Former Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin would be turning over in his grave if he could hear what's now being said about him on the second floor of his former summer residence in the Latvian Baltic seaside resort of Yurmala. The conversation is no friendlier when it comes to his cronies, members of the privileged Communist "master race." They came to Latvia in 1944 to "occupy" the country and ostensibly deported its residents to Siberia or drove them into exile. And it was all done under the pretext of stamping out fascism. Now, after years of silence, Latvians have finally decided to put an end to the deliberate concealment of Soviet crimes.
Or, at least their president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, has. Other than living in his beach villa, she has practically nothing in common with former Soviet leader Kosygin and his world. Today, dressed as severely as her manner is stern, she holds court in the Soviet prime minister's former living room, flanked by a Burmese cat and a small black ball of fur named Fumi. For Vike-Freiberga, a former psychology professor, the past is a hot-button topic.
Ever since she announced that she would find it difficult to attend the festivities in Moscow to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in May, Vike-Freiberga has been making waves beyond Latvia's borders. As long as Russia refuses to publicly apologize for its "subjugation of Central and Eastern Europe after the war," she said, Russia cannot be seen as the equal of other countries in the free world when it comes to freedom, democracy and human rights.
On May 9, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by US President George W. Bush, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and 56 other heads of state, will attend a parade in Moscow in honor of the Red Army. But for Vike-Freiberga, it will not be a day for rejoicing: "The defeat of the Nazis did not result in the liberation of my country. Instead, the three Baltic states, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, were subjected to a brutal occupation by yet another foreign, totalitarian regime -- the Soviet Union."
Detonating an old bomb
The Latvian president's admonishment of Russia comes at an embarrassing time for Moscow, where officials have long been preparing the Russian people for the day on which the world's leaders will come together on Russian soil to commemorate victory over fascism. More than 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in World War II. The sight of the tiny former Soviet republic Latvia, now a member of both the European Union and NATO, causing such a fuss leading up the celebration has infuriated Moscow. To Moscow's dismay, the presidents of the other Baltic countries, Estonia and Lithuania, have now announced that they will not attend the event, either. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski only agreed to attend after a lengthy delay, and only under the condition that "words of condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact must be heard" on May 9. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed in 1939, allowed Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler to divide up the Baltic states and Poland.
It's as if a forgotten World War II bomb had suddenly been detonated. The Baltic states were the only victims of Hitler's war of aggression whose sovereignty was not reestablished after 1945, not even to a limited extent. The three republics, independent between 1920 and 1940, disappeared completely and were absorbed into the Soviet Union for almost half a century.
Only since the victory of the "singing revolution" in 1991, and since what Latvians call the "third awakening," which began in the form of a human chain running from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, to Riga in Latvia and ending in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, have the citizens of the Baltic states been able to begin writing their own history. Of course, their perspective differs markedly from that portrayed in Soviet history books.
In the Baltic states, Europe's tragedies of the past century are preserved like flies in amber, miniatures of a time gone by. The Baltic process of self-discovery is once again raising uncomfortable questions about the past, questions about whether tyrants like Hitler and Stalin can -- in fact, must -- be placed on the same level, and questions about the unique nature of the Holocaust, questions that have become a hot topic for debate among German historians.
Latvia was occupied by Soviet troops in June 1940, attacked by Nazi Germany in June 1941 and, in 1945, retaken by the Soviets. Leftists call the arrival of the Soviets in 1945 "liberation," but the president and the country's nationalists prefer the term "occupation." Close to 100,000 Latvians died in the conflict, on both sides of the front, leaving deep divisions within the people.
The SS or the Soviets -- bitter choices
It's the morning of March 16, 2005. The Latvian minister of education is touring the Israeli Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Meanwhile, in Riga's old city, the "Düna Hawks" and other war veterans are getting ready to attend a ritualistic commemorative ceremony. They're the last remaining survivors of the "Latvian Legion," which served under the command of Heinrich Himmler's Weapons SS. At 9:23 a.m., 69 old men in civilian clothes and 7 war widows arrive at the Latvian freedom memorial.
The words "For Fatherland and Freedom" are inscribed in the base of a 1935 bronze female figure, which managed to survive both the Nazi and Soviet occupations unharmed. The war veterans, each of whom receives a monthly pension of up to 150 from Germany, lay wreaths at the foot of the memorial. Some greet each other with the words "Heil Hitler" and complain a bit about the "hexagonalists," their term for those who wear the Star of David and, as they believe, continue to promote a Jewish global conspiracy.
