Stalin’s Ethnic Deportations—and the Gerrymandered Ethnic Map

Oct 8, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in May 2013]


An earlier post on Chechnya mentioned that the Chechens were deported from their homeland in the North Caucasus to Central Asia in February 1944. However, the Chechen nation was not the only one to suffer such a fate under Stalin’s regime. The early Bolsheviks generally believed that a nationality had to be associated with a distinct territory, rejecting the “extraterritorial national-cultural autonomy” approach, championed by Austrian Marxists like Otto Bauer. Thus, Lenin and his successors sought to provide a degree of territorially based autonomy to the country’s various ethno-national groups, assuming that the entire system would eventually wither away as a new pan-Soviet society emerged. But for Stalin, such a Soviet identity could not emerge fast enough to suit his purposes. As a result, he took to gerrymandering the country’s ethnic map by moving whole nationalities around like chess pieces on the board (Pohl 1999).

The ultimate motivation behind Stalin’s policy of continuing deportation, however, was twofold. First, the need for cheap labor to explore and exploit the natural resources of Siberia and to speed up Soviet industrialization program meant that increasing numbers of people had to be sent wherever those economic needs arose. While economic motives provided the “pull”, political and military objectives constituted the “push”. It appears that by resettling whole populations in Siberia, Central Asia, and the Far North, Stalin was also clearing out much of the Western border zone, presumably in preparation for an offensive against Nazi Germany. Although the thesis that Stalin was poised to invade Nazi-controlled territories in July 1941 is highly controversial among historians, it is significant that most ethnic groups deported prior to June 22, 1941 (as discussed in more detail below) came from the border zone stretching from Karelia in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Similarly, some historians have suggested that the real reason behind the deportation of more than 100,000 Meskhetian Turks from the Caucasus was Stalin’s desire to cleanse southern Georgia of its Muslim elements in anticipation of war with neighboring Turkey, which never materialized. In later years, the Nazi invasion of the USSR provided another excuse for the continuing process of ethnic cleansing. Although the Soviet propaganda machine attempted to sugar-coat the bitter truths, justifying the mass deportation on the basis of resistance to Soviet rule, separatism, and collaboration with the German occupation forces, most Soviet citizens could see through the lies. For example, the young English adventurer Fitzroy Maclean, who visited the USSR in February 1937, reported that a Soviet citizen told him that “the arrests had been decreed from Moscow and merely formed part of the deliberate policy of the Soviet government, who believed in transplanting portions of the population from place to place as and when it suited them” (Martin 1998: 813).

Most of the mass deportation occurred in 1930s and 1940s, when numerous ethnic groups were removed from their historical homelands. In this period, belonging to a certain ethnic group—rather than to a socio-economic class such as kulak (rich peasant) or texničeskaja intelligentsia (engineering professionals)—was sufficient to earn one the status of an “enemy of the people” (vrag naroda). Between 1935 and 1938 alone, no less than nine nationalities were deported: Poles, Germans, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Koreans, Chinese, Kurds, and Iranians. Needless to say, not all of those who were forced onto ships or cattle trains “under the escort of NKVD frontier troops with fixed bayonets” (Martin 1998: 813) arrived to their final destination; this was not merely a “resettlement program”, as the Soviet propaganda machine depicted it, but a true government-run case of ethnic cleansing. According to the data reported in Wheatcroft (1996: 1341), the following ethnic groups were “held in places of special exile” as of 1946: over 400,000 Chechen and Ingush; 60,000 Karachai; almost 33,000 Balkars; 82,000 Kalmyks; 194,000 Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians and Greeks; 84,000 Turks and Kurds; 5,000 Lithuanians; and 774,000 Volga Germans (the latter figure does not include German POWs or captured non-Soviet German civilians). In addition to the groups listed above, displaced ethnic groups include Romanians, Caucasus Greeks, Karakalpaks, Koreans, and others. Altogether it is estimated that nearly 3.3 million people were deported to Siberia and the Central Asian republics between 1941 and 1949 (Boobbyer 2000; this figure includes other groups deported on religious or political grounds). By some estimates, up to 43% of the resettled population died of diseases, malnutrition, and general mistreatment during this period.

