Baltic Footsteps in Siberia

  • 2015-05-31
  • By Kristina Pauksens

For Baltic people, Siberia is a landscape with many negative associations – Stalinism, mass deportations, Gulag forced labor camps, frozen expanses and aggressive mosquitos.  My interest in Siberia stems from a family history of repression; my great-grandmother, Marija Pauksens, (born 1887), was deported from Vaives pagasts, Cesis Aprinkis, Latvia to the tiny village of Arkadevo, Kozhevnikova rajon, Tomsk Oblast, Siberia in the mass deportation of March 1949.  She lived in a Special Settlement of the Gulag, administered by the NKVD, until she was freed from exile after the death of Stalin, and permitted to return to Latvia in 1956.  The experiences of my great-grandmother inspired me to do a PhD in History at the University of Toronto, writing on the mass deportation of 1949.

I travelled to Siberia with two colleagues (one Latvian, one American-Latvian), to trace the path of my great grandmother’s Siberia deportation.  We aimed to conduct interviews in Siberia, with Latvians remaining in Siberia to this day, and also with local Russian peasants who remembered the Latvian deportees of 1949, and are still alive and living out their old age in the villages where Latvians were deported – and in particular, where my great-grandmother was deported.  Although we expected to find a rough land, we also met many wonderful people, of Baltic and Russian ethnicity, and saw their achingly beautiful villages and quaint wooden homes adorned with light blue window frames.

The mass deportation was ordered by Stalin and the Council of Ministers of the USSR, starting with Article 138, “On the deportation from Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian territories of kulaks and their families, families of illegal bandits and nationalists, families of bandits killed in action and convicted bandits, legalized bandits that continue hostile activities and their families, as well as families of supporters of repressed bandits.” Article 138 decreed that a total of 29,000 families, totaling 87,000 people, were to be deported from the Baltic Republics, including:  8,500 families from the Lithuanian SSR, (totaling 25,500 people), 13,000 families from the Latvian SSR, (totaling 39,000 people), and 7,500 families from the Estonian SSR, (totaling 22,000 people).  Article 138 laid the foundation for Order # 00225 of the Ministry of the Interior, and the resulting Operation Priboi. (“Operation Coast surf” – the official name of the deportation operation in the Latvian SSR).

The targets of this deportation were so-called “kulak” or rich peasant families (constituting approximately 75% of the Latvian deportees), and also family members of “bandits” and “nationalists.”  In total, on the 25th of March, 42 125 people, (or 2.2% of the total Latvian population), mostly peasant farmers, were arrested in the middle of the night, given one hour at best to pack their belongings, and put on filthy train cars bound for Siberia – to the Special Settlements of the GULAG in Omsk, Tomsk and Amur districts - where they were to stay for the remainder of their lives.  

The deported were to be transported and convoyed by railway and by waterways to their places of “Special Settlement.”   They were to be carefully guarded during relocation; administratively supervised and “properly accounted for” in the places of settlement; and provided a regime which prevented the possibility of escape.  They were to work in agriculture (on collective farms - kolkhozes and sovhozes), forestry and gold mining.  Living places were to be organized by Ministry of Interior (MVD) Spetskomandantes.  Deportees were given some “concessions” from Stalin.  They were allowed to take with them “life’s necessities” (including clothing, dishware, and agricultural, handiwork and housekeeping inventory) as well as food reserves, totaling no more than 1500 kg per family. Other belongings and cows were to be confiscated by the local authorities.

After a surprisingly enjoyable non-stop 41 hour train ride from Moscow, sleeping in bunk beds in a platzkart, (essentially a 50 person hostel room on rails), we reached the city of Omsk.  In Omsk Oblast, we met Siberian Latvians in the villages of Yermolaevka and Ivanovka, in Kalachinsk rajon.  The hospitality of the Siberian-Latvian Einbaums and Frismuts families was incredible – on the basis of our common Latvian background, they invited us for tea, painfully strong glasses of vodka, and lunch, gave us a village tour, drove us around the countryside, and shared stories and sang Latvian folksongs with us.   Eighty-three year old Vera Frismut explained that her family had not been victims of the deportation of 1949, but had in fact come to Siberia from Pilupe, Latvia, in 1908, voluntarily, to work the land.  In late Imperial Russian times, this was in fact, not uncommon.  The Frismuts told us about their fondness for Latvian foods, including skabputra (porridge with cottage cheese), klingeris (which they called by the Estonian name, kringel – probably because of contacts with Estonians who had settled in the neighboring villages of Omsk oblast), piragi, burkanu sautejums, and kiselis, and their celebration of Jani.   They even sang some folksongs, including “Kur tad tu nu biji, āzīti manu?” (“Where were you, my little goat?”)  We were impressed by the kindness of these Siberian Latvians.

