In Siberia Written Letters on Brich Bark

Letters on birch bark were written by people who were in prisons, concentration camps or settlements in Siberia.  They were sent to relatives between 1941 and 1956 by people who had been deported from Latvia and Lithuania - they were members of the middle class and were arrested for having anti-Soviet views, for taking part in resistance movements, for being farmers, for belonging to political parties, or for refusing to join a collective farm.  During the cult of Stalinism, some 167,000 people in Latvia were repressed, including thousands of children who were sent to Siberia.

Latvian museums have only 19 letters on birch bark that were written by the following people:  Lawyer Kārlis Roberts Kalevics (1877-1945), Latvian Central Council member Voldemārs Mežaks (1914-1985), Home Guardsman Ernests Ķirķis (1913-?), farmer Matilde Kaktiņa (1882-1956), Latvian teacher Aleksandrs Pelēcis (1920-1995), Lithuanian teacher Gražina Gaidene (1911-1989), farmer’s daughter Elza Trumekalne (b. 1938), as well as Rasma Kraukle (1927-2008) and Gaida Eglīte (1927-2008).

The letters are in the collections of seven museums – the Tukums Museum, the Latvian Occupation Museum, the Latvian National Museum of History, the Aizkraukle Museum of History and Art, the Daugava Museum, the Madona Regional Research and Art Museum, and the Talsi Regional Museum.

The argument for documentary heritage signification

The letters from Siberia that were written on birch bark are of key importance in Latvia’s  history, because they offer testimony about the Soviet era.  This was one of the most tragic periods in the 20th-century history of Latvia – arrests and deportations which were certainly human rights violations.  The existence of the letters, along with their content, their language and the censorship stamps that are seen on them describe the ability of the totalitarian Soviet regime to control people’s lives.  Indeed, the letters can be seen as charges against the Soviet regime.

Birch bark was often the only available material on which letters could be written at places of deportation, and that was particularly true during World War II.  This was the only way to preserve links with the motherland and relatives.  The letters also vividly express the mentality of the Latvian nation – faith in that which is good, care for one’s loved ones, the hope of surviving and returning home.

The letters were written in prisons and settlements in Siberia between 1941 and 1956.  In the context of other documents and visual materials, they inform viewers of the fates of individuals and families from the Latvian middle class, helping people better to understand the tragic pages of history of Latvia and the former Soviet Union during the period of the so-called cult of Stalinism.

These are unique and irreplaceable documents.  They were written under the specific circumstances of imprisonment in camps or settlements all over Siberia.  All of the documents that have been nominated here are authentic.  They are originals, written by hand on the material that was at hand.  Letters from the concentration camps of Vyatlag during World War II are written in  Russian, not Latvian, because they had to be reviewed by censors, as seen in the censorship stamps that have been applied to them.  Letters that were sent from settlements after the war are written in Latvian.  They did not undergo military censorship and were stamped at post offices.

The letters on birch bark must be seen as something rare, because Latvian museums have only 19 that were written in that way.

Preservation and identification of Documentary heritage

The museum hopes to remind people of the repressions of the Soviet era, encouraging them not to be careless about the events of the past or the present.  The Tukums Museum is working with the other six museums at which these letters are kept, and we will continue our work in studying the era when the letters were written, as well as the Latvian resistance movement and the activities of the Soviet Union’s repressive organs.  We are doing so in the context of individuals, families, and the history of Latvia and the other Baltic States.

The Tukums Museum is working with the Lithuanian Genocide Museum, and a partnership is also started with the Estonian Occupation Museum.  We hope to bring in other museums to seek out that which the Baltic States have in common in terms of their history, identifying new letters not just in Latvia, but also in the other Baltic States and former Soviet republics whose citizens experienced repressions and deportation to Siberia.

The Latvian Occupation Museum is planning an exhibition, “Letters of Siberia,” in March and April 2010.  There will also be a travelling exhibition, “Letters From Siberia on Birch Bark,” which will be presented in Latvian and English from June 2010 – first in Tukums, and then at various museums in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. 

Extension of the nomination “Letters Written on a Birch-bark from Siberia” in 2013

In 2013, the amendments submitted by the Museum of Tukums to the nomination (2009) “Letters written on a birch-bark from Siberia” were approved: identified and recently added 24 letters written on the birch-barks in Siberia by repressed persons, soviet prisoners or Latvian inhabitants deported to Siberia by the Soviet authorities during the time period between 1943 and 1965. The letters were written to their kinsmen and friends in Latvia and those who migrated abroad.

24 letters, supplementing the nomination “Letters written on a birch-bark in Siberia” this year, are stored by five museums of Latvia: Museum of Tukums, History and Art Museum of Aizkraukle, Museum of Daugava, Literature and Music Museum, and Talsi Regional Museum. The letters written on the birch-bark inscribed in 2009 are also stored by the Occupation Museum of Latvia, the National History Museum of Latvia and Madona Local History and Art Museum.

Although the number of collection units has increased since 2009, it is just a small part of many letters written on the birch-barks from the places of imprisonment and deportation, which have come in possession of the museums in Latvia. Owing to the development of the National Register of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme and the recognition of already listed letters, these new letters – often kept as a dear memory for many years – have come to the museums of Latvia.



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