ANDREY KUZICHKIN Estonia and Russia had a common occupier - the Soviet Union

Andrey Kuzichkin
, columnist
Andrey Kuzichkin.
Andrey Kuzichkin. Photo: Konstantin Sednev/Pm/scanpix Baltics
  • Evil has no nationality.
  • Everything in the world is mixed up at the level of DNA, culture and language.

Following my article on the EU's Russia strategy, some commentators expressed the opinion that I have no idea about the time of Soviet occupation in Estonia because I was born in Tomsk. I want to assure the skeptics: I know enough, columnist Andrey Kuzichkin writes.

From 1973, I regularly listened to Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and the BBC, and therefore received a lot of information about the real history of the USSR. In 1986, I started subscribing to the newspapers Lietuvos rytas, Sovetskaya Molodyosh (Latvia) and Molodyosh Estonii. I carefully followed all events in the Baltic countries and hung clippings of the most interesting stories on the stand of the Siberian Botanical Garden, where I worked as a researcher at the time. Our communists tore down the clippings, but I put up new ones.

In 2008, as the head of the culture department of the Tomsk region, I received a delegation from Estonia during the Estonian Culture Days in Russia. Together with the late University of Tartu professor and member of the Riigikogu, Mr. Aadu Must, the cultural attaché of the Estonian embassy in Russia, Mrs. Andra Veidemann, and the deputy secretary general of the Estonian Ministry of Culture, Mrs. Anne-Li Reimaa, we opened a memorial in Tomsk to the Estonians who died in the Tomsk region during the repressions.

Already upon becoming a refugee, I learned about the history of Estonia from Seppo Zetterberg's book. Therefore, I know very well everything that concerns the time of the Soviet occupation in Estonia, and this knowledge has become a part of my life. But you, my esteemed readers and critics, how much do you know about the history of repression in Russia, which was one of the 15 Soviet republics?

I am not ruling out that you do know. But in this article, I would like to talk about two episodes of this terrible time and commemorate one person whose fate bound Estonia and Tomsk with the black tape of deportation.

I found the material for my stories on the website of the museum of an NKVD remand prison, which, surprisingly, is continuing to operate in Tomsk during the Putin regime. The uniqueness of the institution lies in the fact that the museum is located in the premises of an NKVD transit prison of the 1930s, and its exhibition presents invaluable archival materials about the history of political deportations and mass repressions and killings of political prisoners.

Nazino Island

In 1932, a campaign was launched in the USSR to cleanse cities of «declassified elements». The OGPU (the predecessor of the NKVD) planned to deport up to three million people from Ukraine, the North Caucasus and the big cities of the European part of Russia to the regions of Siberia and North Kazakhstan. In April 1933, mass raids began in Moscow and Leningrad.

OGPU employees arrested people on the streets who were on their way to work or home. The excuse was a lack of identity documents. In this way, they tried to identify the peasants who had fled to the cities because of hunger, because passports were not issued to peasants according to Soviet laws. However, in the end, tens of thousands of workers who had forgotten their documents at home were sent to Siberia.

They were joined by «kulak» Altai peasants and recidivists, of whom the camps were emptied for new prisoners. The Siberian camps government (SibLag) sent a telegraph to Moscow that it could not accept millions of deportees, so the admission quota was reduced.

Nazino Island.
Nazino Island. Photo: History Collective

The most remote regions of Siberia were designated to accommodate the forcibly displaced, including Nazino Island, located on the Ob River opposite the village of Nazino in the Aleksandrovsky district of the northern part of the Tomsk region. Several batches of deportees were sent here along the river on several barges. In May 1933, more than 6,000 deportees were deposited on the 500x1,500-meter island. Eyewitnesses have recalled that after a three-week journey, the hungry and exhausted people had no tools or skills to cope with the hardships.

At night, the temperature dropped below zero and the ground was covered with snow. Frozen and exhausted, the people were only able to light fires, sit, lie down, sleep by the fire, wander around the island and eat rotten trees, bark, moss and insects. Fires broke out on the island. People started dying. They burned alive while sleeping by the fire and died of exhaustion, cold and burns.

After a sunny day, a team of gravediggers managed to bury 295 bodies in 24 hours. But there were more dead, and their bodies began to decompose. Only on the fourth or fifth day did rye flour arrive on the island, which was distributed to the deportees, 300-500 grams per person. Having received the flour, people ran to the water, made a «slop» out of the flour, and ate it.

