An interview with Taiga Koknevica and Evita Feldentale, employees of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, about Soviet deportations from Latvia in 1941 and 1949.

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.


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    Vladyslav H. I think the Soviet authorities did not expect that deportees from resettlements would ever return home if not for Stalin’s death. Did the children have problems with self-identification growing up in the camps? Was it difficult for them to communicate in Latvian afterwards?

    Evita F. That’s what I’m working on right now. We are studying the testimonies of eyewitnesses of the deportations of 1941 and 1949. According to them, the older people never lost hope that they would return home, despite they didn’t know when or how it would become possible. At the same time, the younger generation, who were born or grew up in the resettlement camps, had given up and tried to live in the environment they were placed into. We have such video testimonies, even of mothers and daughters, who had two different visions of the same deportation. The older generation tried to stay aware of their Latvian origin and kept their Latvian names, while the younger generation sometimes adjusted their names to the Russian spelling, for example Tamara instead of Latvian Mara or Mari.

    Everything depended on individual cases. The younger generation of deportees did not always teach their children Latvian, as they were often busy at work, but if there was a grandmother, the third generation of the family, she might take a lead and teach children the national language. Sometimes returning from deportation created problems with language adaptation. We know of a case when a family chose to send their children to a Russian-language school in Latvia because it was easier for the child.

    Vladyslav H. This is very useful information as we investigate current deportations of Ukrainian children by Russian invaders and their attempts to erase their national identity by imposed Russification. Taiga, could you tell more about such loss of identity in the special settlements? Were there children who grew up and didn’t speak Latvian or didn’t understand it well enough to continue their education in Latvia?

    Taiga K. There might be some complications, but I think still the national identity was mainly preserved through the family. In the 1950s, after returning to Latvia, such children could be enrolled in one of many Latvian schools, still remaining in rural areas. Difficulties in education arose because of the material situation, because in deportation many, especially boys, worked on collective farms to support their families, having little time to study.

    In fact, the national identity was maintained through family and communication with other Latvians. However, sometimes it required to pay a high price for instance, one could be transferred to either prison or camp for singing Latvian songs at the resettlement camp.

    Evita F. We started collecting video testimonies in 1996 and still gather this information today. My colleagues told me an interesting story of two deported sisters. One went back to Latvia, while the other stayed in resettlement. The cases vary, sometimes people returned from deportation to their home country many years later, but could not find a job or a place to live and went back. There is quite tragic evidence of family break-ups caused by deportations, but such stories exist.

    Vladyslav H. Evita, can you tell us about the archive of evidence of Soviet deportations from Latvia?

    Evita F. We have a collection of 2,262 video testimonies and we keep recording them. They include testimonies of the victims, evicted between 1941 and 1949, witnesses of the deportations and people who managed to escape from the deportations, but also remember those terrible events.

    Vladyslav H. Taiga, to what extent the Soviet deportations from Latvia overlap with contemporary deportations of Ukrainians, in your opinion?

    Taiga K. Probably the goals of the crime are the same to break the spirit, the resistance. In 1941, they took Latvians away to the Krasnoyarsk region, in 1949 more people were deported to Tomsk and Omsk, Amur regions, 5-6 thousand kilometres away from Latvia. And deportees had to stay here forever, without the right to return.

    Our museum keeps the notebooks of doctor Janis Schneider, who was deported from Latvia and worked as a surgeon in a camp of Viatlag. He carried on his work as a surgeon there and was recording data of the Latvians, who died there from August 1941 until June 1942. During this incomplete year alone, he recorded the deaths of over 400 men, deported in 1941.

    Modern Russia is likely trying to do the same, as we find evidence of deported Ukrainians in Siberia and the Far East regions of the Russian Federation, Kamchatka. It is imperative to condemn and stop this criminal process so that deportations never repeat in Latvia or Ukraine.

    Soviet deportations from Latvia in 1941 and 1949.