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The Russian Island of Cannibals

With all of our civilization, intellect, and culture, it’s easy for us humans to fall into the sense that we are somehow superior to all around us. We like to think that it is these qualities, as well as all of our technology and sophistication that sets us apart from beasts, and with all of this self assurance of our higher place in the world it is easy to forget that we ourselves are animals. In our comfortable civilized society it is easy to lose sight of the fact that beneath all of our higher learning and intelligence there resides the primal, bestial drive to survive by any means, and base instincts no different than the fiercest animals that share this world with us. How much or how little would it take to strip us of our societal rules and calm mask of civilization, only to reveal the vicious animalistic nature that resides somewhere deep down within us all? What is the breaking point that reverts us from man to beast? For thousands of prisoners without hope in the frigid wilds of Russia, the answers to these questions would become all too clear as they spun down the road to our basest nature, careening away from what we think makes us human to end up at a place where survival is the only rule left and the mind becomes but a feral, pouncing shadow of itself. These were the prisoners of what would come to be known as the notorious Cannibal Island, and they would know of the horrors of having their humanity torn away, and to feast on each others’ flesh.

It was 1933 in the former Soviet Union, and Stalin’s brutal regime was in the midst of a diabolical plan originally thought up by a Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the Joint State Political Directorate, which was the Soviet secret police force. The grand plan was envisioned as sending up to 2,000,000 of society’s undesirables to the desolate wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan in order to set up what was termed “special settlements,” and which most of us today know as the notorious gulags. It was thought that within two years, these settlements full of their “labor colonists” would be able to tame these wild, untouched lands and manage a state of self-sufficiency, moving them out of the cities and having them successfully populate the most remote and inhospitable regions, even though these regions were rife with famine at the time. The idea was that these people could inhabit these regions and live on their own, thereby purifying and cleansing Soviet cities of their more unsavory elements that were essentially considered parasites feeding off of civilized society.

Gulag prisoners on a train

Gulag prisoners on a train

The “undesirables” that were to be sent were mostly the homeless, beggars, petty criminals, gypsies, the mentally handicapped and the insane, more or less anyone who didn’t fit into the ideals of the Communist class structure, but it seems that simply not having a proper internal passport was enough to get someone on the list. By April of 1933, 25,000 people had been rounded up and loaded into stinking, cramped trains to be sent off into the far corners of the frigid wilderness, and they were to pass through a transit camp at the remote Siberian region Tomsk on the way. The trip was a harrowing one, with very little food or water to go around, which caused the rise of gangs who beat or killed other prisoners to steal their food and belongings. Once they arrived at Tomsk things did not get any better. They had arrived a few days before they were expected, and the Tomsk authorities had been given very short notice in the first place, meaning they were poorly equipped to deal with the deluge of prisoners pouring in. There was not enough food, water, and medicine to go around, and furthermore the Tomsk authorities viewed the urban prisoners as wretched, diseased, and dangerous. Not surprisingly, many of the prisoners perished during the whole ordeal, but considering what was to happen next they were probably among the lucky ones.

In an effort to take pressure off of the limited available resources and to relieve the strain of the overcrowded camp, around 6,000 of the bedraggled prisoners were chosen to be moved to another temporary camp until it could be figured out just what to do with them. Four river barges typically used for hauling wood were hastily refurbished into prison vessels and the mass of freezing, starving prisoners were crammed aboard to be brought to an isolated speck of land surrounded by rivers, around 3 km long and 600 meters wide and located 800km away by the name of Nazino Island. Conditions aboard the barges were even worse than they had been aboard the trains, with prisoners kept stuffed below decks to wallow in filth and allocated only a meager 200 grams of rotting bread per person a day on which to subsist. There was no other food aboard the barges, no cooking utensils nor extra clothing, and very little water. Even the guards accompanying the prisoners were new recruits who didn’t have uniforms and in some cases even shoes. By the time the barges reached Nazino Island, 27 of the prisoners had already died due to the horrid conditions and around a third of the rest barely had the strength to stand.

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Things quickly went from bad to worse when it was found that their new home was a frigid wasteland of thorny brush bereft of any natural food sources, and a further 300 prisoners died in a snowstorm on the first night as they slept out in the open without shelter. Nevertheless, the prisoners were abandoned there and left to fend for themselves without supplies, tools, or cooking utensils, and only a few guards who were practically as haggard as they were to preserve order. The only thing they were left with was around 20 tons of moldy flour which was dumped onto the shore of the island and then to be distributed equally, but things rather quickly devolved into chaos when the starving prisoners converged upon the flour in a churning, disorderly stampede which quickly turned to brawls and rioting. The panicked guards ended up firing into this crowd of people in a mad dash to get food, leaving many of them dead or wounded. For those who were able to secure flour for themselves, their troubles were only starting. Since there were no ovens or equipment with which to actually make bread, little water to be had, and not even any containers to put it in, most people resorted to mixing the flour with dirty, disease infested river water and eating it raw, which led to rampant dysentery and typhoid.

