Tracing History in Western Siberia

Tracing History in Western Siberia

Siberian cities such as Khanty- Mansiysk and Novy Urengoy sound almost exotic, even to experienced travelers to Eastern Europe. But these thousands of sparsely populated kilometres have been of great significance in Russian history since the 19th century, given that many political opponents and prisoners were banished from Moscow to Western Siberia. The Soviets seamlessly carried on this grievous tradition of exile, banishing political dissidents to the farthest reaches of Siberia. At the same time, a large network of prison camps, known as gulags, were established under Stalin during the 1930s, where prisoners were forced to labour in extremely harsh working conditions.

At the beginning of July, 17 German/Russian participants traced the history of these developments. In cooperation with Yugra State University, IFAIR organised an excursion financed by the German Federal Foreign Office, which started in Tyumen on 2 July and ended in Surgut on 14 July 2017. The participants visited ten locations „in the Tyumen Oblast, the Khanty–Mansi Autonomous Okrug and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug“ and covered 3,500 kilometers by bus, train and ship. The goal of the trip was to meet on site with contemporary witnesses and their relatives, experts and activists in order to find out more about what the locals recall of the various aspects of the terror that took place under Stalin. The participants were particularly interested to learn how the memories of the locals match up with the broader narrative of Russia’s recorded history.

In a recent interview with Oliver Stone, President Putin criticised the “excessive demonization” of Stalin in the West, referring to it as an “attack on the USSR and Russia”. The latest surveys conducted by the independent Levada Center in June 2017 also show that most Russians regard Stalin as the most important historical figure of Russia, ahead of Putin and Pushkin. The exact numbers are still disputed, but historians estimate that 15 to 30 million Soviet citizens lost their lives under Stalin. Historians and contemporary witnesses told the group how the forced resettlement sank to new depths during the ‘Great Patriotic War’, as they referred to World War II. The Volga and Black Sea Germans, along with many other ethnic groups such as the Tatars, Kalmyks and Chechens, were forcibly displaced under suspicion of collaborating with the Nazis.

By the end of 1941, at least 900,000 Germans had been deported to Siberia and Central Asia. Several contemporary witnesses spoke of how they were taken to sparsely populated parts of Siberia with just a few tools, no winter clothing to speak of, and left to their fate. One of the highlights of the trip was an excursion to the abandoned gulag camps along the Salekhard–Igarka Railway, an enormous, failed infrastructure project of the USSR. The deserted camps along the 1,300 kilometer route are well preserved in some areas and bring to mind the harsh prison conditions of the inmates, who were forced to work on the railway under extreme weather conditions with winter temperatures reaching as low as minus 60 degrees.

Within the historical context, the accounts provided by the contemporary witnesses allowed the group to gain insight into the tragic fates of individuals. Interestingly, few of these witnesses and their relatives were critical of Stalin. The trip also revealed that although a commemoration is held locally, tolerated and also supported to some degree by the state, only a few contemporary witnesses and their relatives see a connection between the system behind it and their fate. This is in line with the official narrative of the Russian state, according to which the dark sides of the Stalinist system, such as the gulags, were a necessary evil to conquer the Nazis, as a skeptical church representative told the group in Novy Urengoy.

This article was published in the September 2017 issue of the Diplomatic Magazine.

© Picture: IFAIR 
Mattia Nelles

Mattia Nelles is co-director for “Eastern Europe & Eurasia” and programme coordinator for the Impact Group “Foreign Policy Talks Berlin”. Mattia studied political science at Freie Universität Berlin, with a focus on Eastern Europe. His studies took him to the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and to the German embassy in Kazakhstan. He holds a BA in political and administrative science from Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen, where he did exchanges to the University of California, Berkeley, and to Belarus State University in Minsk. Mattia speaks German, English, Russian and some Italian.