On 25 March 1949, twenty thousand men, women and children from Estonia were deported by the Soviets to Siberia. Nearly 3% of the Estonian population were seized in a few days and dispatched to remote areas of Siberia.*
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 the Second World War, 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, on 14 June 1941 and 25 March 1949, are annually observed as days of mourning. The March 1949 deportation was the largest of these when over 20,000 people, mostly women and children, were deported from Estonia.
Prologue to the deportations
On 23 August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany concluded the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the secret protocols 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 fulfil 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 at the beginning of WW 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.
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. 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. The purpose of the 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 1930ies 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% of the population belonged in these categories.
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, 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.
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.
The first deportation took place on 14 June 1941, when over 10,000 people were deported from Estonia.
After the Second World War, when the Soviet Union had reoccupied Estonia (after a brief period under the Nazi German occupation), discussion started among the Soviet authorities on carrying out a new mass deportation.
Clandestine preparations lasted over two years and by March 1949, the occupation power was ready to carry out a new deportation. In the course of the operation that began on 25 March 1949, over 20,000 people – nearly 3% of the 1945 Estonian population – were seized in a few days and dispatched to remote areas of Siberia. The deportation was demanded by the Communist Party in order to complete “collectivisation” and “eliminate the kulaks as a class”. Nearly a third of those declared to be “kulaks” managed to evade their captors. In the words of the local Communist Party Secretary, Nikolai Karotamm, other families were “grabbed” in order to “fill the quota”.
The majority of the 1949 deportees were women (49.4%) and children (29.8%) The youngest deportee was less than one year old; the oldest was 95 years old. At least two babies were born on the train. 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 trap their parents.
Particularly inhumane was the second deportation of children who had first been deported in 1941 and then allowed to rejoin their relatives in Estonia at the end of the war. 5,000 Estonians were dispatched to Omsk oblast, into the region directly affected by the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. From 1949 to 1956, about 260 nuclear and fusion bomb explosions were carried out there. The victims of radiation sickness were left without medical treatment for decades. Sick people, as well as the parents of babies born with abnormalities, were told that they had contracted brucellosis infection from animals.
It was not until the late 1950ies that deportees who had survived their ordeal had a chance to return to their homeland, but despite a partial rehabilitation they still remained second-rate citizens in the Soviet Union. A great number of them continued to be under the surveillance of the security authorities; their confiscated property was not returned to them and no formal pardon was ever issued.
*This article was originally published on 25 March 2014 and lightly amended on 25 March 2020. Cover: Initiated by the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, 20,000 candles are annually lit on 25 March in Tallinn’s Freedom Square (this photo was taken in 2019). This year, due to the coronavirus crisis, the institute asked people to lit candles by the windows of their homes. Video: Body Memory (2011), a film by Ülo Pikkov, music by Mirjam Tally. The Estonian stop-motion animation ‘Body Memory’ takes as its central concept the idea that our body remembers, not only individual experiences, but also the sorrow and pain of our predecessors. It’s a powerful visualisation of subconscious processes and the hidden horror of deportation. The film was inspired by historical events: the Soviet deportations from Estonia in the 1940s.