Among the first to be deported on ethnic grounds were the Poles from Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia, who were ousted in the early 1930s. During the 1920s, two Polish Autonomous Districts were created within the USSR, one in Belarus and one in Ukraine. The former was named Dzierzynszczyzna, after Felix Dzierżyński, the founder of the Soviet State Security forces, better known under his nicknames Iron Felix or Bloody Felix; the second was named Marchlewszczyzna after Julian Marchlewski, co-founder, with Rosa Luxemburg, of the Polish Marxist organization SDKPiL. As Soviet policies turned to outright eradication of Polish national identity in the late 1920s, both of these autonomous regions were abolished; their populations were subsequently deported to Kazakhstan in 1934-1938. In 1939, the Soviets  invaded and annexed eastern Poland (known as Kresy to the Polish) just as the German invaded western Poland, marking the official start of World War II in 1939. From 1939 to1941, nearly 1.5 million people were deported from this region by the Soviet regime, including more than 900,000 Poles. Estimates of the number of Poles who died at the hands of the Soviets range from 350,000 to nearly a million.

The same fate awaited Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The first wave of expulsions, known as the “June deportations”, began on June 14, 1941, shortly after the annexation of the three Baltic states by the Soviet Union. Men were generally imprisoned and most of them died in Siberian prison camps. Women and children were resettled in Kirov, Tomsk, Omsk, and Novosibirsk Oblast, as well as Krasnoyarsk and Altai Krai; about a half of them are estimated to have survived. Another wave of eviction called the “March deportation” by Baltic historians and known also under their Soviet code name Operation Priboi (“Operation Coastal Surf”) were more massive in scope: some 90,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, labeled “enemies of the people”, were deported to inhospitable areas of the USSR in late March, 1949. While portrayed as part of the collectivization program, this operation targeted anti-Soviet nationalists, supporters and kin of the Forest Brothers (anti-Soviet partisan fighters), veterans who had served in the German military, and relatives of those already held in the Soviet Gulag for alleged anti-Soviet activities (Strods and Kott 2002). Some of those deported were placed in Gulag prison camps; others were considered “special settlers” with no right of return to their homelands or even to leave their designated area; those hoping to escape faced the penalty of twenty years’ hard labor. Such “special settlers” often found themselves in conditions no better than those awaiting Gulag prisoners, as the Soviet authorities did not provide adequate or suitable clothing or housing at the destinations. The resulting high death rate has led many historians to consider these deportations an act of genocide and a crime against humanity (Rummel 1990, Pohl 2000, Mälksoo 2001).

Altogether nearly 300,000 people are estimated to have been deported or sent to Gulag camps from the time the annexation of the Baltic Republics in 1940 to Stalin’s death in 1953. Roughly 10% of the entire adult population was expelled from the Baltic countries. As elsewhere, masses of ethnic Russians and members of other ethnic groups were resettled to take their places. Largely as a consequence of these policies, native Latvians represented only 52% of the population of Latvia in 1989, and Estonians comprised merely 62% of their country’s population (Laar 2009: 36). In Lithuania, the situation was not as extreme. Although many Lithuanians were deported, the corresponding Russians resettlement effort was focused on former East Prussia (now Kaliningrad District) which, contrary to the original plans, never became part of Lithuania (Misiunas and Taagepera 1983). Partly as a result of these policies, strong anti-Soviet and anti-Russian sentiment became especially widespread in the Baltic republics, which subsequently became the first parts of the Soviet Union to break away. Anti-Russian feelings are still evident in the region, reflected, for example, in the extremely divisive recent referendum of whether to make Russian a co-official language of Latvia.


Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, formerly part of Romania, were also occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. On June 12-13, 1941—just days before Nazi Germany invasion of the USSR began—nearly 30,000 of “counter-revolutionaries and nationalists” and their families were deported from Moldova and from the Chernivtsi and Izmail oblasts of Ukraine, most of them ethnic Romanians. They ended up in Kazakhstan, the Komi Autonomous Republic in far northern European Russia, and in such Siberian regions as Krasnoyarsk Krai, Omsk, and Novosibirsk. It bears highlighting that these Romanians were not simply shifted from one location to another, but were taken from one of the most climatically mild and agriculturally favorable locations in the Soviet Union and resettled in some of its most inhospitable areas, noted for their bitterly cold winters, poor soils, and meager infrastructure. After the German invasion commenced on June 22, 1941, another massive wave of deportations from Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina occurred, only to be followed by additional expulsions in 1949 and 1951. Estimates of the total number of ethnic Romanian deportees range from 200,000 to 400,000.

