Baltic states bear scars of 1949 Soviet crackdown

25th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

The crackdown of March 25, 1949 is etched in the Baltic mind. Open discussion of it was banned in the Soviet era and Moscow has still not acknowledged it as a crime.

BaltoTallinn -- The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania this week remember the tragedy that befell them 60 years ago, when communist security forces rounded up tens of thousands of people and deported them deep into the Soviet Union.

The crackdown of March 25, 1949 is etched in the Baltic mind. Open discussion of it was banned in the Soviet era and Moscow has still not acknowledged it as a crime.

Commemoration events are planned across the three nations Wednesday.

"My heart is broken every time I think of my mother, 31 at the time, who was arrested that night with four children aged two, five, six and nine, with me being the youngest, taken to the station, put in a cattle wagon full of other desperate people and deported to Siberia," Estonian Tiiu Teesalu, 62, told AFP.

In 1939 Moscow cut a deal with Nazi Germany allowing it to grab the small Baltic states -- which had won independence from Russia at the end of World War I -- and carve up Poland.

The Soviets invaded the Baltic trio in June 1940.

They immediately set out to crush opposition -- both real and imagined -- to Soviet rule by classing entire families "enemies of the people".

The oppression came to a head on June 14, 1941, as they deported some 10,000 Estonians, more than 15,000 Latvians and 16,000-18,000 Lithuanians.

The drive was cut short when the World War II Nazi-Soviet pact broke down and Germany invaded Soviet territory on June 22, 1941.

In 1944, Moscow ended the bloody Nazis occupation and Soviet forces and local collaborators resumed the oppression.

Almost 21,000 Estonians were seized in the 1949 sweep.

"As in 1941, people on the list included the relatives of the political and cultural elite of pre-war Estonia, whom Moscow considered a potential threat to the Soviet occupation," said Rein Purje of the Memento Estonia victims' association.

Purje, 67, was himself deported in 1941 -- as an unborn child, because his mother was just three months pregnant.

More than 42,000 people were deported from Latvia in 1949.

Some 29,000 people were deported from Lithuania, the largest Baltic state, which was hit by several mass operations. A total 118,000 Lithuanians were sent eastwards in 1945-1952.

"They went for two sorts of people: farmers and the families of those that they dubbed 'nationalists'," said Lithuanian historian Arunas Bubnys.

The deportees' farms were taken over -- forced collectivization was another reason for driving them out -- and their houses given to Soviet military families or other migrants from Russia sent in to tip the ethnic balance.

Many deportees died en route or in exile. The survivors were barred from returning until a Kremlin thaw after the 1953 death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Those who were able to come back faced oppression across all spheres of life.

Teesalu, who returned in 1956, later applied to study history at university but was barred because of her deportee background.

"What happened 60 years ago is common knowledge in Latvia because there's not a single family without a link to the deportations," said lawmaker and former foreign minister Sandra Kalniete, 56, who was born in Siberia to parents who met in exile.

"Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain could all the crimes finally be revealed," she said.

Moscow's grip on the Baltic states only ended when the Soviet bloc crumbled in 1991. Since independence, relations have been rocky between Russia and the trio, which joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.

Discord has been stoked by conflicting interpretations of the past, notably Moscow's refusal to recognise its rule as occupation and the deportations as crimes against humanity.

"In Lithuania and Russia the deportations are seen completely differently," said Lithuanian historian and lawmaker Arvydas Anusaukas, 45.

"We are under an obligation to remember," he said.

For Teesalu, who has written four books about the tragedy: "A simple apology and admission that the Soviet occupation caused enormous suffering for the Baltic nations could take away most of that bitterness that many Baltic people still feel towards Russia."

Anneli Reigas/AFP/Expatica

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