Monthly Archives: September 2012

The forgotten war. Latvian soldiers in Soviet-Afghan war 1979-1989

Official awards given for service in Afghan-Soviet war. Little to redeem the scars of war

Today the Latvian TV and press regularly pays attention to our soldiers fulfilling their duty at NATO mission at Afghanistan. Documentaries, official greetings at home and rehabilitation programs for returning soldiers are made. But there was another war in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Latvian soldiers were sent there under the Soviet banner, they were sent as conscripts not as professional auxiliaries as today. Their battles were not reported and kept secret from the public. On return these men received little help from the government and kept in shadows. Even after the regain of independence these veterans still has not received enough relief from the state. Latvian society has forgotten this war along with its veterans. The story needs to be reopened and told to the public.

These are live accounts of Afghan war veterans, gathered and written down by Latvian military historian Oskars Krīgers. His text from Latvian has been translated under his permission.

At the beginning of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan 1979. 25 December, one of the first soviet soldiers who arrived there was junior sergeant Gunārs Rusiņš, whose specialty was chemist – scout. Now he is a chairman of Latvian veteran of Afghan war and other military conflict association. About his dispatch to Afghanistan Rusiņš recalls: “I was involved in the Afghan conflict from 25. December 1979. to 26. December. We with help of the helicopter were literally dropped in the Afghan land, already armed to wait for Soviet armed vehicles and move to dislocated place. We did not have any clue that we would be dispatched to Afghanistan or any other hotspot. Before we were gathered in distribution points, where we did not receive any information, and after two weeks we were waken up by alarm at night and was told that we will be sent to Afghanistan. When I got there my place of dislocation was the province of Kunduz.”

During his tour of duty Rusiņš went to many different Afghan provinces, where he performed various tasks, that got to do with fighting the mujahedin insurgents. He remembers his duty with such words: “I fought in many different regions, for there was no two front war, it was a guerrilla war. We were sent to many combat operations and usually these operations took place in high grounds. I moved around in columns and separated combat vehicles from one town to another, in result there were frequent fire ambushes against us. We had one combat operation in summer of 1980, where we almost lost the whole company unit. It was another raid in Kunduz province highland area, where we were sent to combat mission to defined point with a defined goal. The raiding forces were encircled and in the result of firefight a large casualties were suffered until the reinforcements came. I was one of those who came to help and was wounded in result”. Rusiņš left Afghanistan on May 1981, as senior sergeant.  

Latvian soldiers in Afghanistan

On April 14, 1983 junior sergeant Aivars Krūmiņš was dispatched to Afghanistan. Before that for half-year he was on air defense forces namely the air defense missile unit. When he was sent to Afghanistan he was entrusted of commanding the missile vehicle in Kabul, that was to be defended  or fired in the case of need. He and his group’s main task was to defend the headquarters of Soviet 40th. Army.

Krūmiņš spent his whole time of duty in Kabul. But even in Afghan capitol the situation was not stable, for as Krūmiņš points out – they were already attacked on their landing at Kabul airport. And he had to face fire attacks from the enemy every evening during his whole duty. Afghan mujaheddin’s fired with mortars and automatic rifles from the hills. Usually they used snipers so it was impossible to determine their location. There were killed and wounded among the Soviet soldiers. Krūmiņš recalls that a bullet missed 10 centimeters from his head.

There were many cases when Afghans fired “Stinger” rockets at Soviet airplanes from the hills. Krūmiņš remembers: “I saw with my own eyes, how two helicopters were shot down. Afghan mujaheddin’s took cover well in the hills, so it was very hard to defend helicopters and airplanes from the attacks”. 

Afghans also used another ways to fight against the Soviet forces. Krūmiņš tells about it: “There were cases when Afghan shepherds pushed their cattle forward and then suddenly attacked the Soviet soldiers. These shepherds were usually twelve-year-old boys. They also tried to lay mines. Little Afghan boys also tried to influence us with drugs to lower our combat abilities. For not many could mentally survive this hard situation and therefore they used weed to calm down, that lead to dire consequences.”

Krūmiņš left Afghanistan on 16. November 1984. He remembers it such: “I felt happy. For long time we did not believe it. And we did not believe that we would be able to leave for planes were shot down. There were many times when those who were on their way home were shot down. We were lucky”.

