This powerful photoessay was selected as a series finalist in the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all the 39 winners, finalists and Jurors’ picks.

The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s mass exiles of the North Caucasus ethnic minorities were some of his biggest crimes against humanity. They have already been acknowledged by the European Parliament as an act of genocide, while the experts at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum cited the events of 1944 as a reason to place Chechnya on their genocide watch list.

My project aims to remind and retell the most famous tragedy of the Chechen and Ingush people.

When WWII broke out, some of the Caucasians openly or discretely welcomed Nazis, because they naively believed that Hitler “would give them desirable historical privileges, freedoms and liberate them from the Soviets,” who they hated and had opposed for decades. In return, those ethnic groups were seen as non-loyal by the Soviets and were branded by Stalin as “nation-traitors.” As punishment, they were exiled en masse from their homelands into Central Asia.

About 120,000 of the Chechens and Ingush people were killed or died of typhus through the course of the deportation itself. Many others perished during the 13 years of exile in Siberia and the Central Asia regions.

Here are the portraits of the last survivors and witnesses of this historical deportation. Some of them were older than 100 years at the time of their photo session.

—Dmitri Beliakov