In the summer of 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a result of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on 23 August 1939. In the aftermath of World War II, Estonia lost approximately 17.5% of its population.
The Soviet occupation brought about an event that until then had only been read about in history books and which became the most horrible memory of the past centuries – mass deportations, which affected people of all nationalities living in Estonia. The two deportations that affected Estonia the most deeply, on 14 June 1941 and 25 March 1949, are annually observed as days of mourning.
Prologue to the deportations of the 1940’s
On 23 August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany concluded the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the secret protocols of which divided Central and Eastern Europe into respective spheres of influence. On 1 September 1939, Germany launched the Second World War with its attack against Poland.
On 17 September, the other party to the pact, the Soviet Union, started to fulfill its role by invading Poland from the east, at the same time concentrating large forces on the borders of the three Baltic states and Finland. Although the Estonian government declared its complete neutrality in the beginning of World War II, on 28 September 1939, the Soviet Union coerced Estonia, with direct military threats, into concluding a so-called mutual military assistance pact, which resulted in the deployment of USSR military bases in Estonia.
Similar treaties were also forced upon Estonia’s southern neighbours Latvia and Lithuania. The seriousness of the Soviet pressure and threats was demonstrated by the fact that when Helsinki refused to conclude such a treaty with Moscow, the USSR began to invade Finland, which is known as the Winter War. The international community reacted to this Soviet act of aggression by expelling the USSR from the League of Nations. Unfortunately, this did not influence the policies of the Soviet Union in any way.
The Soviet Union occupied and forcibly annexed Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, in the summer of 1940, on the basis of the aforementioned Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow used to its advantage the moment when the rest of the world was distracted by the shattering events in France.
At the initiative of the Soviet authorities, illegal parliamentary elections with forged results were organised in the Baltic states, the results of which were not recognised by democratic Western countries. The Soviet authorities immediately implemented a reign of terror, which also victimised Estonia’s ethnic minorities like Jews and Russians. Special emphasis was placed upon the elimination of the nation’s cultural, business, political, and military elite.
During the war, Nazi Germany invaded part of the Soviet Union and occupied Estonia from July 1941 until September 1944, after which the Soviet Union re-established its occupation.
Preparations for repressions
The Soviet Union had started preparations for the launch of terror in Estonian civil society already before the occupation of Estonia. As elsewhere, the purpose of communist terror was to suppress any possible resistance from the very beginning and to inculcate great fear among people in order to rule out any kind of organised general resistance movement in the future as well.
In Estonia, the planned extermination of the prominent and active persons, as well as the displacement of large groups of people were intended to destroy the Estonian society and economy. The lists of people to be repressed were prepared well in advance. From the files of the Soviet security organs, it seems that already in the early 1930’s the Soviet security organs had collected data on persons to be subjected to repressions.
Pursuant to the instructions issued in 1941, the following people in the territories to be annexed into the Soviet Union and their family members were to be subjected to repression: all the members of the former governments, higher state officials and judges, higher military personnel, former politicians, members of voluntary state defence organisations, members of student organisations, persons having actively participated in anti-Soviet armed combat, Russian émigrés, security police officers and police officers, representatives of foreign companies and in general all people having contacts abroad, entrepreneurs and bankers, clergymen and members of the Red Cross.
Approximately 23 percent of the population belonged to these categories. In fact, the number of those actually subjected to repressions was much greater, for a large number of people not included in the lists also fell victim to the settlement of scores.
The Soviet security organs started their repressive activities in Estonia already before its formal annexation into the Soviet Union during the course of occupation. In June 1940, persons were detained for political reasons, and from then on it only increased. On 17 July 1940 the last Chief Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, Johan Laidoner, and his wife were exiled to Penza. On 30 July 1940, the President of the Republic of Estonia, Konstantin Päts, and his family were exiled to Ufa. Both General Johan Laidoner and President Konstantin Päts died in captivity in the Soviet Union.
Mass deportations begin
Preparations for carrying out mass deportations were begun not later than 1940 and were part of the total violence directed against the territories occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939 – 1940. The Ukrainian and Belarusian territories were the first to be hit by deportations.
The first written reference briefly noting that Estonians should be exiled to Siberia is found in the papers of Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s commissioner, who supervised the annihilation of the independence of Estonia in the summer of 1940. Describing the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in the fall of 1940, the on-site representative of Moscow, Vladimir Bochkaryov, demanded that the anti-Soviet element be exiled from the borders of the Estonian SSR.
