Baltics mark Soviet deportations

  • 2001-06-14
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - As Latvia prepared to honor the estimated 15,424 Latvian citizens deported by Soviet forces on June 14, 1941, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said at a conference in Riga that the treatment of deportees amounted to genocide. But some speakers warned against comparing Soviet deportations with the Holocaust.

Opening the conference entitled "The Deportations of June 14, 1941: Crimes Against Humanity," at Latvia University on June 11, Vike-Freiberga called for the West to learn more about Soviet deportations.

While the victims may have been classed as "socially dangerous elements," the deportations were actually indiscriminate, she said - a claim backed by the Center for the Documentation of the Consequences of Totalitarianism - the state institution responsible for researching the subject. The statistics show that 15 percent of the victims were under the age of 10.

"Latvians have long considered the deportations corresponded to genocide," said Vike-Freiberga. "Most of those deported were doomed - a third of them to a speedy death and the rest to a life of misery in Siberia. One only had to be an honest Latvian citizen to face deportation. If the family wanted for deportation was not at home, they took the neighbors instead.

"There are laws against Holocaust denial, but there are people who try to deny Stalin's repressions. A lot of work has to be done to clarify world opinion."

She also called for greater support for survivors of the deportations, which occurred immediately prior to the invasion of Latvia by Nazi Germany. "Those still in Siberia receive no support from Latvia, Russia, or international organizations. There is no cooperation. And we can't be proud of the fact that the repressed now living in Latvia do not receive the compensation they deserve."

She also said the second largest ethnic group victimized by the deportation were Jews, a point elaborated on by Indulis Zalite, director of the Center for the Documentation of the Consequences of Totalitarianism. "As a proportion of their Latvian population, Jews were the most affected," he said. "Every 50th Jew was deported, every 120th Latvian was deported."

Steven Springfield, a Holocaust survivor and member of the historical commission established by Vike-Freiberga to study the Holocaust in Latvia, emphasized the same point in his speech. "The percentage of Jewish deportation victims was extremely high: 20 percent of deportees from Daugavpils were Jewish, 18.9 percent of deportees from Liepaja were Jewish and 28.5 percent of those from Riga-Jurmala.

"Many people in Latvia have been under the misconception that Jews carried out the arrest and deportation of Latvians. The statistics presented here today show that nothing could be further from the truth."

Other speakers - from Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia - described how the deportations were part of a wider phenomenon in territories occupied under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed by Hitler and Stalin in 1939.

According to Pavel Polian, of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, around 400,000 people were deported from the newly incorporated Western regions of the Soviet Union, including the Baltic states, western Belarus, western Ukraine and Moldova.

He said a unique feature of deportations from Latvia between 1940 and 1941 was that the Krasnoyarsk area of Siberia, to which many Latvians were deported, was "probably the most remote of the eastern settlement areas."

In conclusion, he said the Soviet deportations should be classed as crimes against humanity, but not as genocide.

"They violate international law, but the notion of genocide is improperly and historically undervalued if applied to this undoubtedly tragic, but at the same time typical page in Soviet and, unfortunately, Latvian history," said Polian.

On the afternoon of June 12 the remains of an unknown soldier of the inter-war Latvian republic who was deported in 1941, were buried at the Brothers' Cemetery in Riga.

At the ceremony Vike-Freiberga described the significance of the reburial in a speech reported by the Baltic News Service: "We don't not know who lies in this holy ground, we do not know where our close ones are, but we know their spirit is eternal."

The soldier's remains came from the Russian Far Eastern region of Norilsk, where hundreds of deported officers and several thousand Latvian troops died.