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Baltics, Poland, Ukraine submit gulag birch bark letters to UNESCO register

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A birthday card written on birch bark by Tõnu Känd.
A birthday card written on birch bark by Tõnu Känd. Source: Estonian History Museum.

Five memory institutes from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine submitted a joint appeal to UNESCO to add birch bark letters sent from Siberian prison camps to its Memory of the World (MoW) Register.

The application deals with 148 items, including the birch bark letters and other personal documents created by political prisoners or deportees between 1940-1965. Approximately 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan from the five countries by the Soviet authorities.

Birch bark was often the only material that could be used to write letters at places of deportation as paper was often denied to prisoners. The letters document people's lives under the Soviet regime.

The artifacts are stored across 31 memory institutions and in Estonia they are kept at Vabamu and in the Estonian History Museum.

Karen Jagodin, executive director and board member of Vabamu, said there are more than 30 letters at the museum and they are one of the most "remarkable collections" it has.

A letter written on birch bark by Rudolf Aller. Source: Vabamu

The letters were generally written for three reasons, Jagodin told ERR News. The first reason was to communicate with loved ones, such as on birthdays or at Christmas. Deportees were rarely allowed to send or receive letters, and those written on bark were often smuggled out.

The second type was correspondence between deportees themselves. Jagodin said these were mostly sent to make someone else aware they were still alive. 

The third reason was deportees trying to preserve their own humanity and individuality in a system that tried to strip this away from them. "These were not sent to anybody," Jagodin said.

For example, some people made notebooks out of bark and wrote small diaries or kept notes about their food rations. One man made a calendar and crossed off each day.

Karen Jagodin Source: ERR

Deportees being able to write in their own languages, such as Estonian or Latvian, also helped keep a connection to their homelands.

"You are in a system that tries to erase your character, your humanity, everything and you're just finding those small ways that say "I'm still me". Whatever has happened to me, whatever has happened to my family, this is the way to keep a connection to myself and my identity and somehow create this mental space and resilience," Jagodin said.

"If you think about this, and how really a way of writing literally is a way of being resilient and surviving, because as humans, we use writing very much to go through whatever we are going through in our lives"

This is not the first bid to put the letters on the WoM, and it was started several years ago, before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

A birch bark letter and envelope in Vabamu's collection. Source: Helen Wright/ ERR News

Jagodin said an important reason to include the letters on the register is that they show human resilience, the longing for human connection, and how it is possible to survive "through very complicated and tragic times".

"It's just a message we all need to know and remind ourselves of and just be aware of what has happened in our histories here in this region of Europe," she said.

"But at the same time, it is a very unique and specific cultural heritage from this region. So, I think it's just very, very relevant right now to remind ourselves how important it is to stay human."

The topic has also become very relevant again due to Russia's war in Ukraine.

"This all comes back very strongly in our societies because deportations and everything connected to war and the way Russia and Ukraine are fighting, there are just so many parallels to what people have previously been through in these countries," the museum's executive director said.

Regions Estonians were deported to by the USSR. Source: Henri-Kristian Kirsip

Another reason for their inclusion is to raise awareness of crimes committed by the USSR which it, or its successor state Russia, has never been held accountable for, she said.

"This means that if you look at the ideology developing in Russia, the nostalgia towards the great victory in World War II, it just gives space to this one-sided understanding of history," Jagodin said.

"And I think this is all of our mission to just speak about this, to recognize that and to not give space for forgetting, for just erasing and forgetting that this ever happened."

The gulag was a Soviet network of forced labor camps set up by order of Vladimir Lenin which reached its peak during Joseph Stalin's rule from the 1930s to the early 1950s. Millions of people were sent to the camps for opposing the regime.

A letter written on birch bark sent from Siberia. Source: Estonian History Museum

The joint request was submitted by Estonia to UNESCO on Tuesday and a decision will be made in May 2025 at the earliest.

UNESCO MoW Register lists documentary heritage of global value and has 494 entries.

There are already two entries related to Estonia, documents from the Baltic Way submitted with Latvia and Lithuania, and Hanseatic League documents entered jointly with Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Germany, and Belgium.

This article was updated to add quotes from Karen Jagodin.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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