“They put us in trucks, took us to the railway, and herded us into freight wagons."
“There were many wagons which were used for bringing cattle to the slaughter. I started to count them, I couldn’t see where the wagons stopped."
During the Second World War and the years that followed, at least 2.5 million Soviet citizens were forcibly deported. Hundreds of thousands – most of whom were pensioners, women, and children – took the terrible journey into exile in cold, stinking wagons. They were hungry, fearing of death and full of uncertainty. For some, this exile was permanent.
As part of the Russian Language News Exchange – a joint project among journalists from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine – we have gathered accounts from some of the families who fell victim to this catastrophe.
On 22 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, violating previous agreements. By that time, hundreds of thousands of Finns, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians and representatives of other populations in the western territories of the USSR had already been exiled to Siberia and Central Asia as potential “unreliable elements." For them, the Second World War started two years earlier, when the USSR and Germany invaded Poland simultaneously, turning the eastern provinces of that country into the western regions of the Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republics.
In 1940, the former Romanian regions of North Bukovina and Bessarabia joined the USSR, along with the Baltic republics that who had only gained independence after the 1917 revolution and collapse of the Russian Empire. In the "reunited" territories, the “cleanup” was in full swing up until the German invasion.
The museum of victims of deportation. Photo credit: Ziarul de Garda
The most prominent and influential part of the population – former officers (mainly Poles), politicians, businessmen, priests, and intellectuals – had already been repressed. After this, the authorities moved on to other social groups. The last group of exiles from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia left for the east literally a week before the army of the Third Reich arrived.
Mass deportation was not only practiced during the war; it began earlier. In the USSR, the first peak of mass deportations on social and ethnic grounds occurred in the mid-1930s. The second occurred in the mid to late 1940s, during the war years.
On August 28, 1941, the Soviet Union liquidated the Volga Germans’ autonomous region. Their ethnicity, in the eyes of the authorities, made them potential "collaborators."
Even German servicemen were recalled from the front, despite the panic and extreme need for soldiers during the first months of war. According to an article from the independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, the expulsion of Germans was the largest Soviet deportation of the war. Around 1.2 million out of the 1.5 million Soviet Germans were displaced, some of them two or three times.
Deportation of “Retribution”
With the Soviet Army’s liberation of German-occupied territory in 1943-44 came the second wave of deportations. Whole ethnic groups were accused of treason and collaboration with the enemy. According to the decree of the Supreme Soviet Presidium on the liquidation of Chechen-Ingush autonomous region, “many Chechen and Ingush people have betrayed the Motherland, they have switched to the side of the fascist occupiers, joined the ranks of saboteurs and spies thrown behind the Red Army lines by the Germans. They created armed gangs to fight against the Soviet government”.
Photo credit: Otar Atskureli/ JAMNews
Josef Stalin, who governed the Soviet Union as dictator from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953, was afraid of potential spies and smugglers. For this reason, around one million Meskhetian Turks, Ingush, Chechens, Crimean Tatars and people of other nationalities were rounded up and sent away in freight wagons to far-flung Siberia, the Ural Mountains, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
Between 1949 and 1951, a new wave of deportations occurred. Once again, this campaign mainly targeted inhabitants of the USSR’s western borderlands. The hero of Meydan TV's article "Deported Three Times," Gyulaly Binaliev, was born 18 November 1941 in the Adigeni region of Meskheti (a part of Georgia). Gyulaly remembers what his father said about the deportation of the region’s Muslim population in November 1944:
“Father always meticulously maintained cleanliness in the house, and demanded the same from others. He said that the stench of the wagon during those weeks never left his memory."
Gyulaly Binaliev. Photo credit: Meydan TV
Alikhan Kuradze – also from Meskheti, Georgia (Jam News wrote about him in their article “Return from exile”) – was already seven years old by then. He remembers a lot.
“A bang on the door woke me up late at night. The whole village was lit up by headlights. They put us in a truck, took us to the railway, and herded us into freight wagons."
Theodosia was deported from the city of Soroca at the age of 10. Photo credit: Ziarul de Garda
Journalists from the Moldovan publication, Ziarul de Garda met with Theodosia Kozmin. In 1949, 10-year-old Theodosia was deported from the city of Soroca (then part of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic) to Siberia. By that point, her father was already in prison.