Realizing that they were facing sure doom on the island if they stayed, many of the prisoners tried to make a break for freedom aboard jerry-rigged makeshift rafts, which didn’t go very well at all. Some of these escapees were shot by the ragtag group of guards stationed on the island while others drowned when their rafts disintegrated beneath their feet in the rough waters of the river. Those who actually managed to get out would have soon seen how misguided their plans were, since the only thing to be found downstream was vast expanses of frozen Siberian taiga and there were no roads leading to civilization for hundreds of miles around. In fact the nearest settlement of any size was hundreds of miles upstream at Tomsk, from which they had come in the first place. The handful of people who got away was quickly deemed to be doomed to die out in the Siberian badlands.

Nazino Island

Nazino Island

Within a few more days of arriving on Nazino Island, dozens more had died, most of the bodies just lying out in the open, and it was not long before the starving masses of people began to resort to feeding off of the flesh of those who had fallen. It became a common sight to see dead bodies that had been cut up as if by a butcher, stripped of the best pieces of flesh and missing nourishing organs such as livers. It was not long after that that the prisoners began to graduate to cannibalistic murders, hunting each other down for food as if they were animals. Roving gangs of people crazed from hunger fanned out and terrorized the sick or weak, brutally slaying them and consuming their flesh raw. In one particularly disturbing account, a young woman was allegedly captured and tied to a tree, where bloodthirsty cannibals stripped her of meat while she was still alive writhing in agony. A common practice among prisoners was called “bleeding the cow,” in which a group would lure in another prisoner by inviting them to join them in an escape attempt, only to brutally kill and butcher them for their meat when they got the person alone. The few guards stationed on the island ostensibly for the purpose of keeping the prisoners in line were no use in protecting the victims in the face of this bloodbath. Not only were the guards undisciplined and corrupt, with many of them extorting the prisoners on a regular basis, but they were also mostly just as starved and disheveled as any of their charges, with one official once proclaiming that Nazino’s guards were “in no way distinguished from the déclassé elements they were supposed to monitor.” Many years later, one survivor of the ordeal, then in her 80s, who arrived at Nazino Island as a 13-year-old girl would say:

The things we saw! People were dying everywhere; they were killing each other. When you went along the island you saw human flesh wrapped in rags, human flesh that had been cut and hung in the trees. The fields were full of corpses.

Unbelievably, the Soviet government either did not know or did not care about how out of hand things had become, and continued to send shipments of even more prisoners to the island, with a further 1,200 arriving on May 27 to face the hardship of this untamed land and its marauding cannibalistic hordes. It is said that some of these new arrivals were savagely attacked and ravaged for their meat practically upon stepping off of the boat. As the savage bloodshed got worse and more people died, the government began to realize the gravity of the situation and became concerned that some of the blood crazed prisoners on the island might actually make their way to remote villages in the region to run amok and become an apocalyptic cannibalistic scourge on the surrounding areas. Reinforcements were sent in to Nazino to aid the outnumbered and under equipped guards that were already there and dozens of prisoners were arrested for cannibalism, but it was too little too late. By the time the camp was totally shut down, just one month after it had started, it is estimated that 4,000 of the initial 6,000 people brought here had died, many of them violently, although the true death toll will likely forever remain unknown as many of the prisoners lacked any sort of proper documentation.

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At the time, the Regional Committee of the Communist Party of Western Siberia launched a commission to look into what had happened at Nazino Island, but the report was promptly buried and kept under wraps, just as had been done with other similar accounts of the grim life and horrific atrocities of Siberia’s gulags. It was common practice at the time to suppress this sort of information, and those who wrote of the gulags or even spread rumors about them did it at the risk of being sent to one themselves or even outright killed. For decades the government denied and covered up what had transpired at Nazino, until the truth started to become known in 1988, due to the efforts of a Russian historical and civil rights society called Memorial, which gradually tracked down these top secret documents and made them known to the outside world, yet even then many Western publications mostly turned a blind eye to the problem. The trickle of information was also very slow, and the actual commission report on Nazino Island made by the Soviet government in 1933 was not published in full until 2002, also because of the efforts of Memorial. In more recent years, the horrific truth of what happened on Nazino Island has further been slowly revealed through dedicated work from organizations such as Memorial, as well as the work of authors such as French historian Nicolas Werth, who spent years meticulously digging through lost archives and documents for information that would culminate in his extremely in-depth book on the affair, Cannibal Island, published in 2006.

The story of Nazino Island is far from the only tale of barbaric brutality and atrocity to come from the Soviet gulags, but it is certainly perhaps the one that resonates the most on some primal level, with its disturbing imagery of zombie-like hordes of the starving giving into bloodlust and hunting other humans for food across this frozen wasteland secluded far from society. It is a potent reminder that lurking beneath out civilized veneer and all of our formalities, rules, and pleasantries there is a side of us not far removed from a vicious animal that just wants to survive at all costs. What does it take to devolve a normally rational human being to the state of a ravenous beast fully willing to ruthlessly slaughter and consume a fellow human being? How much must one endure before that civilized façade melts away to reveal the wild animal beneath, which simmers under the surface of every one of us? It seems that the denizens of Siberia’s Nazino Island found out the answer to these questions, possessed by our underlying savagery, staring deep into the black heart of the potential darkness of human nature and having it stare right back.