Soviet Mass Deportations from Latvia

16.08.2004. 19:50

History of the Occupation of Latvia (1940-1991)

Briefing papers of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia


Soviet Mass Deportations from Latvia

Historical Background

A declared neutral country during the early phases of World War II, Latvia fell prey to the realpolitik of both Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union, who concluded a Non-Aggression Treaty on 23 August 1939, known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.  The Pact allowed Germany to invade Poland on 1 September 1939.  Among its secret provisions was the establishment of a Soviet Sphere of Influence in Eastern Europe, which included Latvia and allowed the Soviet Union under various pretexts to invade Latvia on 17 June 1940 and annex the country on 5 August 1940.  The illegal takeover was never recognized de jure by major Western powers.  Immediately after establishing its rule through its collaborators and proxies, the Soviets began deporting the elites to the Soviet Union, culminating in the mass deportation on 14 June 1941 of more than 15,000 people.  After the Nazi German occupation from 1941 to 1944/45, the USSR reoccupied Latvia and applied harsh measures to punish the people for alleged collaboration with the enemy and resisting Soviet occupation.  A second mass deportation on 25 March 1949 effectively ended armed resistance against the occupation regime.

Deportations as a Crime against Humanity

Because of the deportations deprived people of their civil and human rights and were carried out in an inhumane manner, the deportations are to be classified as crimes against humanity.  The Communist regime in the Soviet Union engaged in mass relocations to enforce its political, social and nationalities policies and to persecute and silence its critics and opponents.  Stalin perfected the policies of Lenin and established a vast system of hard labour prison camps known as the GULAG.  Stalin's regime was also marked by mass deportations and forced resettlement of entire peoples and social groups to Siberia and other areas of the vast country.  At the end of the 1920s and the early 1930s, the regime rid the country of well-to-do farmers (kulaks) who had survived the regime-induced famine in Belarus and Ukraine and did not wish to collectivise.  In the "Great Purge" of the 1930s, former Bolshevik cadres who had served Lenin were deported or murdered as "traitors." Ethnic groups who were suspected of being disloyal, including Latvians, were also deported—of the 126,000 Latvians in the USSR, 75,000 were arrested, and 20,000 were shot. After World War II, Stalin ordered the deportation of many people who had lived in German-occupied regions because he suspected them of having collaborated with the enemy.  The deportees were deprived of their civil and human rights and oftentimes life because of the harsh and inhuman conditions in prison camps and exile. 

Two mass deportations were carried out in Latvia: during the first Soviet occupation in 1941, and in 1949, during the second occupation.  It must be noted, however, that the deportation to GULAG prison camps and forced settlement areas took place at other times as well.  Many Latvians were sent to the so-called "filtration" and POW camps" after World II, imprisoned or re-deported after they had been allowed to return to Latvia.  The total number of inhabitants of Latvia subjected to deportation exceeds that of the two official mass deportations.

The deportations deprived Latvia of its national elites and people with the closest bonds to the land.  They created shortages in the labour force, which were made up by immigrants from non-Latvian areas of the Soviet Union.  Thus the deportations also fulfilled the function of colonising and russifying the country.  Though not outright genocide, the deportations created conditions that set Latvia and its people on a course of losing its cultural heritage and eventually its national identity as well.

Mass Deportation 14 June 1941

Instructions on how to carry out mass deportations were prepared in the autumn of 1939 for the newly-annexed regions of western Ukraine by the head of the Ukrainian SSR NKVD (later known as KGB), General Ivan Serov.  They were approved in Moscow and later used in the Baltic States as well.  As the USSR Commissar for State Security, Serov signed the orders on 21 January 1941.

In the night between 13 and 14 June, about 15,500 Latvian residents—among them 2400 children younger than ten—were arrested without a court order to be deported to distant regions in the Soviet Union.  Targeted were mainly families who had members in leading positions in state and local governments, economy and culture. 

