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Latvia: Still Haunted By Soviet Past

The monument to Latvian independence in Riga (RFE/RL) 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.

Gunars Resnais (left)with his mother in an undated photo from his Siberian exile (courtesy photo)

"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.

Gunars Resnais in Riga (RFE/RL)

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.

Two Recollections Of The Secret Speech

Two Recollections Of The Secret Speech
Below, RFE/RL presents recollections of Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev's son.

"A POWERFUL TEXT": Former Soviet President MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, speaking about the secret speech in 1994, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nikita Khrushchev:

I was among those who were acquainted -- after all, not everyone was -- with the speech. At the time, I was the deputy chief of the agitation and propaganda department of our region's Komsomol. I had the opportunity to be invited to the party's district committee, where I became acquainted with this text.
This acquaintance took place in a closed environment, and the speech was taken away five days later. This is why, after I read it, I never saw it again until perestroika. Later, many found out about the text, but slowly. In the West, on the other hand, it was published and became popular.
It was a powerful text. It isn't marked by strong analysis, or a deep approach to the roots of all these phenomena, like why the personality cult became possible -- you won't find these things there. But there is something there that moves and touches the soul. It talks about what was happening to us, what was happening to people, to outstanding people -- how they left and were turned to sand and everything vanished...and people's fates.... This is simple and terrifying. In that sense, the speech creates a strong impression.
I remember how my grandfather was arrested. When the revolution happened, his family got land, and it was apparent to them that it was theirs to manage. So he became a communist. He created kolkhozes [collective farms]; he was the chairman of a kolkhoz for many years. Then, suddenly, in 1938, he is an enemy of the people! This is why, in this sense, I was prepared for the speech and interpreted it differently than others.
But even I was haunted by the question: Was it really like that? Can it be?! My grandfather, who survived torture, returned to the village alive. The grandfather Raisa Maksimovna [Gorbachev's wife -- ed.] was also a peasant and was shot as a Trotskyite. It was a shame, because he did not know what a Trotskyite was. This was in the Altai region.
I interpreted it to some extent as -- yes, this is what happened, this is what happened in my family, and this is what happened in the entire country. It was a tragedy, many people died, a nation was drained of blood and, to a certain extent, decapitated. The intellectual part of the army, and of the politicians, and the administrators was annihilated, decimated -- and the artistic intelligentsia.... But around the world, I noticed a shocking confusion. It was hard not to believe, but some still didn't. Can it really be that it happened this way? But the most important question that arose was: Why did all this collapse and why in this way?
I think this is exactly what Khrushchev must be credited with. They say he trembled while he read the speech, but he read it nonetheless. I think this is where we begin our difficult, dramatic separation from Stalinism and everything it bore.

From left to right, Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikita Khrushchev, and Josef Stalin watch a parade from the top of Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum in 1938 (TASS)

"TO TELL THE TRUTH": In February 1996, RFE/RL correspondent Vladimir Tolz spoke with SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV, Nikita Khrushchev's son, about his recollections of the 1956 secret speech.

Sergei Khrushchev: I found out about the speech not from my father, but later, when people came and said, "You know, there was this report...." Then I rushed to him with questions.

RFE/RL: And what did he tell you?

Khrushchev: He actually didn't tell me anything. He said, "Well, you know, we decided that we had to..." -- I forget his exact words now -- "tell the truth." He probably said it a bit differently, but in any case he gave me the text and said, "Here, read it. I'm tired of talking...."

RFE/RL: Do you remember your impression? Was it somehow discussed in your family?

Khrushchev: It wasn't even discussed in our family. We all kept to ourselves because we all had -- I assume -- thoughts of our own about the matter. For me, it was the end of the world. Later, when I asked my father about this and he told me about his friends who died, I became an anti-Stalinist, and it seemed to me at that moment that it would be impossible to resurrect the name of Stalin and speak of it positively. But as you see, we were all wrong about that.

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