"Ballad of Siberia"


Vello Hindreus was born in Kopli, Tallinn as the youngest child of Annette-Adele and Egon-Ferdinand Hindreus. He had two brothers, Ilo and Hans, and a sister Lii. Vello’s father was a veteran of the First World War as well as the Estonian War of Independence. After the end of the war, he first worked as a border guard official in Hiiumaa, and later as an electrician in Tallinn.

In 1944, the last stage of the Second World War, Soviet authorities arrested Vello’s father and brother Ilo. They were convicted of treason, because Egon-Ferdinand had belonged to Omakaitse (Home Guard), and Ilo had volunteered for the German armed forces. Hans saved himself from mobilisation by escaping to Finland, where he served in the Finnish navy. After the war, he settled in California.

The fate of Vello’s father and brothers influenced Vello as well. Due to his family members’ anti-Soviet behaviour, he was rejected by the maritime academy. Instead, he went to the film technicians’ school in Nõmme and trained as a stationary and travelling cinema technician. He found work in the cinema Oktoober, located in the old town of Tallinn. Nevertheless, Vello was still a nuisance in the eyes of the authorities. He lived in the basement of the cinema where he worked, although his registered residence was a dorm in Nõmme. This explains why he was captured days later (on 27 March) during the 1949 March deportation.

Vello’s journey to Siberia began from the Ülemiste railway station in Tallinn and ended in Sonsky (modern-day Sonskoye) village in Khakassia. Vello had his camera with him while he was in settlement in Sonsky, and therefore his family has several hundred photos of Siberian nature, as well as the everyday life and living conditions of the deported and locals.  The value of the photos became clear immediately when Vello and his son Heikki showed some of them to Collect Our Story (a oral history portal) team during an interview in September 2019. Compared to known photographic sources, the photos uncover the lives and circumstances of deported people far more thoroughly. Not many photo collections have preserved that show deported Estonians in Siberia in similar capacity and entirety.

The exhibition title, The Ballad of Siberia, is inspired by a Soviet film of the same name that Vello mentions in his memoirs. The film was played in cinemas prior to Vello’s deportation, when he used to work in a cinema by the name of Oktoober (October). In the film, the plot revolves around the self-discovery of a young man, who lives amongst the Siberian nature and people. He witnesses the emergence of factories and settlements in old-growth forests, and humans’ eternal struggle against nature. Vello’s photos tell a very similar story, as he was just about to turn 19 at the time of his deportation to Siberia.

First and foremost, Vello wished to capture people in their everyday activities. His photos therefore feature details that are otherwise often lost, such as people’s living conditions, clothing, tools, and tasks, as well as overviews of village landscapes and farm dwellings.   Considering the era and the difficult conditions, Vello’s heartfelt photos are masterfully crafted and well-composed, which makes them all the more valuable.