Finding graves in Siberia hindered by closed archives

Komis Intas 1956. aastal II rajooni surnuaiale püstitatud mälestussammas. See rajati Komi vangilaagrites surnud 400 eestlase mälestuseks. Idee Enno Piirilt, projekteeris Hermann Heinla, töid juhtis Heino Jalakas – kõik poliitvangid.

PHOTO: Eesti Memento Liit

Finding and marking graves of Estonian victims of Stalin era repressions is hampered by instability of financing. Also, it is difficult to gain access to archived materials and to this day Estonia is missing a maintaining of war graves agreement with Russia.

«Siberian soil is final resting place for close to 25,000 Estonians and to this day the places of their death or slaughter are not precisely known,» the Moscow-residing journalist Jaanus Piirsalu wrote in Postimees last week. As an example to Estonians, he pointed to Lithuanians who during the past nine years have located graves of 110 countrymen in Russia.

Agreeing with Mr Piirsalu, former Riigikogu member and representative of organisations of the repressed Kuno Raude, a man deported to Siberia for years as a child, thinks that much more could be done. At the moment, he sees the worsened Estonia-Russia relations as main hindrance to commemorate the victims.

«The main legal problem is the absence of maintaining of war graves agreement with Russia,» noted Mr Raude. «Relations between Estonia and Russia have grown worse and due to that they do not want to talk about the subject. It seems to me that Estonians simply lack the political courage to tackle the issue.» He claimed to have underlined the problem to members of the government, but to no great avail.

Archive the main key

According to Estonian Memento Union chairman Leo Õispuu, a bilateral graves-maintenance agreement would also improve access to Russian archives. «Seeking for the graves is rather costly and time-consuming. They are often showing the places where people were shot dead, but no-one knows where the bodies were taken,» he explained, underlining the importance of access to archives.

«Whenever we desire to access the archived materials, the process is slow and patchy, but without the information therein it is extremely difficult to locate the graves,» said Mr Õispuu, citing experience. «Archives ought to be open for our researchers.»

Foreign ministry press representative Mari-Liis Valter said the last official negotiations regarding cooperation with Russia were held in 2010, and the topic has also been touched upon during later meetings. «Regarding the content, however, an agreement to satisfy both sides has thus far not been reached,» she noted.

According to Estonian Heritage Society chairman for commemoration Peep Pillak, the graves have been searched according to ability, but with stable and sufficient financing substantially more could be accomplished. «Any form of cooperation, distribution of leaflets and arranging of expeditions cost money,» he added.

Mr Pillak said the current methods of financing are chaotic; for each expedition means have to be sought separately, with reporting required. «With consistent financing we could work in peace; at the moment, a uniform and functioning system is missing,» he added.

Mr Pillak underlined, however, that on several occasions the state has extended a helping hand and various support has come from defence and culture ministries, but only on expedition basis.

As the support is project-based, lots of enthusiasts seeking and marking the graves are forced to pay their own expenses or find sponsors. «We have done everything heartily and been mission minded, finding the money even when the state had it not. In such cases, means have come from other sources and monuments have still been erected,» confirmed Jüri Trei, public diplomacy adviser at foreign ministry and one to have also established monuments for own money. He said it is important for the topic to be paid increased attention as Estonia’s centenary draws nigh.

Memento’s Mr Õispuu added that the state support would mainly be needed for the younger generation to keep the activity up. «The older folks do know where others were buried, but are no longer willing to travel there due to age. The young are full of energy and would be happy to do it,» he said with conviction. «However, searching for graves is costly. With somebody financing it, they are pleased to do it.»

Kuno Raude said the expeditions cost a lot as the graves may not be located in inhabited areas. «All depends of current ticket prices, and one needs to consider that is lots of places there is no bus connection – then they need to rent a car and that is expensive,» he explained.

Estonian connections broader

All said, Jüri Trei would not agree with criticism regarding Lithuanians being more successful searching out the graves. He said the Estonians’ activities are broad-based with a remarkable international network established for locating grave sites abroad. «Lithuanians have adopted this narrow approach, while we are involved all around the world,» said Mr Trei. «We have a working group for preservation of memory, we are in cooperation with nations like Kazakhstan were lots and lots of people were taken in Soviet times.»

As also assured by Mr Õispuu, many monuments have been erected on graves located in Kazakhstan. «Recently, an international memorial was opened in Kazakhstan, with very many European nations represented at the ceremony,» he said, to describe the cooperation.

Also, a repressions victims' memorial has been erected in Karelia, opened by current foreign minister and then Estonia’s Ambassador to Moscow Marina Kaljurand.

Mr Pillak of heritage society, having for years been involved with graves abroad, underlined that according to ability memory of Estonians has been maintained elsewhere in Russia as well. «In Levashovo, a memorial was opened by Estonian diplomats for thousands of repression victims,» he said, citing one such example.

Mr Pillak said constant cooperation is underway with Russian researchers. «Our partner there, Anatoli Razumov, has even been decorated by Estonian president with the Order [of the Cross] of Terra Mariana for research into the repressions,» said Mr Pillak. «We have sent them our data, they send theirs. For three-four years already, correspondence has worked well with their researchers.»

Mr Pillak said heritage conservation is also actively mapping grave sites westward. «We have tried to map grave sites in Sweden, Germany and Denmark, as lots of Estonians have been buried there as well,» he said. «Last year, we organised several expeditions to establish and photograph graves of Estonians.»

«All of that is a lot larger endeavour than the hundred grave sites found by Lithuanians in Siberia,» claims Mr Trei.