Deportation processes in the Baltic States were organized by the Soviet occupation regime several times. In June 1941, the Soviets already forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of people from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, but it was considered insufficient to totally subjugate those states. In March 1949, the Soviet occupation regime conducted another deportation process under the code name Operation “Priboi”. It involved the eviction of the civilian population of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and their forcible relocation to Siberia and to other remote areas of the Northern part of the USSR. They deported 94,779 people, 15% of which died on the road [1, p. 315–316]. Why and how the Soviets deported so many people again?
The precondition for the mass deportation processes was the return of the Soviet occupation in the Baltic States in 1944–1945. Immediately afterwards, the authorities began repressions against people who had fought against the Soviet regime during the Second World War, as well as against intellectuals who had put up ideological and cultural resistance to communist expansion. Such a contingent of the population was described as “class enemies” and “bourgeois nationalists” — in fact, these terms included everyone suspected of anti-Soviet activities [2, p. 137].
The first large-scale operation of post-war deportations was Operation “Vesna”, conducted on 22–23 May 1948. During this operation, 39,766 people were forcibly evicted from the territory of the Lithuanian SSR. These were primarily “the forest brothers” — partisans who fought for Lithuanian independence. Apart from them, this deportation also targeted the wealthy population. The reason given was “dekulakisation”, but this was only a pretence. The main goal was the destruction of private land ownership. .
However, according to the Soviet security services, the action only partially solved the problem of the Baltic States’ integration into the USSR. There were still enough “hostile elements” in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In addition to “bourgeois nationalists” who opposed the communist regime, they included all people critical of the new government, as well as those who sympathised with them. According to the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, Joseph Stalin, cleansing the countries of the adherents of the old “bourgeois” order would facilitate the process of collectivisation, which was very slow and difficult in the region .
The largest act of communist genocide in the Baltic States in the post-war period was a top secret operation of the USSR MGB, codenamed “Priboi”, conducted on 25 March 1949, by order of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers of the USSR. By the order of the Minister of the USSR MGB of 28 February 1949, No. 0068, the operation was entrusted to the Main Directorate of Internal Troops (VV) of the USSR MGB (Chief Lieutenant General P. Burmak) .
In both 1941 and 1949, this was a deportation covering three republics at the same time. In Estonia and Latvia, there were two large deportations, in June 1941 and in March 1949. Lithuania, on the contrary, suffered more deportation processes besides these two. In particular, in the autumn of 1951 an additional mass deportation took place in Lithuania, codenamed Operation “Osin”. It was the last mass deportation in a series of Soviet deportations from Lithuania. The operation was a “dekulakisation” campaign, specifically targeting farmers who resisted collectivization and refused to join collective farms. The reason for such an aggressive policy of the Soviet repressive structures towards Lithuania was the most organized resistance to the Soviet regime in the country [19, p. 281–282].
Preparation for the operation
The most important documents for the study of this topic are kept in the collection of the Main Department of the Military Forces of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs, now the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow. They contain basic information on key individuals, evidence on the personnel of the security forces, and material on the logistics of deportation . The Department of the Military Police of the NKVD of the USSR Baltic District operated from 1945 to 1951, as part of the Main Directorate of the Internal Troops of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Directorate was subordinated to the 2nd Division of the USSR MGB in Siauliai; the 4th Division of the USSR MGB in Vilnius; the 5th Division of the USSR MGB in Riga; the 63rd Division of the USSR MGB in Tallinn; and the 48th Division of the USSR NKVD Convoy Troops in Riga. It was these forces that were involved in the deportation process, codenamed “Priboi”. According to the order of the Chief of the Convoy Troops of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs of 27 January, the 48th Division had to escort “special migrants” to remote regions of the USSR. By order of Colonel Kokhanovsky, the acting division commander, of 4 March 1949, 108 echelon commanders of the 48th Division were supposed to transport between 100 and 150 thousand people from the Baltics .
A column of military transport trucks in which deportees were taken away.
Estonia. Photo: 25 March 1949
Source: Järvamaa Muuseum .
Deported Estonians. Photo: March 1949 Source:
Private collection .
The process of the operation
Operation “Priboi”, or as it is also commonly known in historiography as the Great March Operation, was launched on the night of March 25, 1949. The process of forcible deportation started from the Baltic capitals — Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius — at 4am, and spread to the regions at 6am. It was scheduled to last for three days. According to the plan, the deportation process was as follows. Fist, the Soviet military forces by car got to the houses of soon deported citizens. The group leader, accompanied by soldiers, entered the house, identified who was inside, searched the premises, and informed the head of the family of deportation. A family had a little time to pack. After the belongings were collected, the Soviet soldiers brought those people to the loading points. The party and the Soviet activists involved in the operation stayed in the homes of the deportees to inventory their remaining property, as it was subject to confiscation. Meanwhile, the deportees were then taken to collection points (railway stations), where they were placed in trains . Thereafter, the deportees were sent on a long trip to the places of their forcible stay.
March deportation in Estonia
More than 2,000 Soviet security services operatives, almost 6,000 military personnel, and more than 8,000 party workers were involved in Estonia. According to the plan of the MGB of the ESSR, 7,540 families, with a total number of 22,326 people, were to be deported. During the four days from March 25 to 29, 7488 families, comprising 20,535 people, including 4579 men, 9890 women and 6066 children, were deported from Estonia to Siberia in 19 trains . However, the plan could not be fulfilled totally because 1791 people managed to hide. But, of course, the punitive communist authorities did not forget about them. After the end of Operation “Priboi”, a full-fledged hunt for them was set, which lasted several months .