“My mother asked them to tell us where they were taking us but they refused to answer,” she said. “My mother thought they were taking us to our deaths…”
Men old enough to serve in the army were on the frontline, so it was mainly pensioners, women, and children that took this terrible journey into the unknown. It is also these children who are now retelling their stories about this catastrophe to us today.
According to historians, more than six million people were forcibly deported within the USSR – almost four percent of the USSR’s population at the time of the 1939 census. At least 2.5 million were deported during and after the war. As a result, some specialists think that these figures underestimate the true number of victims.
The conditions during “war deportations” were harsh. On their journey to exile, people suffered from starvation, the cold, illness, a lack of basic medicine, and inhumane living conditions. This journey took three to four weeks. Historians estimate that twenty to thirty percent of all those forcibly deported died, either on the journey, or in their place of exile. As a child, the well-known Crimean Tatar geographer Safie Nalbantova was sent with her family to the Urals (the geographical region located around the Ural Mountains in Russia). The only family possession to survive this journey was a 1906 copy of the Quran. They had to sell the rest of their belongings to feed themselves. Her granddaughter, Elnara Nurieva, told us about the difficult train journey to exile:
“I remember from my grandmother’s stories that they weren’t allowed to bury the dead, they had to throw the bodies out. This is unacceptable in the Islamic tradition. You have to bury them in the ground, you have to read the prayer. The second memory is of how they went to the toilet. There was nowhere to go, they had to use a small hole, which you couldn’t even call a window, so they could, in some way, keep the wagon clean. This image from her stories has been stuck in my mind to this day. Really, it was awful”.
Photo credit: Elnara Nurieva family archive
Nothing good awaited deported people in their new homes. Exile destroyed their traditional way of life, and their new life was harsh. It was difficult to adjust to the new climate. And only hard labour in the collective farms and lumber mills and initial hostility from locals awaited them.
The Latvian writer Andra Manfelde wrote about her mother’s deportation in the book, The Dugout Children. Novaya Gazeta–Baltiya published her story:
“You can’t compare 1949 to 1941. The conditions during the first wave of deportations were extremely cruel. Rats ate live humans, people slept in puddles, and as I was told, they even ate mice that the owls regurgitated.”
“But what does ‘milder conditions’ mean? My mother admitted that, for seven years, she was constantly hungry. She barely has any memories left of the journey to Siberia and the first few years there. She was later told that she screamed and cried for the whole 14 days she spent in the crowded wagon.”
Seifat Dursunov, like his fellow countrymen, was sent to Uzbekistan at the age of 19. He could only return to Georgia after 70 years.
“The locals were afraid of us. They thought we were cannibals,” he said. “But then we got used to each other, we went to visit them, we invited each other to weddings. They had fun weddings, dancing all the time, eating and drinking a lot.”
Seifat Dursunov. Photo credit: Otar Atskureli
Theodosia Kozmin says that she remembers children fainting from the heat and stench, the stations, the forest, the heavy rain and the tedious waiting.
“In the place we were taken to, the grass was taller than human height,” she said. “We were housed in these wooden barracks, where there were benches, like cut-down bunk beds. Every family was given one bench. They assigned jobs for people. I spent almost a month in the forest. My sister, Evgenia, was paralysed because of these conditions.”
In the words of Andra Manfelde: “The family was given a separate house. Looking at the photo, I thought it was a mud hut. There was grass growing on the roof. It was a hut without windows, covered with turf."
The house Andra's family lived in. Photo credit: Andra Manfelde family arhive.
However, shared misfortune and war can unite people. Online news site Caucasian Knot told the story of Alikhan Akhilgov. The Akhilgov family from Ordizhonikidze (now Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia) was sent to North Kazakhstan during the harsh winter of 1944.