"Better to drown in clear German water than in Russian shit, that was our motto," says an old soldier, as he and his former comrades head to Riga's 13th-century St. John's Church to listen to the words of the legion's aging pastor, Arved Celm. The partition of the Latvian people, which often led to members of the same family fighting for either the Soviets or the Germans in 1944 and 1945, is alive and well, says the pastor: "This partition did not end on May 8, 1945."
Raivis Dzintar, a young man fashionably dressed in a black coat and white scarf, is one of a group of people who have formed an honor guard for the veterans, waving Latvian flags outside the church. Dzintar is the chairman of a movement called "Everything for Latvia." He writes an opinion column in the country's largest newspaper, with a circulation of 220,000, and also happens to be a guest author for a newsletter filled with neo-Nazi invective.
That afternoon, at a cemetery for members of the 15th and 19th divisions of the Weapons SS in the village of Lestene, Dzintar speaks to veterans and fellow right-wingers in an icy snowstorm. "Nazi Germany lost the war," he says, "but the battle fought by the Latvian Legionnaires was not lost, nor has it ended." The battle he's talking about is the struggle between Latvians dressed in the uniforms of the SS and Russian occupiers.
That evening, the young nationalist leader sits in a restaurant in the old section of Riga. He wears a signet ring bearing an emblematic likeness of a swastika, and he talks about the legacy of the younger generation's fathers, men who resisted the Bolsheviks. "We should learn to appreciate the heroic acts these men accomplished for their people," he says.
The same story sounds a little different in the Jewish Theater at Skolas Street 6, just behind the old city, where Margers Vestermanis asks: "Who committed all the murders in the first two months, when the German police weren't organized yet?" He says that 35,000 Jews were liquidated in the first 100 days after the German invasion -- 30,000 by Latvian murderers.
One of Latvia's last Jewish survivors tells his heroic story
Vestermanis, almost 80 years old and the founder of the Museum of the Jews of Latvia, is one of the last 30 Holocaust survivors who were born in Latvia and still live there today. Close to 93,000 Jews lived in the Latvian republic before the war. Almost 70,000 of them had been killed by 1945. Vestermanis, born the son of a merchant in Riga, talks about his ancestors' dying language. He says he has "a jiddisches Wertl" (a little Yiddish word) for anyone who understands and wants to listen. Born in free Latvia in 1925, he was 9 when then President Karlis Ulmanis, as anti-German as he was anti-Soviet, was ousted. At 15, he witnessed the first Soviet invasion under the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Vestermanis describes his family as "drawing-room communists who wore Basque caps." He remembers how hopeful his family was when their maid began confiscating their best porcelain to give away to the proletariat. On July 1, 1941, after a year of Soviet occupation, Riga fell into the hands of the Germans.
Before long, Vestermanis found himself living in the city's Jewish ghetto. He learned to wear the Star of David and walk in the gutter, as Jews were required to do. He became a "Wäiglstäisser," (wagon pusher) then a pushcart driver, and was finally sent to the Nazi concentration camp in Kaiserwald. His parents, his sister and his brother were executed by the firing squads of the SS and their Latvian lackeys in the pine and birch forests of Rumbula. Vestermanis himself experienced the end of the war as a partisan fighter, near the Latvian SS camp at Dondangen.
He was awarded the Latvian Medal of Honor, Second Class, which he still wears each year on May 9, the anniversary of victory over fascism. Vestermanis says: "I'm proud of the fact that I didn't jump into my grave without defending myself."
As a member of a commission of historians assembled in 1998, the elderly gentleman is now trying to help teach the young, second Latvian republic the truth about its past. The commission addresses issues of Latvian collaboration with the Nazis and the role they played in the Holocaust, as well as the crimes of Latvia's Soviet rulers. These are critical questions when it comes to Latvians' relationship with Russians in their own country and in Russia itself, but they also lend legitimacy to the anti-Soviet criticism being raised ahead of the ceremony in Moscow on May 9.
Historical truths revealed
It's certain that beginning in 1941, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, Latvians served as auxiliary police officers, but also as executioners in the concentration camps, and even as guards accompanying inmate shipments from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka. They also participated in anti-partisan activities like the infamous "Winter Magic" campaign. The so-called Latvian SS Volunteer Legion wasn't recruited until 1943, when they were sent to fight for the Germans on the front, and not the just the home front, but in the German march on Stalingrad.
There were Latvian mass murderers and staunch defenders of the fatherland, men who fought for the Germans, both voluntarily and under duress. And there were undoubtedly many who, after the first year of Soviet occupation and the deportation of Latvians to Siberia, saw the Nazi invasion as the lesser of two evils, perhaps because they feared that Soviet occupation would lead to what in fact happened to the country after 1945: Moscow's "Sovietization" and colonization of Latvia. That included the mass immigration of Russians to Latvia, the collectivization of agriculture and more deportations.