Concrete preparations for deportations began in the winter of 1940–1941. On 14 May 1941, the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the Council of the People’s Commissioners of the Soviet Union issued a top secret directive, “Directive on the Deportation of the Socially Alien Element from the Baltic Republics, Western Ukraine, Western Belorussia and Moldavia”.
14 June, 1941
The first deportation raid was begun on the night of 13 June and early morning of 14 June. Families who had gone to bed on Friday night with no inkling of anything bad about to happen, were woken up in the early morning hours by pounding on their doors. A decree declaring them to be under arrest or subject to deportation from their homeland without any legal process or court decision was read aloud to them. All their property was declared to be subject to seizure. They were given an hour to pack.
A few hours after the start of the deportation the first trucks began arriving at railroad cars waiting on sidings. Altogether 490 cattle cars had been set aside for that purpose. The search for persons subjected to arrest or deportation continued until the morning of 16 June. Those carrying out the deportations behaved with extraordinary cruelty: even pregnant women and seriously ill elderly people were packed into overcrowded stock-cars.
According to the order, issued on June 13 from Moscow, over 10,000 people were deported from Estonia during 14-17 June 1941. Over 7,000 women, children and elderly people were among the deported. The extent of the expulsion is indicated by the fact that more than 25% of all the people deported in June 1941 were minors (under 16 years of age). The deportations also severely affected Estonia’s Jewish population — more than 400 Estonian Jews, approximately 10% of the Estonian Jewish population, were among the deportees.
As the first trains loaded with deportees arrived at their destinations, the next wave of deportation was being prepared in Estonia by Soviet authorities. But the implementation was hampered by Germany’s assault on the Soviet Union. Due to the rapid advancement of the front, a second deportation was carried out only on the island of Saaremaa.
At the end of 1941, investigative commissions started to operate in the Soviet prison camps, carrying out on-site interrogations and passing court decisions, under which hundreds of the detainees were shot to death. By the spring of 1942, of the more than 3 000 men dispatched to prison camps, only a couple of hundred were still alive.
The fate of women and children sent to the remote regions of Kirov and Novosibirsk oblasts was also onerous. Because of cold, starvation and hard work, a great many of the deportees died. Altogether 4 331 people or less than a half of the 1941 deportees ever returned to their homeland. In the course of the deportation of 1941, within one week about 95 000 people from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Bessarabia (Moldova) were deported to Russia.
Witnessing the hard fate of the deportees
Several recollections and documents bear witness to the hard fate of the deportees, among them the diary of ten-year-old Rein Vare, which he kept in the period 1941-1944. The diary tells of the deportation to Siberia, as well as his day-to-day experiences.
With adult seriousness Rein Vare illustrated his diary with markers for the graves of his playmates. A great part of the diary has been dedicated to his beloved father, Rein Vare, the schoolmaster of Sausti village in Northern Estonia, who by then had already died of hunger in the Isaroskino prison camp. But in his son’s diary he was still alive.
A more positive turning point in the fate of the family came in 1946, when Rein together with his sister was allowed to return to Estonia to their relatives. Their mother’s yearning for her children was at that moment so great that she lost all sense of reality. She fled from Siberia, trying to follow them. Unfortunately she got only as far as Leningrad, where she was arrested and sentenced to three more years of labour camp.
In 1951, young Rein Vare, who had meanwhile graduated from school in Estonia, was again arrested. For a couple of months he was held in the Patarei prison in Tallinn and then he was sent back to Siberia. That finally broke him. Although by the end of 1958 the Vare family was finally allowed to return to Estonia, the members of the family were no longer the same people. Rein Vare had become embittered against the whole world.
He eventually died in the Orwellian year of 1984 in Viljandi, where his body was found several days after his death. His rodent-chewed diary was also found and eventually published. That document, itself comparable to Anne Frank’s diary, had survived to serve witness.
In 1944, the Red Army again occupied Estonia. The Soviet occupation forces used thoroughgoing repressions against the local population. Another massive deportation followed a few years later, on 25 March 1949, when over 20,000 people – nearly 3 percent of the 1945 Estonian population – were seized in a few days and dispatched to remote areas of Siberia.
Sources: Estonia.eu and Estonian World. Photos: Estonian National Museum/Wikimedia Commons. The trailer is from the film “In the Crosswind” which is about the tragic course of the life of a deportee – a young Estonian woman – over the course of fifteen years presented through an unusual visual language. * This article was first published on 14 June 2015 and slightly edited on 14 June 2017.