From Omsk oblast, we continued by train to the city of Tomsk, and by microbus to the village Arkadevo – formerly a “Special Settlement” where Latvians were deported in 1949, and the most important destination of our trip.  This was the site of my great-grandmother’s deportation.  Archival research was done on every single family deported from Vaives pagasts in 1949 – all of them ended up in Arkedevo and the surrounding area.  

From Vaives pagasts, 12 families were deported to Siberia in the mass deportation of March 1949.  Eight of these were deported on the grounds of being “kulak” families, and four on the grounds of being “convicted nationalist’ families.” No one was deported on the grounds of being a “bandit” family from this particular pagasts.  The families who were deported in the grounds of being “kulaks” possessed an average of 38 hectares, 3 horses, 11 cows, 6 pigs, and 2 hired workers, according to the 1939 census data, on which the deportations were based. Of the 22 individual people from Vaives pagasts listed to be deported as “kulaks,” one woman was left behind by the authorities because she was in the maternity ward of the hospital, having a baby, at the moment of deportation.  

The “kulak” deportees from Vaives pagasts were kept together, in their place of exile. All of the kulak families were deported to Kozhevnikova region, in Tomsk oblast, and at least 9 of the families were deported to the Special Settlement in the tiny village of Arkadevo.   After a month in the cramped transfer prison Cheremoshniki (just outside of Tomsk’s city borders), these families were settled in Arkadevo to work at the Kolkhoz “Testament of Lenin” (Заветы Ленина), which produced sheep and tobacco, among other things.  My great grandmother, Marija, was one of those deported on the grounds of being a “kulak.”

Of the four families from Vaives pagasts deported as “criminal nationalist families,” at least two were deported to the Arkedevo, and one family of 6 was instead deported to Chilinsk, another village in Tomsk oblast, approximately 50 km south of Arkadevo.  The more specific reason that these families were selected as “criminal nationalist families” is that the family heads were all arrested between 1945 and 1947, for the crimes of having been Aizsargi, (interwar Latvian volunteer militia, branded by the Soviet regime as a “bourgeois-fascist paramilitary organization”) and for supporting the Nazi German regime, through military service, and in three of four cases, specifically for having worked as guards for Soviet POWs.  In all cases, the family heads were convicted with Article 58-1a (“betrayal of the motherland”) and in three cases, additionally, for Article 58-11 (“organizational support to betrayers of the motherland”).  They were sent to forced labor camps of the Gulag, and in 1949, on account of their crimes, their families were also punished through deportation to the Special Settlements.  They were considered by the regime to be unreliable and enemies of the people.

We reached Arkadevo, a tiny, mosquito-filled yet endearingly beautiful village, which seemed as though it were lost in time, with cows wandering on the dirt roads, and wooden houses with ornate window panes painted in cheerful bright colors.  By knocking on doors, our fate was to meet “Baba Katya” – a spirited elderly Russian woman who had fond memories of Marija Pauksens and her family.  Although initially suspicious, when she learned that I was a descendant of Marija, she invited us into her home, fed us a lunch of delicious homemade jam, wild berries, tea and snacks, and told us about her memories of Latvians deported in 1949.  Baba Katya had been the neighbor, and also the overseer, of Latvians on the kolkhoz “Testament of Lenin.” 

She described how postwar Stalin era Arkadevo had been the home of Latvian deportees, and well as Belarusians, Chuvash, and Russian peasants.  She told us how Latvian families, arriving in April 1949, had been forced to dig their own mud huts, or zemlianki.  Many Latvians, upon arrival in Arkadevo, initially lived in the homes of the existing Russian peasants.  For the Latvians, and also for Katya, the postwar Stalin era was “a time of hard work; there was no joy, everyone just survived.” 