Veronika Ariva (Saar) recalls the March 1949 deportation, when she, her mother and two brothers were placed on the deportation lists. Her father had been convicted earlier for delivering a funeral eulogy at the graves of his fallen friends who were members of the Forest Brothers, a partisan resistance movement that fought to restore the independence of the Baltic States. He was imprisoned in the Tallinn Patarei prison and later deported to the Soviet Far East, the island of Sakhalin.
She describes the events of March 1949 as follows: “The action was carried out in strict secrecy. The villagers did not know about it. In the morning, on March 25, our neighbour’s grandmother came to us. She said, trembling with fear, that the deportation of residents had begun, they were being taken away in trains to Siberia, and that we were also on the list, so we should run away from home. My brothers were 12 years old at the time, and my mother had just baked bread. The boys took some food with them and left the house, agreeing to meet their mother at a certain place. My mother and aunt had different surnames from the ones on the eviction list, so she took me by the hand, and we went to the neighbouring village where our friends lived, and told them everything. Then we saw people in the Soviet military uniforms driving to that village. It became clear that they were coming to take people away. Realizing this, my mother hid us in large special boxes on the edge of the village, and my aunt brought blankets to keep us warm. We lived in the forest for two weeks. Later, my aunt found out that the village council had ordered not to send those who remained, as the trains had already left, and thereafter, we returned home, but the feeling of danger had never disappeared” .
Another victim of mass deportation from the Baltics, Hilja Heinsoo, was born in Estonia in 1932. On March 25, 1949, Hilja was deported to Irkutsk region together with her parents. Before the deportation, the family was declared kulaks, which subsequently led to a heavy tax burden. On the day of the deportation, people were first brought to a school in the village of Lasva, then taken to the railway station in Vyr. While the deportees were transported on the train, Hilja was the person responsible for supplying the carriage with food. During station stops, she would go out to get food, which meant travelling with soldiers, who were mostly friendly towards the deportees and even agreed to deliver their letters to relatives who remained in Virumaa .
March deportation in Latvia
In Latvia, operation “Priboi” involved 3,300 operatives, 8,313 servicemen of the internal troops of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs and 9,800 soldiers of the Soviet army. The authorities used 31 railway trains consisting of freight cars to transport people. In total, 13,624 families or 42,975 people, mostly rural residents, were subject to deportation; they were classified by the Soviet authorities as “kulaks” or accomplices of the “forest brothers”. Of those deported in 1949, 183 died on the way; and 4941, or 12% of all those deported, died in exile. Thus, the irrecoverable population losses from the expulsion amounted to 6500 people, or 0.35% of the total population of Latvia at that time .
Photos from the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia showing victims of the March 1949 deportation. Photo: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia .
Edvards Peredistis, an employee of the Museum of Occupation in Latvia, recounts the deportation of 1949: “To transport the people to be deported, 31 railway trains with cattle wagons were brought together. I don’t know how many wagons there were in the trains, but it is clear that the deportees were kept in close quarters. Such conditions contradicted the decree of the Soviet authorities, which referred to wagons equipped for the transportation of people. In fact, there were no amenities. At best, a bucket or a hole in the carriage as a toilet” .
A deportation train at the Stende railway station. 25 March 1949. Photo: Jānis Indriks, from the archive of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (reproduction: Andrejs Strokins). .
March deportation in Lithuania
In Lithuania, operation “Priboi” was carried out with the special intervention of local Soviet authorities. The Communist activists were actively involved in cooperating with the Soviet repressive authorities and executing deportations. Thus, such assistance was manifested in pointing out the homes of villagers who were described as “kulaks” and families who disagreed with the Soviet governments’ policy after its return to the Lithuanian territory in 1944. Over 10,000 operatives and thousands of military personnel were involved in the surf operation. Therefore, 33,496 people were deported from Lithuania as part of operation “Priboi” [12, p.181]
Monument to repressed Lithuanians. Memory Square, Tomsk
(42-44 Lenina Ave.). .
The total number of deported people from the Baltic States in March 1949 was: men — 25,708, women — 41,987, children (under 16) — 27,084. A total of 94,779 people forcibly taken away from their homes to Siberia and Russia’s Far East . Behind these seemingly “dry” statistics are tens of thousands of human lives that were forever broken by the crimes of the Soviet repressive system. Besides, these numbers are huge in relation to the population of the Baltic States.
The geography of deportation of deported citizens from the Baltic States was as follows: Estonian residents were mostly sent to the Krasnoyarsk Territory and Novosibirsk Oblast, and partially to the Irkutsk and Omsk Oblasts of the RSFSR; Latvian citizens were mostly deported to the Amur, Omsk and Tomsk Oblasts; Lithuanian citizens were sent to the Tomsk Oblast .
The sand-filled cemetery of deportees in Tit-Ary (a village in the Khangalas ulus of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Russia).
Source: Museum of the Occupation and Liberation Struggle. .
In several stages, the Soviet authorities consistently and purposefully attempted to destroy the national consciousness of the citizens of the Baltic States, to subdue the desire to fight for the independence of these countries forever, and to deport or physically kill those who disagreed.
It should be noted that deportation meant being sent to a special settlement forever, meaning that none of the Soviet leaders intended to give people the opportunity to return home at any time. It was only after Stalin’s death that this became possible, but even then, the process of return was difficult: the Soviet authorities did not recognize that deportations were a crime until the late 1980s, on the contrary, they said that mass deportations from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were “forced measures”.
Such actions should be interpreted as an act of genocide against Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, and the main task for the future is to preserve the historical memory of these events and prevent the recurrence of such tragedies in the present. As Russia repeats the same narrative right now in Ukraine and against Ukrainians.
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