People to be deported were awakened in the night and given less than one hour to prepare for the journey.  They were allowed to take with them only what they could carry, and everything left behind was confiscated by the state.  The unfortunate were herded into already prepared cattle or freight railroad cars, in which they spent weeks and months.  Many died on the way, especially infants, the sick, and the elderly.  Men, totalling some 8250, were separated from their families, arrested, and sent to GULAG hard labour camps.  Women and children were taken to so-called "administrative settlements" as family members of "enemies of the people"

No word of these events was mentioned in Latvia's Soviet-censored newspapers.  Loved ones had no way of knowing what had become of those deported.  None of the institutions, including the militia, provided information or help.  Scattered along the railroad tracks were farewell notes written by the deported to their families—few of them ever reached their intended recipients.

Conditions in the hard labour camps were inhumane.  The inmates lost their identities, and were terrorised by the guards and criminal prisoners.  Food rations were meagre, and did not replace the calories expended through work.  People grew weak, and were crippled by diarrhoea, scurvy, and other illnesses. Winters were marked by unbearable cold, and many did not survive the first one.  Only a small part of those deported in 1941 later returned to Latvia.  The families in forced settlement had to fend for themselves in harsh conditions; the death rate among the very young and the elderly was likewise high.

The Mass Deportation of 25 March 1949

This deportation of more than 42,000 people was carried out to end the resistance to collectivisation of the farms and at the same time to get rid of the supporters of national partisans.  This deportation was mainly directed against the farming population and entire families were sent to forced settlement areas for life.  After Stalin's death, many were eventually allowed to return, but they could not resume their previous lives and were treated as unreliables.

The "legal" basis of the deportation was contained in the top secret decision by the Council of Ministers of the USSR of 29 January 1949 and the instruction, issued by the Ministry of State Security in February, "Concerning the Procedure for Deporting Several Categories of Inhabitants from the Latvian SSR, Lithuanian SSR and Estonian SSR."  On 17 March 1949, Vilis Lācis as the Chairman signed the decision of the Council of Ministers of the Latvian SSR.  The military forces of the State Security and Interior ministries received the top-secret order No. 0068 to carry out deportations in the Baltic states under the code name "Priboi" ("coastal surf").

The deportation began in the night of 24 March.  At night, people were arrested at home, during the day at their places of employment.  Schoolchildren were sometimes taken to the trains directly from school.

Between 25 March and 28 March 42,133 people, or more than 2% of the pre-war population of Latvia, were deported from Latvia to places of "special settlement" (mainly in the districts of Krasnoyarsk, Amur, Irkustsk, Omsk, Tomsk and Novosibirsk).  Among these were more than 10,990 children and youths under 16.  Women and children under 16 constituted 73% of the deportees.  Altogether 30,620 families and 94,799 people were deported from the three Baltic States.

Sources in English and Latvian

Brence, Māra, Dzintars Ērglis et al., eds. 1941. gada 14. jūnija deportācija – noziegums pret cilvēci / Deportation of 14 June 1941: Crime Against Humanity. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 6.  Riga: 2002. 416 pages. [Materials of an international Conference in Riga 12–13 June 2001. English summaries.] 

Nollendorfs, Valters, ed.  Latvijas Okupācijas muzejs: Latvija zem Padomju Savienības un nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas varas 1940–1991 Latvia under the Rule of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany. 2nd ed. Rīga: OMF, 2005. [A bilingual history of the occupation.]

Nollendorfs, Valters and Erwin Oberländer, eds. The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under the Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940–1991. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 14. Rīga: Institute of the History of Latvia, 2005.

Pelkaus, Elmārs et al., eds. Aizvestie: 1941. gada 14. jūnijs [The Deported: 14 June 1941].  Rīga, 2001. 804 pages. [English summary.]

Strods, Heinrihs and Matthew Kott "The File on Operation 'Priboi': A Reassessment of the Mass Deportations of 1949." Journal of Baltic Studies 33.1 (2002): 1–31.

Vīksne, Rudīte and Kārlis Kangeris, eds.  Politiskās prāvas Latvijā 1940–1986: Noziegumos pret padomju valsti apsūdzēto Latvijas iedzīvotāju rādītājs [Political Trials in Latvia: Index of Inhabitants of Latvia Accused in Crimes against the Soviet State 1940–1986].  Rīga, 1999. [Contains ca. 49,000 names and case numbers.]

Prepared by: Valters Nollendorfs and Uldis Neiburgs.
© Latvijas Okupācijas muzeja biedrība (formerly Occupation Museum Foundation) 2006.
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