Uprooted From Homes: What Soviet Special Settlements Were

May 20, 2024
Shedding light on the structure and challenges of life in Soviet special settlements, a common practice of deportations under Soviet Imperialism.
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The Soviet Union's Special Settlements were areas mostly located in remote regions of the USSR, usually in the northern Russian Republic and Central Asia, to which some residents and national minorities were forcibly deported.

Don't let the special word fool you as, in this context, it means isolating and freedom-depriving.

A Soviet poster with a citing of Joseph Stalin, saying: “Friendship between the peoples of the USSR is a great and serious achievement. For as long as this friendship exists, the peoples of our country will be free and invincible."

If you were born in the Soviet Union, you could be taken to special settlements for allegedly threatening the security of the Soviet Union, opposing Soviet policies like collectivization, disobeying, or being related to other suspicious acts, such as being a member of a national minority or "rich" family.

Any modern research paper about so-called special settlements might serve as a real guide to the ethnicities of the USSR: Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Chechens, Karachais, Ingush, Balkars, Kalmyks, Greeks, Crimean Tatars, Koreans, Bulgarians, Armenians, and some other nationalities were among the deported.

These crimes against humanity are often referred to in historical literature merely as "deportations." We aim to explain that there was an entire system behind the Soviet Union's special settlements and the de facto imprisonment of people within them.

Legal Basis of Special Settlements Appeared Later Then Themselves

Talking about the Soviet Union's notorious greatness, do not forget that its ambitions were, at times, more than the country could deliver. Special settlements are a good example of it, as their legal basis appeared over six months after thousands of people were sent out to lands unknown in chock-full wagons.

The first legal act that established the procedure for managing special settlements was an "On Special Settlements" resolution of the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People's Commissars dated July 11, 1930. However, the first deportation to uninhabited isolated regions called 'special settlements' occurred at the turn of 1929--1930.

However, the order only provided for special settlements to be created for kulaks and their families to exploit their labor. Very soon, other groups of people who were to be imprisoned for ideological, socio-economic, or ethnic reasons would be labeled as special settlers as well.

The initial slapdash regulations on special settlements were far from comprehensive and made no attempt to codify the working and living conditions for all people sent to them. Thus, new supplementary acts were issued every few years, or sometimes even every few months, to address gaps.

For example, the deportation of the Kalmyk people indigenous to a region of the southwestern Russian SSR took place during 1943-1944. But only in 1944, writes scholar Iryna Ligieva, the NKVD issued its directive "On the unification of disparate Kalmyk families." It was aimed at reuniting Kalmyk family members who were, for reasons unknown, sent to different settlements.

Some argue that this was an intentional decision aimed at destroying the Kalmyk ethnicity rather than mere incompetence.

Before the "On Special Settlements" order, the language of Soviet law had only exile and expulsion as defined legal terms in its glossary. The appearance of "special settlements" as a concept in Soviet jurisprudence shows that they had a different status from deportation and, therefore, required a new regulatory system.

Western Ukrainians Faced Special Repression

There were several waves of deportations to special settlements. However, during each of these waves, regardless of the official justifications, people living in Western Ukraine were disproportionately affected.

Large numbers of people in western Ukraine opposed the Soviet takeover of the area, and some of them were members of the outlawed Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).

Entire families were deported when a single member was accused of being a member of the OUN, meaning that the number of those deported was at least tripled.

This was especially prevalent in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk Oblasts between 1940 and 1950. According to Ukrainian scholar Ivan Pater, 28 villages in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast were completely depopulated, with all of their residents expelled to Siberia. The village of Selyshche "was liquidated in 24 hours."

"The final mass deportation, occurring on October 19--21, 1947, commenced simultaneously across all western regions of Ukraine. In cities, it began at 2:00 a.m., while in villages, it started at 6:00 a.m., conducted through encirclement and round-up operations. During this period, a total of 26,332 families, comprising 77,791 individuals, were displaced from the region. This included 18,886 men, 35,152 women, and 22,174 children," Pater explains.

Between 1944 and 1952, over 203,000 people were permanently expelled from the west of the Ukrainian SSR, according to a 1953 report to the Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU. Not all of those deported were members of the OUN or even sympathizing with the organization.

