Special Settlements | Russia's Necropolis of Terror and the Gulag

Special Settlements

Thanks to the work of activists and local historians in the Komi Republic and the Arkhangelsk Region, and of researchers like the Lithuanian Gintautas Alekna, the Map of Memory lists no less than 134 deportees graveyards across Russia. In a few cases, there are detailed accounts of the families sent to such remote and inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union and of those who never returned. At least fifty of these graveyards date back to collectivisation and “dekulakisation”, the upheaval that led to the deportation east and north of almost two million men, women and children (as a rule 3rd category “kulaks”, see below, are not included in that total nor, naturally, are those who fled the countryside at this time).

In some cases, researchers have established who set up these special settlements in 1930-1931, i.e., from which region they were expelled (below). In almost half the cases the site is known because of its later use by others (Poles and Soviet Germans) and the original inhabitants seem no longer to be remembered. We are told, for instance, that the special settlement at Veryushkoe Lake was created by dekulakized peasants from “various parts of Russia”. Mainly it is known because in 1940 it was inhabited by deportees from Ukraine and Belorussia; the same is true of the Shuchy mys settlement in Siberia and Safonovo in the Urals.

Some former special settlements today form part of surviving villages, towns or suburbs: others are uninhabited or, even, non-existent.

Tens of thousands of Polish citizens, Soviet Germans and Lithuanians were later deported to the North, the Urals and Siberia. The masses set in motion by the “dekulakisation” of the countryside was the first great wave of deportation under Stalin and remained larger than any that succeeded it.


An internal document dated 1 January 1932 (Viola, p. 195) lists where the “dekulakized” families came from and to which parts of the USSR they were sent in 1930-1931.

Ukraine and Belorussia

Over 63,000 families, predominantly wealthy “kulak” peasants, were expelled from Ukraine.

Over half were deported to the Urals [see Sukhaya, Malaya Lata and Galka]; a third were sent to the Northern Region (today the Komi Republic, the Arkhangelsk and Vologda Regions) [Privodino, Noshul , Slobodchikovo and, in 1933, Kresty]; others were sent to East and West Siberia; and a few to Yakutia and the Far East.

15,000 families were deported from Belorussia.

Over half were sent to the Urals [Sukhaya], almost a third to the North [Chesel, Privodino and Kresty 1933], and some to the Far East and Yakutia.

Middle Volga, Lower Volga, central Russia

Almost eighty thousand other families were deported at this time from Russia’s main grain-growing areas to the North, the Urals, Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Over 30,000 were deported from the Lower Volga to the North [11,000; Vokvad and Peschanka], to the Urals [Shaitanka, 1932], to neighbouring Samara [Shiryaevo] and to Kazakhstan (18,000);

23,000 from the Middle Volga were sent to the North [5,500: Vokvad, Dalnie Zelentsy, Privodino, Matyash, Sorel and Noshul], to East Siberia, to Kazakhstan (11,000), to neighbouring districts in the Volga region [Soz],and, later, to West Siberia [Polevoe];

and 26,000 from central Russia were deported to the North [10,000: Peschanka, Matyash, Sorel, Veldorya, Noshul], to the Urals [later to Shaitanka, 1932], to Siberia and Kazakhstan (10,500), and some to Yakutia and the Far East.

(See Appendix for a definition of these three areas.)

Third-category "kulaks"

The January 1930 decision by the CPSU Central Committee listed three categories of “kulak”.

The first, active opponents of collectivisation, were to be arrested and either sent to a concentration camp (the term used until 1935) or shot. The second category were to be dekulakized: relieved of their property and deported to a distant part of the USSR (see “Shot, Imprisoned, Deported, Recaptured”). The third category were resettled in the same district or region: the same January 1932 document lists their distribution.

Over twelve thousand families were deported from Bashkortostan. Half were sent to Siberia; half remained in the republic [e.g, Kuzelga].

More than three thousand families were moved to other parts of the North [Vokvad, Peschanka, Rabog, Novy Bor, Noshul] and almost 27,000 families in the Urals were likewise confined to the same area [e.g., Andra]. The largest movement of this kind was in West Siberia where over 50,000 families were shifted to other parts of that region [Nizhny Kulai, Borisovka].

The logic behind the chaos

In their preface to a volume of documents about Forced Settlers in West Siberia, 1933-1938 (1994), one of a sequence, experts V. P. Danilov and S.A. Krasilnikov discuss what Stalin and the Soviet regime hoped to achieve by sending tens of thousands of families to colonise remote and inhospitable parts of the USSR.

It made no sense, they write, to deprive the countryside and agriculture of its most active and efficient workers, the so-called “kulaks”. Yet there was an “absurd logic” behind a process that turned skilled farmers into unskilled labourers building the vast new plants and factories of the First Five-Year Plan (e.g., Magnitogorsk). As the OGPU (later NKVD) deported the rural, and then the urban, population from 1929 to 1935 it created “a powerful economic structure that gradually took control of entire branches of agriculture, railway and highway construction and hydroelectric works”. In some parts of the country the new settlers outnumbered the indigenous population by as much as two or three to one. Unlike the inmates of the Gulag, forced settlers had to provide for themselves and their families, building their own barracks and dugouts and growing what food they could. In West Siberia, for instance, there were 3.5 times as many forced settlers as prisoners in the Gulag yet they required only half the overseers, guards and commandants: their casual despatch to those underpopulated areas was movingly described (p. 14) by Lynne Viola as “a tragic afterthought to an orgy of State terror”.

The wasteful nature of this mass deportation was revealed in 1933 when a census throughout the USSR found that about a quarter of those deported were no longer living in the special settlements. Half of that total had fled these ill-provided and remote places, it was estimated, while another 250,000 had died in their inhospitable new place of residence. Not long after, when famine struck the USSR the special settlements were devastated by food shortages.

A dedication at a burial ground in Northwest Russia indicates the scale and extent of the suffering inflicted on successive waves of deportees to these hundreds of new settlements: “In memory of the Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews and people of other nationality,” (reads the plaque at Vityunino, Arkhangelsk Region), “victims of dekulakisation and deportation in the 1930s and 1940s whose remains lie in this graveyard.”

JC (18 November 2023)


The Mid-Volga region stretches southwards from Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky) via Cheboksary (Chuvashia) to where the Kama River joins the Volga south of Kazan (Tatarstan).

The Lower Volga flows from the Kama tributary all the way south through Ulyanovsk, Samara, Saratov and Volgograd before reaching the Caspian Sea (Astrakhan Region).

Central Russia embraces the Black-Earth, grain-producing regions south of Moscow and was formally constituted as such in 1928 from the Voronezh, Tambov, Oryol and Kursk Regions. (To these may be added the Lipetsk and Belgorod Regions.)

Special Settlements