The commemoration of Soviet deportations is an important part of Latvian collective memory. Many citizens of Latvia suffered deportation. Experts estimate that over 60,000 people were deported between 1941 and 1951. The tens of thousands of deportees and other victims of repressions have given the Stalinist era an extraordinarily inhumane face in the history of Latvia.
The Latvian government has created a commission that is researching the effects of Soviet occupation in Latvia – victims, repressions, and material losses1 – and has recognized that these victims are the most directly calculable losses suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime.
The tradition of commemorating the victims of deportation began in the latter half of the 1980s and became one of the precursors to the National Awakening movement when, on 14 June 1987, the human rights group Helsinki-86 organized a flower laying ceremony at the Freedom Monument to commemorate the victims of the 1941 deportations.
The loss of human life, suffering, and long-term feeling of wrong-doing, as well as the generally negative opinion about the brutality of the Soviet regime in the West, became the central motivation for the initiative for commemoration at the end of the 1980s and the strengthening of this tradition during the 1990s. It was precisely the grass roots and government initiatives that made the deportation experience a significant aspect of Latvian identity, which social anthropologist Vieda Skultāns has compared to the role of the Holocaust in determining Jewish identity.
The rise of the National Awakening movement gave impetus for the creation of societies and clubs that united people who had been politically repressed, and the members of these organizations were also the main driving force behind creating commemoration memorials and plaques. The public was invited to donate funds, participate in the design of memorial plaques and monuments, find the most appropriate locations, and help fix up these areas.
These places of commemoration were most frequently placed in spots where people had experienced physical brutality: railway stations where people had been corralled into cattle cars for the trip to Siberia and marshaling areas where they had been forced to congregate before deportation, such as municipal buildings, post offices, KGB buildings, and churches. Places of commemoration were less frequently created in places close to the homes of the deported, their destroyed homesteads, or city squares.
Latvia has 390 registered memorial plaques dedicated to the memory of the deported, repressed, or other victims of the Soviet regime; 40 symbolic grave sites dedicated to those who were deported and whose fate is not known, created by their family members; and 109 actual grave sites of deported, repressed, or other victims of the Soviet regime that contain the remains of one, several tens, or even hundreds of people. In all, a total of 539 commemorative sites have been created in Latvia.
Since the renewal of Latvian independence, four official days of commemoration have been declared:
The commemoration of the deportations are most directly associated with 25 March and 14 June. These days of commemoration are not just symbolic, but are connected to a return to historical truths.
Most of the deportees returned to Latvia during the “thaw” initiated by the then head of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev. During this time, people began to discuss Stalinist repressions not only privately, but also publicly. Nevertheless, the period of liberalization in the late 1950s was too brief to instill an alternative understanding of the Soviet version of history.
In the latter part of Soviet occupation, the topic of deportations was not critically evaluated in the public sphere, but rather this policy was justified by claiming the need to protect the Soviet regime. In addition, the Soviet regime continued to view the returned deportees with suspicion – they were often unable to develop careers or travel to ‘capitalist’ countries in the west. As a result, deportation continued to be a stigma for the victims and created a lasting sense of injustice.
Currently, Latvia has approximately 16,000 people who have received the status of ‘politically repressed persons’. Among them are many who were deported to Siberia during the Soviet occupation. People with this designation may retire and receive pension benefits earlier than other citizens. In addition, they also receive other benefits, which are determined by the municipalities or townships in which they live.
The renewal of historical justice also requires punishing those who are guilty of these acts. In 1996, the European Parliament General Assembly adopted resolution Nr. 1096, in which measures to dismantle the heritage of former communist totalitarian systems were defined so that cases can be investigated and criminal charges brought against those individuals who committed crimes during the Soviet totalitarian regime.
Since 1991, eight people have been charged with the crime of participating in the deportations; five have been convicted: Alfons Novik, Mihail Farbtuh, Jevgeny Savenko, Nikolay Larionov and Nikolay Tess.
Many state and non-governmental organizations have participated in the commemoration of the deportations – their primary goals are to identify aspects of the history of the deportations, compile information, and educate society. Latvia has many ‘politically repressed’ associations whose main purpose is to continue the tradition of remembering in various regions of Latvia.
One of the most active and outspoken organizations on the national level is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (LOM), founded in 1993. Soviet repressions are the central element of the museum’s permanent exhibition. LOM also has as video archive of over 2000 oral testimonies of which approximately 40% are from former deportees.
The Latvian State Archives (LVA) are also actively involved with research and the dissemination of the history of the deportations. This institution has compiled a vast collection of information and documentation about the deportees. One of their largest projects is the creation of a database about those deported during the two largest deportations in 1941 and 1949 that has culminated in the two-volume publication Aizvestie [The Deported].
In 2000, the foundation Sibīrijas bērni [Siberia’s Children] was founded, which has also made a significant contribution to the practice of remembrance of the deportations through its vast collection of video testimonies from people who experienced the deportations as children. These interviews have been used by the founder of the organization and film director Dzintra Geka to produce several documentaries. The foundation has organized memorials outside Latvia and trips to deportation locations in Siberia (Vyatlag, Solikamsk, Kirov, Omsk, Norilsk, etc.) where commemorative plaques have been unveiled.
Memoirs of the deported and dramatizations of their stories are published and produced regularly, and poetry, many written by the victims themselves, are often an integral part of commemoration ceremonies. During the National Awakening period, memoirs most frequently appeared in the press, but since the renewal of independence, many volumes have been published in which the victims share their stories. Examples are Gunārs Freimanis’ edited 10-volume collection of memoirs and documents, Anda Līce’s edited 6-volume series of memoirs, and the Siberia’s Children Foundation’s 2-volume memoirs.
In addition, other authors have published their memoirs in many regions of Latvia. In the last 20 years, memoirs by those who experienced repressions at the hands of the Soviet regime have been published almost annually.
Accounts of Soviet deportations have also appeared in Latvian fiction. Since the National Awakening, many novels, documentary films and plays have featured deportation as the central theme.
D. Bleiere un J. Riekstiņš, Latvijas iedzīvotāju pirmā masveida deportācija. 1941. gada 14. jūnijs, Rīga, Latvijas Valsts arhīvs, 2007
D. Bleiere un J. Riekstiņš, Latvijas iedzīvotāju otrā masveida deportācija. 1949. gada 25. marts, Rīga, Latvijas Valsts arhīvs, 2008
M. Kaprāns, O. Procevska, L. Uzule un A. Saulītis (red.), Padomju deportāciju pieminēšana Latvijā. Atmiņu politika un publiskā telpa, Rīga, Mansards, 2012
1 Komisija PSRS totalitārā komunistiskā okupācijas režīma upuru skaita un masu kapu vietu noteikšanai, informācijas par represijām un masveida deportācijām apkopošanai un Latvijas valstij un tās iedzīvotājiem nodarīto zaudējumu aprēķināšanai.