In This Review

Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag
Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag
By Nicolas Werth
Princeton University Press, 2007, 248 pp
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Often the details in a single instance sear more deeply than the most gruesome tally of large numbers. Werth, part of the team that prepared the 2004 seven-volume documentary history of the Soviet gulag, here describes the unimaginable inhumanity of the 1933 deportation of 10,000 "déclassé" and "socially harmful elements" to a small uninhabitable island on the river Ob, deep in the wilds of western Siberia. Although the unspeakable suffering of these thousands -- including the starvation that led to the acts that gave the nameless island a name -- is his centerpiece, Werth describes in rich detail the transformation of the vast western Siberian wilderness into the dumping ground for millions of "de-kulakized" peasants, minority groups from the borderlands, the socially marginal, criminals, and the utterly innocent. Meant in a grotesquely misconceived fashion to rid the cities of undesirables while producing economic development in the harshest of locales, these "special settlements" are a part of the gulag's least-known history. Werth corrects that in plain and clear language, leaving the story to convey its own excruciating eloquence.