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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Estonia Under Communism

Hand in hand with Sovietization was the terrorization of the population. Politicians, senior civil servants, military and police leaders, entrepreneurs, clergy, but also other “enemies of the working people”, were arrested and many were executed. Those arrested included a disproportionately large number of members of the minority Russian and Jewish communities. The Soviet terror culminated during the night of 13/14 June 1941, when 10,000 Estonians were loaded onto crowded cattle cars and transported eastwards to gulags in Siberia or the far North of Russia.

After Germany launched its invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941, the Soviets forcibly mobilized 30,000 Estonian young men into the Red Army. These young men were exploited as hard labor prisoners in camps in northern Russia, under brutal conditions, where thousands of them perished. Soviet Destruction Battalions wrought havoc on the countryside while combating the national partisans who attempted to liberate parts of the country ahead of the arrival of German troops. The brutality of the Soviet repression was such that the German troops were initially welcomed as liberators. However, Estonians were soon disillusioned as it became apparent that the Germans were only interested in exploiting Estonian resources for their own war effort. The Nazi occupation doomed the tiny Jewish community of whom 950 were executed.

When the Red Army reappeared at the Estonian border in the beginning of 1944, the Germans mobilized Estonian young men to halt the Soviet advance. Most of these men fought to prevent the Red Army from reconquering their country and hoped that Estonian independence could be restored if they could hold out until Germany surrendered to the Western allies.

In September 1944, the Germans abandoned Estonia to the advancing Red Army. The restoration of an independent Estonian government was proclaimed on 18 September by Jüri Uluots, the last pre-Soviet prime minister, but was crushed within days by Soviet forces. This led to a massive exodus of 70,000 refugees across the stormy Baltic Sea who sought to avoid renewed Soviet repression.

Resistance to the Soviets continued well after the end of the Second World War. Estonian guerrillas, known, as the Forest Brothers, concealed themselves in the forests and swamps. Nearly 2,000 Forest Brothers (termed “bandits” by the Soviets) died resisting Soviet forces before they finally abandoned their struggle after the death of Stalin in 1953.

The final major step in the Sovietization of Estonian society was the collectivization of agriculture in March 1949. As peasants naturally did not want to give up their farms, property and livestock, collectivization was achieved through terror. Stalin was determined to eliminate the kulaks as a class. Kulak was an elastic term which referred to practically any enterprising farmer, but could also be applied to nearly anyone out of favor with the local Communist Party authorities.

Operation Priboi (Wave) was carried out simultaneously in the three Baltic republics in the early hours of 25 March 1949. The Kremlin had set a quota of 30,000 families to be deported from the Baltic republics. In the Estonian case, this resulted in over 20,000 people, mostly women and children, being resettled in the harsh conditions of Siberia. Those who survived were allowed to return to Estonia in 1956-58, but most were not permitted to return to their own homes.

The last major deportation from Soviet Estonia was of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1951. After the death of Stalin in 1953, the terror subsided. Nevertheless, the repressive apparatus of the Soviet state remained in place and no opposition to the Communist Party was tolerated. Estonia remained cut off from the outside world.

One of the major consequences of Soviet rule in Estonia was drastic demographic change. In 1945 the population of Estonia was over 90% ethnically Estonian. By the late 1980s, the proportion of ethnic Estonians had dwindled to 62% of the population. This was a result of the massive influx of Russians and other Soviet nationalities, many of whom came to work in the Soviet military-industrial complex. From the perspective of the indigenous residents, this appeared to be a deliberate program of colonization and Russification.

The Communist Party itself was largely a foreign body imposed on Estonia. Lacking personnel to administer their new possession, the Soviets brought in Russian Communist Party cadres and Russian-born ethnic Estonians who had been educated in Soviet Russia. During most of its existence, only about half of the membership of the Estonian Communist Party consisted of Estonians. Its top leadership, including the First Secretary from 1950 to 1988, was non-native.

A new type of non-violent opposition to Soviet rule emerged in the late 1960s in the form of dissidents. A handful of courageous men and women, such as Mart Niklus, Enn Tarto, and Lagle Parek, called for the respect of human rights in Soviet Estonia. They addressed letters to the United Nations and other international organizations informing them of the crimes of the Communist regime and the desire for national self-determination. For their efforts, they were repeatedly imprisoned in Russian gulags.

With the policy of glasnost (openness) instituted by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, Estonians seized the opportunity to commemorate the victims of Stalinism. This soon led to the questioning of the ’leading role’ of the Communist Party in the Estonian SSR. Estonia led the movement towards democratization in the Soviet Union with the ’Singing Revolution’ in June 1988. A high point of the struggle for freedom came on 23 August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Nearly two million people linked arms from Tallinn in Estonia, across Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania, in a ’Baltic Chain’ of over 600 kilometers, focusing the world’s attention on the fate of the Baltic nations. The first free elections in Soviet Estonia were held in March 1990, resulting in the formation of the first non-Communist government. The restoration of independence was achieved in August 1991 in the wake of the failed hard-line Communist putsch in Moscow.

Estonia was recognized by the international community as a restored state on the basis of legal continuity with the pre-1940 republic. Most Western countries followed the policy first formulated by the US State Department in July 1940 of the non-recognition of the annexation of the Baltic States by the USSR. Inexplicably, Russia continues, to this day, to assert the historically false claim that Estonia voluntarily joined the Soviet Union.

Estonia was the quickest of the former Soviet republics to implement radical free market reforms and to distance itself from the Soviet legacy. Unlike elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the successor party to the Communist Party has not managed to be elected to the parliament. These successful reform efforts were rewarded by European Union and NATO membership in 2004.

Though the issue of the crimes of the Communist regime has received extensive media attention in Estonia, only about half-a-dozen individuals have actually been tried and convicted for participation in the deportations of the 1940s. These men have all received suspended sentences. In 1999 Estonian President Lennart Meri established an international commission to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Estonia, which has produced three comprehensive reports on the periods 1940-41, 1941-44, and 1944 to 1991.

In Spring 2009, members of the Russian “Unity” party, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, introduced legislation in The Duma that would criminalize anyone who contradicts established Soviet interpretations of history, including the violent occupation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union.

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Location:  Northeastern Europe
Capital:  Tallinn
Communist Rule:  1940-1941 / 1944-1991
Status:  Independence restored - 20.08.91
Victims of Communism: