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“Estonian boys, cross over! You’ll get a full stomach and home for Christmas!” On the Fate of the Men who Changed Sides at Velikije Luki

The course of fighting of the Red Army’s Estonian Rifle Corps in the Second World War was not exactly glorious, but the most had to be made of even this on the propaganda front. Thus the Battle of Velikije Luki was turned into a kind of cultic event in Soviet Estonia. Under the conditions of glasnost at the end of the 1980s, Estonians who had fought in the Red Army started being talked about publicly from a somewhat different angle. It was recognised that the Estonian Rifle Corps was essentially crushed at Velikije Luki, and a couple of thousand Estonians changed sides.

The Estonian Rifle Corps lost a total of over 16,000 soldiers at Velikije Luki who were killed, wounded, missing in action, taken prisoner or defected The amount of defectors and soldiers taken prisoner is estimated at over 2,000. The main reason for changing sides was unwillingness to fight in the army of the occupying regime. Additionally, everyone remembered the repressions that were carried out in Estonia in 1940–1941. Their experience of Soviet reality in labour battalions and training camps, hunger and misery, the Red Army’s tactics for waging warfare that did not care about human lives, and other such factors intensified the men’s repulsion and anger towards the Soviet Union even further.

Hundreds of men who changed sides crossing over the inner front line into the town of Velikije Luki fell into the hands of the Red Army after the town was captured. They were treated like traitors to their homeland and were tried by military tribunal. The tribunal sentenced a smaller portion of this group to execution by firing squad while most of the men were transferred to Red Army penal battalions, where the chances for survival were not much greater. The Estonians who changed sides crossing over the outer front line were gathered via distribution camps into the Polotsk transit camp. Most of them were sent to Estonia in the spring, where they were mostly released but with the requirement that they had to “voluntarily” join the German Army.