Latvia haunted by Soviet past

RIGA, August 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- August 21 marks the 15th anniversary of Latvia declaring full independence from the Soviet Union, after the failed coup attempt in Moscow a few days earlier. Since then Latvia has gone from strength to strength, joining the European Union and NATO in 2004.

"June 17, 1940, the Soviets came in, and in 1941, the Germans came in and pushed back the Soviets," says Oskars Gruzins, a young guide at the Museum of Occupation in the heart of old Riga, as he shows tourists a large map of Latvia. "After the Germans were defeated, the Russians took the Baltic countries once again and we were occupied until 1991."

Running his fingers along the lines crisscrossing the small Baltic country, he's showing them the different stages of Latvia's occupation.

Memories Of The Gulag

The museum tries to give a sense of what life was like for Latvians in Soviet times, in particular for those deported to Siberia or sent to the gulag. The first deportations took place in 1940.

Hundreds of personal items smuggled out of the camps are on display -- drawings, pictures, clothes, and makeshift musical instruments. The collection also features a life-size reconstruction of a gulag barracks.

Last year, the museum started recording video testimonies of Latvians deported under Soviet rule. The museum hopes that some of these testimonies will be shown in schools and inspire documentary films and literary works.

The Museum of Occupation is one of the most visible signs of Latvia's efforts to come to terms with its history. There are many unanswered questions about what took place here under Soviet rule. In today's Latvia, ethnic Russians make up around 30 percent of the population.

Gunars Resnais, a 70-year-old Latvian, agrees that Latvia needs to speak up about its past. Like many elderly Latvians, Resnais can talk firsthand about Soviet repression.

His father, a farmer, was sent to a Siberian gulag in 1945 after helping German troops locate a field where a Soviet plane had crashed. He died of hunger within the first year of detention.

Siberian Deportation

Resnais and his mother were then deported to Siberia during the second mass deportation of Latvians, in March 1949.

"They took us away at night, as quickly as possible, and we were loaded on trains," Resnais recalls. "We were sent to different villages. Within a month we all had to sign a document saying we had voluntarily relocated. If you didn't want to sign, they would tell you: 'You are resisting. Then we will take you to court and from this village you will go to prison.' End of conversation. I signed: I agree to live here my whole life without changing home."

Resnais was sent to a small village 50 kilometers north of Omsk, where he worked as a mechanic in a collective farm.

His mother milked cows at the same farm. The job was dull, but the milk smuggled out of the farm helped both of them survive the famine that ravaged postwar Russia.

Stalin's death in 1953 meant the tens of thousands of deported Latvians were able to return home. Resnais and his mother returned in 1954. But the stigma of deportation continued to affect the Resnais family right until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"The regime continued to check thoroughly the biographies of [deported] people, of their children," Resnais says. "It was totally forbidden for us to study law, to study in the navy, where you had opportunities to go abroad. Aviation: forbidden. Diplomacy: forbidden."

Hopes Of Compensation

Resnais says he bears no grudge towards Russia. But he would like to see Russia, the Soviet Union's legal heir, offer financial compensation to those it repressed, like Germany recently did.

His hope lies with the commission set up last year by the Latvian government to calculate the damage, both human and financial, caused by five decades of Soviet occupation.

Edmunds Stankevics, the head of the commission, says his team will need another five or six years to go through the stacks of KGB files held in Latvia's state archive. Most of these files have not been read.

The commission's final results could then be used to claim reparations from Russia. But Stankevics insists that his commission is not all about money.

"This will be the government's decision. We are working above all for our population, to know our history better so that we can build relations on a sounder basis and think about the future," he says. "Our second goal is to inform the international community so that all those who visit our country can be informed about the occupation, which is part of our history."

Resnais himself says he has little hope of seeing Russia offer words of apology, let alone reparations, in his lifetime.

Moscow has consistently snubbed Latvia's demands that it publicly acknowledge the occupation of Latvia. Its view is that the Soviet army liberated the Baltic states from the Nazis and that these countries willingly joined the Soviet Union.

The commission's result will help illuminate a painful part of Latvia's history. But perhaps more importantly, it could end the dispute that has poisoned Latvia's relations with Russia and the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians living by their side.

By Claire Bigg

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