Remembering a legacy of terror
Philip Birzulis

Josef Stalin, one of the century’s most evil figures, is reported to have said with vicious cynicism, “one man dying in a traffic accident is a tragedy, but a million dead is just a statistic.”

On the 50th anniversary of one of the Soviet dictator’s worst crimes, Latvians recently paid tribute to the 42,178 people deported to Siberia on March 25, 1949.

Commemorative events were held all over Latvia, but the main focus was the Freedom Monument in Riga where a huge wreath and a long carpet of flowers were placed.

Olga, a pensioner, said she was there to remember her husband who was deported on March 25 and died two years after returning to Latvia.

Rasma, also a pensioner, tearfully remembered being terribly afraid half a century ago when neighbors were snatched away in the dead of night.

“Everything collapsed and my life was crippled,” she said.

The young remembered too. Inga, a student, said that her grandparents were deported but had thankfully returned.

Open wounds

The fate of the individuals deported was movingly depicted in a special exhibition unveiled in the Latvian Museum of Occupation March 24.

A funeral ribbon made from the red silk used for Soviet propaganda banners reminds us of Viesturs Tipainis, a young boy who drowned in 1949 in the Amur region of Siberia. There are poems and letters written on birch bark in the absence of paper.

As a boy, President Guntis Ulmanis was left to fend for himself when most of his family were deported for the crime of being related to pre-war leader Karlis Ulmanis. While praising people’s strength, Ulmanis added that a great deal of work still needs to be done.

“Two evils cannot be compared, each must be condemned in itself. Soviet totalitarianism, like Nazism, still has to be completely evaluated,” he said.

Several historians set out to do just that. Ainars Bambals, an expert at the Latvian State Archives, said that two groups of people were primarily affected by the deportations.

The first were those denounced by the Stalinist regime as “kulaks,” successful farmers who were standing in the way of the mass collectivization of agriculture. The second were deemed “nationalists,” social activists, military officers and others who had formed the core of independent Latvia’s civil society. Many of them had already been deported in 1941 but after returning were still deemed too dangerous to remain in their homeland.

According to Bambals, over two-thirds of those the regime called “kulaks and bandits” were women and children under the age of 16.

Professor Heinrihs Strods, who heads the museum’s research program, described the chilling efficiency with which the deportations were carried out in 33 convoys from 55 railway stations across Latvia. He also laid out a broader picture of totalitarian genocide.

Adding together victims in China, the Soviet Union and elsewhere, Strods said that up to 150 million people have been murdered by communist terror.

Strods explained some of the theories about Stalin and his madness, but several speakers sought justice closer to home.

While the 10-man squads that rounded up the deportees were led by NKVD (KGB) officers from other parts of the Soviet Union, some 60 percent of those involved were Latvian, said Bambals. Local score-settling and greed were primary reasons why many names appeared on the deportation lists.

Strods said the Latvian “marionette” government actively collaborated; he cited letters one Latvian high official wrote to Moscow urging that those exiled not be allowed to return.

On display at the museum are the deportation decrees signed in 1949 by Vilis Lacis, a writer who prospered as a quisling of the occupation authorities.

Visvalds Aivars, chairman of the Association of the Politically Repressed, said the schisms from these times are still visible. He condemned many of Latvia’s current leaders who he said actively collaborated with the Soviets. He expressed hope that a new generation of teachers “morally uncrippled” by communism would teach the truth about what happened.

“These young people will lead our nation to a brighter future,” he said.

Marked for life

If Latvians still have to come to terms with their own role in the deportations, there is also debate about just how much suffering they inflicted. Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans was born in Siberia after his parents were exiled, but he raised some controversy on March 25 by saying that he had pleasant memories of his childhood there.

Roberts Kilis, a Latvian anthropologist who has extensively researched the opinions of his countrymen who chose to stay in Siberia rather than return from exile, concurs with this view. He has suggested that official accounts tend to emphasize the most horrible aspects as part of a national myth-making process that started in the late 1980s.

Peteris Simsons was just one year old when he was put on a train with his mother bound for the Tomsk region. He agreed that things were much worse for the deportees of 1941 who were “basically dumped in the tundra” to starve or survive as they might. Because the 1949 exiles provided a work force for Siberian collective farms, they were treated a little better, said Simsons, but he still remembers severe hunger.

Everything on the collective farms belonged to the state, so it was a crime for starving people to take food.

The moral perversity of the communists can also be seen in their boast that Soviet power never separated families, according to Simsons; this was the macabre rationale of why children were sent east as well.

“The Soviet regime had a ‘strange humanity’,” he said ironically.

Simsons’ “crime” as a baby had been that his father was jailed by the Soviets for serving as a very low ranking official during the German wartime occupation.

He and his parents eventually returned to Latvia in 1958. He said his father always spoke openly about what had happened and told his son that the only way he would get ahead under the regime would be to compromise everything the family believed in.

The younger Simsons never joined the Komsomol or any other Soviet organization. Because of his past as a deportee, he was thrown out of university several times and, after taking part in dissident activities in the ’60s, he was shadowed by the KGB for years.

The independence movement of the late ’80s finally gave him the chance to actively fight for his beliefs. He served as a member of the Supreme Council, the forerunner of the current Parliament, from 1990 to 1993. Today he is visibly angry about what he describes as the betrayal by the government of those Latvians still living in Russia.

Currently the director of the Department of Logistics in the Defense Ministry, Simsons claims that he has a driving mission to do something for Latvia in overcoming the legacy of the Soviet years.

“For 40 years I was unable to do anything, but in the last 10 I have been trying to put things right.” 

  © The Baltic Times.       01.04.1999

to: Crimes Against Humanity