On September 22, 1956 a ship carrying refugees from the Spanish Civil War, principally from the Basque Country, set sail from the port of Odessa in the then Soviet Union, bound for Valencia. Many of the refugees had spent nearly twenty years in exile, and most had left as children.
We have posted previously on the plight of Basque refugee children fleeing the effects of the bloody civil war in the 1930s: on the anniversary of the famous 1937 evacuation from Santurtzi, Bizkaia, on the Basque Children of ’37 UK association, and on the tireless work of individuals like Dame Elizabeth Leah Manning to ensure these children found sanctuary from the horrors of war. Today, however, we remember an equally significant date: that moment, twenty years later, when some of those children, now adults, were allowed to return to the Basque Country, despite the dictatorship in Spain.
While many of the other Basque children exiled in countries like the UK, Belgium, and Switzerland had been allowed to return through the 1940s, those that had been evacuated to Stalin’s Soviet Union were regarded with the utmost suspicion by the Franco regime. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 and the gradual reincorporation of Spain into the international political fold allowed for a slight relaxing of relations between the two countries. This led, in turn, to an agreement on the part of the Franco regime to allow the exiles back, although as noted it was nearly twenty years since many of them had fled.
Despite being reunited with their families, after up to twenty years in exile, readapting to life back in the Basque Country was by no means straightforward for the refugees. For many of the “Russians,” as they were called, life in the Franco regime was hard, and they even ran into hostility and suspicion both on the part of the public authorities and the general public. Some even went back to the Soviet Union, which had in their opinion treated them better.
This date, then, serves to reinforce the tremendous impact of war, violence, and displacement on modern and contemporary Basque society.
If you are interested in the broader impact of conflict on modern Basque history, check out War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott (description and free download here); Basque Nationalism and Political Violence by Cameron Watson; Our Wars: Short Fiction on Basque Conflicts, edited by Mikel Ayerne Sudupe; Empire & Terror: Nationalism/Postnationalism in the New Millennium, edited by Begoña Aretxaga, Dennis Dworkin, Joseba Gabilondo, and Joseba Zulaika (description and free download here); and States of Terror, by Begoña Aretxaga.