Soviet Repressions in Estonia

Professor Anu Mai Köll sits at one end of a long rectangular table, dwarfed by the giant projection screen behind her. It is the end of her presentation on Soviet repressions in Estonia, and on her final slide only two words appear: Linda’s story.

The year was 1945. Linda, a teenager, lived in Estonia, a country most Americans were unable to locate on a map. The Soviets had invaded for the second time in five years, and this time, their occupation seemed permanent. Those who were unable to escape to the West with the retreating German army were about to spend fifty years living under Soviet-style communism.

The Soviets accused Linda’s father of collaborating with the Nazis and deported him to a labor camp. His fate was comparatively lucky considering that many accused collaborators were shot on the spot. The new communist regime branded the rest of Linda’s family an “enemy of the people.”

Ostracized by the new society, Linda married, changed her name, and accepted a job in which she reported other “enemies of the people” to the Soviet authorities. By nestling herself within the “bosom of her enemy,” she saved herself from deportation, but she could do nothing but watch as her mother and small brother were forcibly removed to Siberian labor camps.

It is not an uncommon story in post-war Estonia, said Köll, a Professor of Baltic History, Culture and Society at Södertörn University College in Sweden.

Köll’s research focuses on post-war deportations directed against the kulaks, or the class of relatively wealthy, land-owning peasants. In her forthcoming book, she examines how the Soviets were able to carry out their “dekulakization” from 1940 to 1949.

A central challenge for the Soviets was identifying kulaks in an “egalitarian” society. The line between victims and perpetrators was unclear, Köll said. By beginning at the village level and forcing local populations to identify kulaks, the Soviets managed to institute a “systematic screening of the entire population.” According to historians, the dekulakization process resulted in the mass deportation of over 20,000 Estonians in 1949.

Through her research, Köll attempts to answer a larger question: “To what extent does [the Estonian experience] throw light on Soviet repression elsewhere?”

Köll acknowledged that the procedure of deporting Estonians was similar in nature to deportations in other Soviet-occupied countries. What differentiated Estonia and the Baltic states was the legacy of the German occupation during the war, a legacy which condemned Linda’s family and others like it.

Anyone thought to be a Nazi sympathizer was automatically subject to interrogations and arrests. While the Soviets easily justified the arrests—wasn’t it right to punish a Nazi?—Köll implied that the issue was far more complicated.

A brief history of war-torn Estonia reveals that on their way east to invade Russia, the Nazis ended a brutal occupation of Estonia by the Soviets. The USSR had occupied Estonia in 1940 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, whereby Estonia fell under the Russian sphere of influence. The Nazis became “the enemy of my enemy,” to borrow the old proverb. Brutalized by the Soviets, and caught between the voracious appetites of Hitler and Stalin, it would seem that the Estonians viewed Germans as the lesser of two evils.

Even today, the Russians still portray Estonians as Nazi-sympathizers. Just two years ago, Russians were outraged at the Estonian attempt to remove Tallinn Square’s Bronze Soldier monument, a statue that commemorated the Soviets who died in the “liberation” of the Estonians from the Nazis. While the Russians claimed that the Estonians were pro-Nazi for taking the statue down, others believed that branding the Estonians as Nazi-sympathizers was merely a convenient way for Russia to extricate itself from blame for its past offenses.

While Köll sought to discover larger trends in post-war Soviet repression, perhaps her research also suggests that Estonia still feels the powerful hand of Russia.

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