Junior sergeant Vents Veinbergs, whose specialty was mortar team commander was sent to Afghanistan in 1985 by driving in along with the column of armed vehicles. He remembers: “We went to new dislocation some 150 kilometers from the soviet border, passing trough the second largest Afghan city Herat. And then 30 kilometers more along the concrete highway forward. At the edge of the highway we started to build new base camp, where 12. Armored infantry regiment was to be dislocated. I served at 1. Battalion at separate scout platoon. We were in charge in keeping the security at this sector”.

Scout platoon were Veibergs served took part in many minor armed struggles with the mujaheddin. He recalls these events: “We did not took part in any strategical advances, but there was a constant intelligence actions with small battles, for we were small combat units. We had to delay the movement the movement of mujaheddin armed groups from one place to another. We had to delay the arm delivery from Iran that regularly took place between various mountain paces. In all time of duty I fought there”.

But large battles took place when 12. Motorized infantry regiment made strategical cleansing in village areas. But the scout platoon did not took direct frontal action there. It had to take place if one of the combat unit falls in encirclement or was at a tactically bad situation.  Then the scout platoon had to find a way to approach enemy from the behind and turn its forces against them, so that troubled unit can get free movement. Veinbergs tells one of such stories: “In the winter of 1985/86 we made an unexpected attack, in which result the part of mujahedin attention was to be directed as, so the soviet infantry and tanks who were stuck in narrow streets could win time to withdraw.” 

Sergeant Veinbergs tells an interesting story about the true mujaheddin tactics against the soviet forces: “In my years of fighting, the Afghan mujahedin fully moved to guerrilla combat tactics. They did not move in large units. Their tactic was to attack the supply columns or idle combat vehicles.  Sometimes they carried out attacks on bridge defense posts. Idle tanks and combat vehicles mujaheddin tried to destroy in number of ways. They vastly used mines sometimes grenade launchers, but mainly mines. In my years of service Afghan mujaheddin were supplied with NATO weapons and these NATO mines were hard to find with mine detectors, because they were made from plastic not metal anti-tank mines, which mujahedin could turn in so-called “fugas” (high demolition bombs). Mining was serious to even destroy a tank. Because only anti-tank mine could only stop the tank (by destroying its track), but it cannot break trough its armor. mujaheddin put 10-20 kilogram TNT box below the mine, and then laid the mine and put another 10-20 TNT box on it. In result the power of anti-tank mine was improved many times. With such strength the tank could be destroyed. Even the tank turret could fly up in the air after such explosion.”

Veinbergs spent all his duty fighting around Herat and was awarded with the Medal of Courage. He was demobilized from Afghanistan at the end of April 1986, and left this land in same rank as junior sergeant. 

  3640 men from Latvia were sent Afghanistan, 177 were wounded.  63 were lost in action and one is still missing. It was tragic time in Latvian history as nobody asked these man if they wanted to go to this hostile strange land, where they could lost their lives and never return home. Latvian veterans who were forced to take place in Soviet military invasions disguised as “international duties” should be recognized as the victims of Soviet regime and receive the same treatment as other victims of soviet government. Many of these man suffer from war injuries both physical and psychological. Lack of public support draws them to separation and alcoholism. Latvia must take responsibilities for their soldiers no matter in which side their fought for their battle was tragedy for whole Latvian nation.


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The Lockhart Plot 1918

The main people involved in so-called Lockhart plot
From the left: British envoy R, B, Lockhart, British spy Sidney Reilly, Latvian rifleman colonel Eduards Bērziņš, head of the Cheka Felix Dzerzhinsky

Russia has always been a mystery for many westerners. The Americans, British and French have always misunderstood or underestimate the Russians and their allies. And because of that they have fallen for Russian deception and treachery for many times. One of the must particular victims for this deception were and are Western secret services. Despite the professionalism and valiance of the CIA and MI6 these agencies have been many times roughly beaten by their most strongest nemesis – the KGB. The secret fight between Western secret services and the KGB has a long history of failed missions, captured and executed agents and betrayal. In many events the Soviet secret service was more clever and sinister than Americans and British. This is a story of first of such events the so-called Lockhart Plot that involved the Red Latvian riflemen and the British most famous agent Sidney Rielly The Ace of Spies the inspiration model for James Bond.

