The Great Population Transfers of the Peoples of the USSR

During the Second World War and after, at least 2.5 million citizens of the Soviet Union were subjected to forced deportation.

Семья Теодосии Козмин была депортирована из Бессарабии в 1949 году. Фото Ziarul de Garda
Семья Теодосии Козмин была депортирована из Бессарабии в 1949 году. Фото Ziarul de Garda

During the Second World War and after, at least 2.5 million citizens of the Soviet Union were subjected to forced deportation.

In a project that united the efforts of journalists from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, we collected testimonies from those whose families were victims of this disaster: the largest population transfer in the history of the Soviet Union.


On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union violating previous peace agreements.

By that time, hundreds of thousands of Finns, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians and representatives of other nations who inhabited the western territories of the USSR were already serving exile in Siberia and Central Asia as potentially ‘unreliable elements’.

For them, the Second World War began two years earlier, when the USSR, simultaneously with Germany, invaded Poland, turning the country’s eastern woewods (provinces) into western regions of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian SSR.

In 1940, the former Romanian regions of Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia and the Baltic republics, which gained independence after the revolution and the collapse of the Russian Empire, were annexed. On the “reunited” territories, even before the German invasion, there were sweeps at full speed – at first the most active part of the population was subjected to repression (former officers, primarily Poles, politicians, businessmen, priests, intellectuals), and then other social groups. The last echelons with exiles from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia left to the east literally a week before the arrival of the army of the Third Reich.

Музей жертв депортаций, Кишинев. Фото: Ziarul de Garda
Museum of victims of the deportation, Chișinău

But forced evictions had been practiced in the Soviet Union before the war as well. The first peak of mass deportations on social and ethnic grounds occurred in the mid-1930s.

The Volga Germans were but one of the many groups targeted by the population transfer. On August 28, 1941, the autonomy of the Volga Germans was cancelled – in the eyes of the authorities, their ethnicity made them potential “collaborators” automatically.

Servicemen of German origin were even recalled from the front, despite the panic of the first military months. As Novaya Gazeta wrote in its article, “What is good for a German in Russia: the Deportation of Soviet Germans in 1941-1943”, the expulsion of the Germans was the most massive total Soviet deportation of wartime: about 1.2 million out of about 1.5 million Soviet Germans were displaced, some of whom were moved twice or even thrice.

Here is a typical story from the Baal family, who lived in Pokrovsk (modern Engels).

Cornelius and Margaret had six children (Katarina – born in 1922, Gerhard – 1923, Jacob – 1928, Anna – 1933, Barbara – 1934 and Ern – 1935) . All the Valles were deported on September 9, 1941. Barbara died on the road. In December 1941, Cornelius, the father of the family, was mobilized to the labor force, ‘trudarmiya’: he survived only about a year and died of starvation in late 1942. The six remaining family members were sent to a collective farm near Tomsk. They hungered there and worked hard, but after Gerhard was arrested and in 1942 they moved first to Bogashevo, where they settled in a copper factory. A little later, when in May 1942 Gerhard was released, they moved to the village of Steklozavod.

But in the beginning of July the mother died, and in October, Gerhard was taken to the Trudarmiya. Katerina was also expected to be called up, but she was rescued by the fact that by that time she had a son, Johann (his father was, of course, in the Trudarmiya): the boy died but his death was not reported, and the food rations prescribed for him were received for a long time. Concerns about the survival of the remaining family members fell on the shoulders of the older man – 14-year-old Jacob.

In 1943-44, as the Soviet Army liberated the territories occupied by the Germans, it was time for other deportations – actions of retaliation. Entire peoples were accused of betrayal and cooperation with the enemy. As it was said in the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR on the liquidation of the Chechen-Ingush autonomy, “many Chechens and Ingushs changed their country, crossed over to the side of the fascist invaders, joined the ranks of saboteurs and scouts thrown by the Germans in the rear of the Red Army, created armed gangs to fight against Soviet power.”

Stalin was afraid of potential spies and smugglers – that’s why about a million Meskhetian Turks, Ingush, Chechens, Crimean Tatars and other peoples were sent as far from Turkey as possible in freight cars. In Siberia, the Urals, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In 1949-51 – a new wave of deportations, mostly of the inhabitants of the western outreaches of the USSR.

