SIBERIAN EXILES: Baltic testimonies of Soviet repression | Claudia Heinermann

The Nederlands Fotomuseum presents SIBERIAN EXILES: Baltic testimonies of Soviet repression by photographer Claudia Heinermann. The trilogy details the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania between 1940 and 1991. This part of European history is hardly known in Western Europe. During the Soviet Union’s annexation, mass deportations, executions, and arrests took place. These collective traumas have left deep scars on the population. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, old fears have been revived. But why is this fear so intense, and what is its cause? Based on personal stories from eyewitnesses and relatives, Claudia Heinermann takes us into a hidden history.

"No one has ever been convicted of the crimes against humanity the Soviets committed. This was openly discussed for the first time after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. However, in Putin’s Russia, Stalin’s past is again being brushed under the carpet. Hence, it is vital the stories the Iron Curtain hid from view are not only heard but also preserved to ensure correct historiography."

In three parts, eyewitnesses recount the deportation of women and children to remote areas in Siberia, life in the Gulag camps, the organised resistance against the Soviet occupiers, and the beginning of the Cold War.

Parts 1 and 3 of Siberian Exiles have also been released as a publication. Part 2 is scheduled to be published in April 2023.


In part 1, Heinermann focuses on six Lithuanian survivors exiled as children to the Laptev Sea above the Arctic Circle. Their families were deported to the southern mountain region of Altai in 1941, during the first major mass deportation, to do agricultural labour. In 1942, they were transferred to the Laptev Sea with three thousand other Lithuanians to set up a fishing industry. Winters last for ten months in this arctic region, and the temperature drops to 50 degrees below zero. The exiles were dumped without housing, protective clothing, food, or technical resources. For many, it became a death sentence. 


‘When we arrived and got off the boat, all I saw was barren plains and nothing else. I was assigned to the children’s brigade and had to work 12 hours a day. Only after work were we allowed to work on building our cabins. In the evening, I was afraid to go to sleep. Snow had already fallen, and I was afraid of freezing and never waking up again. We would huddle close together.’ 

- Irena Valaityté, survivor 


In part 2, Heinermann focuses on the resistance against the Soviet occupation. In 1940, the Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states after signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany. Mass deportations followed. A year later, the Germans arrived, only to be expelled again in 1944 by the Soviets, who annexed the Baltic. This time, a partisan movement arose that carried out actions against the Soviets from underground bunkers until the 1950s. The population hoped the occupation would be short-lived and the West would intervene. However, their hopes were in vain, and the Soviet occupation lasted until 1991. 

Heinermann interviews Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian eyewitnesses. She also chronicles the Baltic resistance through photographs of the forests where the partisans hid, archival material, and documents. Many died during battles and arrests or were sentenced to forced labour in the Gulag camps. 


Part 3 is based on the story of Marju, a deportee from Estonia, and subsequently leads us to a nuclear test site in Kazakhstan and the beginning of the Cold War. 


In 1949, the Soviets deported ten-year-old Marju and her mother, along with 20,000 other Estonians. Marju and her mother ended up in a kolkhoz in southern Siberia on the border with Kazakhstan. They were assigned as agricultural labourers on the vast steppe, where Marju witnessed the detonation of the Soviets’ first hydrogen bomb in 1953. The Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk test site between 1949 and 1989. 


Heinermann travelled to Kazakhstan to uncover the history of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. She wanted to know if there was a connection between the Gulag system and the Russian atomic project that heralded the start of the Cold War. 


During her travels, Heinermann spent several days at the nuclear test site and spoke with former employees who had worked under confidentiality agreements at the test site. She visited the villages that were in the fallout zone for years and spoke to eyewitnesses who had seen the mushroom clouds rise in their youth and felt the Earth shake. 




Parts 1 and 3 have already been released as publications. Part two will be published during the exhibition. Click here to visit the webshop. 


SIBERIAN EXILES was made possible thanks to the support of the Mondriaan Fund, Fonds Anna Cornelis, Dutch Fund for In-depth Journalism, W.E. Jansen Fonds, NVF-Fonds, Lithuanian Council for Culture, Kaunas Photography Gallery. 

Irena Valaityté © Claudia Heinermann

Funding for this exhibition & project Siberian Exiles is provided by: Fonds Anna Cornelis, Mondriaan Fonds, WEJansen Fonds, Fonds voor Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten, NVF-Fonds, Embassy of the Netherlands in Lithuania, Kaunas Photography Gallery, Lithuanian Council for Culture, Kaunas Photography Gallery, Drake & Farrell.

Thanks to: National Museum of Lithuania, The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights Lithuania, Special Archive of Lithuania, Baranauskas and A. Vienuolis-Žukauskas Memorial Museum Lithuania, Vilius Kairys and Raimondas Urbakavičius Lithuania, Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, National Archives of Estonia, Eesti Mälu Instituut, Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom Estonia.

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