The Weekly Standard
Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag
by Nicolas Werth
Translated by Steven Rendall
Princeton, 248 pp., $24.95
As a general rule, a name like “Cannibal Island” spells doom for property values. But Nazino, in western Siberia, is so naturally awful that even the grimmest name can’t make it sound much worse than it really is. An account from the early 1930s described the region as “an immense marshy plain . . . covered with an impenetrable tangle of brush. As for the rare meadows, they are under water until mid-July.” The summers, though a brief deliverance from the subzero winters, brought dense clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies. Malaria was endemic, and among forced settlers in 1932, infants died at a rate of 10 percent per month, compared with 10 percent per year in Somalia today.
Nicolas Werth’s excellent history of the Nazino gulag is a portrait of a place that went from terrible to unimaginable. By 1933, before Nazino’s gulag opened, Soviet authorities had already spent four years shipping the vestiges of the prosperous peasant class to Siberia and, generally, to their deaths. But Stalin pronounced the revolution incomplete. The State’s enemies had merely transmogrified, he said, from easily spotted kulaks into insidious saboteurs, rumormongers, and marginals known collectively as “déclassé elements.”
These unlucky folk –who constituted the bulk of Nazino’s inmates –were plucked from city streets and sent to Siberia. Authorities snatched many of them and hustled them onto trains solely because they had forgotten their internal passports (an innovation introduced that year). The state also rounded up vagrants, beggars, and others viewed as parasites on Soviet society.
The plan’s mastermind, Genrikh Iagoda, saw an attractive side benefit to “purifying” cities: Thousands of beggars and criminals could be dragooned into settling and subduing the Siberian wild as “labor colonists.” The plan had predictable consequences. Officials in Siberia received only two days’ notice that they would have to come up with food, medicine, dwellings, and jobs for a million new settlers. Already the region had reduced its unwilling residents to eating roots and carrion.
In 1931, a district near Nazino was gifted with 800 “socially dangerous” individuals, who arrived and were told simply to “live and prosper,” with neither food nor jobs provided. They terrorized the locals, stealing boats to escape their wretched conditions, plundering local gardens and farms, and in general acting like extras from a zombie flick. Residents appealed for government protection. When no help came, they took it upon themselves to hunt down and kill the deportees.
Werth’s history of Nazino summarizes this background in careful detail before describing the Nazino gulag, founded in 1933. On May 18, about 5,000 déclassé labor colonists, nearly all men, disembarked at Nazino, an island about half the size of Central Park. Their rations consisted of one large rotting pile of flour communally administered by a few guards, and no containers. The enterprising among them removed their hats and shirts and loaded them with a meager clump of flour–not that it mattered, since they were so crazed with hunger that they ate the flour raw and washed it down with the giardia-infested waters of the Ob and Nazina rivers. Diarrhea struck immediately.
Within two days, dozens had died, and the living feasted on their corpses. Visitors found bodies mutilated and stripped of their tenderest meat and organs, and caught settlers with human livers in their hands. The few guards lacked shoes, uniforms, and discipline, and were, said an official, “in no way distinguished from the déclassé elements they were supposed to monitor.” The guards did, however, have rifles, and they eagerly extorted food and favors from their ragged charges. In one case, a guard fell in love with a pretty deportee and tried to protect her. When he returned from a short trip away, the other deportees had tied her to a poplar tree and, while she still lived, cut off her breasts and muscles for meat.
Authorities found out that Nazino had gotten out of hand, and eventually they sent in guards to protect the nearby villagers from being overrun and devoured. But the initial reaction was denial. Officials insisted that rumors of a cannibalistic nightmare lacked foundation and were, by the way, seditious. They contended that those who resorted to eating the dead suffered from mental illness and were “cannibals by habit,” rather than because the Soviet system had failed them.
In any case, cannibalism in Siberia was widespread enough to demand a special argot for prisoners who intended to devour their colleagues. The phrase “bleeding the cow” referred to the practice of inviting another prisoner to join an escape attempt, only so his fellow escapees could murder and eat him somewhere along the long trek to freedom.
Eventually, even the Soviet state couldn’t ignore the disaster, and a commission convened to establish what had gone wrong. The commission’s reports, excavated by Werth and the Russian scholar Sergei Krasilnikov from State, FSB, and presidential archives, form the basis of Cannibal Island. Like so many expeditions into Russian archives, Werth’s digging through the history of déclassé deportations uncovers moments of obscene vileness–Molotov, Stalin’s chief commissar, suggested tetchily that the deportees be made to pay for their own deportation–but also countless instances of gross incompetence that represent, if not a straightforward crime against humanity, at least a clear-cut case of criminal negligence against it.
The plan’s own authors knew that their strategy was “grandiose,” and they noted that the “settlement of two million almost completely deprived individuals in virgin territories” would require massive planning and funding, something the Soviet state could not possibly provide.
Werth writes that the planners harbored the same spirit of Siberian manifest destiny that Russian leaders had embraced since the time of the czar. But where the spirit was willing, the state apparatus was weak, and probably nothing could have saved the plan from disaster. In one wave of deportations, one out of five deportees was totally incapable of working–indeed, many appeared to have been selected because they were guaranteed not to survive the journey. The archives reveal deportees who were “invalids,” “mentally retarded,” and “decomposing semi cadavers.” One intended settler of the brutal Siberian outback, a 103-year-old man, could not stand, walk, or speak.
In a strong field, Cannibal Island is one of the grisliest and most unpleasant accounts of gulag life. Its author, best known as a contributor to the Black Book of Communism (1997), a book-length butcher’s bill of communism’s millions of victims worldwide, is among a cohort of historians who have provided a picture of Stalinism that matches in gruesomeness and exceeds in scholarly rigor the anthologies of rumor compiled by Robert Conquest before the opening of the archives in 1991.
Perhaps surprisingly, the disgorging of thousands of secret, yellowed documents since 1991 has not dramatically revised our understanding of what happened in the gulags. But shocking miniatures–Werth humbly calls his a “microhistorical effort”–are emerging more vivid than those we could reliably cite before. This one ranks as one of the more memorable exhibits in the gallery of horrors.