Unveiling the Ethnocide of Ukrainians: Documents from Soviet Special Settlements (1930-1950)

Ethnocide is the deliberate state policy aimed at destroying the ethnic identity of a particular people by erasing linguistic, cultural and other differences [2]. This term should be used to describe the fate of many ethnic groups that resided within the borders of the former Soviet Union, including Ukrainians. During Stalin’s rule (1922-1953), the Soviet leadership carried out ethnocide through mass deportations, artificially-induced famine, and repression. Despite efforts by Soviet propaganda to conceal or distort the truth about these events, a wealth of documents have survived from individuals deported to Soviet special settlements. These documents testify to real attempts at ethnocide against Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars and reveal numerous human rights violations. This article is dedicated to analyzing the testimonies of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who were deported to special settlements during Stalin’s regime.

With the establishment of the USSR, Soviet leaders faced the challenge of integrating diverse ethnic groups into a single socialist state. This provoked a wide range of problems, among which the most critical was the need to neutralize any manifestations of nationalism that could threaten the unity of the Union.

From the 1920s to 1930s, as part of collectivization efforts (the elimination of private property in favor of creating collective agricultural lands) and the campaign against “enemies of the people,” many Ukrainians – particularly wealthy peasants dubbed “kulaks” and clergy – were deported to remote regions of the USSR. However, the most extensive and harsh deportations occurred during and after World War II. At that time, many Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars were exiled to Siberia or Kazakhstan as part of “punitive measures” against those labeled as Nazi collaborators or nationalists. Using such justifications, Soviet authorities legitimized the ethnocide of nations seeking independence and political freedom.

The testimonies of the deported individuals offer insights into the process of deportation, the journey to exile locations, living conditions, and information about the system of repression, control mechanisms, and the actions of state bodies during this period. In particular, Stefania Yevstakhiivna Teren recounted her deportation from her native home as follows: “I had just turned 12 years old. On that dreadful day, December 22, 1944, my father, mother, and sisters were taken barefoot and half-naked onto a sled and were sent to the village of Zhuravno [Lviv region — editor’s note]. All the property that my father had acquired by then was taken away. They took our horse, cart, cow, calf, plow, harrows, and self-made cutter. Only the bare walls remained in the house, under an open sky. In Zhuravno, we were held in a cold room for two days before being sent to Khodoriv [Lviv region — editor’s note], and in Khodoriv we were loaded half-naked and barefoot into a freight car and not given even a crumb of bread all the way to Moscow. We were transported like this until January 21 to the final station in the Arkhangelsk region – Salativ. At the Salativ station, these damned executioners had prepared caterpillar tractors with wooden sleds for everyone. Some sat on the sleds, while others trudged through the snow, falling from hunger and cold. We were housed in barracks, which had two stoves – one at the beginning and one at the end. People stayed there for three years. In the third year of this hard labor, my father died, and I, along with my younger sisters, was sent to a children’s home. My older sister could not endure these torments and died from hard labor and hunger” [5].

According to a detailed note from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Komi Republic, special settlers working for the logging trusts “KomiLes” and “PechorLes” endured horrific living conditions [1, p. 43]. People were housed in barracks furnished with bunks (wooden double-decker beds). Most of the structures were in dire need of repair; windows were boarded up, offering little protection against the cold. Living space per person in the barracks ranged from just 0.8 to 1.5 square meters.

The living conditions for Crimean Tatars in the first months following their deportation were also extremely difficult, a fact even acknowledged by Soviet and party authorities. For instance, a resolution dated July 13, 1944, from the Council of People’s Commissars of the Uzbek SSR and the Central Committee of the Communist Party/b of Uzbekistan No. 323-104с, stated: “In several districts of the republic, special settlers – Crimean Tatars – are accommodated and settled in an absolutely unsatisfactory manner, not provided with housing and sanitary-medical services; employment is proceeding extremely slowly.” [8].

Poor living conditions were a common feature across all special settlements. Crimean Tatar Feride Medzhitova recalled, “Hungry and undressed, we arrived in Uzbekistan, at the collective farm ‘Nazarbay’ in the Bekabad district. We were given a small house, its roof level with the ground. Our family barely fit inside” [3].

Special settlers lacked warm clothing and footwear, resulting in colds and frostbites during colder months. Food supplies were also poorly managed. Most forest farms did not have dining facilities, and those working in the forest received only dry rations. Children and non-working family members were allocated only 300 grams of bread. Those settled in the Urals, the Northern region, and Siberia faced significant food shortages. Predominantly, officials tasked with overseeing their welfare embezzled allocated funds, leading to cases of starvation deaths in some special settlements [6].


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The inadequacy of food provisions for the Crimean Tatars is vividly depicted in a letter from special settler Z. Ablyakimova, who was deported to the Bekabad district of Uzbekistan. Addressed to the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, the letter stated, “In all regions of the Uzbek SSR, the execution of the resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR to provide us, the special settlers, with assistance was ignored on the ground. For example, we received the January rations only in April; they were reduced in quantity, and often some special settlers were arbitrarily deprived of rations” [8].

