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  • Negotiating Lives, Redefining Repressive PoliciesManaging the Legacies of Stalinist Deportations
  • Alain Blum (bio) and Emilia Koustova (bio)
    Translated by Madeleine Grieve and Catriona Duthreuil

Administrative collective exile, implemented in 1940 and 1941 and again from 1944 onward, involved the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people from the western territories annexed by the Soviet Union after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in August 1939. These forced displacements fitted into a broader policy of Soviet mass deportations, which had started with the collectivization of the countryside in 1929–32. More than six million people were deported and assigned the degrading, restrictive status of "special deportees," "special settlers," or "exiles," a status that evolved during subsequent waves of deportation and over time.1 [End Page 537]

It was the task of the Soviet authorities that succeeded Stalin in 1953 to manage this population, scattered over a vast territory but strictly delimited in administrative terms, and to decide whether or not to release people in these categories and reintegrate them into mainstream society. Rather than abolishing the special regime governing the special settlers, the Soviet authorities kept it in place for many years. Decisions about the special deportees were not coordinated with the policy to release and rehabilitate former prisoners, which covered both ordinary criminals and political detainees.2 The timeframes were not the same, and the types of procedures implemented also differed. Although Lavrentii Beria's intention was evidently to follow up the amnesty decree of March 1953 with similar measures applicable to a large percentage of the forcibly displaced population, any such measures were suspended after Beria's arrest.3

While for the camps the authorities opened both individual and collective judicial procedures in the form of sentencing reviews and amnesties, these mechanisms were not extended to the special settlers, who had never been sentenced by a court. Instead, their status had been assigned and their deportation effected on the basis of administrative decisions (orders issued by the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs [NKVD], the USSR Council of Ministers, or the Council of Ministers of the republic concerned), or decisions emanating from an extrajudicial body with sentencing powers—namely, the NKVD Special Conference.

The Soviet authorities, extremely wary of this population, dismantled the world of the deportees very slowly, mirroring the gradual nature of its constitution. The system was dismantled by collective decrees and instructions issued by the central government between 1954 and 1965, regulating the [End Page 538] deportees' release and return.4 These decisions took effect last on the western fringes of the Soviet Union. The status of "special settler" did not disappear completely until 1965, some 12 years after Stalin's death. And it was not until perestroika, in 1988 especially, and subsequently in the states that became independent in 1991, that more general legislation finally overturned the Stalinist decisions.

Until 1988, therefore, decisions on the release of individuals and the restitution of property were still underpinned by Stalinist political and social categories. Those who had been deported as "bandits," "accomplices of bandits," "members of a bandit's family," and "relatives of kulaks" did not receive the same treatment by the Soviet authorities. Rather than challenge these Stalinist representations, the actions of the authorities only mitigated their impact on the lives of the people concerned. Release did not automatically entail the right of return or the restitution of confiscated property or housing, for which deportees had to make separate demands.

During the crucial decade of 1954–65, each wave of collective release of millions of special settlers was decided and organized at the highest level of the state. But these decisions were sometimes anticipated by the republic authorities, which implemented various procedures for the release of certain individuals. State hesitancy and the relative leeway granted to republics led to an entanglement of collective procedures initiated by Moscow and of individual procedures initiated by the republic authorities. In this article, we do not address the mechanisms of collective releases, which are well known.5 We focus instead on individual release procedures and therefore on the practices implemented by the republic governments, as illustrated by the case of Lithuania. The example of Lithuania is at once emblematic...