Thousands of Estonians lit candles across the Baltic state on Monday (25 March) in memory of the victims of Soviet mass deportations launched 70 years ago that saw tens of thousands sent to labour camps in Siberia, where many of them died.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the mass deportations of so-called “enemies of the people” from Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after the USSR occupied the trio during World War II.
Launched on 25 March 1949, the deportations saw an estimated 95,000 Baltic residents, including some 32,000 from Lithuania, 42,000 from Latvia and 21,000 from Estonia, sent to “gulags” or Soviet forced labour camps in Siberia. A large proportion were women and children.
European Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis from Lithuania was born in the Gulag in 1951.
“Only together can we stand up against the return of a totalitarian way of thinking and all-embracing cruelty and so stand for the free world and society where nobody feels fear,” Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid said as she paid homage to the thousands who perished in the Russian far east.
Deportees who survived were allowed to return home between 1958 and 1965.
The European Court of Human Rights has recognised the deportations as a crime against humanity.
“I’m here because my own ancestors were deported: they were taken to Siberia and they died there,” Katlin, a 35-year-old Tallinn resident who declined to give her surname, told AFP at an evening candlelight vigil in the city’s Freedom Square that drew thousands.
Sisters Elle and Malle Viitamees were both small children when they were deported along with their family to Novosibirsk.
“I didn’t even realise that something was wrong. The fact that we had nothing to eat or drink was something normal — no one had anything,” said Elle, who is now 72, told AFP of growing up in Siberia as she lit candles in Freedom Square.
Her family returned to Estonia in 1958.
Several thousand people also gathered in cities and towns across Latvia to honour deportees.
“This day is when we bring together survivors of the deportations with children of today so that kids can hear these horror stories of survival in the Gulag from first hand sources,” Andrejs Ancans, an activist involved organising a memorial event in Riga, told AFP.