For example, there's evidence that people whose location could not be detected during special commission checks were enlisted as participants of the national movement by default.

Also, western Ukrainians faced deportations as a result of "border sweeps."

Areas near the borders of the Ukrainian and Belarusian SSRs and Poland were suspected by Soviet authorities to have harbored spies and saboteurs, which meant that their populations were designated 'socially alien elements.'

One of the things that rendered these people 'socially alien' was also their religion, particularly Greek Catholicism.

The Greek Catholic Faith was Forced Underground

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) was liquidated as such in 1946 by what is known as the Lviv Pseudo Council. According to the Church's archives, Soviet authorities arrested over 800 Greek Catholic priests between 1945 and 1946 alone, with sentences ranging from 10 to 25 years. However, when some of them arrived at special settlements after the sentence, it was time they saved the church.

Soviet repressions thus managed to destroy only the 'visible' structure of the UGCC.

St. Nicholas Day in the special settlement, Kemerovo oblast, Russia. Via Local History.

Many people in the settlements remember priests and nuns as the main people responsible for raising morale and distracting from the horrors of the lives imposed upon them.

Priests baptized children, held weddings for newlyweds (and not only for Ukrainians), and, together with nuns, organized services on holidays such as Christmas, Easter, St. Nicholas Day, and so on.

Of course, these activities involved significant risks. There are documented cases of priests being beaten to death, both from UGCC and the Orthodox Church. Some would be arrested again and sentenced to hard labor that, given the advanced age of many of the priests and the harsh climates in which the sentences were served, often resulted in death.

Yurii Hrynchyshyn, the son of repressed Greek Catholic priest Ivan Hrynchyshyn, shared his memories of life in a special settlement in a text published by Lviv's Ukrainian Catholic University:

Over a hundred days of forced travel towards a special settlement in the town of Beley, in Chita Region. It was during those years of my childhood that we spent there, where we buried both my older and younger sisters... that was the cost we paid.

Despite the personal tragedies and awful living conditions they endured, the Greek Catholic faithful not only preserved their own spiritual life but managed to cultivate it for the next generation by teaching future priests.

"The selection, teaching, and ordination of candidates for the spiritual state was one of the most important tasks of the underground Church's ecclesiastical leadership. Secret theological seminaries operated for this purpose,"explains the official UGCC history.

As UGCC head Svyatoslav Shevchuk once said, there were three things that helped preserve the Ukrainian national identity across great distances and despite what our parents went through:the Ukrainian family, school, and church.

Escaping Special Settlements Was Forbidden, Though Very Desired

Those who were held in the special settlements eventually managed to find a sort of everyday life, with people maintaining their houses, following routines, and even observing holidays and traditions. However, it should not be forgotten that being there was a severe punishment. Therefore, behind the facade of ordinary activities, there remained a prohibition on leaving the special settlements until they were finally abolished.

Some people could request to leave special settlements after spending at least five years there, proving their 'loyalty to the Soviet authorities' and 'unwaveringly fulfilling all the duties assigned to them by the state.'

UGCC's Father Roman Lopatynskyi, Karaganda, 1955.

However, due to the dire living conditions, not everyone could endure for this long, and many attempted to escape.

While delivering people to special settlements, train guards were authorized to shoot those attempting to escape without warning. After those arrived, however, bullet punishment for an escape attempt was changed to criminal liability, hard labor, or even re-sending fugitives to a special settlement with tougher attitudes towards them there.

Although some sources state that special settlements had better conditions than forced labor camps, they were the worst for people suddenly uprooted from their homes.

In the North Caucasus and Kazakhstan, from 1932 to 1940, about 629,042 people attempted to escape special settlements. Of those, 235,120 were recaptured.

The main reasons for escape attempts included overcrowding, lice infestations, hunger, lack of medical care and security, and resulting high mortality rates. Some people could stand the hard labor, but their physical energy faded fast in such conditions.

Interestingly, Roma people were the only group of people to successfully run away from special settlements and disappear from them as a whole by the end of 1933, historian Victor Zemskov writes in his work "Special Settlers in the USSR: 1930--1960."

