The Nazino Tragedy: The Stalin-Era Gulag That Became Known As 'Cannibal Island'

The disaster of Nazino Island in 1933 remains one of the darkest chapters of Russian history. It was an entirely man-made disaster, too. Devised as part of Stalin's plan to remake Soviet Russia, Nazino Island in Siberia was supposed to be the home of a forced settlement called Nazinsky. It was a prison in all but name.

But it was clear from the very beginning that the Nazinsky Island project was doomed to fail. Shortly after thousands of people arrived on the island, they began to starve. Desperate for nourishment, many turned to cannibalism.

About a month later, the project was abandoned, and survivors were evacuated. Only one-third of the people who arrived on Nazino Island left it. This is the story of how a Soviet settlement became known as "Cannibal Island."

  • Thousands Of People Died Or Turned To Cannibalism In This Stalin-Era Forced Settlement Camp In Siberia
    Photo: NordNordWest / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Thousands Of People Died Or Turned To Cannibalism In This Stalin-Era Forced Settlement Camp In Siberia

    Labor camps - known as gulags - and forced settlements sprang up all over the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin's reign. Many of them were located in Siberia, a vast region stretching across Asia, where temperatures often plummet below freezing.

    In 1933, the forced settlement at Nazino was established on an island in the Ob River in Western Siberia. It isn't a large island, and this probably only enhanced the feeling of isolation and being cut off from the rest of the world.

    Officials deported 6,200 people to Nazino Island. But, faced with extreme conditions and severe hunger, the deportees resorted to extreme and severe measures: Roughly 5,000 of them either perished or resorted to cannibalism to survive.

  • The Goal Was To 'Resettle' 2 Million People To Remote Areas In An Effort To Develop Self-Sufficient Communities
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Goal Was To 'Resettle' 2 Million People To Remote Areas In An Effort To Develop Self-Sufficient Communities

    Why did Soviet officials force the settlement of Nazino Island? The project was part of a larger plan to colonize Siberia through "special settlements." These were forced settlements populated by deportees. Stalin planned to deport no less than 2 million people to places like Nazino Island. These settlements were supposed to become self-sustaining agricultural centers that would help produce food for the rest of Soviet Russia.

    Though the supposed goal was to settle an underpopulated area, some scholars suspect that Stalin had darker intentions with forced resettlement, especially as he used the program to target kulaks, a class of peasants who were relatively wealthy.

    Historian Norman Naimark points out that high-ranking Soviet officials knew how bad conditions in these settlements had gotten:

    Stalin surely knew and understood that these conditions were ubiquitous and that the kulak population of the special settlements was being decimated month after month by the horrid conditions in which they lived. He was also responsible in many instances for reducing state funding for resettlement, which in turn made these conditions even more difficult. [...] His indifference to this suffering and dying was certainly murderous, if not genocidal. 

  • The Original Deportees Included Farmers, People Arrested Because They Didn't Have The Correct Paperwork, And Petty Criminals
    Photo: Михаил Григорьевич Прехнер (1911, Варшава — 1941, Таллин) — советский фотограф / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Original Deportees Included Farmers, People Arrested Because They Didn't Have The Correct Paperwork, And Petty Criminals

    Since the primary goal was supposed to be populating rural parts of Siberia and turning them into productive farmland, Soviet officials initially intended to deport people with agricultural experience to their special settlements. They specifically wanted to deport kulaks, peasant farmers whose relative wealth made them targets of the Soviet state

    Though some kulaks ended up on Nazino Island, many of the deportees weren't accustomed to agriculture. Instead, some of them were city slickers with no farming experience; they hailed from the streets of Moscow and Leningrad, not the fields of Ukraine. Some of them were people that the Soviets considered social menaces, such as criminals; others were people with illnesses.

    Still others were simply folks who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. One deportee committed the sin of not having their Communist Party card on them when officials asked to see it. 

    Vera Panovaya wasn't sent to Nazinsky, but she lived near it. She remembered meeting a man who claimed he had been randomly arrested before being deported to Nazino Island:

    He was a miner from Novokuznetsk. Married, with two children. Once he went to Novosibirsk and stopped at the central market. At that moment, they surrounded the market, set up a dragnet, and arrested everyone who wasn't carrying documents. Everyone - including women and children - was loaded onto a barge and sent to Nazinsky Island.

  • In 1933, Thousands Of People Were Sent To Nazinsky With No Tools, Shelter, Or Food

    Officials rounded up tens of thousands of people from various backgrounds to force into their resettlement scheme. Of that group, around 6,200 deportees were sent to the camp known as Nazinsky on Nazino Island. Nazinsky was part of the larger system of gulags, or penal camps whose MO was grueling forced labor.

    Just getting there proved fatal for some of the deportees. Over the course of five days, they drifted towards the island on barges. Around 27 never made it - they passed en route. 

    When the survivors stumbled onto land, they soon discovered that the island was completely empty. They had nothing - no shelter, no tools, and hardly any food.

    Vera Panovaya lived close to Nazino Island, and she recalled hearing how prisoners starved

    There was no food. People were tortured by hunger. The guards threw them bits of bread as they passed the island. If you got a piece, you ate. The rest had nothing.

    Most of them didn't even have the right clothes to protect them from the elements. An estimated 295 didn't survive the first night; they succumbed to the freezing temperatures.

  • They Were Only Given Raw Flour To Survive, But Distribution Was A Nightmare As Fights Broke Out And Hoarding Began

    When the deportees finally got something to eat, it wasn't even something that was edible: Guards doled out raw flour to the internees. Without ovens or any other baking ingredients, the deportees couldn't do much with it.

    Some tried to eat it anyway. As Vasily Velichko, the first Soviet to report on Nazino Island, recounted, "Many people just ate the flour as it was, and since it was a powder, many suffocated from breathing it in."

    Desperate to eat something, some attempted to make the flour more digestible by blending it with river water to make a soupy mixture. This plan backfired painfully: consuming the contaminated river water kick-started a dysentery epidemic on the island.

    Even if all they could get their hands on was flour, people on Nazino Island were desperate for it - they crowded the guards and started to fight. To bring some order to the distribution process, guards divided the deportees into groups and delegated flour distribution to leaders of each group. This backfired, too: Some of the leaders hoarded the flour rather than distribute it to their comrades.

  • Gangs Began To Form For Security As Guards Began Dominating The Groups, Creating A Reign Of Terror For The Starving Masses

    Without sufficient food or supplies, people on Nazino Island were desperate. And, in moments of desperation, people will do what it takes to survive. Gangs started to form; they inflicted violence on the rest of the island population as they exerted their dominance by killing for resources.

    Guards seemed to contribute to the problem. They were cruel to the island prisoners - instead of trying to rein in the gangs, they turned their attention to preying on the most vulnerable deportees. 

    Many people didn't hesitate to steal from one another. Since some of the deportees had committed crimes in Moscow or Leningrad, they transferred their tactics to Nazino Island. Some even admitted to attacking other deportees in order to pull gold fillings out of their teeth. This gold was then used for to barter with the guards. One admitted to doing just that "in order to get smokes. People need to smoke. From the guards, you could get a matchbook [of tobacco] or two whole newspapers for rolling cigarettes."