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UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Punished peoples: the mass deportations of the 1940s

UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Punished peoples: the mass deportations of the 1940s
UNHCR publication for CIS Conference

1 May 1996
Between 1936 and 1952, 3 million people were rounded up from their homes along the USSR's western borders and dumped thousands of miles away in Siberia and Central Asia. Fifty years later, some are still trying to get back.

Several major voluntary and involuntary population movements taking place between CIS countries today, as well as a number of serious unresolved dilemmas, stem directly from an unparalleled string of forcible population transfers that occurred half a century ago, under the stewardship of Stalin's chief of secret police (NKVD), Lavrenti Beria.

Between 1936 and 1952, more than 3 million people were rounded up, for the most part along the Soviet Union's western borders, strictly on the basis of their 'foreign' origins or culture, and dumped thousands of kilometres away in eastern and central Siberia or in the Central Asian republics. In all, more than 20 major groups suffered in this way, including eight entire 'nations' who were removed from their ancestral homelands. Of these, one was non-Orthodox Christian (the Volga Germans), one Buddhist (the Kalmyks), and the other six Muslim (Chechens, Ingush, Karachai, Balkars, Crimean Tatars and Meskhetians). The Soviet Union's 2.5 million Jews were only saved from a similar fate by Stalin's death in March 1953.

The eight deported nations
Volga Germans: Sept 1941366,000
Karachai: Nov 194368,000
Kalmyks: Dec 194392,000
Chechens: Feb 1944362,000
Ingush: Feb 1944134,000
Balkars: Apr 194437,000
Crimean Tatars: May 1944183,000
Meskhetians: Nov 1944200,000
Some other major groups forcibly transferred 1936-1952
Poles: 1936
Ukraine > Kazakstan
Koreans: 1937
Vladivostok > Kazakstan / Uzbekistan
Poles/Jews: 1940-41
Ukraine & Belarus > N. Siberia
Other Soviet Germans: 1941-52
Saratov, Ukraine > Central Asia
Finns (Leningrad region): 1942
Leningrad > Siberia
Other N. Caucasus groups: 1943-44
North Caucasus > Central Asia
Other Crimean groups: 1944
Crimea > Central Asia
Moldovans: 1949
Moldova > Central/East Siberia
Black Sea Greeks: 1949
Black Sea region > Kazakstan
Other Black Sea groups: 1949
Black Sea region > Kazakstan
Grand Total:3.1 million

Seven of the eight nationalities had been given their own (or shared) autonomous republics or regions by Lenin in the early 1920s (the exception being the Meskhetians). What Lenin gave, Stalin took away. By the end of World War II, all seven names had been wiped from the map. Some of the autonomous territories were renamed, others were carved up and given whole or in slices to neighbouring republics. Names of towns and villages which contained traces of their founders and former occupants were changed. Buildings, books, places of worship, even cemeteries, were destroyed in an attempt to erase all cultural, linguistic and historical traces of the forcibly transferred - or 'deported' - peoples.

In all, some 1.2 million Soviet Germans were forced onto train convoys of cattle wagons and shunted off to Siberia and Central Asia. Their ties with Germany, from where they had been encouraged to migrate 200 years earlier, were virtually non-existent. Nevertheless, with the German army advancing rapidly through Ukraine towards the Caucasus, the Soviet authorities decided the Germans were collectively guilty of spying for the enemy. The inhabitants of the autonomous Volga German Republic were among the first to go: between 3 and 21 September 1941, 366,000 Volga Germans were removed to Siberia on board 151 train convoys departing from 19 different stations.

The other seven entire 'nations,' totalling over 1 million people, were forced onto the cattle wagons between October 1943 and November 1944, under the watchful eye of Beria, who prowled up and down the Caucasus and Ukraine in his own special train. All but one of their homelands had been conquered by the German army in the latter part of 1942. By February 1943, they had all been recaptured by the Soviet army. The seven nations, along with many of the other smaller groups subsequently rooted out of western areas of the Soviet Union, were collectively branded - despite an almost total lack of evidence - as traitors and collaborators.

By now the practice of forcible transfer had acquired its own distorted and self-sustaining logic. Some 20,000 NKVD troops and huge quantities of rolling stock and other resources were diverted from the war effort in order to shift vast numbers of old people, women and children to distant lands quite unprepared to receive them. The entire population of Chechens and Ingush - around 500,000 people in all - were rounded up and packed on to 180 train convoys in the space of just over a week in February 1944. Three months later, new records were achieved when 183,000 Crimean Tatars, along with 8,000 other Crimeans, were crammed into long lines of waiting trains in the space of two days.

