European Memories

of the Gulag


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The territories annexed by the USSR – 1939-1941


Under the German-Soviet Pact in August 1939 and its secret clauses on dividing Central and Eastern Europe between the two new allies, Stalin’s USSR began in 1939 and 1940 a new phase of expansion towards the west. The Sovietisation of the new territories involved purges of the former elites and other counter-revolutionary “socially alien elements”, etc.

Three waves of deportation were organised in the Polish territories annexed to Ukraine and western Belarus in 1940: these banished former settlers, osadnicy, local elites and some of the refugees (mostly Jews) who had fled the German occupation of Poland. The deportation resumed in spring 1941: from western Ukraine on 22 May; from Moldavia in the night of 12-13 June; from the Baltic republics on 14 June and from western Belarus in the night of 19-20 June.

Some heads of household were sentenced to forced labour in the camps, and their families and children were often exiled to “special resettlements” in Siberia or Kazakhstan. Nearly 500,000 were sent to the furthest depths of the USSR.


Refusal of citizenship
and arrest

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Henry Welch and his mother fled to the east. They found themselves in the Soviet zone. At first his mother refused to take Soviet citizenship, and when she finally came round to the idea, it was too late and the family was arrested.


Rumours of resettlement

The NKVD found it hard to keep the operation confidential. Silva Linarte’s family heard of the resettlement some days before 14 June 1941 from her father’s sister. But her father refused to believe it.




Austra and Lilija describe their arrest in June 1941

Others feared the worst – such as Austra et Lilija’s father, who thought that he and his family would immediately be shot. They were arrested in the middle of the night, and the children left with only the clothes they stood up in.


Silva Linarte’s mother leaves behind the baby’s things

Expecting to be deported to Siberia and choosing warm coverings when arrested turned out to be an essential factor for survival. Some people took winter clothing. Others, harried by the soldiers, left crucial bundles behind. This happened to Silva Linarte’s mother, who left her youngest child’s things – the baby died on the train.


Arrest of Diāna Kratiša's family

Because their father was away,  Diāna Kratiša’s family were arrested two days later. The archive documents published at the time of rehabilitation, however, record the family as being in the 14 June contingent.


Before annexation – the pre-Soviet period as the deportees remember it

The resettlement in June 1941 meant the families were separated. Often it was the last time that children saw their father, sentenced to forced labour. The last time, too, that their mother could display any femininity or elegance, before her face and shape were marked by forced labour.

Recalling the arrest is an opportunity to recall an idealised pre-Soviet past. The photographs of relatives, houses, and peaceful family scenes are miraculously preserved relics of a bygone age. The nostalgia of these childhood pictures is combined with pain at the loss of dear ones.