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Enemies of the people: How the USSR had 90,000 deported in four days

University students help light candles in memory of the victims of the 1949 deportations in Tartu's Town Hall Square, March 25, 2015.
University students help light candles in memory of the victims of the 1949 deportations in Tartu's Town Hall Square, March 25, 2015. Source: (Aili Sarapik, private collection)

From March 25 to 28, 1949, more than 76,000 Soviet troops, security personnel, and Communist Party activists loaded over 90,000 Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian civilians onto 8,422 trucks and 66 freight trains and hauled them away to Siberia.

Operation Priboi, or “Coastal Surf”, was one of the largest mass deportations in the history of the USSR. It took more than two years to prepare and spanned the three Baltic Socialist Soviet Republics.

The targets of the operation were so-called “enemies of the people”. In Estonia’s case in particular, these included the families and supporters of the Forest Brothers (metsavennad in Estonian), a network of insurgents resisting the Soviet occupation forces, as well as anti-Soviet nationalists, German army veterans, and the families and affiliations of people already deported to the Gulag.

As was typical of Stalin-era security operations, “Coastal Surf” primarily had a larger structural purpose. The households the operation targeted were mostly in rural areas. The elimination of key families and personalities was aimed at making the forced collectivization of farms easier and breaking the resistance of other locals.

People unable to work, as well as minors, were excluded from the deportation orders. In practice, the authorities didn’t make a difference. In the end, 44.3% of the deported were women, 28.6% were children, and only 27.1% men.

Though the legal basis for Operation “Coastal Surf” was decree No. 390-138ss of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, local authorities were deeply involved. As early as 1946, the central committee of the Communist Party of Estonia had demanded that opponents of the regime be rounded up and taken out of the country.

Consequences of the deportations

Once in Siberia, the deportees were declared “special settlers”. They were not allowed to leave their designated living areas and had to check in with the local authorities regularly. Attempts to escape were punished with 20 years of hard labor, without exception.

Due to the fact that over 72% of the deportees were women and children, the death rate during the initial years following the deportees’ “resettlement” was very high. This has prompted several sources to call Operation “Coastal Surf” genocide. In a Jan. 17, 2006 decision against two participants in the deportation, the European Court of Human Rights referred the operation as "a crime against humanity".

While Germany has faced its Nazi past and the atrocities Hitler’s regime committed, Russia, as the legal successor to the Soviet Union, hasn’t shown particular interest in the crimes committed by the Soviet regime.

According to its president, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s view of its history should concentrate on positive events, and Russians shouldn’t allow debates about the country's past to stir up any feelings of guilt. In fact, there’s little debate beyond revisionist efforts to justify what was done, or at least make it look less horrific by pointing out crimes other regimes committed. Russian historians have widely abandoned the subject.

Joseph Enge, historian at the University of Tartu, confirms this. “As there are no longer any respectable Russian academic history communities with professional standards, they have cut all ties with Western historians. They don't attend conferences and have closed their research archives and other sources. Russian historical self-isolation makes sense given their research would not stand up to Western academic standards and there remain many things in their archives that they would not like to be made public. I doubt access to their archives will be possible in my lifetime,” Enge said.


Below is a list of various memorial services and events that have taken and are taking place across Estonia today in remembrance of the March deportations of 1949.


12:00 p.m. Ceremony at Freedom Square, with speeches by Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu, the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Urmas Viilma, and Leo Õispuu, chairman of the board of the Estonian Memento Union. Laying of wreaths at the base of the War of Independence Victory Column

4:30 p.m. Think tank devoted to the remembrance of the deportations at the Museum of Occupations

6:00 p.m. Annual lighting of candles in Freedom Square

Lääne County

10:00 a.m. Laying of memorial wreath and lighting of candles at the memorial at Risti Railway Station

12:00 p.m. Memorial prayer in the baptismal chapel of Toomkirik church in Haapsalu

12:45 p.m. Laying of memorial wreath and lighting of candles at the Memorial to the War of Independence in Haapsalu Episcopal Castle


2:00 p.m. Special lecture by historian Pearu Kuusk at the KGB Cells Museum

6:00 p.m. Annual lighting of candles in Town Hall Square


12:00 p.m. Memorial ceremony in the Park of Grief (Leinapark)

6:00 p.m. Annual lighting of candles in Rüütli Square


1:00 p.m. Memorial ceremony at the Crown of Thorns (Okaskroon) Memorial

Editor: Editors: Dario Cavegn, Aili Sarapik

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