The Baltic Deportations of 1941 and 1949

[this is a guest post by Eric Dickens]

A group of Russian activists and their Finnish comrades held a meeting in Helsinki yesterday, in order to protest against the seminar being held to commemorate the deportations that took place in all three Baltic countries in 1949. While this mini-demonstration in central Helsinki was copiously covered in both the Finnish and Estonian press, but hardly anywhere else, the core of the whole issue was sadly obscured, i.e. the deportations themselves. As I am a literary translator from Estonian, and the key Baltic participants at the seminar were principally from Estonia, I will focus primarily on that Baltic country. But the same happened, mutatis mutandis, in Latvia and Lithuania.

We can all laugh at the antics of the would-be subversives who got the press out en masse to photograph them and their inadvertently hilarious banner stating: “Hey, governments, STOP CHANGE A HISTORY!”. Indeed, according to the Finnish tabloid Iltalehti, the Finns were laughing too. Finnish journalists were quick to point out that the Nashi crowd are a marginal phenomenon.

But this led to one very unfortunate result: the whole purport of the book launch and seminar they were demonstrating against was totally obscured, i.e. the deportations of 1941 and 1949.

A quick overview of these two deportations:

When Estonia was occupied by Soviet troops in 1940, by the orchestrations of Andrei Zhdanov, the Russians wasted no time in rounding up the President, the Cabinet and most MPs (i.e. lawmakers) and sending them to Siberia. They dangled President Konstantin Päts on a line for a while, but he too ended up in a Russian psychiatric institution (as if being the President of a “bourgeois” country deserved such treatment). Also the Chief-of-Staff, Johan Laidoner was first sacked by Päts, by now a mere puppet president, and died in 1953 after more than a decade in various Soviet prisons. The names of all the above people are listed on a plaque in Tallinn, not far away from the Dutch Embassy, up on Toompea Hill.
But not only politicians. During what are termed the June Deportations of 1941, while the Soviet Union still occupied Estonia, before being kicked out by Nazi Germany, a recent ally from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a total of around 10,000 people are estimated to have been arrested, about 6,000 of whom ultimately died as a consequence of mistreatment of various sorts.

That was just for starters. The Soviet occupation resumed in 1944. The Germans had already fled in disarray as the Third Reich crumbled. By 1949, the Soviets were at it again. In March, a little earlier in the year this time, they and their Estonian Communist collaborators decided it was time for another bout of deportation. This time they increased the quota, so that around 20,700 people, often branded as “kulaks” because their farming methods were too efficient, were rounded up and sent to Siberia in cattle trucks. So, almost eight years after the June Deportations came the March Deportations. The sixtieth anniversary of the latter will be on 25th March 2009.

What is significant about the Helsinki seminar and book launch is that it was held in Finland at all. The two participants most in the limelight were the half-Estonian prizewinning Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen, and the Estonian filmmaker Imbi Paju. For many years, Finland has been regarded as a hotbed of Finlandisation, where no one mentions Baltic politics for fear of upsetting the Bear in the East. Now, Oksanen has won the Finlandia book prize with her novel about the results of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, and it has sold well in Finland and is being translated. Paju made a film about the Soviet occupation, which was well-received in Finland. And the two together have just launched a book of essays on the topic, with contributors such as Edward Lucas, Anne Applebaum and the Swedish-born, American educated Estonian President Toomas Henrik Ilves. The book is called Kaiken takana oli pelko / Kõige taga oli hirm (Behind Everything Lay Fear). The seminar itself was sponsored and supported by the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian embassies in Helsinki, the National Finnish Audiovisual Archive, plus the publishing house WSOY.

Rarely has a book launch in Finland attracted some 300 hostile protesters, some from abroad. The protesters included representatives the Nashi (Our) youth movement from Russia, the Nochnoi Dozor (Nightwatch) movement of Russian-speakers from Estonia and their leader, Dmitri Linter, who was active during the Bronze Soldier incident in Tallinn in 2007. And individuals: the Helsinki academic Johan Bäckman who recently published his own book with a small press run by an ex-KGB agent, and the Finnish convert to Islam, Abdullah Tammi.
Estonian ex-Prime-Minister and head of the Estonian conservatives Mart Laar, is quoted in the Estonian daily Postimees as writing on his website: “Two clever women – Imbi Paju and Sofi Oksanen – have organised a seminar on the subject of the March Deportations, where documentary films will be shown about the history of Communism, and the essay collection Behind Everything Lay Fear will be presented.”

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