TALLIN, ESTONIA January 2002
In the Baltic state of Estonia, a trial resumes this week of a former KGB officer accused of crimes against humanity – one of a series of war crimes trials being pursued there since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in the early nineties. During the Second World War, Estonia was occupied both by German and Soviet troops – but unlike in most of Europe, many of those who sided with Hitler against Stalin were seen as heroes. Now, with its imminent membership of both the European Union and NATO, Estonia is tracking down those who carried out Stalin’s dirty work.
The hull of the ferry cut a path through the iced-over sea blanketed with fresh snow to the Estonian island of Saramaa – along the same route that Soviet troops took on March 25th 1949.
My journey was to find a local farmer, Udo Sueerte, who that day had found himself rounded up and shipped out to Siberia as part of Stalin’s policies which came to be known as the Great Terror.
I had with me a copy Mr Sueerte’s KGB file, telling the tragedy of one life.
I wanted to meet him, yes, but more so I wanted to get beneath the black and white issue of war crimes. Were the officials who compiled the file – with the cold logic of bureaucratic procedure – merely civil servants or criminals.
At 72, Udo is lively and talkative. He met his wife Eugenia at their closed Siberian village.
‘If we had tried to leave we would have been shot,’ he says
Udo, his mother and sister, were sent away because his father was accused of supporting Germany against the invading Soviet army.
The file had letters, reports, charge forms. He hadn’t seen them before. He thought anyone involved should be brought to justice, but was not fervent about it. He was more keen to show us his farm, the idyllic snow-drenched fields and photographs of his massive family of four generations gathering around the tree for Christmas.
Then, in a very different setting, against a dark morning in a lawyer’s office, I met August Kolk. When he was 19 he was ordered to work on the KGB operation in Saramaa Island. Now 78 his pension so bad he can’t afford to go back to Russia, Mr Kolk is on trial for crimes against humanity.
‘Do you remember this?’ I asked, passing him a copy of Udo Sueerte’s file.
He recognized the KGB cover. He remembered the operation on Saramaa Island. But he did not know Udo Sueerte himself.
‘They told us there was a kind of bandit movement,’ he said. ‘People left over from the war working for Nazi organizations, terrorizing and stealing from people. The resettling we did was to eliminate the economic supporters of these people.
‘I did what any school boy could have done. They brought the files to me, I looked and them, signed them and sent them back. There’s no way I should be prosecuted.’
He stared ahead through thick glasses. The tables of Europe had turned on him. He was doomed because his empire had been defeated. As a teenage civil servant, had he disobeyed orders, and he would have been shot as well.
This is the story of a tiny Baltic state buffeted between the armies of ambitious dictators. Between Stalin and Hitler, who would you have chosen? And then, with sudden independence, what do you do if you’re a Russian left behind, the remnant of yet another European war.
There are five hundred thousand Russians in Estonia, a third of the population, who see these prosecutions as the hand of revenge and recrimination. It is what Europe does to the defeated.
‘Do they want us to feel like the Jews under Hitler?’ muttered one elderly Russian in the market near the railway station. ‘Do they want us all to leave?’
So why is Estonia, so forward-looking and future-obsessed in just about everything else, dragging up its past on this.
The young Prime Minister, Siim Kallas, is not a man to linger on second thoughts. ‘Yes, I know there is this attitude,’ he says, pursing his lips with sarcasm, ‘you know this idea that they are old men under enormous pressure from their regime and we must forgive and forget…but that’s all wrong.’
He leans forward, jabbing his forefinger in the air to make his point. ‘But such regimes exist today and you have no guarantee that such regimes will not emerge again, and if you personally are under pressure to commit crimes against humanity it is very important that you should know that your regime might collapse and you will have an individual responsibility.’
He talked with an idealistic glint, with the new moral authority of NATO and the European Union.
And his message?
However young you are, whichever dictator you work for, and whoever side he’s on at the moment, the secret files will one day be opened and you could find yourself in the dock even fifty years from now.