All of these events are described in a new book titled "Latvian History in the Twentieth Century," written by the historians' commission. President Vike-Frieberga only lived in Riga for seven years, during her childhood, before she and her parents fled to Canada (she returned to her homeland in 1998). Nevertheless, she wrote a preface to the book and -- not uncourageously -- gave a copy to Putin. She did so at Auschwitz, on the 60th anniversary of the concentration camp's liberation by the Red Army. She thought it was a good idea. Putin apparently thought it was a bad idea. He replied, narrow-lipped and in German: "Danke schön."
Since then the relationship between Latvians and Russians has hit a new low. It's a relationship that Vike-Freiberga already characterizes as extremely poor. There have been no bilateral talks between the two countries since 1999. Moreover, Moscow has done its utmost to accuse Latvia of having designs on the former Latvian portions of Russia's Pskov region, especially the city of Pytalovo. That's why a border treaty between the two countries remains unsigned to this day, even though it's been ready for some time. The Kremlin had indicated that it would finally be willing to sign the treaty on May 10, in Moscow, as an aside to Russia's victory celebrations. But the Russian proposal didn't exactly sit well with the Latvians. The chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Latvian parliament, Alexander Kirsteins, recently suggested that if any of the Russians who make up 30 percent of the country's population were interested in returning to the motherland, Latvia would be happy to send them off with a marching band.
The president has nothing against these kinds of statements. "The Russians now have the option of deciding whether they'd like to raise their children here, in our country, or go someplace else. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," she says.
Moscow on edge
It's as if everyone involved in this dispute were energetically pouring oil onto an already roaring fire. Whenever she meets with NATO or EU officials, or foreign ambassadors, Vike-Freiberga demands that they "condemn the Stalinist regime's crimes in Latvia and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe." The Russian ambassador in Riga, Viktor Kalyushny, a former deputy foreign minister, responded in all seriousness that he doesn't see why Russia should be held responsible for Soviet misdeeds. According to Kalyushny, the 44 members of the 1917 Military Revolutionary Committee included 38 Jews and four Latvians, but only one Russian.
Russian political scientist Vyacheslav Nikonov has openly threatened those who, in anticipation of the upcoming commemoration ceremony in Moscow, have increasingly been pointing out that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact meant that Hitler and Stalin were allies for almost two years in World War II. "Moscow is losing patience," he says, adding, "we ought to remind the Baltics that Russia is a powerful country. Nikonov's opinion may, however, be a tad biased. He is the grandson of Stalin's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov.
Many in Moscow are currently on edge because Putin's efforts to establish Russia as a major power on the global stage are already failing among the countries that were once under Soviet control. The Russian foreign ministry delayed too long before responding to democratic change in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. And now the Russian government seems to be showing little sympathy for the demands being brought forward by the Baltic states, the Poles and other former Warsaw Pact countries in advance of May 9. This seems to be the only explanation for Vladimir Putin's retroactive portrayal of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a legitimate means for the Soviet Union to guarantee its "interests and security on its western border." It also helps explain why Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus' decision not to attend the May ceremony in Moscow has produced a wave of anti-Lithuanian hostility in Russia.
In another Russian response to the dispute, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a statement in February to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied Conference at Yalta, writing that to this day, "Yalta represents the desire to make Poles strong, free, independent and democratic." In truth, said Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld, such portrayals merely represent an effort "to rehabilitate Stalin," while Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has referred to the statement as being tantamount to writing history "on the other side of historical truth."
In response to pressure being exerted by the new EU members, there is increasing resistance to Putin's penchant for publicly celebrating the Soviet Union's role in bringing down fascism, while sweeping its crimes under the carpet. In her statement, Latvian President Vike-Freiberga writes that by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrip Pact, the "two totalitarian tyrants," Hitler and Stalin, had together created the foundation for a "conflict unparalleled in history" -- World War II.
In a show of solidarity, US President Bush has demonstratively scheduled a state visit to Latvia for May 6, and will travel to Moscow from there. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac have written letters in support of the Latvian president and her cause. Czech President Vaclav Klaus has let it be know that Vike-Freiberga's position is "entirely correct." At least a dozen other heads of state have also closed ranks with the Latvian president. Finally, though without so much as mentioning Russia, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has issued a statement of sympathy.
Vike-Freiberga has let it be known that of course she'll be celebrating in May, but that she'll do so before departing for Moscow. On May 2, she will celebrate the first anniversary of Latvia's accession to the EU in 2004 and, on May 4, the anniversary of the Latvian parliament's adoption of a resolution declaring the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. These dates, says Vike-Freiberga, embody "the true end of World War II" for Latvia.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan