In 1930 and 1931, I. V. Stalin sent close to two million peasants into internal exile. Entire families were condemned to be "liquidated" as "kulaks" — the Communist Party's label for supposed rural capitalists...

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“The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements”

by Lynne Viola

Oxford University Press,

378 pp., $30

“Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag”

by Nicolas Werth

Princeton University Press, 248 pp., $24.95

The 20th century was the bloodiest in recorded history, the horrific scope of which we are still uncovering. “The Unknown Gulag” and “Cannibal Island” present shocking, forgotten chapters of this gruesome past.

The history of the Soviet gulag has been told before, most powerfully in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s epic, “The Gulag Archipelago,” published in the 1970s. Yet so immense is this history, so vast was the whirlwind of terror that swept over the Soviet Union in the 1930s, that much is only now coming to light. The network of prison camps documented by Solzhenitsyn, we are learning, formed only part of the gulag system. There was a second or “hidden” gulag as well that destroyed the lives of millions of Soviet citizens.

In 1930, Josef Stalin’s government set about forcing the country’s vast peasantry into collective farms as part of its attempt to build socialism. Collectivization amounted to a war against the peasants, especially those who were branded with the label of “kulak.” Official ideology contended that the kulaks (Russian for “fist”) were rural capitalist exploiters, although in truth a kulak could be anyone who aroused the suspicions of the state.

After they were driven from their homes, something had to be done with the disposed kulaks, and the decision was made within the ruling elite to herd them into freight cars and transport them to the virgin territories of the far north and Siberia where they were to be dumped and put to work as forced laborers.

“Grandiose plan”

Lynne Viola, a prominent scholar of Soviet history, has spent the past decade researching the special settlements, and with “The Unknown Gulag” has produced a path-breaking and authoritative work on the subject.

The deportations had been conducted in great haste and with almost no planning — “na khodu,” on the fly, as was said. Despite the harsh climate, no housing, food, or infrastructure had been prepared. Men, women and children had to construct their own crude huts and were sent to work clearing forests in waist-deep snow. Weakened by disease and famine, hundreds of thousands had perished by the end of 1931.

Reports of mass deaths did not dissuade the Kremlin from further deportations, and in early 1933, the head of the Soviet secret police unveiled a “grandiose plan” to purify Moscow and Leningrad of all undesirables. The plan called for 100,000 to be rounded up and sent to special settlements in Siberia. Many of them were drawn from overcrowded prisons; others were people randomly grabbed from the streets. A worker by the name of Novozhilov was nabbed when he stepped out to buy some cigarettes without his ID papers. His wife and child never saw him again.

A hidden past

One of the world’s foremost authorities on the gulag, Nicolas Werth, recounts in “Cannibal Island” the unbelievable saga of several thousand deportees deposited on a barren island in the Ob River in the spring of 1933. With nothing to eat but a few bags of rancid flour, they turned on each other. Some were killed for their shoes or coat, others for a scrap of bread. Some drowned in the freezing waters trying to escape. Some resorted to cannibalism. Werth produces the testimony of a survivor who tells of a young woman who was chased down, tied to a tree, and the flesh cut from her live body and devoured raw. Regardless of the atrocities one has read, the mind recoils in mute horror. Few books have captured the human tragedy of Stalin’s bloody reign so succinctly or with such force.

The significance of “The Lost Gulag” and “Cannibal Island” goes beyond recovering a hidden past. Both books reveal the chaotic, arbitrary nature of life in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Gargantuan projects of social engineering were decreed from on high with no thought to their feasibility or the details for their implementation. When the utopian ideals of the country’s leaders confronted the unyielding realities of a poor, rural society in which the authority of the state existed often more in name than fact, violence became the only means to achieving their ends, regardless the cost.

For 60 years, any mention of the special settlements and mass deportations of the 1930s was forbidden in the USSR. Officially, neither had ever happened. Only in 1991 did the Russian government exonerate the dispossessed for their fictitious crimes and open the secret archives to researchers.

These two books represent some of the first attempts to tell the story.

Douglas Smith is a resident scholar at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.