The glasnost announced by Mikhail Gorbachev made it possible to revise the official version of history that had hitherto prevailed, to reassess the interpretation of the past, and to dispose of Soviet lies. In the first instance, this affected the Stalinist terror and mass repressions in the Soviet Union as a whole as well as in the occupied Baltic States. People started talking openly about these more in 1987–1988 in Estonia. The first mass deportation took place in June of 1941, when the “socially dangerous element”, consisting of the political, military and economic elite numbering over 10,000 people (arrested and deported), was forcibly resettled in cattle cars from Estonia to Russia. Together with Lithuania and Latvia, over 40,000 people were deported at that time, mostly women, children and the elderly. Most of the arrested heads of families died in the GULAG.
This article discusses in greater detail the research that has been conducted in Estonia of the mass deportation that was carried out in March of 1949. This research gathered steam in 1988. The Soviet regime had concealed and justified the extent and nature of this crime against humanity for decades. The number of deportees had admittedly already been disclosed earlier in some academic manuscripts and publications, but the broader readership did not have access to such studies. “Enemies of the people, illegals, kulaks, nationalists and bandits, and their helpers,” all of them together with their families, were subject to deportation in 1949. USSR Council of Ministers directives set the overall numbers of deportees. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of State Security and the military carried out the operation under the overall direction of the Communist Party. The plan was to deport 22,500 people (7,500 families) from Estonia, but the authorities did not succeed in rounding up that many people.
More detailed research, which was facilitated by the granting of access to hitherto classified Communist Party archival documents, determined that over 20,000 people (2% of the population), the youngest of which is known to have been a 3-day-old girl and the oldest of which was a 95-year-old woman, were deported on 25–29 March in 19 echelons (about 1,000 cattle cars) from the Estonian SSR to Siberia. About 90,000 people in total were deported during those days from their homes in all of the former Baltic States together to Siberia. Some historians who investigated these repressions believed that the state security organs had deliberately reduced the official numbers and that Soviet statistics could not be trusted. About 35,000 (Prof. Herbert Ligi), 40,000–60,000 (Prof. Rein Taagepera), and even more have been estimated as the number of deportees from Estonia in March of 1949. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the surviving arrested persons and those who had been banished into exile started returning to Estonia. The largest waves of persons released from the GULAG and from exile began in 1956 and continued in the 1960s.
The occupying Soviet regime had many reasons for mass repressions. One reason was the “building of socialism”, or sovietisation, in the Baltic countries, which stipulated the collectivisation of agriculture “according to the model of the older Soviet republics”. Farmers were opposed to such forcible collectivisation since it meant the destruction of farm households and the expropriation of the property of farmers without any compensation. By the outset of 1949, only 5.8% of farms had joined collective farms in Estonia. The Soviet regime had to use more resolute means of coercion and direct violence in order to establish the collective farm system. On 17 January 1949, First Secretary of the Estonian Communist (Bolshevist) Party Nikolai Karotamm wrote to Moscow that the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” was necessary in order to implement collectivisation. This liquidation was to be carried out by the expulsion of the kulaks from the borders of the Estonian SSR. Another reason that comes into consideration is that the re-occupation of Estonia by the Red Army in the autumn of 1944 resulted in the emergence of an armed resistance movement (forest brothers) against the Soviet regime. It is not known how many active fighters there were in the woods. The motives of the people who hid in the woods differed and their number also varied. Researchers have estimated widely varying numbers ranging from 10,000 (Herbert Ligi) to 30,000 (Evald Laasi, Mart Laar).
Deportations directly affected a very large quantity of families of victims. For this reason, the number of articles, and radio and television broadcasts on this topic was very large. The Estonian Telegraph Agency’s official material entitled Klassivõitlus Eestis 1940–1950-ndail aastail [Class Struggle in Estonia in the 1940s and 1950s] that appeared in newspapers on 20 March 1988 seemed to mock the victims. It justified the deportations as having been necessary due to the acute class struggle that had developed in Estonian villages, the actions of counterrevolutionary forces, banditry, and the terror inflicted by kulaks (more prosperous farmers), all of which hindered the collectivisation of agriculture and the liquidation of kulaks as a class. This article that used Stalinist phraseology to express the position of the Estonian Communist Party Central Committee unleashed a widespread wave of protests. The reaction of intellectuals from the University of Tartu was especially acute. The editorial offices of newspapers received many letters from angry citizens. Articles appeared as a backlash in which the repressions carried out by the Soviet regime were termed crimes against humanity that have no justification. The unconditional nullification of the convictions of all victims was demanded, along with compensation of damages caused to them. The idea emerged at that time to compile the White Book of the losses of the Estonian people through the occupations of the country by the Soviets and Nazi Germany. The volumes of this book on these two occupations were published in 1991 and 2005.
The Estonian Group for the Public Disclosure of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact organised a demonstration in Estonia in Tallinn’s city centre on 25 March 1988 to commemorate the day of remembrance for the victims of the deportation of March, 1949. The ruling Communist Party was sharply criticised at a meeting in question and answer format held by the ruling authorities at the Communist Party Political Education Building, which was attended by a large number of people. The participants demanded that the local leaders Karl Vaino and Bruno Saul be removed from their positions and that they be brought before the people and prosecuted. Compensation of damages inflicted on repressed persons was also demanded, and the question was raised of Estonia seceding from the Soviet Union. The 39th anniversary of the March deportation in 1988 was the last attempt by the conservative leaders of the ESSR to obstruct the reassessment of history in Estonia using various means, including the arrest of dissidents.
The end of 1988 was altogether different from its beginning. The organ of the occupying regime, the ESSR Supreme Soviet, declared extrajudicial mass repressions “crimes against humanity” in December of 1988. That same Supreme Soviet had adopted the unprecedented declaration of the sovereignty of the Estonian SSR on 16 November of that same year. It passed a language act at the start of the following year that established Estonian as the country’s official language. The anniversaries of Independence Day of the Republic of Estonia on 24 February 1988 and 1989 differed like night and day when viewed from the official vantage point of the authorities. It was difficult to imagine one year earlier that the 71st anniversary of Estonia’s independence would be legalised and commemorated at the republic-wide Communist Party level with a festive assembly and the hoisting of the blue, black and white national flag at the top of Pikk Hermann Tower in Toompea, the seat of power in the republic. The situation had changed so much in the course of only one year. The freedom movement known as the Singing Revolution had brought tangible results. Estonia proceeded on course to restore the national independence that was lost in 1940, which came to fruition on 20 August 1991.