The consequences for the 'special settlers,' as they were euphemistically known, were devastating. Some families were given as little as five or ten minutes to pack up their belongings and food for the trip. No food was supplied. Tens of thousands are believed to have died during journeys which lasted up to two months. In some cases, bodies were left in the overcrowded cattle wagons for weeks on end. In others, they were thrown out beside the tracks.

Many of the transfers took place in winter. Those who survived the journey often found themselves with inadequate clothing, no shelter, and no means to support themselves in temperatures as low as -40C in Siberia or -20C on the Kazak steppes. In addition, their movement was restricted to a specified, very limited zone (which nearly always fell a few kilometres short of the nearest town). The penalty for straying was 15-20 years of hard labour in the Gulag camps. People found themselves doing totally unfamiliar work in utterly alien surroundings. Urban people were set to work in the mines and forests of Siberia. Nomadic herdsmen found themselves working in factories.

In 1948, the Supreme Soviet decreed that the 'special settlers' were definitively transferred, for ever. Stalin's death in 1953, and the subsequent execution of Beria, put an end to the collective condemnation and forced transfer of people simply because they belonged to a particular ethnic group. Under Khrushchev, the punitive restrictions imposed on the 3 million who had been transferred began to loosen. In September 1955, various restrictions on the rights of the Germans were annulled. Two months later, 5,000 Greeks expelled from Georgia in 1949 became the first group to be removed from the list of 'special settlers.'

In February 1956, five of the eight entire 'nations' (the Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush and Balkars) were named in Khrushchev's famous secret speech at the Communist Party Congress, in which he listed the forced transfers as one of the crimes committed by Stalin. Nevertheless, the 'special settlers' were not given the right to return to their ancestral homelands until 1957 (again, only the same five groups). The Chechens started returning almost immediately, and other groups soon followed. In most cases, their autonomous regions and republics were reinstated. However, none of the deported peoples were granted compensation for their losses, and land disputes became a common feature of some of the return movements (for example, in Chechnya).

The Crimean Tatars, Meskhetians and Volga Germans continued to be denied the right to return. However, under a special arrangement with the German government, Soviet Germans were allowed to emigrate to Germany, and given assistance to do so (travel costs, and various social benefits upon arrival). By the end of 1995, 1,376,000 had moved to Germany, where their continued arrival at the rate of some 200,000 per year has recently become a controversial political issue. A further 1.2 million are believed to be still living in CIS countries (mostly in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation).

Current return movements of forcibly deported peoples
Germans: 1992 - Feb 1996
Tajikistan > Germany13,000
Kyrgyzstan > Germany46,000
Kazakstan > Germany480,000
Uzbekistan > Germany16,000
Russian Fed. > Germany275,000
Other CIS countries > Germany8,000
Crimean Tatars
Uzbekistan > Ukraine (Crimea)164,000+
Russian Fed. > Ukraine (Crimea)45,000+
Kazakstan > Ukraine (Crimea)12,000+
Uzbekistan > Azerbaijan46,000
Uzbekistan > Russian Fed.25,000+

Note: All statistics on the original deportations, with the exception of the Meskhetians, are provided by Alain Blum of the Institut National d'Etudes Demographiques in Paris. Historical details were supplied by Blum or taken from Les Peuples deportes d'Union Sovietique by Jean-Jaques Marie. Population transfers (amounting to several million people) linked to collectivization and the Gulag labour camps, rather than the 'special settlers regime,' are not included. Further large-scale deportations took place from the Baltics, Moldova and the Ukraine from 1944-1953.

All the transferred peoples remain scarred to a greater or lesser degree by their terrible experiences in the 1940s. The legacy of such collective tragedy inevitably affects current relations within and between several of the states that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union. It has also been a direct factor in the conflict in North Ossetia (which was fought between Ingush who had returned from Central Asia and North Ossetians who had settled on their lands); it is also part of the psychological framework underlying the conflict in Chechnya. The situation of two of the entire 'nations' forcibly removed from their homelands during World War II (the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetians) is still far from resolved, and has been a subject of special focus during the CIS Conference process (see box in Orphans of the USSR).