Soviet repression and deportations in the Baltic states

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people became the victims of two Soviet occupations of the Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The two occasions on which the Baltic states were forcibly joined to the Soviet Union had an especially tragic impact on their inhabitants. Many were executed, imprisoned or sent to Gulag camps, though the largest number of victims comprised those deported from their homelands to inhospitable corners of Soviet Russia. Such deportations took place regularly. However, the biggest waves of deportation took place in 1941 (the so-called June deportations) and in 1949 (known as the March deportations, these occurred as part of Operation Priboi).

Through work with our partners in all of the Baltic states – Misija Sibiras in Lithuania, the Museum of the Occupation in Latvia, the Institute of Historical Memory in Estonia – and thanks to the support of the Baumanis Grant for Creative Projects in Baltic Studies (project Baltic Memory of the Gulag), we have selected a number of cases from each country that illustrate one form of deportation and Soviet repression against the Baltic nations. Thanks to a moving map, their geographical form is also depicted. The stories of concrete individuals also show the tragic consequences that the USSR’s imperial decisions to annex foreign territory had on the lives of ordinary people. Together these stories make up a new, Baltic layer of memory in the Gulag Online virtual museum.

The first Soviet occupation, 1940–1941

Under a secret clause in a treaty between Hitler and Stalin (known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) the Soviet Union laid claim to the hitherto independent Baltic states as their sphere of influence in August 1939. Soon after the launch of World War II and the German-Soviet occupation of Poland in September 1939, the USSR gradually forced Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into mutual assistance treaties that allowed the Soviet Union to deploy military units inside the Baltic countries. Following the end of the war with Finland in spring 1940, the USSR was fully able to focus on occupying the Baltic states; in the summer of 1940 it occupied the three republics, rigging elections that installed pro-Soviet leaderships. By August 1940 all three states had, against the will of the overwhelming majority of their populations, been joined to the Soviet Union.

The subsequent initial year of Soviet administration of the Baltic republics saw political repression, the stamping out of all non-Communist activities, a marked deterioration in the economic situation, rising prices and shortages of consumer goods. Dissatisfaction grew among the people and the first open protests and strikes were seen. However, the Soviet authorities clamped down on them uncompromisingly.

The June deportations, 1941

The first waves of repression and deportation took place as early as summer 1940, when the Baltic states still formally existed. This chiefly concerned active opponents (see the story of Roberts Pūriņš), senior state officials and political and military representatives. However, repression in all three countries took on a mass aspect in June 1941, just a week before Germany attacked the USSR. On the night of 13–14 June 1941, a long-prepared operation run by the NKVD, the Soviet secret service, was launched with the aim of purging the Baltic space of the most active anti-Soviet forces. During that week, NKVD organs jailed or deported an estimated 34,000 men, women and children (often entire families) from Lithuania, 15,500 from Latvia (including 2,400 children under the age of 10) and 10,000 from Estonia (see the story of Erika Palmipuu). What became known as the June deportations impacted virtually all levels of society, from bourgeois “class enemies” to the intelligentsia to the proletariat. Those people were mostly connected to independent states elites and their ethnic background was not counted. In Estonia, for example, among deportees were Estonians, Russians, Jews and others.

Though each country has a different culture, history and mentality, they are linked by tragic history. June 14 is marked in all of the Baltic states every year. In Estonia it is the Remembrance Day of the 14 June Deportation (14. juuni küüditamise mälestuspäev), in Lithuania it is the Day of Mourning and Hope (Gedulo ir vilties diena) and in Latvia it is* Remembrance Day for the Victims of Communist Terror* (Komunistiskā genocīda upuru piemiņas diena).

The total number of victims of different forms of Soviet repression (the situation was specific in each country and the repression varied in some details) in the years 1940/1941 is estimated at 34,000 in Latvia, 60,000 in Estonia and 75,000 in Lithuania.

German occupation

The German attack on the Soviet Union showed that the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries had brought their populations far more deprivation than benefit. Regardless of traditional anti-German sentiment in the three countries, the majority of the population initially viewed the advancing German army as liberators. In all three countries the arrival of the Wehrmacht had even been preceded by uprisings by local inhabitants, who made some attacks on retreating Red Army and NKVD units and freed a number of political prisoners, who Soviet organs transported into the depths of the USSR.

From June to autumn 1941 the German army controlled the entire Baltic space. The German occupying administration did not allow the independence of the three countries either, instead attempting to make use of their populace in its war efforts, though for the most part it met passive resistance. As a result of the Nazi regime, the majority of the Baltic States’ 300,000 Jews were killed, as were 35,000 Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians.

The second Soviet occupation, 1944–1990

Once the blockade of Leningrad was broken at the start of 1944 the front drew nearer to the Baltic countries and between the summer and the autumn the Soviet Union gradually conquered the territory of the Baltic states, building on its brutal occupation policies from the 1940–1941 period. Many inhabitants preferred to leave the Baltic countries by the sea or across the land with retreating Germans. In Estonia the number was around 80 000 people.

Despite objections from the Western states, the USSR did not allow Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia independence but, on the contrary, again launched the forcible integration of the republics into the Soviet empire. Widespread repression against the locals – mass deportations, executions, military action against partisans – impacted 9 percent of population. The USSR applied harsh measures to punish the people for collaboration with Nazi regime (regardless of whether the cooperation was alleged, real or coerced) and resisting Soviet occupation.

