June 1941 was a month of catastrophe for tens of thousands of people, and for countries from the Baltic states to Moldova. The Soviet authorities deported more than 95,000 people from the western territories of the Soviet Union and occupied areas. The aim was to force the collectivization of farms and destroy the local rural economies.
In the areas to be cleansed, village committees were set up to identify the “kulaks”, the landowners and other richer people who “exploited” their workers. In Estonia, the approach ran into difficulties, as following the Estonian War of Independence a land reform had distributed much of the property that had before been in the hands of a rich few to those who had fought for the independence of the republic.
After a slow beginning, and following the example of Viljandi's particularly busy committee, pressure on local administrations increased to deliver longer lists. The local committees had a lot of influence. People did slander and denounce each other, but today’s research actually suggests that the authorities received more letters of support of those arrested than they received hints out of the population who to go after.
The speed at which the events took place also suggests that the arrests and deportations had been planned for years. They specifically sought out the elite, across politics, the military, business, and culture. Minorities like Jews and Russians that had left the USSR were also targeted.
Following the occupation of Estonia by Soviet forces and its annexation by the USSR, Estonian farmers were systematically robbed of their property. Taxes were imposed on the activities of the farmers that made it impossible for them to do business, and sent more and more of them into a debt spiral that mostly ended in the confiscation of their assets - or arrest, and deportation.
Many of the country's most important personalities, General Johan Laidoner and President Konstantin Päts among them, were arrested and deported to Russia.
The mass deportations began on the night of Jun. 13, 1941. Armed units were given lists of whom to find and take to the collection points. There were altogether 11,102 people listed in Estonia.
They were given one hour to get ready, and weren’t allowed to take anything along beyond the absolutely necessary. This meant that they had to leave valuables, but also personal objects behind. In some cases, especially when their homes had been preselected by Soviet officials as quarters for their own use, the deportees watched on as the new occupants moved in.
The people were then loaded onto trucks and taken to collection points, mostly railway stations. 490 freight cars stood ready to take them to Russia. The men were separated from their families. Altogether more than 7,000 women, children, and elderly were deported. More than a quarter of the deportees were under 16 years old.
Along with the listed Estonians and Russians, more than 400 Jews were deported as well, which was more than 10% of the total Jewish population of the country.
The deportations lasted through Jun. 17 on the mainland, on the islands they continued until Jun. 30.
The deported men faced committees in late 1941. Hundreds of them where sentenced to death and shot. For thousands given prison sentences, years in and out of camps lay ahead.
The death rate was high among the women and children as well, in some camps up to 60% died of malnutrition, or as a result of the harsh conditions and forced labor.
In August 1941, the Germans occupied Estonia and immediately began with their own hunt for communists, collaborators, Soviet sympathizers, and the people they were after. 75% of Estonian Jews left the country that summer, headed for Russia and Finland. Those who stayed were taken to concentration camps.
The Soviet forces returned in autumn 1944. More political and ethnic purges followed.
Part of this article, in particular the description of the deportations and what happened later, was taken from the article ERR News ran on June 14 last year. If you scroll down, you find it below the comments section.
Editor: Dario Cavegn