Part of the Open Air Museum, Rumsiskes.

Conference reports Towards a transnational history of Soviet deportations. Which aspects of the past remain unknown?

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the deportees’ memoirs in the revision of the history of deportations, especially since the memoirs were collected in different ways in the different countries.

Published on on November 11, 2013

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Since the late 1980s, historical accounts of Soviet deportations from the Baltic states have been hugely influential in the domestic and foreign policies of these countries. Writing about this difficult, painful, and multifaceted past is like a terrible game of dominos in which the bits and pieces of the Soviet occupation, the Holocaust, and the postwar resistance are joggled and assembled in various ways in memoirs and professional historical texts, but also crystallized in monuments and museums. More than two decades later, we can now turn back and ask which types of stories about the Soviet deportations circulated in the public sphere and which aspects of this past remain blank areas on the map of our knowledge. It was precisely this need to revise history that was the rationale for an international seminar, Past Continuous in the Baltic States: The Memory and the Trauma of a Difficult Past, held at Sciences Po in Paris on May 24, 2013.

First of all, a quick look at the professional historiography and official policy documents reveals a prominent emphasis on the Soviet deportations as central to the construction of national identity in the three Baltic states. This phenomenon has been addressed extensively in the scholarship and has generated widely divergent interpretations. Simplifying a bit, one might suggest that scholars native to the Baltic states tend to understand the public uses of the narratives of deportations as a useful resource, and to approach them as a solid ground for constructing the national identity of the citizens of the Baltic states. Through the experience of Soviet deportations, whether direct or narrated, the citizens of the Baltic states would acquire the ability to define themselves as both innocent victims and heroic survivors, and in this way to distance themselves from Russia, both personally and politically. This constructive role of the Soviet deportations is often interpreted skeptically by other scholars, who point out that the accounts of deportations become the basis of competitive martyrological discourses, which in turn reinforce ethnocentric views. Representatives of the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian ethnic majorities, they argue, seem to monopolize discourse about the experiences of Soviet deportations and use it, sometimes unnecessarily, to assert the vulnerability of these ethnic majorities.

These two different approaches soon clash. Westerners are accused of indifference and double standards in evaluating Soviet crimes. The Baltic side is criticized for promoting blind ethnocentrism and for failing to acknowledge non-majority ethnic and religious groups’ parallel experiences of Soviet deportations.

The seminar Past Continuous in the Baltic States attempted to resolve this confrontation by widening critical and empirical approaches to the history of deportations. Timothy Snyder stated in his recent book Bloodlands that Eastern Europeans had no choice but to synchronize the histories of Nazi Holocaust and the Soviet crimes. In reality, however, synchronizing communism and Nazism is an incredibly complex task, and is contested by many. For social and political reasons, the articulation of the consequences of the Nazi and communist regimes is often compartmentalized. Books are shelved in different store sections, monuments are placed in different squares, and objects end up in different museums.

This compartmentalization not only separates the stories of the religious, ethnic, and social groups in a given country, but also fails to engage with the stories of other countries. I wondered which Lithuanian museum might teach one, for example, about the Soviet deportations from Estonia, Latvia, or Poland. Are there any studies, not to mention exhibitions, about the role that deportations from Lithuania played in the history of the Gulag?

Perhaps the most striking absence in the existing research is the Soviet deportations of the Jews. A researcher at EHESS, Marta Craveri, emphasized that writing a history about the Jews who were deported from Poland and the Baltic states was fraught with difficulties. First of all, in a French context, the word “déportation” has taken on a specific meaning because it has been used to describe only the Nazi deportations, and is hence closely associated with the Holocaust. Second, the geographical paths of the Jews who were deported from the Baltic states took different directions. Craveri pointed out that the majority of the deported Baltic Jews did not try to return to the Baltic Sea area; instead, they headed southwest, crossing Central Asia and Iran, hoping to reach either Israel or the United States. On how many of the existing maps of Soviet deportations, one may ask, are these Jewish routes marked? Finally, those Jews who were lucky enough to survive and escape from the Soviet Union did not rush to publish their memoirs; perhaps they were reluctant to compete with Holocaust testimonies. Although pertinent studies are completely lacking, a doctoral student at the Sorbonne, Akvile Grigoravičiūtė, noted that there are memoirs published in Yiddish. Where a lack of outside attention and the silence of the victims converge, the blank areas on our map of history emerge and grow. As time runs by, it will become increasingly difficult to fill in these lacunae.

