Stalinist Agents Off to Court in the Baltics By Michael Tarm
In one file is the deportation order for an entire family, including an 8-year-old boy. In another is a death sentence handed down to a businessman for joking about the demise of communism.
These old KGB files, among 30,000 in a city-center Tallinn archive, aren’t simply a record of Estonia’s darkest era. For Estonians, they’re the focus of a present-day campaign to root out still-living Stalinist agents and convict them.
“This isn’t just history,” said archive researcher Indrek Urjo, waving a set of wispy, peppermint-green KGB papers, each page stamped with faded-red hammer-and-sickles. “This is evidence of a crime.”
Millions of people were deported and killed during Stalin’s reign, but other ex-Soviet republics aren’t even talking about prosecutions. In all three Baltic states, however, efforts to hunt down those responsible for Stalinist crimes are in full swing.
Earlier this year, an Estonian court found 78-year-old Johannes Klaassepp guilty of deporting dozens of families to Siberia—the first successful Stalinist conviction in Estonia. There have been others since then.
Latvia and Lithuania have also convicted a number of ex-KGB officials, dozens of trials are ongoing, and hundreds of suspects are under investigation in all three countries.
In Estonia, where a 1995 law mandates prosecutions of Stalinist agents, investigators arrive at the vast, cellar archive in Tallinn almost daily, patiently combing through the manila-brown KGB files for evidence.
With fewer than 20 investigators assigned to the cases, Estonian authorities say the main problem is deciding which of the mountains of available KGB documents to start picking at first.
“It’s like surfing the Internet,” explained Estonian Defense Police spokesman Hannes Kont. “There’s so much information, you have no choice but to focus your search…It’s a daunting task.”
After matching suspects with death certificates, investigators found that the top KGB bosses in Estonia have long since died. Today, they’re working their way down the command pyramid, investigating second- and third-level agents.
Over 100,000 Balts were deported in the years after the Soviet occupation in 1940. The first wave of deportations was in 1941, followed by even larger deportations starting in March, 1949.
The first deportations were mostly of political, business and military leaders. Deportations in 1949 and then again in 1951 targeted relatives of earlier deportees.
“The idea was to first arrest, deport and shoot the cream of society,” explained Kont. “Later, they went after their wives, children and parents.”
Arrests were often made at night, with KGB guards giving people just minutes to gather a few clothes before they were marched off to waiting freight trains.
One witness in the trial of convicted agent Vassili Beskov, described how he, his brother, mother and father were loaded onto a train bound for Siberia.
His mother pleaded in vain for the release of her children.
“She fell to her knees and cried, ‘You can shoot me, but I beg you to set my children free,’” a tearful Vello Leibur told an Estonian court. “My brother and I just stood there screaming.”
Up to 20 percent of deportees died in the harsh conditions of Russia’s Siberian hinterland.
Prosecutors say one obstacle is a lack of reliable witnesses. Many are too elderly or were children at the time of their arrest and now have hazy, imperfect recollections.
Less surprisingly, the accused also claim memory loss.
Asked at his trial about signing deportation papers when he was a secret police official, Johannes Klaassepp said he could recall nothing.
“I do not remember,” he told a judge. “Honestly, I don’t!”
Klaassepp’s lawyers also argued he was a tiny part in a larger machine and shouldn’t be held accountable.
Most Estonians disagree.
“Neither Hitler nor Stalin ever personally killed anybody,” Kalju Pajupuu recently wrote in Estonia’s Postimees newspaper. “It was always the little cogs who did all the dirty work.”
Authorities in all three pro-Western, strongly anti-communist Baltics insist their efforts to track down old Stalinist agents have nothing to do with revenge.
As proof, Estonian police spokesman Kont pointed to the lenient, eight-year suspended prison sentence handed down to Johannes Klaassepp.
“You see, this is absolutely not about revenge,” he said. “It’s about truth and responsibility. It’s about being able to look victims in the eye and say, ‘Look, we did something. We got a verdict. The truth was revealed.’ ”
He said prosecutions were also necessary for society as a whole, which Kont said still hasn’t honestly confronted the Stalinist legacy.
“You can’t just leave old wounds festering,” he said. “If someone has a family member raped or murdered, you don’t expect them to get on with their lives until the guilty party is found out, do you? The same goes for society. We need to fill this black hole in our history, and make peace with ourselves.”
Estonia may be able to deal with KGB crimes of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but can never shed much light on later repressions.
As the USSR began breaking apart in the early 1990s, Moscow whisked more recent KGB documents out of Estonia. Others were simply destroyed.
But for reasons the Estonian police spokesman says aren’t clear, Soviet authorities left behind the row upon row of Stalinist-era files now lining the cold, desolate walls of the Tallinn archive.
“Perhaps they were in too big a hurry and didn’t have time to destroy them,” he said. “But I think they simply figured these old files were just history, and that no one would ever try to sort out the crimes documented here...They were wrong.”
CITY PAPER-The Baltic States