This Sunday, June 14th, marks the 79th anniversary of the beginning of the first massive deportation of innocents by the Soviets from the Baltic States. The second took place in March of 1949. Thousands upon thousands of innocents were cruelly ripped from the bosom of families and homes. Toronto area Balts have long marked this awful date with an ecumenical service of mourning and remembering. Not this year. Not allowed by the authorities.
Let us think on the past. For Orthodox Russians, still following the Julian, or old calendar (replaced throughput most of the world by the Gregorian) the 14th of June is the present-day anniversary of the Mahtra uprising of 1858. To clarify the calendar question – the Gregorian one follows the sun’s movement, established to correct the marking of seasons. That happened in Europe in the 16th century. Pope Gregory XIIII called for the marking of days to be moved back to reflect this. The practice was not adopted in Tsarist Russia and Estonia until 1918. As a common rule 12 days separate the two, explaining why old believers celebrated Christmas a dozen days after Western Christians.
It is an interesting synchronicity. For deportation to Siberia had taken place for centuries before the Soviets employed it at such a mass scale. Falling afoul of the regime, deserting from compulsory Imperial army service (or even when, much was the case in other countries, being sent to serve in the military was often a form of penal punishment) or even crossing internal borders in Estonia, from county to county, parish to parish in search of a better master meant exile. Last century’s Estonians called Siberia the cold land; in the 19th century it was usually the empty land.
Eduard Vilde wrote a splendid book about the Mahtra uprising. War, as it was known. Mahtra sõda, published in 1902, relied very much on facts. Official documents and memoirs of participants, when married with the author’s own dialogue, produced a classic historical fiction novel. It has been translated into, among other languages Russian, Finnish and Latvian, allowing for our neighbours having similar fates. But alas, not yet into English.
As Vilde notes the manorial system, run and effectively governed by landed German nobility while ostensibly following tsarist law, entirely ignored all attempts to emancipate the peasantry. While outright slavery was abolished by an ukase in the second decade of the 1800’s it was replaced by indentured slavery, which was even worse. A second reform was attempted, declared, taking decades until being approved, yet once again not implemented. The barons, whose lives of luxury depended entirely on their enslaved Estonians, were loath to concede anything to them. The Mahtra uprising was the result, for all the Germans – from churchmen to the barons themselves, refused to explain the document to a befuddled peasantry. While literacy was gaining hold schools were few, (for the barons had to build and fund them, begrudging the expense) and documents were written in Russian, not understood by most. Translations were into German or Estonian were, for obvious reasons unclear and not reliable. In effect the barons held all the cards.
After the Mahtra uprising, where the peasants, fearing corporal punishment – 80 lashes with a salt soaked switch, so as to make the wounds inflamed was typical – justice, as it was known was meted out. Many peasants from neighbouring parishes, manors had joined the men of Mahtra. Those found guilty of participating were tried and sentenced. Running the gauntlet, while receiving a thousand (!) blows from a cudgel was the price to be paid by the leaders of violence. If they survived, recovered, they were sent to Siberia for life.
Interestingly, my copy of Vilde’s classic was published in 1947 in occupied, yet again enslaved Estonia. As the book is highly critical of Germans this is not surprising, it was propaganda. Yet in the next decade, when a film of the book was proposed, censors banned it. The Iron Curtain was firmly in place. What did the Soviets have to fear, but the truth? Now they, not the landed Germans were the deporters and enslavers. And the people knew it.
Life-long, euphemistically called settlement, banishment from one’s land of birth resulted in death far from loved ones. Estonians have long held dear memories of their parents, ancestors, having an admirably beautiful cemetery culture that is reflective of this. Graves are well tended, sand or gravel on plots raked, flowers planted, candles lit there on Christmas Eve. We hold a surnuaiapüha - an open-air church service in the summer to commemorate the dead. Due to the wisdom of political leaders, this will not take place for all in Toronto, for cemeteries are locked. Why boggles the mind. Cemeteries are peaceful, quiet places, where it is very easy to physically distance, to stand by the family plot, gravestone of a loved one. Even visiting the same on the anniversary of her passing is denied. While thousands ignore physical distancing rules, blatantly and absurdly, protesting other lives lost.
Finally. During the Singing Revolution, that returned freedom to us, independence to our nation, a musical was written about Mahtra, featuring Ultima Thule with singer Siiri Sisask: Mis maa see on, What land is this. Exquisite lyrics are by Peeter Volkonski (the descendant of a Russian Imperial Prince). The CD with that name is excellent, Sisask’s own haunting version of the title song from a solo album is available online. Greatly recommended.
The Baltic people have lost, by unlawful means, because of deportation to Siberia, corporal punishment, which was a death sentence, executions, hundreds of thousands of people. Irreplaceable, important lives over the centuries. All of significance to others. And are not allowed to remember Soviet crimes against humanity with a church service, as those, too, are banned in 2020. Mahtra matters, June 14th, 1941 matters, March 25th 1949 matters. Let us never forget.
Tõnu Naelapea, Toronto
DIGITAL Estonian Life No. 23 - June 11, 2021
All issues with table of contents available here: https://issuu.com/estonianlife
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