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 one woman's experience of what happened.
Laima Veckalne, a high-spirited teenager, grew up surrounded by the love of family and friends in Riga, Latvia. She dreamed of being a famous ballerina and gave her first and final public dance performance at the Riga Opera House on one day in May.
At three o'clock in 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.
"I had a trigonometry exam the next day, on June 14, so I was up late studying when they came," recalls Laima. The agents gave them a few minutes to pack their belongings. "I took my ballet shoes, my trigonometry books and some other stuff," she said.
The NKVD 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.
Dawn of horror
What awaited in the early dawn was a sight 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 the disabled searching for places to sit and mothers holding their crying children, all surrounded by Red Army soldiers brandishing weapons.
Laima's family huddled between the train tracks with other families for many hours. Nobody understood what was happening. They were told to be completely still and were not allowed to take even a step. The soldiers shoved the men, women, and children into filthy cattle wagons, where they continued to wait without food or water.
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 when they told the others that their husbands and brothers would be sent ahead to prepare lodgings at an undisclosed location.
"We trusted what they said, that the men were going to be sent to our new homes, to prepare things for our next lives. That was the night that we saw our fathers, brothers and husbands for the last time," Laima said. By the third day, the doors of the cars were locked shut, and all the trains departed from the station.
The transport moved slowly eastward across Russia in the summer heat. The passengers were given hardly any food except a little water and some inedible soup. There was scarcely any air to breathe as everyone was jammed together and the cars had only a few small windows covered with bars. A hole in the floor served as a toilet. Some of the people, especially the infants, became sick immediately and died.
"We did not believe the worst. We thought that all of this was some kind of joke, some terrible misunderstanding. Then people began to die," she sadly remembers. The bodies of those who died on the journey were left on the side of the tracks.
After one month the train reached Novosibirsk in western Siberia. Scores of wagons were transferred onto enormous barges and sent up the River Ob to Vasyugan. The cars were emptied at riverbank settlements populated by previously deported Russians and Ukrainians.
"The landscape around was very sad, full of the ruins of 'villages' where Russians and Ukrainians were living," she said. Laima and her family was assigned to live in a bug-infested hut where they slept on the ground alongside cattle and pigs.
The Soviets immediately put their prisoners to work. They forced Laima to march into the forest where she had to climb up into trees and cut off branches. She had to haul birch bark and pine wood on her back, sometimes as much as her own body weight and this eventually damaged her spine. She worked in deep snow, even as the temperatures plunged to minus 45 degrees Celsius.
"We worked with the sunlight, deep in the forest, in the cold," said Laima. "We cut up trees and later lived in huts made from those tree branches. Sometimes it was so cold we awoke frozen to the ground."
Because she was young and unusually fit from her dance training, Laima coped better than most with the brutal demands of the Russians. Many of the deportees did not fare as well. Some simply collapsed while the guards pushed the others along to another day of work. The collapsed prisoners were then left for dead somewhere behind in the wilderness.
In exchange for their efforts, Laima and the others received a small amount of hard bread. "We were working for food," she said. "A full day of hard work was equal to 500 grams of bread. Because I was very strong, I could earn those 500 grams on many days. My mother could only earn 100 grams of bread."
They shared their meager rations with those who could not work - the very young, the old and the infirm. Much of the 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. Laima held one-year-olds Andris, Adrianis and Guntis, and caressed their heads as all three died on the same night. "Boys found some pieces of wood, enough to make coffins, and we had a small funeral. I recited a Latvian poem, but it was very difficult for me because I was crying. The Russians almost didn't let us do that because it wasn't work," she said.
The elderly followed the children. The young boys scavenged for boards used to build their coffins. By the next year most of the boys themselves had died from starvation and disease. There was hardly anyone left to make 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. In the midst of all the misery and hardships, Laima met a young Estonian man, also a deportee. They fell in love and were married.
In 1956, Soviet Premier Khrushchev decided that the Balts and other nationalities deported over the decades should be released. In 1958, after 17 years in Siberia, Laima and her family were released. 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 was removed to another train back in Riga in June 1941. In 1992, she learned he had been sent to Solikamsk Prison in the Ural Mountains. "The first four years were the hardest. I was always writing to Moscow asking for information about my father. Finally, they sent me a letter saying my Dad had been in prison for the last 10 years and had no rights to write or receive mail. Then, in 1957, they sent me a letter that said that he had died August 20, 1945.
"Only later I discovered they told me only lies, that in KGB language '10 years without rights to write or receive mail' really meant that the person was dead," Laima remembered.
Andrejs Veckalns was a Social Democratic leader of the Parliament of the interwar Republic of Latvia and chairman of the Council of Labor Unions. He was also an opponent of communism. The Soviets condemned him to death on his 65th birthday, April 18, 1942, and they shot him one month later on May 18. She said, "All of the men from our train were shot. All of them, one after the other, every day until they killed my father, who was shot last."
She was allowed to leave Siberia in 1958, but they would not let her go home. She said, "When they finally released us I was crying in front of the Russians, which I had never before done. I cried and asked them, 'Who can give me back my 18 years.' I was 36 years old."
During their nearly five decades of occupation, the Soviets killed or deported by some estimates half a million Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian men, women and children. But this was 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, intentionally created famine and starvation, mass deportations, imprisonment, torture, slave labor, or execution.
Virtually no one has been called to account for what was done. The West has chosen to forget these horrors. Nothing of these horrors is taught in their schools. There is no grand museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., dedicated to those whose lives were destroyed by the communists.
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 great crimes of Soviet communism are mostly just remembered in the hearts and souls of the victims.