Гюлалы Биналиев Фото: Мейдан ТВ
Gyulali Binaliyev

The subject of a Meydan TV article titled “Thrice Deported”, Gyulali Binaliev was born on November 18, 1941 in the Adigensky district of Meskheti (Georgia). On the deportation of the Muslim population in November 1944 Gulyali spoke with the words of his father:

“Father always meticulously monitored the cleanliness of the house and demanded from others the same. He said that the sickening stench in the car in those few weeks had never disappeared from his memory.”

Alikhan Kuradze from Meskheti was 7 years old at the time. Jam News wrote about him in their piece, “Return from Exile”.

“Late at night, I woke up with a knock at the door. The whole village was lit by headlights of cars. We were put in trucks, taken to the railway, put in freight cars.”

Journalists from Ziarul de Garda met with Teodosia Kozmin – she was deported from the city of Soroka (then in Soviet Moldavia) to Siberia in 1949 when she was 10.

“Mom asked me to say where we are being taken, but they refused to answer. My mother thought we were being driven to our death…”

According to historians, in the USSR, more than 6 million people were forcibly deported in between the late 30s and 40s. This is almost 4 percent of the population of the USSR at the time of the 1939 census. At least 2.5 million – during and after the war, and some experts believe these figures are understated.

The conditions of the “military” deportations were harsh. Hunger, cold, disease, lack of basic medicines, inhuman living conditions – the path to the place of exile took from 3 to 4 weeks. Men of conscript age were at the front, so that in a terrible journey into the unknown, first of all went the old men, women, children. It’s those children who can tell us about the disaster today. According to historians, between 20 and 30 percent of special settlers perished along the road and on the site of exile.

Famous Crimean-Tatar choreographer Safin Nalbantova at a young age was deported with her family to the Urals. Her story was set out by Gromadsky in “A Difficult Dance”. Of the family property, only an old Qu’ran has remained from 1906 – the rest was sold for food. She spoke of her grandmother, Elnar Nuriyeva, along the road to exile:

“I remember from the stories of my grandmother that they did not allow us to bury the deceased, they were simply thrown out of the train wagon. In Muslim customs, this is generally unacceptable – one must be buried in the earth and prayers must be read. And the second such recollection is how you had to cope with the need. There were no assigned places, and we had to use small openings which one couldn’t even call windows to breathe. I still have these pictures in my head, they are terrifying.”


Seyfat Dursunov, like his fellow Azerbaijani countrymen from Georgia, came to Uzbekistan at the age of 19. He returned to Georgia almost 70 years later.

“We had no right even to go from one village to another. For 14 years I lived all alone in an Uzbek village. The local people were afraid of us, they thought that we were cannibals. But then we got used to each other, went to visit, invited each other to weddings. They had fun weddings – they all danced, sang and ate a lot.”

The Latvian writer Andra Manfelde wrote her book “Children of the Dugout” in memory of her repressed mother. Her story “The Taboo Seven Years” was published by “Novaya Gazeta-Baltia”.

“The year 1949 cannot be compared with 1941. In the first wave of deportations, the conditions were extremely cruel: people ate rats, people slept in puddles and, they told me, they even ate mice that owls spewed out. But what does “milder conditions” mean? My mother admitted that she was hungry for seven years. Memories of the road to Siberia and the first years of life there she did not retain. But she was told later that she screamed and cried all 14 days spent in a crowded car.”

Theodosius Kozmin says that he remembers children who fainted from heat and stink, the taiga, torrential rains and tormenting fears.

“The place where we were brought – the grass was higher than human growth. We were placed in wooden barracks, where there were bunks – two-story beds. Each family was given only bunkbeds. They organized people for work. I spent almost a month in the taiga. My sister, Eugenia, because of the conditions there, was paralyzed”.

Andra Manfelde: “The family was given a separate dwelling. Seeing him in the photo, I thought it was a dugout – the grass was growing on the roof. But it was a windowless house, covered with turf.”

But common misfortune – and war – can unite. The story of Alikhan Akhilgov is told by the “Caucasian Knot” in “the Family of Akhilgovs from Ordzhonikidze” (now Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia). They were sent to northern Kazakhstan in the severe winter of 1944.

