“Stalinist deportations: echo of the past, for present and future”. IPN debate

This night, it will be 82 years of the anniversary of the first wave of mass deportations that covered the first tens of thousands of Bessarabian Moldovans who were taken away by force from their homes and households, relatives and friends, the native land, being transported in inhuman conditions to icy Siberia. Two more waves of deportations followed and these caused tens of thousands of victims - women, men, older people and children. The experts invited to IPN’s public debate “Stalinist deportations: echo of the past, for present and future” discussed how this crime was committed, by who and why and what should be done for such horrors to never happen again and also other things related to this tragic page in the history of Moldovans.

Igor Boțan, the permanent expert of IPN’s project, said that the mass deportations are one of the forms of the Stalinist repression in the Soviet Union. The main feature of the deportations as repression is their out-of-court nature that is complete for particular sections of the population, like the kulaks. “It is a coercive and extremely dangerous measure from social viewpoint as it envisioned the transportation of masses of people to a geographically remote, unusual, extremely risky habitat that was dangerous for the deported people,” noted the expert.

He said that Stalinism is the political system that existed in the Soviet Union in 1920-1950. The dominant ideology of that times can be described by such features as the domination of authoritarianism, strengthening of the punitive functions of the state, merger of the state bodies and the ruling Communist Party and strict, practically full ideological control over all the aspects of life of society. Not accidentally, Stalinism is considered one of the forms of totalitarianism.

The crimes against humanity are a group of crimes against human life, which are massive in character, and are stipulated in modern international law.

“Article 6 of the Statutes of the International Military Tribunal defines the crimes against humanity as killing, extermination, enslaving, deportation and other atrocities against civilian population committed before or during the war or political, racial or religious persecution. The Rome Statute, which instituted the International Criminal Court and is in force since July 1, 2002, stipulates four categories of crime that are within the Court’s remit: genocide, war crimes, the crime of aggression and crimes against humanity, which include the mass deportations,” stated Igor Boțan.

Doctor of History Viorica Olaru, author of monographs about Stalinist deportations in the MSSR, said that when the lessons of history are not learned, there is a major risk of a repeat. “The deportations were a form of Stalinist terror. They were extremely often used since the creation of the Soviet Union to repress and subdue people and ethnical conglomerates in the former USSR. It was periodically applied as a coercive measure with the aim of changing the ethnic character of the given region, of dissolving the national components on the territories occupied by the Soviet Union. Respectively, when Bessarabia was occupied by the Soviet power and was annexed as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, this measure was taken here,” stated Viorica Olaru, who formed part of the Cojocaru Commission for analyzing and condemning the Stalinist totalitarian regime that worked in 2010.

According to the historian, it is considered that there were three waves of mass deportations, but deportations actually occurred throughout the years of Soviet occupation, until the death of Joseph Stalin. “We cannot speak about a very precise number of victims of deportations, especially because the figures were always mingled with arrests, exiles to gulags and other coercive measures. It is very hard to speak about exact figures. However, we, the historians, use figures based on documents, decisions and reports produced after the three waves of mass depurations,” said Viorica Olaru, who took part in the Memory Expeditions to Siberia and Kazakhstan projects.

According to her, the first wave of mass deportations, of June 12-13, 1941, covered primarily the opinion leaders, politicians and intellectuals. “It also goes to the clergy that remained in Bessarabia after the annexation of 1940, mayors, activists of political parties, all those who had a post in the community and were opinion leaders. These categories of citizens posed a risk to the Soviet power. About 3,470 families out of a total of over 22,000 people were deported then during one night. That was a kind of political offensive against the people of the MSSR for exterminating anti-Soviet elements.  

Viorica Olaru noted that the second wave of deportations, of July 5-6, 1949, were economic in character. Emphasis was laid on the deportation of other categories, such as former landowners, the so-called kulaks, wealthy families that owned inherited land, accessories to cultivate the land, cattle, houses and other property. The third wave, of April 1, 1951, was a spiritual offensive as there were deported primarily supporters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, representatives of this denomination in the MSSR. “Why namely they? Because the Orthodox Church already cooperated with the Soviet system and there was nothing to be oppressed there already, while the more secret and international character of this denomination caused problems to the Soviet authorities because they refused to do the military service, didn’t recognize the political power and were waiting for the coming of democracy and were consequently deported,” noted Viorica Olaru.

The historian also said that about 70,000 people suffered as a result of the three waves of deportations, but these are Soviet figures that should be rectified and she rather banks on the census taken before the occupation of Bessarabia by the USSR. “I ascertained that 1 million people were missing and about 250,000 people of these were victims of the artificial famine, another several hundred people were exiled to gulags and arrested. It is very hard to say an exact figure, but it definitely goes to hundreds of thousands of people,” stated Viorica Olaru.

The chairman of the Association of Former Deportees and Political Prisoners of Moldova Alexandru Postica referred to the resemblances between the tragic events of those years and Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine. “This war symbolizes the fact that the real problems of deportations, exterminations of Bessarabians of the 1940s weren’t fully examined and weren’t assessed appropriately,” he stated.

According to Alexandru Postica, it is not right from legal and historical viewpoints to narrow the repression, all the crimes committed during the Soviet occupation, during the three waves of deportation.

“What we saw in 2022 as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine actually happened earlier in the Republic of Moldova. And we can make particular comparisons. The same mass graves as those that existed in Bucha. The people saw those hundreds of bodies that were buried in forests, in mass grapes that actually existed also in the Republic of Moldova, in Chisinau, in the 1940s, when those who hampered the Communist regime were exterminated. It happened in the 19040s, before the first wave of deportations,” said Alexandru Postica.

He noted that there are inaccurate data about arrests and cases of torture during the deportations. Before the first wave of deportation, based on particular statements there were compiled lists of persons who were eliminated by torture, by homicide, by limitation of freedom, etc. The state now cannot recognize the status of victim of those persons. Many of the cases aren’t known because there is no relevant documentary evidence.

The public debate entitled “Stalinist deportations: echo of the past, for present and future” was the 12th installment of IPN’s project “Impact of the Past on Confidence and Peace Building Processes” that is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation of Germany.

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