(A summarized translation of Jüri Saar’s article from Sirp, November 30, 2007)
Different categories of armed units were located on the territory of occupied Estonia. Armed elements were everywhere – from KGB border guards to internal ministry divisions to the regular military. Their commanders were rather obviously not locals but non-Estonians. These units often took orders directly from Moscow. Such an overwhelming armed force nullified any chance of local resistance and guaranteed the party’s unquestioned authority. Their mere presence was intimidating.
The physical integrity of a penal system is maintained by prison guards. Analogously, individual social roles in the USSR could be divided into “guards” and those to be guarded (inmates/prisoners.) Understandably, not every “guard” should be brought to justice for past deeds. Yet others must. For example, [decorated Soviet Hero] Arnold Meri was unquestionably a “guard”, no matter how humane and unavoidable he presently attempts to portray his role in the deportation of people (the majority of whom were elderly, women and children. - ed.) to Siberia. (Arnold Meri is currently waiting trial for overseeing deportations from Hiiumaa to Siberia in 1949. He still justifies his actions of the time. - ed.)
Naming all the functionaries who actually fulfilled the “guards” roles is impossible. But they would definitely include the privileged government and party elite, the commanders of armed and special services. Simple party membership didn’t always include the accompanying privileges of the “nomenkultura”culture. Even though the Estonian Communist Party had some 100,000 members at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this should not imply that the masses were acting as “prison guards”. Is this large number believable? Party internal affairs were always secret — and traditionally conspiratorial. To confirm the number now is impossible. A party member’s individual importance became less significant after the 1940’s. Whereas in the 1940’s a member was expected to be active in the class struggle of the 40’s, a rank and file party member of the 80’s was usually only required to follow party discipline and direction.
By 1980, party membership or affirmation was compulsory for those aspiring to positions of importance. In the 1940’s party affiliation was possible primarily only by proving one’s proletarian roots. In later years it was acknowledged that those capable of leadership are limited in numbers. Therefore, it was necessary to identify them early, make them either join the party, or block their potential for advancement by not allowing them into universities, expelling them etc. This was the primary initial focus of the party.
The prison paradigm extends also to the rest of Soviet society. The “prisoners/inmates” underwent acculturization within a prison environment, adapting oneself and being accepted into the penal subculture. Some aspects of similarity between Soviet society and the prison subculture: resigning oneself to a lower social status, being less valuable to society; adjusting to particular eating, working, recreational and other habits, gathering information on the “prison” system, adopting the preferred vernacular and striving for better conditions within prison/Soviet conditions. These processes in the long run help form the “prisoner’s” worldview. This socialization was often encouraged by the prison/Soviet administration, because such a system of informants is in practice the only means of maintaining internal order.
Acculturalization within the “prison” was not the same for all. The more an individual aspired to succeed, the more involved an individual had to be with the party. Soviet apologists twisting the facts cannot deny this axiom. Such was the case in Soviet Estonia: to adapt to conditions, one chose one’s level of co-operation with the party.
Fortunately, Estonia was influenced positively through direct contacts with Finland and indirectly through Finnish television. A valid generalization can be made, that most people, in order to cope with everyday stresses, only compromised themselves marginally. And Soviet apologists, who remind us that joining the “October” and “pioneer” movements was nearly universal for youth exploit this fact. Yet an affiliation with either of the two movements was not taken as true party membership. The ideological importance of those two organizations had become practically non-existent by the end of the 1960’s.
Again, we must not confuse the concept of “prisons” and “prison guards” with temporary necessary compromise. As always, especially from today’s informed perspective, those responsible were not he victims, but always the ones who created the conditions of imprisonment and reaped personal benefit from the results.
(To be continued. The final installment: Estonians abroad.)
Interpreting Estonia’s recent history (II)