Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cannibal Island by Nicolas Werth

As the author states this was the 'second' so called GULag, where people weren't sent to camps for hard labor but rather deported to various parts of the Soviet Union, such as this section of Siberia, to populate a place not even the Tsars, who tried for 350 years, could. The story in and of itself is quite fascinating and surprising in many respects. The bureaucracy and the obvious Soviet policies are who and what one could easily blame, but those on the bottom also took part in this disaster.

The numbers prepared for deportation were constantly being changed. Further changes were evident in the monetary funds that were supposed to be allocated to those deported, as well as horses, tools, and equipment they were to receive to help begin their new lives. Authorities were always rounding numbers down since those in charge thought if anything extreme occurred settlers already living in the area could/would lend a helping hand. Surprising was the fact that to oversee this large landmass and its thousands of settlers the OGPU (precursor to the NKVD) had only 44 men at its disposal, of whom many were clerks, and of those clerks many came from the deportees themselves! At least one of their stories is recounted. Militia were also raised to help guard these prisoners and many times they would let power go to their heads. They did n0t want to be here and would beat prisoners and steal their food and/or clothing.

Many of those coming to this island, and other stops along the way, were already suffering from the famine that was gripping a large portion of the Soviet Union; their eventual deaths could hardly be prevented. They were arrested usually because they had come to Moscow trying to escape the famine conditions of their homes. The quotas so many hear about when it comes to the Stalinist government are shown here. Those who were deported consisted of criminals, those already in prison, those labeled Kulaks, and some who were simply snatched from train stations as they were either passing through Moscow or had just come to the capital with all their papers and documentation on them looking to begin a new life. Some Muscovites were snatched off the street because they didn't have their passports on them but had left them at home, no excuses would save them. It's hard to understand how something like that could happen, although it should be mentioned that a few weeks after these people had been deported their stories were checked and many were freed, but they were not yet allowed to return home!

What happens after these people are deported can be seen by the title of the book, there were cases of cannibalism and there emerges the story of a whole violent criminal class that had committed cannibalism in the past, all of this is recounted in the book. Many of those that committed such acts were not starving, which pointed to the fact that they had done this previously. Thus it was also concluded that such acts were not a sign of famine conditions. This book will go to show that the history of the Soviet Union cannot be viewed in black and white terms, there are many variables which need to be understood and these events have to be looked at on a case by case basis. Many of those who died were bullied and killed by the guards or the enormous criminal element they were with. How can one measure out an equal share of the blame to the government for putting them in such a position and to those who did the actual killings? Also interesting is the fact that previous Kulaks who were displaced were not subject to such conditions, they built their settlements and went on with their lives. But these men were used to these conditions and used to living on their own apparently, these elements from the urban centers of Moscow and Leningrad, combined with criminals, could not account for themselves like Kulaks and peasant farmers.

It is a fascinating look at a failed project, the inquiry launched into it after the majority of those deported died also shows that the government wouldn't simply stand by, someone had to pay. Those that eventually paid the price were the lower level functionaries, sentenced to various sentences of one to three years in camps. An excellent addition to literature on the "second Gulag" which few know about and an intriguing look into the Soviet Union of the 1930's.

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