Friday, January 05, 2007

It Has Been 65 Years Since the Mobilization of Russian-Germans Into the Soviet Fishing Industry

On 6 January 1942, the SNK and Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union issued decree 19ss “On the Development of the Fishing Industry in the Basins of the Rivers of Siberia and the Far East.” As a result of this decree the NKVD forcibly relocated for a second time over 66,000 deported Russian-Germans from the more southern regions of Siberia north to catch fish along the icy shores of the Yenisei, Ob, Indirka and Lena rivers. This forced migration north took place from January 1942 to October 1943. It included the resettlement of over 15,000 Russian-Germans from southern Novosibirsk Oblast to Narym Okrug and 9,000 from southern Omsk Oblast to Khanty-Mansi Okrug and Yamalo-Nenets Okrug. On 24 October 1942, the Stalin regime issued decree 1732 mobilizing Russian-Germans to work in the fishing industry along the coasts of the White and Barents Seas. The total number of Russian-Germans assigned to fishing camps in northern Siberia and the Arctic eventually reached over 80,000. This second deportation thus swept up more than one fifth of the Russian-Germans banished to Siberia.

The Russian-German deportees assigned to the fishing camps had to build their own shelter. They received no construction materials from the Soviet authorities for this purpose. Only mud and straw could be readily found along the banks of the icy rivers where the NKVD had abandoned them. Most of the deportees thus built small mud huts in an effort to provide some small amount of protection from the elements. These primitive domiciles proved incapable of keeping out rain, snow or the overflow of the rivers. They lacked heat, light and ventilation. Families lived under extremely compact and unsanitary conditions. In Krasnoiarsk Krai, Russian-Germans working in the fishing industry only had an average of 1 cubic meter of living space per a person. The overcrowded and filthy huts proved to be breeding grounds for infectious diseases. The refusal of local officials to quarantine the sick greatly exacerbated this problem. Illness killed many of the Russian-Germans sent to develop the Soviet fishing industry during 1942.

The Russian-Germans working in the fishing camps lacked proper clothing and footwear to protect them from the cold. They frequently suffered from frostbite and many cases were so severe as to require the amputation of feet or legs. Others died from gangrene. The icy water of the Siberian rivers froze the very flesh of the exiles.

Lack of food even more so than a lack of warm shelter and clothing, however, proved to be the greatest problem faced by the Russian-Germans assigned to the fishing industry. The Russian-Germans worked for fishing trusts. These trusts issued work brigades with bread rations in exchange for delivering set quotas of fish. A full ration consisted of 600 grams of bread a day. Most of the Russian-German work brigades, however, could not fulfill the high quotas established by the fishing trusts. The men and women in these brigades thus received only a minimum ration insufficient to sustain them or nothing at all. Hunger killed numerous Russian-Germans living along the banks of the northern Siberian rivers. In particular large numbers of children died from undernourishment during the winter of 1942-1943. The next year their material conditions deteriorated even further. On 1 November 1943, the fishing trusts struck many Russian-Germans from their supply lists thus leaving them without any means to acquire bread. Thousands of Russian-Germans thus suddenly found themselves desperately struggling to find food in the sparse habitat of northern Siberia.

Ida Bender, the daughter of the famous Russian-German national activist Dominic Hollmann, worked in a fishing camp at Iskup along the shore of the Yenisei in northern Krasnoiarsk Krai. She described the conditions and work as extremely difficult.

Ewald and I became fishermen in a work group of four: with a young girl and a supervisor named Diener. We were assigned a boat and a drag-net, even though we knew nothing about fishing. We were instructed to head out to the left bank of the Yenisei and begin fishing. We built a crude shelter out of branches and lived there during the week. Each day we repeatedly cast and pulled in the net harvesting tugun, similar in appearance to herring and barely larger than the middle finger, preserving them in a few barrels. By the end of the day, we were wet from the waist down and extremely tired. We dried out our clothes and ourselves around the campfire while we cooked a soup from the fish. Every week we delivered our catch across the river and brought our bread ration for a few days, a meager six-hundred grams per a person daily. (Bender, p. 57).

Her experience was by no means unique. Many Russian-Germans lived and worked under these conditions in the fishing industry in Siberia for years. Many did not survive and died of hunger, disease, exposure and drowning. Many of those that did survive lost limbs or otherwise suffered permanent physical disabilities. It still remains impossible to tabulate the total losses inflicted upon the Russian-Germans mobilized into the Soviet fishing industry by the Stalin regime.


Ida Bender, trans. Laurel Anderson, Carl Anderson and William Wiest, The Dark Abyss of Exile: The Story of Survival (Fargo, ND: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, 2000), p. 57.

V.I. Bruhl, Nemtsy v zapadnoi sibiri (Topchikha: Topchikhinskaia tip., 1995), vol. II, pp. 101-106.

N.F. Bugai, ed., “Mobilizovat’ nemtsev v robochie kolonny…I. Stalin”: Sbornik dokumentov (1940-e gody) (Moscow: Gotika, 1998), doc. 195, p. 264.

A.A. German and A.N. Kurochkin, Nemtsy SSSR v trudovoi armii (1941-1955) (Moscow: Gotika, 1998), pp. 40-42.

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