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Everyday Life in Stalinist Estonia

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Olaf Mertelsmann

In Estonia, as in other Eastern European countries, the Stalinist era remains in the center of attention of historians. Politics, repression and resistance dominate the historiography, while everyday life is definitely under-represented. This book attempts to close the gap and focuses on different aspects of everyday life in Stalinist Estonia.

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1956—A Turning Point in the History of the Estonian SSR?

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In the historical literature 1956 marks a turning point in Soviet history with Khrushchev’s secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress, the beginning of de-Stalinization and the “Thaw.” What was the perspective of a provincial So- viet republic that was incorporated sixteen years earlier into the USSR? In oral history sources such as interviews or the collection of more than 2,000 life sto- ries in the Estonian Literature Museum, 1956 is not often mentioned. When that year is brought up, the Hungarian uprising is mentioned more often than de- Stalinization or the secret speech. For Estonian historical memory other events seemed more crucial, like the loss of independence in 1940, World War II, two mass deportations, the purges of the local party leadership (called the “Estonian affair”) in 1950–52, and, of course, the death of Stalin. Nineteen fifty-six did not mark a turning point in the history of the Estonian SSR, and the Twentieth Con- gress was not as important for contemporaries as other events or ongoing proc- esses. Of course, for many Estonians who were deported to Siberia or impris- oned in the gulag, de-Stalinization led to their amnesty and final release. In addi- tion, several persecuted party members were rehabilitated. On December 1, 1956, roughly 17,500 former political prisoners were living in the Estonian SSR, 7,300 of whom had been released that year. More than one-third had served their full sentence.1 In fact, more Estonians were freed in Beriia’s 1953 amnesty than in 1956.2...

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