Mass demonstrations aimed at bringing the Soviet deportations to light took place in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the late 1980s; however, I am not aware of any comparative studies of these events. It would be interesting to find out more about how these public performances related to local cultural traditions: one would expect to find significant differences between the theatrical Catholic culture of Lithuania, where the returned remains of deportees were carried in processions down the streets of the Old Town of Vilnius and the religious ceremonies of reburial were attended by throngs of people, and the Protestant traditions of Estonia and Latvia. It would also be interesting to examine which social groups took the initiative and were active in commemorating the deportations in the various countries.

The role of the media also deserves special attention. A study of discourses about the Soviet deportations in the Latvian media, conducted by a doctoral student at Latvia University, Olga Procevska, revealed that the commemoration of the Soviet deportations and the Holocaust tended to be arranged by different organizations, and were almost never synchronized. Furthermore, the communities that organized those commemorations paid almost no attention to deportations of the Roma. Indeed, it seems that the narratives about deportations are instrumentalized for the purposes of national politics. According to Procevska, cultural strategies could be discerned in the way the histories of Soviet deportations and the Holocaust were embedded in contemporary Latvian society. The history of the Holocaust in Latvia, for example, was framed as a lesson about the universal humanist values of good citizenship. The history of Soviet deportations, however, was framed as part of the foundation of Latvian sovereignty, a proof of the necessity of a Latvian state in order to ensure the security of Latvians.

The author of the present text presented her study of exhibitions on the Soviet deportations in three Lithuanian museums: the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, the Open Air Museum of Lithuanian Everyday Life, and the Ninth Fort Museum in Kaunas. A common feature of these exhibitions is that, just as in the Latvian case, the story of Soviet deportations is subordinated to a narrative of Lithuanian sovereignty. On my visit to the Ninth Fort Museum in 2011, neither a catalogue nor a description of the exhibitions was available. The only explicit guidance provided, the captions of the exhibits, punctuated the exhibition halls with references to exceptional political events: the first Soviet occupation, deportations, NKVD terror, the Holocaust, the second Soviet occupation, and again, deportations.

The character of this rudimentary narrative is understandable, because the museum is dedicated to the history of occupations. However, the Ninth Fort Museum also holds arguably the largest exhibition about the Soviet deportations from Lithuania. It would be natural to expect a wider contextualization of the history of Soviet deportations from Lithuania, relating it to the Gulag, deportations from other Eastern European countries, and perhaps a history of deportation as a generic technique of political struggle. Both the Museum of Genocide Victims and the Ninth Fort Museum display some textual information that not only ethnic Lithuanians, but also Jews and other ethnic groups were deported. Furthermore, while the Ninth Fort Museum exhibits a surprisingly large number of photographs of Jewish deportees, the material culture of the deported Jews is not represented. A part of the exposition at the Museum of Genocide Victims is devoted to the everyday life of deportees, particularly the role of Catholicism and Christian values in raising children. It remains unclear whether there were any significant differences in material culture and ways of life among the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Roma, and atheist groups of Lithuanian deportees.

A yurt built by the community of deportees at the Laptev Sea in the Lithuanian Open Air Museum is a considerably different museum object. Unlike the museums of the Genocide Victims and the Ninth Fort, the yurt does not seek to assemble a fully-fledged narrative of Soviet deportations. According to its creators, it is intended to commemorate and recall the experiences of one particular group of deportees, those who were displaced to the archipelago of the Laptev Sea. This yurt, a striking monument to the community spirit of that particular group of deportees, features mainly Christian narratives of suffering.

Should these museum exhibitions be understood as an expression of a hegemonic, state-sanctioned, Lithuanian ethnocentric nationalism? Has this narrative also captivated the imagination of the majority of Lithuanians? The answer is not so simple. First, according to sociological studies1, attributing importance to deportations as a means of constructing national identity strongly depends on how the question is posed. A repeated survey in which respondents were asked to list the most important recent historic events has shown that the Soviet deportations were less often mentioned as a highly important historic event than independence, EU membership, or the Second World War. Moreover, Soviet deportations were mentioned as a highly important historical event less often in the 2006 survey than in the 1989 survey. The youngest cohort (14—19 years) was the least inclined to attribute great historical importance to the deportations. It is also interesting that the results obtained from the Russian speakers surveyed with regard to the deportations did not differ significantly from those of Lithuanian speakers. This suggests that statements about the hegemonic character of the deportations narrative in Lithuanian ethnic identity-building should not disregard the situations, contexts, and groups in relation to which an ethnocentric narrative on deportations takes on a hegemonic position.