Roma people of Russia, 1928, author unknown.

The only time people vulnerably expressed a desire to stay in special settlements was when military conscription began during WWII. That was because labor settlers were exempt from conscription into the Red Army. However, in the first months of the war, limited conscription of these settlers took place.

Deaths Outnumbered Births in the Special Settlements

Although some were able to flee from the special settlements, far more people died in them. Moreover, many people did not even survive the journey to them in overcrowded train cars.

For example, about 200 Crimean Tatars died on the way to the special settlements. Later estimates would hold that no less than 45% percent of the deported Crimean Tatars, totaling about 200,000 individuals, would perish in them. This means nearly one in two Crimean Tatar deportees did not survive.

In 1945, there were 1,099 Crimean Tatar births compared to 15,997 deaths. One year later, 961 and 4,997, respectively. From 1945 to 1950, a total of 13,823 Crimean Tatars were born, compared to 32,107 who died, mainly due to exhaustion and dystrophy, archives show.

And this is only the case of one ethnicity we are talking about.

Another people native to Ukraine who suffered greatly from the special settlement program was the Roma. Although many of them managed to escape, their mortality rates were so high that it left a mark in the memories of people who shared special settlements with them. Scholar Pavel Barsagaev mentions several witness accounts in  his work How the Gypsy Kolkhoz was Created:

In the winter, there was no time to dig graves for the gypsies. The commandant ordered that the bodies be taken away from the village and covered with snow. When spring arrived, an epidemic broke out in the village.

He also wrote that almost none of the people interned in the special settlements were able to survive the frigid winter temperatures. This left many children as orphans, which made their lives even harder.

Moreover, Soviet authorities practiced inner relocations, switching people from work to work, which only added to mortality. Physically exhausted, many had no chance to adapt one more in their lifetime.

Beyond ethnic groups, there were also social categories that were subject to particular brutality from Soviet authorities. In settlements for former kulaks (those designated by Soviet authorities as rich peasants), monthly mortality rates among children under 8 years of age reached 10%, according to the documentary collection "Special Settlers in Western Siberia."

When catastrophic food shortages began across the Soviet Union in 1931, it was the peak of horror for special settlers, especially those living near the Urals and Kazakhstan.

"In these hungry regions, people resorted to eating inedible substitutes and even cats, dogs, and the corpses of dead animals. This dire situation led to a sharp increase in morbidity and mortality among the special settlers, along with a number of suicides," according to scholar Victor Berdinskih.

Famous Ukrainians Who Survived the Special Settlements

Amidst the prevailing darkness of the special settlements, a few artistic rays of light managed to shine through. These rays were Ukrainian artists whose spirits remained unbroken.

Bohdan Zheplynskyi was a remarkable figure, a phenomenon almost, in these places of deprivation. As a musician and researcher of Ukrainian folk music, he was arrested along with all the bandurists of his chapel in 1950.

Zheplynskyi not only managed to survive his exile in Siberia, a significant achievement in itself, but also to create a folk band with his brother Roman and other bandura players in Soviet internal exile. He called it a chapel of bandurist-convicts.

Zheplynskyi's chapel performs in Siberia.

Another outstanding Ukrainian who had been to places far and unpleasant is Ivan Bahrianyi, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He spent five years of his life trapped in the raw walls of special settlements. He was sent there for "carrying out counter-revolutionary agitation" with his literary works.

We can learn about what he endured by reading his legendary work Tygrolovy (Tiger Trappers), inspired by living in and escaping from the Siberian taiga. In describing his experiences, he explained:

I didn't have to invent anything. A life crowded within my soul and burst out like Niagara. The country I wrote about is the one I loved as my second homeland, even though I arrived there as a slave. All the people there were those with whom I could share the comfort of conversations in my native language, even in a distant foreign land and as a slave. These people will never leave my memory...

Although he had a philosophical perception of his unfree journey and some sort of sympathy for the taiga, its flora, and fauna, it is known that he escaped the special settlement. But was arrested again.

Bahrianyi's book was later published in the US, translated to many languages, and reviewed by foreign critics, serving as an example of how suffering springs into something big and important.

Lisa Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld