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Hunger Games and Stalin’s Island of Horrors

It all started in 1930, when Joseph Stalin, head of the Soviet Union and unofficial tyrant, sent

6700 peasants into exile. The rural capitalists were denounced as “kulaks” and condemned to work to death on an unknown island. Contrary to Stalin’s expectations, more than 5000 people died in these horrific death camps, leaving the Soviet Union to hastily cover traces of one of the most disturbing instances of crimes against humanity prior to the Second World War. Survivors were few and quickly muzzled and documents of an off-the-book operation were extinct such that the true horrors of the island are only beginning to be unearthed. In what seems like the ultimate “Hunger Games”, but in actuality was a failed system of self-sufficient settlements on a Siberian island, may have realised the idiom “dog-eat-dog world” in its more literal sense - cannibalism. The “Island of Death” In 1930, the Soviet Union decided to revive the passport system that was abolished after the 1917 revolution on the premise that a Soviet person could live and work wherever they liked. Masses of peasants flocked to the city in search of a better life, resulting in acute shortages for the main pillar of the regime - the proletariat. The passport system became a mechanism to not only carry out “mopping-up operations” to oust illegal residents but also expel “anti-soviet” and “declassed elements” such as vagabonds, former priests, protesters and prostitutes. Stripped of their possessions, they were shipped off to Siberia where they would work for the “good of the State.” In their over zealous efforts, Russian authorities would also often detain people on the streets who were not carrying passports on them at the time, such as students and children. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that the so-called “violators of the passport regime” were deported to Eastern Siberian labour camps without a fair trial and along with hardened criminals, who were sent there to alleviate the burden on overcrowded prison camps in the European part of the country.

The social program was less about establishing collective farms, “to combat wide-scale famines” as claimed by Russian authorities, but more about eliminating undesirables that threatened the oppressive regime. Nazinsky Island itself, the hell-hole where the detainees were deported, was a desolate swamp with no infrastructure, food and supply chain, and any sign of prior human existence, and to make matters worse, an additional 1200 prisoners were added to the island's roster. With no tools to make shelter and dressed in the clothes in which they were caught, with temperatures dropping below zero and rain, the detainees were defenceless against the elements, aimlessly searching for food. The meagre rations of rye flour of barely 100 grams per person were unsustainable and soon hundreds were dead of hunger, the cold or exhaustion. Escape was impossible with the “island of death” being surrounded by machine-gun crews who immediately shot those who tried to flee. The Trapped , The Desperate and The Hungry The first cases of cannibalism on Nazinsky island took place on the 10th day of the prisoners’ arrival, with the hardened criminals being the first to turn. Desperate deportees in a land of no laws turned into ruthless, sadistic killers. Residents of nearby villages bore witness to the horrors that engendered the anarchy on the island, with frequent eyewitness reports of maimed people stumbling about with arms and legs chopped off, human flesh cut and hung on trees and the clearing littered with corpses. The island had quickly descended into a state of lawlessness. People traded gold ripped from the teeth of the dead, for cigarettes. A survivor recounts people roasting human meat and even confessing to eating livers and hearts himself.

It was apparent that the Soviet experiment had failed; with the ploy to be rid of undesirable breeding more anarchy and chaos that posed an even greater threat to the regime than earlier. The few remaining survivors were evacuated a month later but their suffering did not end there as they were sent to other Siberian labour camps. Of an estimated 6000 people on the “island of death”, only about 2000 survived the ordeal and lived to tell the tale. A Tragedy Declassified This strategically covered up and forgotten part of history would have remained unknown to anyone apart from the locals, had it not been for Vasily Velichko, who immersed himself in an investigation of what had happened and compiled a report so stirring with a slew of survivor testimonies that it created quite a stir at the Kremlin. A special commission that conducted a thorough investigation found 31 mass graves on the island with 50-70 corpses in each. More than 80 people were prosecuted, including 23 who were sentenced to capital punishment and 11 for cannibalism. However, the distress and disturbance caused by the findings made the files…disappear. And thus, the events of May 1933 remained classified until 1988, when a human rights organisation conducted an investigation and people came to learn of the Nazinsky tragedy. Situated in Siberia, by the Rivers Ob and Nazina, the 600-metre wide island known as Nazinsky, or Cannibal Island, spent many decades in total obscurity. Little is known about its past and present, seeing as it is abandoned, according to neighbouring locals. Some say that the ghosts of those who suffered and died there still loom large. Others take on a more Darwinian perspective, attributing the events to natural selection. Yet the tragedy of the island only leaves us with more questions -How many more instances such as that of Nazinsky Island exist in history and are we really prepared to uncover them ?

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