The museums, which are fundamentally oriented towards material culture and heritage, form a specific milieu for articulating narratives about the deportations. Let me explain. For example, the Museum of Genocide Victims states on its website that the major part of its collection pertaining to the deportations has been acquired thanks to donations from the deportees. It should also be recalled that the Museum of Genocide Victims, the deportations exposition at the Ninth Museum, and the yurt were organized on the initiative of the Lithuanian Union of Political Prisoners and Deportees. Donations are a major source for these museums, whose means of conducting systematic and research-based collecting are severely limited due to an almost complete absence of appropriate funding from the Ministry of Culture. Given the shortage of such state funding, it is not surprising that the expositions in these museums are overwhelmed with conservative cultural references to Catholicism and ethnic Lithuanian practices, reflecting the preferences of their generous, but perhaps not particularly scholarly donors. It is not because of centrist state pressure, but rather the opposite, because of the lack of state financial support, that these particular types of narratives tend to prevail in the exhibitions in these Lithuanian museums. One could go as far as to suggest that it suits the state government very well that these grass-root initiatives to compile and articulate the history of Soviet deportations from Lithuania end up taking on this form.

The exhibitions about deportations in the Lithuanian museums are like memoirs in this way. The narratives of the interwar elites and Catholic communities spiral on into the future. The apparent bias becomes entrenched because other types of donors, finding the installed narratives alienating, would not rush to donate examples of their material culture to these museums. As long as transnational and pluralist academic research is absent, I am afraid these exhibitions will stay as they are: compartmentalized, fragmented, and marginal.

This would be a great loss, because the history of Soviet deportations is rich in both universal and very local meanings. A Lithuanian historian, Violeta Davoliūtė, suggested a very intriguing idea, saying that one of the factors that stimulated such a strong reception of the stories of deportees among the inhabitants of Lithuania in the late 1980s was the previous three decades of speedy urbanization in the country. The number of urban inhabitants in Lithuania approached the number of rural inhabitants in the mid-1960s, and exceeded it in the 1980s. The inhabi-tants of Lithuanian towns were not “deported” from their villages, of course. However, because the new city dwellers were dislocated, a feeling of loss of roots was familiar to them. The deportees’ stories about their longing for the motherland resonated with the city dwellers’ nostalgia for a pre-industrial countryside, especially because many of the deportees came from rural areas. The notion of a return to Lithuania from the Russian North and Far East echoed that of a return from the city to the farmstead.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the deportees’ memoirs in the revision of the history of deportations, especially since the memoirs were collected in different ways in the different countries. The director of the Estonian War Museum, Toomas Hioo, underlined the importance of the Estonian Heritage Association, established in 1988. According to Hioo, young people did not consider this association to be as boring as the Popular Front. One of its key attractions was active engagement with history through the collection of memoir materials in expeditions to the countryside. It is interesting that, just as in Lithuania, the memoirs of Estonian deportees were collected by a grass-roots movement, driven by amateurs. In spite of official statements about the importance of the deportations, this movement received no significant state support. This, Hioo noted, was inevitably reflected in the widely varying quality of the material collected. Like Lithuania, Estonia lacks a systematic professional historiography and public articulation of the Soviet deportations. Of great help here, seminar participants argued, would be not only international cooperation, but also a search for new theoretical perspectives which would overcome the limitations of internal politicking.

The seminar chair, the distinguished historian Alain Blum (EHESS), a specialist in Soviet demography, emphasized the need to move on to transnational studies of deportations. According to Blum, the Soviet regime hardly sought to deport Estonians, Latvians, or Lithuanians as ethnic nations. Instead, they saw the deportees as the elite and prosperous classes of the Baltic region. It is therefore ahistorical, Blum suggested, to compare the numbers of deportees from different East European countries. A good example of the denationalization of such numbers is offered by the Poles who had settled in western Ukraine, and were consequently deported not as Poles, but as Ukrainians. Blum did not argue against studies seeking to establish reliable numbers of deportees. His point was rather that politicizing these numbers by incorporating them into an ethnocentric narrative is an effect of a specific nationalist historiography. This is not always the wrong strategy, but it is a strategy that leaves many questions unasked and unanswered.

The most important insight Blum offered was that the transnational history of deportations should not stop with the return of the deportees. Perhaps the most painful and controversial studies await the scholar who turns his or her attention to the deportees’ lives after their return to their home countries, where many met with further repression, discrimination, or indifference. The history of the deportations is indeed still going on, and its discovery is fundamental for free and liberal societies in the Baltic Sea region.≈

Note: The organizers, Una Bergmane, Philippe Perchoc, and Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, gratefully acknowledge the generous financial support of the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian embassies in Paris, which, together with the institutional assistance of the Center for International Studies (CERI) at Sciences Po, made this discussion possible. The seminar was part of the series Autour de la Baltique at CERI.
  • Joseph Benjamin

    My uncle was slaughtered at the Ninth Fort along with Rabbi Elchonon Wassermann,head of the famed Baranovicher Yeshiva.