While most ethnic deportees were “resettled” to the east, one group was deported westwards—the Koreans of the Russian Far East. Their deportation was conceived in 1926, initiated in 1930, and carried through in 1937, Koreans were among the first nationalities to undergo mass expulsion (Pohl 1999: 9-20). Almost the entire Soviet population of ethnic Koreans, over 170,000 people, were forcefully moved to unpopulated areas of Kazakhstan in October 1937. The official reason was to stem “the penetration of the Japanese espionage” into the Far East, where Koreans were viewed as a potential enemy, eager to collaborate with the Japanese military. Considering the general level of animosity between the Koreans and the Japanese, the very idea seems absurd.


Other ethnic groups were deported in the later stages of WWII as a form of collective punishment. Although treasonous collaboration with the invading Germans and anti-Soviet rebellion were again the official justifications, only a small proportion of these ethnic populations served in German battalions or otherwise collaborated with the Nazis. The deportations of 1943-1944 uprooted entire ethnic groups, nearly 2 million people in total. Among them were Volga Germans and several non-Slavic nationalities of the Crimea and the northern Caucasus: Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks, Bulgarians, Crimean Greeks, Romanians, and Armenians. Effectively, the whole Black Sea coastal region was cleared of ethnic minorities. Because nearly all the Soviet male population was serving in the army, the majority of the deportees in those lighting-strike operations performed by Stalin’s NKVD (secret police) consisted of women, children, and the elderly. After demobilization, the men were arrested and sent into exile. Klara Baratashvili, who was born in 1955, recalled her father Latif Shah Baratashvili’s account of what happened to him and his people on the night of November 15, 1944:

“At 4 am, people were aroused from sleep and ordered out in the fields without a single word of explanation. They remained all night on the threshing floor. Later on, several Stuedebaker trucks drove in and everyone was ordered to board them. People were authorized to take only the bare minimum with them. Before leaving the house my father had grabbed a few books and his personal notes. He had such faith in communism—he was almost a fanatic—that he had taken [Josef] Stalin’s complete works with him. That was what he valued most.”

According to NKVD data, nearly 20% of the deportees died in exile during the first 18 months; Crimean Tatar activists have reported this figure to be nearly 46%.


Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953 largely put a stop to the policies of ethnic deportation, though some groups, such as the Yaghnobi people of Tajikistan—the descendants of the ancient Sogdians—were forcibly settled from their mountainous homeland to semi-desert lowlands as late as 1957 and 1970. Red Army Helicopters were sent in, ostensibly to save the Yaghnobis from an avalanche threat, but the abandoned kishlaks (villages) were razed to prevent any attempted return. In the process, a sizable trove of religious books, some as old as 600 years, were destroyed. The Yaghnobi ethnicity was officially abolished by the Soviet State, and no longer appears as a separate category in Russian censuses.

After Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev’s government “rehabilitated” most of the exiled ethnic groups, permitting some to return to their homelands. However, it was not until as late as 1991 that the Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks, and Volga Germans were allowed to return en masse to their original settlement areas. But several of these, including the Volga Germans and Greeks, generally preferred to abandon the Soviet Union (and later Russia) for their original homelands. The deportations had a profound effect on the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union, and the collective memory of the deportations has played an important role in the separatist movements in Chechnya and the Baltic republics.

While all of the above-mentioned groups deserve a closer look, the several Languages of the World posts focus on the Finns and Karelians, the Koreans, and the Volga Germans.


Boobbyer, Philip (2000) The Stalin Era. Routledge.

Laar, M. (2009). The Power of Freedom. Central and Eastern Europe after 1945. Centre for European Studies.

Mälksoo, Lauri (2001) Soviet Genocide? Communist Mass Deportations in the Baltic States and International Law. Leiden Journal of International Law 14: 757-787.

Martin, Terry (1998) The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing. The Journal of Modern History 70 (4): 813–861.

Misiunas, Romuald J. and Rein Taagepera (1983) Baltic States: The Years of Dependence, 1940-1980. University of California Press.

Pohl, J. Otto (1999) Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937–1949. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Pohl, J. Otto (2000) Stalin’s genocide against the “Repressed Peoples”. Journal of Genocide Research 2(2): 267-293.

Rummel, Rudolph J. (1990) Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. Transaction Publishers.

Strods, Heinrihs and Matthew Kott (2002) The File on Operation “Priboi”: A Re-Assessment of the Mass Deportations of 1949. Journal of Baltic Studies 33 (1): 1-36.

Wheatcroft, Stephen (1996) The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 1930-45. Europe-Asia Studies 48(8): 1319-1353.

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