“At first, we children tried not to catch the eye of the landlady. Our parents told us to be quiet,” Akhilgov said. “She also sized us up, figuring out who we were. They said different things about us, that we were traitors, thieves. But when she found out that our uncle was fighting in the war, that our uncle Bashir graduated from Moscow State University, she started to treat us like family. We spoke Russian well. We lived with Liuda until the warmest days. There were a lot of exiled people in that village. Most of them were Germans – they were the first to be deported. There were Balkars, and Russians didn’t come here of their own free will either. My mother and aunt Kureysh became friends with our first landlady. Even when we returned to our homeland they kept in touch. They wrote to each other constantly. Life was hard during the war, but even in exile people are still people.”
In spite of it all, people adapted. Safie Nalbantova told her granddaughter how she started to dance, albeit under police escort.
“She worked at the philharmonic hall and, in her free time from work at the lumber mill, she would dance. Working conditions at the philharmonic hall were more than hard. When the troupe was asked to dance somewhere outside the village where they lived, she had to go to the commandant and sign out. They sent a guard with a gun to accompany her. If everyone in the group went as artists, then she went as a dangerous criminal."
Photo credit: Elnara Nurieva family archive
The Long Return
It was only after Stalin’s death that restrictions on the exiles started to be lifted. But not everyone was able to return home. In his book Against their Will, historian Pavel Polian notes that in war and post-war devastation, there was no one to reclaim land of the exiled people, so the authorities almost forcibly settled those who lived in neighbouring areas or other corners of the countries there. In the 1960s, some of the deported nationalities even got their autonomy back.
But others, such as the Crimean Tatars, were banned from returning. Complete rehabilitation had to wait until almost the end of the Soviet Union. Only a decree from the Supreme Сouncil of the Soviet Union on November 14, 1989 fully rehabilitated these people.
Rehabilitation did not necessarily mean the end of exile. At the time, interethnic conflicts started to break out on the outskirts of the Soviet Union. In the Central Asian republics, where many of the deported remained after they were exiled, there was significant unrest.
“People began to leave en masse. There were fewer and fewer family members and friends there. Of course my family thought: everyone is leaving so we should leave. In Tajikistan, there were separate movements.”
Alikhan Kuradze. Photo credit: Otar Atskureli
However, there was nothing waiting for them back home. The question of deported people’s rights over their property in their former home countries turned out to be a ticking time bomb. Alikhan Kuradze’s family tried to return to Georgia in 1989, to their historic homeland in the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, but the locals drove them out.
“It was May and it rained all the time. My family lived in a tent. We stayed there for 30 days,” he said. “One day we were attacked and those people destroyed our tent. They asked us why we came back, what have we lost here. They did not believe that this was where our roots came from”.
The Binaliev family of Meskhetian Turks, who were deported to and settled in Uzbekistan, were even worse off. Following pogroms against Meskhetians in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley in May and June 1989, they decided to move to Azerbaijan and ended up in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
However, in 1992, when the Armenian army stormed the town of Khojaly, they once again became prisoners and then refugees. Gyulaly Binaliev remembers how he was taken prisoner:
“I went down to the basement, that’s where the women and children were. After less than an hour, the roof began to crumble and the ground began to shake. We realised that it was a tank. After that, a machine gun pushed through the door and an Armenian soldier stood there, he started to shout: 'Hey, come out Turks!' They called us and the Azeris ‘Turks.’"
Conflicts in the former Soviet Union have brought their own sad changes to the fates of those people who were already forced from their homelands once before.
In 1993, three months after a bloody conflict between ethnic Ingush and Ossetians in Russia’s North Ossetia region, Alikhan Akhilgov created the foundation “Help for Previously Deported People." At first, he worked with people who had suffered from repression and war. Then, when all the investors – and there weren’t that many of them– disappeared, all his energy and care went into the children.
“A few years have passed since then, but the number of disadvantaged children has not decreased,” he said. “Deportation, ethnic conflict, the Chechen war… Now there’s a war in Ukraine... There is no end in sight. And, as always, children suffer more than others."
/Reporting for this article contributed by Olga Dukhnich, Alyona Churke, Kateryna Aleksandr, Anatoliy Yeshanu, Maria Kugel, Nino Narimanishvili, Otar Atskureli, Elmir Mirzoyev, Nataliya Marshalkovich and Maxim Eristavi as part of the Russian language “Media Network”.