Everyday this week we are posting part of a series from author Lynne Viola, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Check out part one and part two.
Some of my most important sources on the special settlements are contained in provincial archives. In the early 1990s, researchers produced a series of documentary publications on the special settlements in Siberia, the Urals, Karelia, and several other key regions of exile. Missing in this coverage (when I began my work) was the Northern Territory, the region which took in the single largest contingent of special settlers in 1930. With that in mind, I journeyed to Vologda and Arkhangel’sk to carry out my own investigations of regional party and government archives in the North. The wealth of materials in these archives, which include sizeable collections of secret police documents, is impressive and, in many ways, comparable to the accessible collections on the topic in Moscow.
From the first hours of research, I was transported into a world of almost indescribable horror. I read of the Regional Party Committee’s plans to feed the exiles’ families (including some 88,000 children) according to “starvation norms.” The majority of locations designated for settlement were completely un-cleared marsh or forest lands, accessible only by river or by foot and then only for a part of the year. While awaiting transfer into the interior, people were crowded into barracks or nationalized churches, with space per individual calculated as “smaller than a grave” and the temperature not above 4 degrees. I read about the “colossal death rate” of the children and the epidemics of typhus that raged through the exile population. I read the desperate letters home written by young male exiles sent ahead into the interior to build the “special villages.” One young man wrote, “It is impossible to describe life here, they treat us worse than cattle …. They don’t even give us water, not to mention food ….”
Another wrote, “We live very poorly, there is nothing, each day we expect death. Daily 20 to 30 to 40 people die.” During the 1932-33 famine there were cases of cannibalism.
Drunken village commandants regularly beat and tortured exiles, confining them in cold cellars for days at a time. They also embezzled state funds intended for the exiles, and raped exile women. I read about the homes constructed for exile children whose parents had died of disease and exhaustion, about the high death rates in those homes, about state inspectors finding children’s corpses hidden in barns. There were secret deals with cemetery caretakers to bury the children unofficially so the home directors could continue to receive funding for these little “dead souls.”
My research in the Arkhangel’sk archives brought alive the experience of the special settlers. The letters from the settlers, along with the surprisingly frank secret police reports about the terrible conditions of life in the settlements, became an important part of the raw materials on which my book is based. But I couldn’t help wonder why the Soviets had kept such thorough and careful records documenting their crimes…