In June 1941, the Soviet authorities deported 95,000 people from the Baltic States, Poland, Bukovina, and Bessarabia (present-day Moldova and Southwest Ukraine) to force the collectivization of farms and destroy the local rural economies. Estonia commemorates the victims of the deportations every year on 14 June.
Propaganda prepared the field
When the communists set out to force the collectivization of Estonian farms, they had a problem. The ideology they had used elsewhere, namely taking away the land of the rich and giving it to the people, didn't work very well in this country.
The agricultural reform that had followed Estonia's independence moved property from a small number of mostly German and Russian families to those who had fought in the War of Independence, as well as commoners and small farmers.
This meant that by the time the Soviets arrived, there really weren't too many kulaks left in Estonia to disown. Hardly anyone exploited another. Most farms were run by families, and most farmhands were seasonal workers.
So beyond party propaganda, there wasn't much to the goal of redistributing wealth. The actual aim of the collectivization was to destroy the economy of the country's small farmers.
This wasn't done all at once. 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. The Estonian farmers were systematically robbed of their property.
Selection of victims took place over years
A whole bureaucratic apparatus was put in place to identify the supposed kulaks, with village committees selecting them. At first, the results were modest. But after in what today is Viljandi County a parish identified as much as 15 times as many as the average, pressure increased on all committees to raise the number of those selected for deportation.
The local bodies 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.
Lists of people to be deported had been in the works since the early 1930s. They targeted the political, military, financial, and cultural elite as well as their families, but also minorities, such as Jews or Russians who had left Russia after the revolution.
Before the first mass deportation, the Soviet authorities went after important personalities of the Estonian state. On Jul. 17, 1940, General Johan Laidoner and his wife were deported to Penza in Russia. President Konstantin Päts and his wife were arrested on Jul. 30 and deported to Ufa.
On Aug. 6, 1940, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union. In the same year, over 1,000 were arrested, and a lot of them executed. Preparations for the first mass deportations started shortly after.
A first wave was formally ordered on May 14, 1941.
Mass deportations start on 13 June 1941
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.
This article was first published on ERR News on 14 June 2016, 75 years after the deportations took place.
Editor: Dario Cavegn