The health conditions of the special settlers were dire; many adults were so exhausted they lost their ability to work. The situation worsened as salaries were often significantly delayed, forcing people to sell personal belongings to afford food. The lack of medical services contributed to the spread of typhus [1, p. 43]. The main causes of death among the deportees were dystrophy, respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Many settlers died from the extreme climate they were unaccustomed to, overwork on empty stomachs, colds (attributed to frigid living conditions, extended heavy labor in the frost, and a lack of warm clothing) and chronic food shortages.

Education and medical care were also problematic. Many children deported to special settlements had no opportunity for schooling, and younger children were deprived of preschool education.

The emotional well-being of individuals in the first years following deportation was also critically poor. A sense of hopelessness and despair was further exacerbated by a Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR dated November 26, 1948. According to it, deportees were to be placed in special settlements “indefinitely, without the right to return to their former residences.” Unauthorized departure (escape) from these compulsory settlements was punishable by 20 years of hard labor [7].

Kuzo Mykhailo Andriyovych, originally from Voyutychi village in the Lviv region, recalled, “After a month, we read the decree stating we were special settlers without the right to leave our area. We were consigned to the most strenuous construction jobs continuously until 1958” [4].

Thus, people were deported to remote areas of the USSR not to live and work, but to suffer and die – a sentiment openly expressed by local officials. Harsh, unbearable living conditions were deliberately imposed on special settlers, likely with the aim of ethnocide. Discriminatory wage practices, horrific living and social conditions, and constant relocations characterize not only the past but are also being replicated by Russia today, in the 21st century. By deporting Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars from temporarily occupied territories, Russian authorities are relocating people within Russia and the Republic of Belarus into “temporary accommodation centers.” Currently, about a hundred such centers are known to exist, and conditions there mirror those of Stalin’s era. According to the testimonies of deported Ukrainians who managed to return, people face restrictions in choice and freedom of expression, are discriminated against on a national basis, and are subjected to Russification. Ukraine, having already experienced ethnocide under Soviet occupation, is now falling victim to repeated practices from the same oppressor. This underscores the notion that an unpunished tormentor never ceases their actions, but collective efforts can put an end to such violence.

Anastasiia Saienko, author

Oleksii Havryliuk & Maksym Sushchuk, editors

Sources & References:

  1. Берлинских В А. Спецпоселенцы: Политическая ссылка народов Советской Рос сии. — М.: Новое литературное обозрение, 2005. — 768 с.             URL: http://history.org.ua/LiberUA/5-86793-357-1/5-86793-357-1.pdf 
  2. Головко В.В. ЕТНОЦИД [Електронний ресурс] // Енциклопедія історії України: Т. 3: Е-Й / Редкол.: В. А. Смолій (голова) та ін. НАН України. Інститут історії України. – К.: В-во “Наукова думка”, 2005. – 672 с.: іл.. URL: http://www.history.org.ua/?termin=Etnocyd
  3. Кримські татари в місцях спецпоселень після депортації в 1944 році.             URL: https://old.uinp.gov.ua/news/krimski-tatari-v-mistsyakh-spetsposelen-pislya-deportatsii-v-1944-rotsi
  4. Лист Кузьо Михайла до організації “Меморіал” про депортацію родини в Хабаровськ за 1947-1958. Електронний архів українського визвольного руху. URL: https://avr.org.ua/viewDoc/24248
  5. Лист Терень Стефанії до організації “Меморіал” Електронний архів українського визвольного руху. URL: https://avr.org.ua
  6. Справка ГУЛАГ о состоянии снабжения продовольствием спецпереселенцев, занятых в промышленности и сельском хозяйстве. 5 февраля 1933 г. URL: http://docs.historyrussia.org/ru/nodes/49530-spravka-gulag-o-sostoyanii-snabzheniya-prodovolstviem-spetspereselentsev-zanyatyh-v-promyshlennosti-i-selskom-hozyaystve-5-fevralya-1933-g#mode/inspect/page/1/zoom/4
  7. Указ Президиума Верховного Совета СССР «Об уголовной ответственности за побеги из мест обязательного и постоянного поселения лиц, выселенных в отдаленные районы Советского Союза в период Великой Отечественной войны». 26 ноября 1948 г. URL: http://docs.historyrussia.org/ru/nodes/49491-ukaz-prezidiuma-verhovnogo-soveta-sssr-locale-nil-ob-ugolovnoy-otvetstvennosti-za-pobegi-iz-mest-obyazatelnogo-i-postoyannogo-poseleniya-lits-vyselennyh-v-otdalennye-rayony-sovetskogo-soyuza-v-period-velikoy-otechestvennoy-voyny-locale-nil-26-noyabrya-1948-g#mode/inspect/page/1/zoom/4 
  8. Хаяли Р.И. Обустройство спецпереселенцев – крымских татар в первые годы депортации /1944 – 1947 гг./ URL: http://dspace.nbuv.gov.ua/bitstream/handle/123456789/91009/60-Hayali.pdf?sequence=1