The deportation of “anti-Soviet elements” got underway as early as 1944 and culminated in the forced expulsion of farmers (so-called “kulaks”) five years later, during what were dubbed the March deportations. Immediately after conquering Estonia in 1944, the Soviet security forces embarked on active suppression of the resistance movement and arrested the Estonians who had served in the German or Finnish armies. In less than a year, over 10,000 people were arrested (see the story of Vello Raie). In August 1945 all the 400 Germans who had still remained in Estonia were sent to logging camps in Siberia. In August and September 1945 an estimated 60,000 men, women and children were deported from Lithuania, followed by 40,000 in February 1946 (see the story of Jurgis Dirvonskis). About 60,000 people may have been deported from Latvia in 1945–1946. Another mass wave of deportation was carried in May 1948 (code name Vesna - spring) and affected only Lithuania (possibly because resistance movement was the strongest in Lithuania).

The March deportations and Operation Priboi, 1949

One of the Soviet authorities’ chief aims was the collectivisation of agriculture. However, by 1948 they had only succeeded in incorporating 4–8 percent of farmers in the Baltics into kolkhozes. The second stage of collectivisation in 1949–1950 was therefore characterised by crude force, with a broad range of repressive measures, including the mass deportation of farmers and their families, being employed. Preparations for the deportations got underway at the end of 1948 and culminated at the end of March 1949.

As early as January 1949 the Soviet government issued guidelines for each country with regard to how many “kulak” families were to be forced into exile. The deportations began on 24 March and lasted five days. During the final days of March, around 30,000 people from Lithuania, over 22,500 from Estonia and 43,000 from Latvia were deported. This represented around 3 percent of the entire populations.

The majority of the 1949 deportees from Estonia (and the other countries) were women (49.4%) and children (29.8%) (see the story of Hilja Heinsoo). The youngest deportee was less than one year old; the oldest was 95. At least two babies were born on trains. A file still exists on four children sent to Siberia from Rakvere without their parents, after having been held hostage for two days in an attempt to entrap the parents.

The destinations of the deportations were in the main distant Siberian regions, such as Krasnoyarsk Krai, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Irkutsk and Amur Oblast. In Siberia the deportees were subjected to strict supervision. They were not allowed to leave the area where they were sent. The working and living conditions varied by region, and thus people’s lives were drastically different. The most difficult situation was in families where only the mother worked, who then had to feed children and often also her parents. Such families struggled to survive throughout their forced stay. About 15 percent of the people who had to leave their homes in 1949 died in deportation.

The second Soviet occupation wasn’t accepted as passively as the first by the Baltic nations. The strongest expression of resistance was an extensive partisan movement. Through eight years of action, many passed through the “forest brothers” as they were dubbed by the local populations (miško broliai in Lithuanian, mežabráli in Latvian and metsavennad in Estonia): over 77,000 served in Lithuania, 40,000 in Latvia (see the story of Dzidra Meldere) and 30,000 in Estonia. According to Soviet records, NKVD and army units killed a total of 20,165 partisans between 1945 and 1959. Some 18,016 were arrested and subsequently imprisoned, executed or deported.

Echoes of deportations

There was no attempt to even stage a semblance of judicial practice or to demonstrate the guilt of the deportees. They were sent to Siberia simply because they were suspected of being able to join the resistance or to help those who would; this suspicion was usually based on the social or political category to which they were designated by the local authorities.

The total number of deportees in the period 1944–1952 is estimated at 124,000 for Estonia, 136,000 for Latvia and 245,000 for Lithuania.

For Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians, World War II, forced Soviet annexation, Nazi and later Soviet occupation lasting until 1990-1991 meant an extreme deterioration of their political and economic situations. But above all the three nations were negatively impacted in demographic terms. Wartime migration shifts, repression during alternating occupations and military conflict led to the loss of over 20 percent of the population in the Baltic States. At the same time, a total of a quarter of a million people fled the second Soviet occupation to the West. The gap in the population was filled with immigrants from other parts of Soviet Union, who now comprise a significant section of the population, particularly in Latvia and Estonia, with both countries feeling the effects to this day.

The Soviet repressions today represent a major chapter in the national memory of all three Baltic States, with society still trying to come to terms with this at present. Our partner institutes – Misija Sibiras in Lithuania, the Museum of the Occupation in Latvia, the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory (along with other organisations, such as the Lithuanian Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights) – meet survivors and record their recollections. They also organise expeditions to Siberia, where they visit places of exile and repair local cemeteries (in Latvia, for instance, this work is done also by the association Sibīrijas Bērni - children of Siberia).

The theme of the deportations also appears in art and literature. For instance, the Latvian memoir With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows (Sandra Kalniete) has been translated into several languages, while the story of Irena Saulutė Valaitytė-Špakauskienė, which was recounted in the novel Between Shades of Gray by Lithuanian-American writer Ruta Sepetys, has also become well-known.

Author: Štěpán Černoušek, June 2020
Special thanks: Lelde Neimane, Aistė Eidukaitytė, Elmar Gams


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