Case Studies

The Great Revision: release and rehabilitation of the repressed

Aivar Niglas, historian, Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, 14. August 2020

Aivar Niglas gives an overview of the years following Stalin's death when earlier repressive policies were reviewed, and first decisions were made to improve the situation of repressed persons. The mass liberation of prisoners or deportees occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. However, many challenges accompanied such people even after their return from the camps.

Total control over society, subjugation to one ideology, centralisation, and secrecy made the Soviet Union a scarcely governable state. Political campaigns, such as collectivisation, the so-called Great Terror, large-scale mass deportation operations, etc., were carried out to bring about significant changes in society.

This demanded greater focus from the central authorities and necessitated concentration of resources on a specific task at a specific point in time. When the change in society was achieved, the campaign ended.

Stalin on surnud. Esimesed küüditatud on vabastatud. Julgeme eestlastena koguneda ja grupipilte ametlikult teha.
Stalin is dead. The first deportees are liberated. Estonians dare to gather again as a group to take a photo (Kirov, 1956). Photo from the collection of L. Oispuu (Estonian Memento Union).

The liberation of repressed and deported individuals from the camps, which happened after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, should be seen as a campaign, because his successors preferred to rule the country by less repressive means.

Initially, the amnesty of 27 March 1953 released a large number of lower-level offenders. According to present-day interpretation, the majority of repressed political prisoners were liberated gradually in the 1950s and a smaller number of people at the beginning of the 1960s. All deportees were released, but only persons convicted of a criminal offense, who were regarded as the greatest enemies of the Soviet Union, had to serve a full prison sentence. In a broad sense, the whole process was divided into two stages: a release of individuals and an annulment of previous repression decisions.

The authorities focused more on releases, which significantly reduced the number of prisoners and eliminated the extrajudicial deportation system. However, they were far more cautious about the annulment of previous decisions.

As Soviet rulers regarded their state and legal order as legitimate, and their legal system was under the control of the Communist Party, the role of law appeared to have a modest effect on the process of rehabilitation. While insignificant legal errors were corrected, the primary ones were ignored. Large-scale mass deportation operations were not considered void. Consequently, only the reasoning of deportation decisions was examined, while its legality was not reviewed.

Eestis alustasime jälle tühjalt kohalt. Meie kodudes, majades ja korterites elasid võõrad. Siia majja õnnestus Ella-Rosalie Lubergil saada ametikorter – esimene omaette elamine pärast Venemaalt naasmist 1956
Many returnees had to start from scratch. Strangers lived in their previous homes. This apartment was given to Ella-Rosalie Luberg after her liberation in 1956. Photo from collection of Tiia Nurmis (Estonian Memento Union).

It was noted whether the deportation decisions were in accordance with the deportation criteria of the respective group: family ties with a family member punished for anti-Soviet activities; in the case of kulaks, the size of the farmland, or ownership of agricultural machinery, etc. If the documents revealed the person's innocence, then criminal punishment could have been nullified due to poor documents.

It was not taken into account at all that not every institution that sanctioned the punishments had a right to do so. For instance, the decisions of the Special Council, the main punitive organ, should have been nullified regardless of the offense because it was not a court. Only a court could pass a sentence. 

The annulment of repression decisions generally took place after the liberation, and it had to be requested by the former repressed person or their relative. The percentage of annulled decisions remained low. Less than 10% of extrajudicial deportation decisions from Estonia were nullified. It is unknown how many such decisions were made concerning the criminal convicts, but there is no reason to believe it was significantly higher.

An annulment of repression decision entitled one to claim compensation for property confiscated during the repression. Therefore, an extensive annulment could have been very expensive for the state. In addition to ideological reasons, this was another argument to avoid mass annulment.

For the victims, it was necessary to receive rehabilitation or annulment of a decision for other reasons as well. If the decision was annulled while the person was imprisoned in a camp or deported, he could return home without any obstacles and choose a home and a job on the same basis as everyone else.

In the eyes of Soviet authorities, individuals who were not rehabilitated remained repressed for a reason. They were not trusted, and their freedoms and rights were restricted even after their liberation. To return to one's own republic, oblast (district), or kray (territory), one had to apply for a special permit. However, those who returned to the Estonian SSR were not allowed to return to their former place of residence, in Tallinn, or another larger city. If a permission was still needed, then they had to apply for it again. The same pattern was probably followed throughout the USSR.

The permission was given by the local executive organs of the republic or oblast (district). The person's background and the reason for repression were taken into consideration upon making a decision. Previous criminal punishment or deportation may have become an obstacle while applying for jobs, building a career, going abroad, etc.

Many released persons voluntarily stayed in Siberia for work and returned home years later. There were young people who did not adapt to life in their homeland and returned to Siberia. Some people that were prohibited from entering the Estonian SSR moved to Latvian SSR or Russian NFSV border areas, which were close to their home.

The state authorities continued to review the return requests and repression annulment applications in the 1970s. As there were no fundamental changes in USSR governance, people started to lose hope, and fewer applications were submitted over time.

Aivar Niglas (born in 1973) is a researcher at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory. He has graduated from the Department of History in the University of Tartu. His main research interests include release and rehabilitation of the repressed, the Soviet Union army bases in Estonia in 1939-1941, and the Estonian soldiers in the German army during World War II.


Additional reading:

Me tulime tagasi, koostaja Rutt Hinrikus. Tartu: Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum, 1999.

Nancy Adler. The Gulag survivor: beyond the Soviet System. USA: New Brunswick, 2002.

Tõnu Tannberg. 1953. a. amnestia: kas ainult sulide ja varaste vabastamine?  – Tuna. Ajalookultuuri ajakiri, 2004, no. 3, pp. 37 – 51.

Aigi Rahi-Tamm. Doubly Marginalized People: The Hidden Stories of Estonian Society (1940 – 1960). –  Lazar Fleishman, Amir Weiner (toimetajad). War, Revolution and Governance: The Baltic Countries in the Twentieth Century. Stanford University: Academic Studies Press. (Studies in Russian and Slavic Literatures, Cultures and History), 2018, pp. 239 – 265

Aivar Niglas. Küüditatute vabastamine ja nende asumisele saatmise otsuste tühistamine Jossif Stalini surma järel. – Meelis Saueauk, Meelis Maripuu (toimetajad). Toimik „Priboi“: artikleid ja dokumente 1949. aasta märtsiküüditamisest. Eesti Mälu Instituudi toimetised, 2019, no. 2, pp. 135 – 171.


People of Vahrushevo (Kirov region) gathered in front of the local railway station to say goodbye to the first released Estonian from their parish in 1954. Ms Aurelie Üksti (pictured in the middle with a handbag) was allowed to return to her homeland to take care of a close relative Enn Soosaar, who had become disabled due to a traffic accident. Most of the victims of June 1941 deportation were not released until 1956-1958. Photo from the collection of U. Tomasson (Estonian Memento Union).