The Nazino Affair: The Tragedy of Cannibal Island

Russian Camp Guards. Google Images

Life on Nazino

 On May 14th, 5000 people, just under 400 of them women set out for Nazino in western Siberia. Nazino was a small, swampy island along the River Ob some 800 kilometers north of Tomsk. The area was sparsely inhabited by the native Ostyak people who only visited the island intermittently. This was at hardly surprising for, at 3 kilometers long and 600metres wide, Nazino was scarcely big enough to accommodate a large population.

The deportees were loaded into four river barges and kept below deck. Accompanying them were two camp commanders and 50 guards. All were newly recruited, untrained- and grossly unprepared for guarding the settlers -a third of which were hardened criminals. As to the rest, unused to hardship and lack of food, many were already weak and ill. It is little wonder that by the time the barges reached Nazino on May 18th, twenty-seven people were already dead.

The settlers were abandoned on a snowy island with no tools or food. Google Images.

As the survivors disembarked, snow was falling. There was no shelter for the new arrivals. Nor was there anything they could use to construct buildings. For Nazino’s new settlers soon discovered they had been marooned on the island without any tools or even cooking utensils. Nor was there any food. On board the barges, the deportees had been issued with 200grams of bread a day. Now, they had nothing but 20 tonnes of flour- around 4 tons per person. For the first four days, even this was denied them. In these conditions, it is hardly surprising that in the initial twenty-four hours, a further 295 people died.

When the guards finally attempted to distribute the flour, there were riots as the hungry settlers began to fight for rations. Unable to restore order, the guards fired shots and moved the flour to the shore opposite the island while the settlers calmed down. The guards tried to distribute the supplies again the next day. However, once more fights broke out. Finally, it was decided to split the settlers into brigades of 150 people, each represented by a leader or Brigadier. These brigadiers were responsible for collecting the flour and distributing it. Unfortunately, many of these leaders were self-nominated criminals appropriated all the flour for themselves. This inauspicious beginning was only the prelude for the horrors to come.