Estonia remembers the Soviet deportations

On 14 June 1941, the Soviet Union forcibly deported over 10,000 people from Estonia to Siberia – over 7,000 were women, children, and elderly people; the date is now observed as a day of mourning.*

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 Red Army entering Estonia in October 1939, effectively occupying the country. Today's Russia behaves frighteningly similarly to the Soviet Union in the thirties.
Soviet troops entering Estonia in 1939.

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.

Andrei Zhdanov and Stalin. Photo by Corbis Images.

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.

Children on a train destined for Siberia.

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.

The trailer 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.

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.

An illustration of people being deported to Siberia in cattle wagons.

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.

An Estonian cemetery in Orlovka, Siberia. Photo by Vabamu.

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.

Read also: Pictures: Deported Estonians in Siberia.

Photos by the Estonian National Museum, the Museum of Occupations and Wikimedia Commons. * This article was first published on 14 June 2014 and lightly edited on 14 June 2021.

16 thoughts on “Estonia remembers the Soviet deportations”

  1. John H Newcomb

    Because of high execution and death rate of deported men (only about 7% survival rate) and less than 50% overall survival rate of all deportees, it would not be an exaggeration to lable this as a deportation and execution program.

    1. Yes indeed it’s Genocide of the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Peoples. Mitte Kunagi Enam,Never Again!

  2. I was just six years old when I was told to sit on our living room sofa in Kaupmehe Street in Tallinn and shut up and not move. I have never forgotten how frightened I was. My mothers’ sister one up [Mary Jaansoo, Nõmme] and her family were in the cattle wagons at the Tallinn railway station. She and my favourite cousin Albert were separated from her husband who was the Police Commissioner of Nõmme. Shot ere arrival in Siberia. Yes, we were to meet after . . . in circumstances I still have to believe. Our own pathway to hide in Estonian forests came the next day . . . .at 79 I am one of the lucky ones!

    1. Hi Eha. We are living with our family in your mothers sisters appartment in Nõmme. It would be really interesting for us to hear about Jaansoo’s family. With best regards!

  3. See on Meie, “Holokaust”, Balti Holokausti Meenutame alati, mäletada ja õppida sellest hirmus kuritegu inimsuse vastu. Need kurjategijad, kes on veel elus olema vahistamise ja kohtu alla ja õiglust tuleks kaotada!

    See on ka põhjus, miks eestlased, lätlased ja leedulased peavad ja ei tohiks kunagi toetada jõupingutusi kehtestada Relva Kontroll meid meie endi valitsused, EL ÜRO või mõni teine. Oli Balti riikide vastu, kus relvade Nõukogude Terroristid ajalugu oleks olnud teistsugune. Eestlased lätlased ja leedulased ei oleks loobunud oma vabadusi okupeeriva Terrorist venelased. las see õppetund. Never Again, Relvad Käes, Elagu Eesti Vabariik!

    This is our, Holocaust, The Baltic Holocaust, let us Never Forget, Remember and Learn from this horrible Crime Against Humanity. Those perpetrators who are still alive should be arrest and brought to trial and justice should be dispensed!

    This is also why Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians must and should Never Support Efforts to enact Gun Control On us from our own governments, the EU UN or any one else. Had the Baltic Nations Resisted with Arms the Soviet Terrorists history would have been different. Estonians Latvians and Lithuanians never should have given up their freedoms to the Occupying Terrorist Soviets. let this a Lesson to be Learned. Never Again, Weapons in hands, Relvad Kaes!

    1. Mitte Kunagi Enam,Never Again!
      If Russia ever tried this again we will fight and kill them, 100% Guaranteed​!

  4. A very moving video and article, Iain. I do recall how shocked we were to witness the abandoned homes and articles ,which vividly recounted how children and whole families were lifted from their beds and put on cattle trucks to Siberia when we visited the Country Museum,near Tallinn in 1998. I remember returning to Scotland and asking older friends and family who had served in WW2 how the rest of the world could let this happen, especially the 2nd deportation in 1949. The Estonians are rightfully proud of their history and it is so important that their past struggles are never forgotten.
    Muriel x

  5. Another horrid example of mans inhumanity to man, and something I NEVER learned about in HS or college. I pray all those that survived the Estonian Holocaust have had happiness of family and success in their life and their example & strength will assure nothing like this happens to their country again. And with the oncoming tragedy i see in my minds eye, with The Ukraine & Russia, I worry we could see another example of Russia’s ability to rein terror & destruction on it’s neighbor.

  6. Is there any record of the names of the deportees ? I would like to know the fate of some relatives . My grandparents were Estonians and they emigrated to Brazil , but their relatives remained in Estonia , until they disappeared.

  7. Jane Marilyn Brown Prosa

    My grandfather’s family was taken to Siberia from their farms in Valgamaa.My deported family survived . My grandfather’s dad escaped during ww1 and became a merchant sailor, and years later came to live in the Bahamas where I live name is Luke Prosa and i am 11. ( I’m using my grand mothers computer.)

  8. Andrew Kajati Scott

    I was only 3 years old in June 1941 and thankfully our family in Nomme was not impacted by the deportation. My grandfather, who was Pastor Kapp of Kaarli Kirik in Tallinn died thankfully in 1940, as he would definitely been deported. Two of my uncles were deported in June 1941 to the Soviet Union. My mother, sister and I escaped from Tallinn in September 1944 and lived in Germany until 1949 when we were allowed to move to the United States.

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