IN 1940, the U.S.S.R. invaded and occupied Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. This month marks the 60th anniversary of the first mass deportations from the Baltic states, when the Soviets arrested more than 60,000 people in June 1941 and sent them to prisons and labor camps in Northern Russia and Siberia. What follows is the experience of one young woman.
Laima Veckalne, a beautiful and high-spirited teenager, treasured her life growing up surrounded by the love of family and friends in Riga, the capital of Latvia, in northeastern Europe. She had great hopes for the future, and her goal was to become a famous ballerina. Laima studied and practiced diligently, and she gave her first public dance performance in the Riga Opera House on a glorious day in May. It turned out to be her only performance.
The next month at about two o’clock on the morning of June 14, 1941, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, broke into the Veckalns apartment and arrested Laima, her sister, and her parents. The agents gave them a few minutes to pack their belongings and then marched them at gunpoint into the dark street where they were loaded onto the back of an already crowded truck.
The NKVD delivered its human cargo to Riga’s Skirotava Railroad Station. What awaited in the early dawn was a sight that the Latvian people could never have imagined. As far as the eye could see, there were men and women clutching suitcases and bundles of hastily gathered clothing, the elderly and disabled searching for places to sit, and mothers comforting their crying children, all of them surrounded by Red Army soldiers brandishing weapons. Similar scenes were taking place at other railroad stations in Riga and across Latvia, and also in the neighboring Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania.
Laima’s family huddled between the train tracks with the other families for many hours. They were required to be completely still and were not allowed to take even a step. Eventually the soldiers shoved the men, women, and children into filthy cattle wagons where they continued to wait without food or water. The people did not understand what was happening to them.
During the night the soldiers took out the men, including Laima’s father and the teenage boys, and put them on separate trains. They lied by telling the families that their husbands and brothers would be sent ahead to prepare lodgings at an undisclosed location. Finally, by the third day, the doors of the cars were locked shut, and all the trains departed the station.
The transport containing Laima and her sister and mother and the other families moved slowly eastward across Russia during the summer heat. The people were given barely anything to eat or drink except for a little water and some inedible soup. There was scarcely any air to breathe since everyone was jammed together and the cars had only a few small windows covered with bars. A hole in the floor served for personal necessities. Some of the people, especially the infants, became sick immediately and died in the cattle wagons. Their bodies had to be left at the side of the tracks.
After several weeks the train reached Novosibirsk in Western Siberia. Scores of wagons were transferred onto enormous barges and sent up the River Ob and then to the Vasyugan. The cars were emptied at riverbank settlements populated by previously deported Russians and Ukrainians. Laima and her family were assigned to live in a bug-infested hut, and they slept on the ground alongside cattle and chickens.
The Soviets immediately put their prisoners to work. For three years, in the early Siberian mornings, they forced Laima to march into the forest where she had to climb up into trees and cut off branches. She was obliged to carry on her back heavy birch bark and pinewood, sometimes as much as her own bodyweight, and this eventually damaged her spine. She was required to work in the deepest snow, even as the temperature plunged to minus 45 degrees Celsius.
Since she was young and unusually fit from her dance training, Laima coped better than most with the brutal demands of the labor regimen. She was even able to ascend the tallest trees without getting dizzy. It was also helpful that her mother was ingenious and made boots for her from a blanket they had brought from Latvia and some dog skins. Many of the deportees did not fare as well, and they simply collapsed as the guards pushed them along to another day of work and were left for dead in the wilderness.
In exchange for their efforts, Laima and the others received a small amount of potatoes or hard bread. They had to share their meager rations with those who could not work – the very young, the old, and the infirm. Much of time the people had virtually nothing to eat, and everyone suffered from constant hunger. Their bodies were swollen and covered with boils caused by malnutrition. Their skin was inflamed by mosquito bites.
The youngest children were affected the most by the harsh conditions, and all of them were sick. In the evenings, Laima played with the little ones and told them stories while their mothers washed their clothing in the river. She would give them small spoonfuls of water in order to ease their distress, but nothing could be done for them. Laima held the one-year olds, Andris, Adrianis, and Guntis, and caressed their heads as all three died on the same night.
The elderly were the next to pass away. The young boys were resourceful, and they scavenged for boards that they used to build coffins in which to bury their loved ones. By next year most of the boys themselves had died from starvation and disease, and there was hardly anyone left to make the coffins. Those who remained could only struggle to dig graves in the frozen earth.
Gradually the survivors tried to adjust to life in Siberia. Laima and her family were permitted to use a patch of ground on which to grow potatoes, and they lived as best they could as exiles. In the midst of all the misery and hardships, Laima met a young Estonian man, also a deportee. Beautiful feelings blossomed between the two of them. They fell in love and committed to each other in marriage.
In 1956, Soviet Premier Khrushchev decided that the Balts and other nationalities deported over the decades would be allowed to return to their native lands. After 17 years in Siberia, Laima and her family went home in 1958. Most of the Latvians who had shared the cattle wagons from Skirotava Station did not live to see that day.
And what about Laima’s father? She never saw him again after he had been removed to another train back in Riga in June 1941. In 1992, she learned that he had been sent to Solikamsk Prison in the Ural Mountains of Russia. Andrejs Veckalns was a Social Democratic leader of the Parliament of free Latvia and Chairman of the Council of Labor Unions. He was also an opponent of Communism. As a result the Soviets condemned him to death on his 65th birthday, April 18, 1942, and they shot him a month later on May 18.
How did all this happen? Hitler and Stalin were allies pursuant to the Nazi-Soviet Pact they signed on August 23, 1939. The two dictators had secretly agreed to divide between them the defenseless regions of Eastern Europe – Poland, the Baltic states, Finland, Northern Bukovina, and Bessarabia. Eight days later, on September 1, 1939, Hitler attacked western Poland, and World War II began. Two weeks thereafter, Stalin collected his spoils by grabbing eastern Poland.
In 1940, the Soviets sent their tanks into Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, annexed the three small nations, and embarked on a brutal campaign to destroy all possible opposition to Stalinist rule. A year later, Hitler doublecrossed his erstwhile partner and invaded the U.S.S.R. The Nazis quickly drove the Soviets out of the Baltic area and proceeded to spread their own brand of terror, particularly targeting the Jews. The Red Army took back Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1944, and by 1945 the Nazis were defeated. However, the Baltic states did not regain their independence until the USSR disintegrated in 1991.
During their nearly five decades of occupation, the Soviets killed or deported an estimated one half million Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian men, women, and children. But these were only a fraction of the tens of millions of people in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe whom the Communists subjected to the midnight knock on the door, arrest, show trials, intentionally created famine, starvation, mass deportations, imprisonment, torture, slave labor, or execution.
Virtually no one has been called to account for what was done. No Communist Party bosses in Russia have ever been made to pay for their transgressions. Not one labor camp commandant has been forced to answer for his inhumanity. There is no talk of reparations. The ex-Soviets now in charge in Moscow object whenever anyone raises questions about the injustices of the past.
The West has chosen to forget these horrors. There is no grand museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., dedicated to those whose lives were destroyed by the Communists. Hollywood has no interest in making movies about those who suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union. American high school students learn nothing about the Gulag.
The great crimes of Soviet Communism are mostly just remembered in the hearts and souls of the victims. Laima Veckalne is one of the few heroes still alive who can bear witness as she continues to honor the memory of her father and the countless others who perished.