“The locals said different things were said about us: traitors, robbers. But when they found out that our uncles are at war, that our Bashir uncle graduated from Moscow State University, then they began to treat us like relatives. And in Russian we all spoke well. We lived with Aunt Luda until the warmest days. In this village there were many exiles, most of all Germans – they were the first to be exiled here. There were Balkars, and Russians – they did not come here of their own free will. And with our first mistress my mother and Aunt Kureish made friends. And even when we later returned to their homeland, they continued to maintain relations, corresponded constantly. During the war, everyone lived hard. But even in exile people were people.”

Фото из семейного архива Эльнары Нуриевой
Photo from the family archive of Elnara Nuriyeva

Nevertheless, people adapted. Safi Nalbantova told her granddaughter how she began to dance – under escort.

“She worked in a philharmonic society, in her spare time from a sawmill, she danced. Moreover, the working conditions in the Philharmonic were more than rigid. When the troupe was invited to dance somewhere outside the village where they lived, she had to go to the commandant, she had to sign that she was leaving, a guard was escorted to her, who accompanied her with a gun. If the entire team was traveling like artists, she was traveling as a particularly dangerous criminal.”

Andra Manfelde: “My father was very far from his homeland, on the Amur, near the Chinese border. His brother told me some of the colorful details of their exile. For example, how they moved from one settlement to another and sailed across the Amur on a raft: three children, a mother, a father. Taiga, river, night, and the elder brother plays the violin. Almost Chagall!”

A Long Return

Only after Stalin’s death were restrictions for the exiles lifted gradually. But not everyone could return to their homeland. The historian Pavel Polyan in his book “Not of his own will” notes that there was nobody to master the lands of the deported peoples in the conditions of military and post-war ruin, so the authorities almost as violently settled the deserted areas by those who lived next door or came from other parts of the country. In the 1960s, autonomy was returned for certain of the repressed peoples, while others – for example, the Crimean Tatars – were forbidden to return. We had to wait for full rehabilitation almost to the end of the USSR – the decree of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on November 14, 1989 completely rehabilitated all the exiled peoples.

But rehabilitation did not mean the end of exile. At that time interethnic conflicts began to break out on the outskirts of the Soviet Union. In the republics of Central Asia, where many repressed peoples remained after the exile, it became uneasy.

“People began to travel extensively. There are fewer and fewer relatives and acquaintances. And of course my family began to wonder: everyone is leaving – we must leave. In Tajikistan, certain military actions began. My mother remembers, she had terrible dreams from those times”.

But they were not expected at home either. The question of the rights of those who were repressed for property, for their former homes, turned out to be a time bomb. The family of Alikhan Kuradze in 1989 tried to return to Georgia to their historical homeland in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, but the locals drove them away.

“It was May, it was raining all the time. Together with my family we lived in a tent. There we survived for only 30 days. In one day we were attacked and defeated by our tent. They told us – why did you come back, what did you lose here? They did not believe that our roots were from here.”

The Binaliev family, who were caught during the deportation to Uzbekistan and settled there, were even less fortunate. After the pogroms in the Fergana Valley (Uzbekistan) in May-June 1989, they decided to move to Azerbaijan, and ended up in Nagorno-Karabakh. But in 1992, when the Armenian troops stormed the city of Khojaly, they again became prisoners, and then – refugees.

Gyulaly Binaliev recalls how he was captured:

“I went down into the dugout – there were women and children. Less than half an hour, as the ground began to pour down on us and a roar broke out-we realized that a tank had passed through the dug-out. After that, machine-gun fire was fired at the door, Armenian soldiers standing at the top started shouting: “Hey, Turks, go outside!” They called us both Turks and Azerbaijanis.”

Conflicts in the post-Soviet space have made their sad adjustments to the fate of those who once had to leave their homeland not on their own. Alikhan Akhilgov in 1993, 3 months after the Ossetian-Ingush conflict, created the “Assistance to the formerly deported nations” foundation. First he dealt with those who suffered as a result of repression and wars. Then, when all the investors, and there were not so many of them, dissolved, Alikhan began to give his energy to children.

“How many years have passed since then, yet disadvantaged children do not become less. Deportation, ethnic conflicts, Chechen wars … Now this  war in Ukraine … The end is not visible. And, as always, children suffer more than others. ”

This project was completed in the framework of the Russian-language Media Network by: Olga Dukhnich, Alena Churke, Katerina Alexander, Anatoly Yeshanu, Maria Kugel, Nino Narimanishvili, Otar Atskureli, Elmir Mirzoyev, Natalia Marshalkovich, Maxim Eristavi

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