Moreover, many did not even mix the flour with water, but ate it immediately, after which they collapsed and suffocated, died of suffocation, because the flour blocked the airways. Soon a dysentery epidemic broke out on the island and cannibalism began.

From the interrogation protocol of deportee Uglov: «Is it true that you ate human flesh? – No, that's not true. I only ate liver and heart. – Tell me, how did you do it? – Very simple. It is just like making shashlik. I made a skewer out of willow branches, cut them into pieces, skewered them and roasted them over a fire. – But from which people did you get your meat? From the living or the dead? – Why from the dead? That’s rotten.

I chose the ones who were no longer alive, but not dead either. You can see that they are about to go, they will die in a day or two anyway. That way it's easier for them to die... They won't have to suffer for two or three more days.» After three months, about 2,000 people had survived on the island, over 4,000 had died.

The authorities could not hide this fact. An investigation was carried out and the culprits were punished: 34 people were shot, including 11 people for cannibalism. The island came to be known as Death Island, and in 1993, a memorial cross was erected there.

Kolpashevsky Yar

In May 1979, a high bank near the town of Kolpashevo, known as yar in Siberian, was washed away by a strong flood. The town of Kolpashevo is located in the very center of the Tomsk region. The bank collapsed and, along with clumps of clay, mummified corpses began to fall into the water and onto the lower terrace of the bank. Some were so well preserved in the permafrost that it was possible to distinguish faces. The terrible news spread throughout the city.

Older people recalled that above the collapsed bank was an NKVD internal prison, where mass executions were carried out between 1938 and 1940. However, no one knew that people were buried directly in the prison yard. The truth about the victims was revealed much later – already in the years of perestroika. But in 1979, Yegor Ligachyov, first secretary of the Tomsk Regional Committee of the CPSU, received an order from Moscow: to hide all traces of the crime of the «brave» Soviet Chekists. Regional newspapers did not write a single line about the incident.

Bodies were fished for in the water using boats and launches, weights were tied to them and they were drowned. But there were so many corpses that they were simply destroyed and broken into pieces with the propellers of boat engines.

But on May 9, after a rally in honor of Victory Day, dozens of Kolpashevo residents went to the banks of the Ob and laid flowers there in memory of the victims. At the time, this was an unheard-of act of bravery. But an order came from Tomsk to drown the bodies. For this purpose, the Tomsk river fleet was mobilized.

Bodies were fished for in the water using boats and launches, weights were tied to them and they were drowned. But there were so many corpses that they were simply destroyed and broken into pieces with the propellers of boat engines. That is why the dead of the Kolpashevo bank came to be known as «double killed». People started writing about it in the late 1980s, when the archives opened. It turned out that about 4,000 people were buried on the shore, exterminated by NKVD charges. Among them are members of numerous «counter-revolutionary» organizations, invented by the Chekists themselves, who were declared enemies of the people.

Investigators who participated in the executions recalled that a large ditch was dug outside the prison and boards were thrown over it. The prisoner was forced to walk along these boards and was shot in the back of the head so that the body would fall into the hole by itself – thus saving the gravediggers the trouble. This is confirmed by the fact that the skulls found on the shore have a bullet hole in the nape area. Among the dead, the bodies of 3-4-year-old children were also found, many with valenki on their feet, and tiny skulls with holes. This means that whole families were shot and even children were not spared. Later, cartridges were saved and convicts were killed by way of soaping the rope. Amazingly, some residents of Kolpashevo managed to identify their relatives among the dead.

Among the victims shot in Kolpashevsky Yar were at least 28 Estonians, who were accused of participating in an Estonian nationalist organization with the aim of overthrowing the Soviet government. In 2019, it was possible to identify the name of one of the dead: Lori Eduard Osipovich, born on August 25, 1902 in the village of Nikolskoye near St. Petersburg. His mother and father were immigrants from Estonia and had a prosperous farm. In 1933, Eduard Lori refused to join a collective farm, for which he was sent to Siberia.

He lived and worked in the Chainsky district of the Tomsk region, which was part of the West Siberian Krai at that time. However, on February 12, 1938, Lori was arrested by the NKVD for participating in a «rebellious nationalist Estonian organization of spies-saboteurs» and was sent by convoy to Kolpashevo, where he was shot on May 15, 1938, along with other ethnic Estonians from the villages of Narymski Krai. A memorial was erected in Kolpashevo to commemorate the victims, but the site of the former tragedy has now been completely destroyed by river water.

