Contemporary Russian and Western scholarship has shown steadily increasing interest in uncovering the history of special settlements for deported population groups in the Soviet Union, sometimes termed "Soviet internal exile." Soviet authorities began to transfer problematic segments of the population to "special settlements" in distant and inaccessible regions as a repressive measure at the beginning of the 1920s and continued to employ this technique through the early 1950s.
Deportations and the system of special settlements were primarily precautionary measures aimed at preventing anti-state demonstrations by certain "risk groups" that might have significant consequences. In their appearance, these places of special exile (often called spetsposelki) usually did not differ [End Page 105] from ordinary rural settlements.1 Their inhabitants, however, had significant limitations on their civil rights: they were subject to severe restrictions on freedom of movement and found themselves under the constant control of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). Local administrative organs or so-called "special commands" (spetskomendatura) fulfilled this oversight function. In some cases "elders," who were elected by the deported individuals, answered to district officials (upolnomochennye) who regularly visited the settlements to check on the number of special settlers and the state of affairs in the settlements. The principle of collective responsibility (krugovaiaporuka) ensured the reliability of data submitted in this manner, for under this system the elders answered for any problems in the settlements or any falsifications in the reports.2
This particular regime envisioned the residence of special settlers together with their families within the limits of a region determined by the NKVD (later Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD]). This system also encompassed compulsory labor by the special settlers in branches of the economy determined by the security organs as well as the absence of any clearly defined term of exile for the inhabitants.
The existing historical literature traditionally presents 1930 as the watershed year in the history of the special settlements system. This year witnessed mass deportations of the dekulakized peasants to the country's distant regions, a development that gave rise to a peculiar social category, so-called spetsposelentsy (special settlers).3 Throughout the period from the 1930s to [End Page 106] the 1950s, this category encompassed hundreds of thousands of families. Areas of special settlement were most often located in the northern and eastern regions of the USSR. The largest regions of exile were Kazakhstan, western Siberia, the Urals, the northern stretches of European Russia, and Central Asia. The initial waves of deportees were directed to the North, the Urals, and western Siberia, but with time the focus broadened to include Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Oftentimes, the state employed forced deportation to further its goals of colonizing the country's uninhabited and inaccessible regions.
In October 1940, the Gulag system comprised 1,645 special settlements, overseen by 160 regional and 741 district administrations. A total of 258,448 families—959,472 individuals—lived in these settlements.4 By 1 January 1953, the number of special settlers had grown to 2,753,356 (Zemskov, 205). The various...