993, was washed away by the Ob’s current, via #MemoriasSituadas Project Interactive Map

 

In the period of thirteen weeks which encompassed the tragedy, roughly 6,000 people were deported to Nazino Island. Around 1,500 to 2,000 people died from starvation, disease, exposure, murder, or accidental death. Approximately 2,000 survived past the camp’s closing, but the vast majority were ill, with many bedridden. Many did not survive their relocation to other camps. Only a few hundred people were healthy enough to work.

 

With the Glasnost policy in 1988, the Soviet Union became more open about its past, and the human rights group Russian Memorial Society investigated the horrors of Nazino Island, bringing it to the attention of the public.

 

A wooden cross was planted on the island in memory of the victims, and every year in June, pilgrims make their way from Tomsk to pay their respects in honor of those who died in this tragedy. In 2018, a church was also built and dedicated to the memory of the victims.

 

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Image of Nazino Island from ground (or water) level, via foro3djuegos.com

 

The purpose of Soviet gulags was primarily to get rid of dissidents but also to provide labor. In this, Nazino Island was a complete failure on both fronts. Many deportees were not criminals but just unlucky enough to be seized by the police. One man, over one hundred years old, was a victim because he didn’t have his papers on him. Another was a student simply standing at the front door of his aunt’s apartment.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.