A member of the firing squad of the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs – the name of the main Russian intelligence service that operated from 1934 to 1946, its successor is the current FSB – ed.) The photo is illustrative.
A member of the firing squad of the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs – the name of the main Russian intelligence service that operated from 1934 to 1946, its successor is the current FSB – ed.) The photo is illustrative. Photo: Kuvatõmmis / Youtube

Vadim Maksheev

Vadim Maksheev's parents met and got married in 1923 in Tartu. His father, Nikolay Maksheev, was a Russian officer and artilleryman who participated in World War I and the Russian Civil War, fought on the side of the White Guard and served with Baron Wrangel in Crimea. After the establishment of Soviet power in Russia, he emigrated to Italy, then to France, and then settled in Estonia, where he worked on the railway.

Nikolay's wife, Olga Maksheeva, soon returned to her parents in Leningrad, where she gave birth to a son, Vadim. A few months later, the family was reunited in Estonia. Vadim Maksheev studied in Tartu and Narva. The family lived in Kiviõli, where in 1936 the Maksheevs had a daughter, Svetlana. And everyone was happy.

However, the happiness ended in June 1941: the Maksheev family was subjected to repression by the Soviet power that had occupied Estonia. As a white officer, Nikolay ended up in the northern Urals, where he died a few months later. Vadim, together with his mother and sister, was sent to Siberia, to a taiga village by the Vasyugan River in the Tomsk region. In the autumn of 1942, on the same day, hunger and exhaustion claimed both his mother and six-year-old sister, whom Vadim carried in his arms for eight kilometers to the hospital, but who could not be saved.

Vadim Maksheev himself survived, settled in the Tomsk region, became a journalist, then a writer. After the beginning of perestroika and until the end of his life (Maksheev died in 2019), he was engaged in restoring the history of the Estonian residents deported to the Tomsk region. Vadim Maksheev wrote several books about his childhood in Estonia, deportation and life in Siberia. His books have also been translated into Estonian, the most famous being «Narõmi kroonika».

In 2011, the government of the Republic of Estonia awarded Vadim Maksheev the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana for his work in compiling the martyrology of deportation victims. The award was presented by Estonian Ambassador Simmu Tiik, who traveled to Tomsk. At the award ceremony, Vadim Maksheev suddenly started speaking the language of his childhood, and the ambassador remarked that he had not heard such wonderful Estonian in a long time. We were on friendly terms with Vadim Maksheev, and I proposed to him several times to visit Estonia.

Evil has no nationality. This is the basic principle of European humanism. There are heroes and villains among every nation.

But he refused again and again and said that he did not have the mental strength to return to the past and cities that no longer exist. It was people like Vadim Maksheev who united the history of Estonia and Russia, where the victims were people of many nationalities and ethnic groups, but they all had one executioner – the Soviet power.

The Soviet totalitarian system, which was international in nature and criminal in substance, mercilessly destroyed its own and other countries' citizens with one goal – to keep the people subjugated and to command the lives of other people for its own preservation and reproduction. Currently, the successor to this system is the Putin regime. But to equate him specifically with the Russian people is, in my opinion, a mistake.

Evil has no nationality. This is the basic principle of European humanism. There are heroes and villains among every nation. But one must not declare an entire nation the criminal, like Hitler and Stalin did. I am convinced that the Georgians do not have to be responsible for Stalin, the Jews for the Rottenbergs, Abramovich and Sergey Kiriyenko (whose surname at birth was Israitel), the Uzbeks for Usmanov, the Armenians for Lavrov, the people of Tuva for Shoigu and the Estonians for Anton Vaino, the Finno-Ugric Erzya people for Patriarch Kirill and the Khanty people for Moscow Mayor Sobyanin.

And it's not only about judging individuals, but also about the characteristics of mass behavior, for example, in conditions of natural disasters, revolutions and wars. What can we see in the war in Ukraine? Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and Chechens are fighting for and against Ukraine. And there are plenty of such examples of national division in history and all over the world. Everything in the world is mixed up at the level of DNA, culture and language. And in this New Babylon of our age, it's not so much who you are by blood that matters, it's far more important who's side you're on.