She recalled one Latvian woman – an excellent baker - who had been deported alone, and died in Siberia alone, as an old woman, after being ostracized by the tiny community. It was a time of  “such sorrow” – she repeated, again and again.  But there were also some tiny glimpses of happy memories, and of Jani celebrations.  Baba Katya told us that her nieces, Marusia and Sofia, who lived in the rajon center, in the town Kozhevnikova, had been childhood best friends with Latvian girls from Vaives pagasts.  She made a phone call, and arranged for us to be driven by her neighbor, Vladimir, to Kozhevnikova, to stay at Sofia’s home.  

Sofia, another exceptionally kind and amazing Siberian woman, had us stay as guests at her home in Kozhevnikova for three nights.  As the childhood best friend of my great aunt, she treated us like family.  Sofia and her sister, Marusia, shared memories of the Latvians who had gone to school with them and worked with them on the kolkhoz “Testament of Lenin.” From the age of 8, the children of Arkadevo were forced to work with tobacco, on account of their small hands.  They had to use petrol as a mosquito repellant, in order to work in the tobacco field. Although Sofia’s home was primitive, with no running water or toilet, her hospitality was amazing, and the pelmeni were plentiful.  

From Arkadevo, we also visited the village of Novii Uspenka, where Latvians from Alsviku pagasts were deported in 1949.  One Latvian family remained there to this day, however, the elderly family members, who would have remembered the Stalin era, had already died.  We interviewed several local Russians, who did, however, remember the Latvian deportees, who had worked with them on the local kolkhoz. One resident described the Stalin era as a time of drunkenness, and the kolkhoz work as not so difficult.  However, another man was moved to tears, remembering the Latvian children who had been shoved off the trains, barely clothed, given shovels, and ordered to dig their new mud hut homes.  He invited us into his home, asked my colleague Laura to cut up some vegetables for a salad, and ran to fetch his children to join us for lunch.  Once more, the Siberian village openness and kindness to strangers astonished us.  

Siberia was a place of tragedy, for many Latvians, and especially those deported in 1949 (as well as 1941) and those sent to the hard labor camps of the Gulag.  But that doesn’t mean Siberia is a horrible place.  Siberia is the home of beautiful and kind people.  They have lived through so much, and, be they Russian, Baltic, or of other Soviet nationalities, the Stalin era was particularly difficult for all them. The Siberians, whom we met in their villages, have memories of the deported Latvians of 1949, who were their neighbors.  They played together, went to school together, and worked together on tobacco farms and in cowsheds.  These Siberians are wonderful people.  They had to help each other, to survive in a harsh climate.  Latvian deportees, who returned to Latvia after the death of Stalin, have similar memories, based on my interviews in Vidzemes towns in 2012.  Most spoke fondly of their Siberian-Russian neighbors, as well as Estonians, Germans, Ukrainians, Belarussians, and other nationalities, who lived with them in the Special Settlements.    It is important for Baltic people, and more importantly, the international community, to gain an understanding of the 1949 deportations, and of Siberia, under Stalin, and today, in order to honor the memory of those deported, but also, to celebrate their unique experiences, and those of the Russian-Siberian peasants who were often their friends and neighbors.

To go to Siberia as a traveler is a recommended experience to more fully understand history, as well as how that history has impacted the region today. There are many excellent documentaries about the Siberian mass deportations and Baltic people still living in Siberia to this day, particularly those by the filmmaker Dzintra Geka.  These documentaries highlight the most horrific aspects of deportation and life in Siberia, and in particular, have focused on the suffering of innocent children, and the “tragedy” of Baltic people remaining in Siberia, who are often portrayed negatively.  These documentaries are extremely educationally valuable, but viewers should remember that there are at least two sides to every story, and that there is also beauty to be found in remote Siberian villages, as well as kind and intelligent people.  

There are yearly trips organized from all three Baltic states, to visit the parishes, villages, and towns where Baltic people were deported, and mosquito repellent is recommended.

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