Deportation Day. Lady Day. Māras diena

The memorial stone in Staicele, March 25 2023

25 March is a day that, for Baltic people at least, is emotionally very tangled, with strands of meaning that are both very dark, and very light. To start with the light – today is the Names’ Day of all Latvian women named Māra or Mārīte – and all the variants of the name. In Estonia it is the same for Maari, Maarika, Maarja – and so on. (Not so in Lithuania, where Marija is celebrated on July 22, to coincide with the Feast of St Mary Magdalene.) In any case, usually this a day for cake, flowers, the drink of your choice and a lovely time with friends. For the sharper eyed among you, you will already have realised that this bears some relation to the tradition in some churches of celebrating this day as Lady Day, or the Annunciation of Our Lord – in other words, the visit of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary with the surprising news of the divine gift of a child, who would be the Christ.

The Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli

But this is also the day when we remember probably the worst single day in Baltic history, when many thousands of people were taken from their home by Soviet troops, loaded on to lorries, deposited at railway stations to be loaded into cattle trucks and transported to Siberia.

Precise figures are difficult to pin down, but from Latvia alone some 44 000 people, or 2% of the population were deported in one brutal, cruel action.

Here, in our little North Latvian town of Staicele, some 128 people were taken, many of them children, others very elderly. In today’s terms, that would be 10% of the town’s inhabitants. Along with so many, some of them died thousands of kilometres from home, heartsick and broken. Some returned after Stalin’s death, and three of those deported as children still live here. Much of this has been documented by a remarkable new project supported by the Latvian National Library and the President, among others. Aizvestie.Neaizmirstie has created an interactive map, detailing every house from which people were deported in 1941, 1949 and on other dates. This visualisation makes the sheer enormity and the scale of the deportations starkly clear.

This year the memorials were particularly poignant and heart-felt. Against the background of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the news of children in their thousands being – how to describe it? Deported? Kidnapped? – anyway, removed to Russia, has triggered griefs and memories, often buried in familial trauma but with continuing consequences for the relatives of those who were torn from their families, their homes, their land. For what we have realised over the last 13 months is that, for our part of the world at least, World War II and its consequences live on. For a while after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we hoped that real democratic change would bring freedom and openness to Russia, carrying with it greater security and freedom for the nations that has been part of that particular iteration of the Russian Empire.

But it was an illusion; unlike Germany, which undertook the screamingly painful task of self-examination, and the necessary acceptance of guilt, Russia never did.

It has never accepted its responsibility for the Holodomor, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930’s, nor for Stalin’s Great Terror. The various governments in Russia have never even approached the subject of the Baltic deportations, the shooting of many so-called enemies of the state (my mother’s first husband among them), or any other of the crimes against humanity that were committed. Timothy Snyder, in his magisterial history of the depredations of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Bloodlands, says this:

In the name of defending and modernizing the Soviet Union, Stalin oversaw the starvation of millions and the shooting of three quarters of a million people in the 1930s. Stalin killed his own citizens no less efficiently than Hitler killed the citizens of other countries. Of the fourteen million deliberately murdered in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, a third belong in the Soviet account. (Bloodlands, page ix in Preface: Europe)

So forgive us, if we find it difficult to trust a Russian regime whose propagandists refer to Ukrainians as worms, lesser than Russians, as Untermenschen. Bear with us when we remember the atrocities committed against the Baltic States, for forgiving is possible, even where forgetting would be a betrayal. Support us when we call for true justice as a basis for peace, a peace that is not just absence of conflict. Pray with us us when we hope and pray for a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process in Russia, which would bring real security for the lands it formerly occupied, and perhaps even true peace and growth for Russians, too. Today we mourn, we remember; but also we hope.

To conclude, a prayer for today, read also at the memorial in Staicele today. The Latvian original is below.

Gracious God, our Creator, Redeemer and Protector, on this day of mourning we turn to you.

Today we mourn for the lost souls of Staicele. We mourn the men in their prime, the mothers and the children who they bore; we mourn the grandmothers and grandfathers, whose deportation left empty houses and broken hearts. We thank you for those who were able to return – wounded in body and soul – and mourn those, who departed this life far from home, from the river, the forests and marshes.

We mourn and we pray: Lord, have mercy.

Today we also remember those who suffered then and suffer now from injustice, violence, hatred and cruelty. We bear in our thoughts all those, who were unable to talk about Siberia on their return, and those ho have not recovered from the generational trauma. We think of our friends in Ukraine and of victims of violence in Staicele.

We remember, and we pray: Christ, have mercy.

Today we lift our hearts to you in hope. All around us nature is awakening, migrating birds returning and light growing day by day. Good Friday and the death of Christ draw near, but so does Easter and Christ’s rising from the grave. When our hearts are wintry, mourning or in pain, touch us and wake new life, so the ice in our hearts may melt and love be born anew.

We hope, and we pray: Lord, have mercy.

Žēlsirdīgais Dievs, mūsu Radītājs, Pestītājs un Sargātājs, šajā sērās apvītajā dienā mēs griežamies pie Tevis.

Šodien sērojam par Staiceles pazudušajām dvēselēm. Sērojam par aizvestajiem spēka vīriem, par mātēm un par bērniem, kas uz rokām dusēja; sērojam par vecmāmiņam un vectētiņiem; par ikvienu, kura aizvešana atstāja šeit tukšas mājas un sāpošas sirdis. Pateicamies Tev, ka bija tādi, kas atgriezās – ar miesā un dvēselē iegrieztām brūcēm – un sērojam par tiem, kuriem bija lemts aiziet mūžībā tālu no mājām, no Salacas, mežiem un purviem.

Mēs sērojam, un lūdzam: Kungs, apžēlojies.

Šodien arī atceramies visus tos, kas cieta toreiz, un cieš vēl šodien, no netaisnības, no varmācības, no naida un nežēlības. Domās esam ar tiem, kuru ģimenēs par Sibīriju nedrīkstēja runāt un kas nav varējuši tikt pāri šai paaudzēs ieilgušajai traumai; ar paziņām un draugiem Ukrainā un ar varmācības upuriem Staicelē.

Mēs atceramies, un lūdzam: Kristu, apžēlojies.

Šodien paceļam savas sirdīs cerībā uz Tevi. Visapkārt daba mostas, gājputni atgriežas un gaisma pieņemas spēkā; tuvojas ne tikai Lielā Piektdiena un Kristus nāve, bet arī Lieldienas, un Kristus augšāmcelšanās no kapa. Kad mūsu sirdīs valda ziema, sēras vai sāpes, pieskaries mums un modini jaunu dzīvibu; lai ledus mūsu sirdīs izkustu un mīlestība atdzimtu no jauna.

Mēs ceram, un lūdzam: Kungs, apžēlojies.

Savas sēras, atmiņas un cerības nododam Dievam,
lūdzot ar vārdiem, kurus Jēzus mums māca:

Mūsu Tēvs debesīs! Svētīts lai top Tavs vārds.
Lai nāk Tava valstība.
Tavs prāts lai notiek kā debesīs, tā arī virs zemes.
Mūsu dienišķo maizi dod mums šodien.
Un piedod mums mūsu parādus,
kā arī mēs piedodam saviem parādniekiem.
Un neieved mūs kārdināšanā, bet atpestī mūs no ļauna.
Jo Tev pieder valstība, spēks un gods mūžīgi mūžos. Āmen.