As this election year unfolds, I recall a time in 1939 when I was 6 years old. Stalin’s Russia and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact, dividing Eastern Europe among themselves. Germany expanded into Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia, to gain “Lebensraum” (space for living). Russians chose to occupy the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to increase their count of nations in the Soviet Union.
The pact co-signers arranged a short period of time for the German nationals to repatriate to Germany before the Russians swooped in to occupy the Baltic States. I remember seeing the Russian troops moving around the countryside making their presence felt.
Russians announced to the world that the Baltic States voluntarily chose to join the Soviet Union. To give credibility to their claim, a referendum to validate the inclusion of the Baltic States into Soviet Union was staged. Voting was mandatory and approval of the referendum was “strongly recommended.”
On Election Day, local officials of the Communist government, accompanied by Russian troops, escorted people to the polling places. Late in the day, the armed escorts came to our farm and mandated that my parents fulfill their civic obligation. Everybody knew they were expected to vote “yes.”
Although my parents were reluctant to participate, they did not resist the armed escort. My mother asked the “people’s organizer,” “What if I don’t agree with the proposition?” In a nasty, curt manner that man said, “Vote no, if you dare.” The implication was clear. Each ballot would be counted and examined for compliance. Dissenters would suffer retributions.
As expected, the Russians got the results they wanted. They announced to the world that the people of the Baltic States had chosen to join the Soviet Union. That was the beginning of a three-year occupation by the Russians and the process of denationalizing the occupied region. Individuals and families of political and social prominence and influence were arrested and charged with being subversive. They were packed into railroad box cars and deported to a Siberian gulag.
During the long occupation, deportations continued. Many of my relatives and their families fell victims. They were never released. They never returned. They disappeared as if they ceased to exist. Virtually everyone in the country awaited the dreaded moment when a truck with Russian soldiers would arrive at their door at dawn.
As a young child living through the years of Russian occupation, I had my view of elections skewed. It seemed to me that elections were not about peoples’ will or choices. Rather, elections were a license for an oppressive government to exploit, manipulate and eliminate people at their will.
Today, I am an immigrant and a proud naturalized citizen of the United States. Today, I rejoice in the freedom of choices in our electoral process. I rejoice, especially in having no fear of being urged to vote at gunpoint or of being relocated to a “gulag” for how I vote.
But with each election, the memory of 1939 still haunts me.
Fred Natkevi is a longtime Oak Park resident.