In this in-depth interview, Taiga Koknevica and Evita Feldentale from the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia discuss deportations from Latvia, carried out by the Soviet regime in 1941 and 1949. Covering both political context and hardships endured by the deportees, the experts unveil an orchestrated policy of changing the fabric of Latvian political nation behind the evictions of intelligentsia and peasantry. Discussing the loss of national identity, especially language assimilation of children growing up in the resettlement camps, Taiga Koknevica and Evita Feldentale highlight similarities between the past Soviet deportations from Latvia and the contemporary Russian deportations of Ukrainians and emphasize the need to stop these criminal acts to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring.
Vladyslav Havrylov. According to various sources, the Russian invaders have deported 2.8 to 4.7 million Ukrainians, including hundreds of thousands of children. At the same time, forcible evictions have also occurred during the Soviet era and affected the Baltic States. Please tell us about the first deportation wave from Latvia, which is commemorated on June 14, 1941.
Taiga Koknevic. According to the data from the archives, 15,424 people were deported between 1941 and 1949. Mainly these were important people in society: military, intellectuals, journalists, book publishers, teachers and large-scale farmers. This action was directed against people who might have resisted the Soviet occupation, which started on June 17, 1940 according to the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that placed Latvia within the Soviet sphere of influence.
During the loading, families were separated. Women with small children were sent to the places of settlement, mainly the Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk region of the RSFSR. Men were separately delivered to Gulag camps. While travelling to their destination for over a week, they discovered that the war between the USSR and Germany had begun due to occasional interruptions on their journey. They noticed military personnel and weapons being transported in the opposite direction towards the western borders of the USSR. But this had no effect on the fate of the deported men, who were brought to the camps and trialled mainly for political reasons — for example, for serving in the military or police during the time of independent Latvia. A lot of people died in these camps. The relatives of these men also had no contact with them to write a letter or send food, as there was a war going on.
If we talk about statistics of the national contingent deported from Latvia in 1941, 80% were Latvians, but about 5% consisted of Russians and Germans, and almost 12% of all deportees were Jews. That deportation was based on social and political principle, as Soviet authorities aimed to deport the population able to organize resistance to the Soviet occupation of Latvia. Out of 15,000 deportees, about 2,000 died in special settlements, 3,441 people died in camps and 700 people were sentenced to capital punishment and shot by so-called “troikas”.
Only half of the deportees — about 8.5 thousand people — managed to return to Latvia later. The return became possible only after Stalin’s death and took place in 1955–1957.
Vladyslav H. When you say wealthy Latvian peasants were deported and also when they purposefully separated heads of families, men from wives and children — was this a planned action of the Soviet punitive bodies?
Taiga K. Of course, this is a measure that deprives a family of both physical and mental strength. A man was traditionally responsible for the well-being of his family, but then the family was forcibly separated, and a woman had to do hard physical work like agriculture or logging, while simultaneously taking care of her children. Sometimes women were deported with elderly parents and had to care for their families on their own. There is also an aspect of psychological trauma, as they had no contact with husbands and other relatives during the deportation.
There are, however, quite a few cases when relatives from Latvia found information about their deported relatives in the special settlements. Sometimes they tried to write to them and pass food — particularly, to men, held in the camps. Unfortunately, it often did not help due to the mortality rate in the camps.
Vladyslav H. We know, in particular, the story of Robert Puriņš, who almost died in the deportation from dystrophy, returned to Latvia, and got deported again after recovery.
Evita Feldentale. Yes, he was basically deported 2 times, which is not exactly a “classic” example of deportation. But this story is really an important example of conditions in the Gulag, where he fell so ill that the commission recognised he was close to death and sent him back to Latvia. Later, he recovered, and the Soviet occupiers returned him to the camps.
When Latvia was occupied by Germans in 1941–1944, many Latvian men participated in the fight for national independence, so when the Soviets came back in 1944 they deported and sent these people to camps. Unfortunately, the Soviets returned to Latvia with their repressive methods for almost 50 years.
What is characteristic of the 1941 deportations, is that the Soviet occupiers deported the elite of the nation, educated people — scientists, lawyers, journalists. The political elite was also deported, including Kārlis Ulmanis, the last prime minister and then president of independent Latvia until 1940. He was not deported in 1941, instead, he was arrested in July 1940, taken to Moscow and then — to remote regions of the USSR, where he died in exile.
Vladyslav H. Taiga, how the deportations of 1949 differed from those of 1941, and why it happened again?
Taiga K. It repeated because a certain situation changed. World War II hostilities on Latvian territory ended in 1944, but a very widespread national partisan movement kept unfolding. A lot of people were fighting in the forests. They also did not want to be mobilized into the German or Soviet army. As a consequence, many people were deported for supporting this national partisan movement by providing them with food and shelter.
In this wave of deportation, 44,271 people were evicted from Latvia — mostly women, old people and children. Even this time, if there was a man left in the family, he was sent to a settlement site, but there were very few such families. In 1949, deportations were carried out on two grounds. Firstly, families who supported national partisans were evicted as a preventive measure to stop national movement. The second aim was collectivization — forced registration of Latvian peasants in Soviet collective farms. Latvian farmers were reluctant to join the collective farms, but all farmers, who owned 20–30 hectares of land, were automatically classified as “kulaks” and deported. All their property, including agricultural machinery, land, and livestock, was confiscated to the collective farms. At this stage, a total of 2–3% of the Latvian population was deported.
This practice shows that the Soviet authorities repeated in Latvia what they did in Ukraine earlier in the 1930s, when over 200,000 peasants were dubbed “kulaks” and deported for a refusal to join the collective farms. Later, in 1947, the Soviets carried out Operation West and evicted supporters of UPA. Hence, we can see the same practices of totalitarianism, the non-human system of the communist regime wherever it comes.