Everyday life in the post-war years

​After the end of World War II, there was some continuity with the patterns of life of the pre-war period, especially in the countryside. These patterns were finally eliminated with the forced collectivization of agriculture, beginning in 1949. Apart from elements of continuity, the shadow of state violence was visible in everyday life; neighbours were arrested or relatives deported. The post-war years saw the biggest wave of Stalinist repression in Estonia.

Another problem was subsistence: the war and the economic exploitation by the Nazis and Soviets kept incomes extremely low and created malnutrition in Estonia, which had previously been an agricultural surplus region. The post-war years witnessed 25,000 additional deaths among the civil population, mainly caused by malnutrition (those statistics do not include the victims of state terror). The Soviet state dealt with problems of food provision for the towns with rationing until late 1947. Estonia was not hit by the famine that occurred in many regions in the western parts of the USSR, which caused between one and two million deaths, but tens of thousands of hunger refugees arrived, the ‘bagmen’. They drove up food prices in the peasant markets, begged for food or money, sometimes became criminals and tried to settle permanently in Estonia. In fact, the poorest years in Estonia in the 20th century, 1946-1947, also saw the highest immigration ever, consisting mainly of people trying desperately to escape a far worse situation at home.

The war had destroyed approximately 25 to 30 percent of urban housing, rebuilding was slow and the urban population, after a low level in 1945, began to rise. As a result, per capita urban living space declined virtually every year in the post-war period, forcing people to live in barracks, in destroyed cities such as Narva, and even in bunkers or in overcrowded apartments. Some families had less than two square metres of living space per person.

In the post-war years, inflation was high, food and goods were scarce and most of the population was in a permanent struggle for survival. Only peasants owning at least 15 hectares could eat sufficiently and, after fulfilling their ‘quotas’ for the state, could earn some additional income in the markets. Of course, some supporters of the regime remained untouched by these severe economic problems. Urban living conditions finally improved in the 1950s, while in the countryside living conditions declined after the beginning of mass collectivization in 1949.

To survive under those conditions, people worked out all kinds of survival strategies. Black markets thrived and stealing from the state became widespread. Maybe half of the urban population and virtually everybody in the countryside not employed in agriculture kept large gardens to produce additional food. All kinds of ways to generate additional income – legal or illegal – were welcome.

For many people, the post-war experience was even harsher than the war itself. The state continued the process of Sovietisation and was eager to seek out new groups to target as ‘enemies’. A kind of normalization began in the early 1950s, even before Stalin’s death. Nevertheless, for the majority of the population, normalisation only started during de-Stalinisation in the mid-1950s.

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