In 1918. the Bolsheviks had seized the power in Russia. The new government brought great inconvenience and fear for the Entente powers. The separate truce with Germany and calls for international communist revolution left two options for the west – either to try to cooperate with Bolsheviks or to get rid of them. But getting inside the war-torn Russia and the Bolshevik inner circles was the toughest part.

After all attempts of bribing the Bolsheviks to get them back in war Germany failed, the new objective was to topple the new regime. British intelligence officers raised the alarm and called Russia the new main enemy. British Naval Intelligence director Sir William Hall said: “Hard and bitter as the battle has been, we now have to face a far more ruthless foe, a foe that is hydra headed and whose evil power will spread all over the whole world, and that foe is Russia”. The chief of MI6 (British intelligence service) Mansfeild Cumming also was convinced that the new enemy are the Bolsheviks.

At August 1918, Bolsheviks controlled only small part of Russia, no bigger than 16, century Muscovy. Bolsheviks moved their capitol from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Moscow. From all sides they were surrounded by various anti-bolshevik forces the so-called white  guards. Brits had landed a large expeditionary force  in Arkhangelsk to supply and lead the white forces. It seemed from the start that the victory over Bolsheviks are certain.

However, the ruthless and brutal Bolshevik tactics and lack of unity among the white forces prevented Bolsheviks from fast collapse. Also the support from western society for anti-Bolshevik struggle was lacking. There were sense of leftist radicalization among British working classes, and many intellectuals had sympathetic views towards the Bolsheviks. The knowledge about the Red Terror in early 1918, was minimal and not everyone was convinced that the Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky were all too serious about the international revolution and struggle with west.

In summer of 1918, Lenin decided that the western powers are trying to overthrow him so it would be great effort to catch the plotters red-handed and expose them. This task was given to Felix Dzerzhinsky the head of  Extraordinary Commission ( ЧК – чрезвыча́йная коми́ссия – in short Cheka) Cheka was the new Bolshevik secret police designed to combat contra-revolutionary efforts and impose the Bolshevik power. Cheka was the mother of KGB and Dzerzhinsky its ideological father and heroine.

The Cheka started the plot by approaching British Naval attaché Commander Leslie Cromie (also a MI6 agent).. On 7  August the Cheka agent introduced Cromie with  his friend – colonel Eduards Bērziņš the senior officer of the Latvian rifleman. He wanted to cooperate with the British and promised the support from Latvian rifleman. This is what the British wanted and they were too wiling to believe it.

A week later the two man appeared in Moscow apartment of the the British envoy Robert Bruce Lockhart. Lockhart was extravagant, brainy and moody gentleman. Bērziņš explained to Lockhart that the Latvians are not intending to fight for Bolsheviks forever and wished go home to Latvia. They told if they would be sent to fight the British forces in the north they would surrender. They also asked four million rubles to work on his fellow Latvian sympathies. Lockhart responded that it will be better than two Latvian regiments would switch sides on the provincial town of Vologda, opening a second front against the Bolsheviks, while those who are remaining in Moscow would assassinate the Lenin and his government. But he wrote lassiez-passer to help Latvians reach the British forces and provided 900 000 rubles as the down payment.

Lockhart incriminated himself and his fellow Cromei and confirmed the Bolshevik suspicions.  He went further by putting two visitors in touch with Sidney Reilly the spy from British consulate. Born Sigismund Rosenblum near Odessa later nicknamed the “Ace of Spies” was a complex, unpredictable and widely overconfident.

As a womanizer Reilly arranged the meeting with Bērziņš at apartment of one of his mistress, but turned up late. While waiting the Latvian noticed an envelope that gave an address  of the actress Elizabeth Otten who had allowed her apartment for spy meetings. The Cheka begun arresting all who visited it. One of them was Maria Friede, sister of a colonel in the Red Army General Staff who was carrying secret documents from him, destined for Reilly. Her brother was arrested and confessed his cooperation with American intelligence officer who was also arrested but later released in exchange.

The Brits exposed them further by believing that the French reporter of the Le Figaro Rene Marchand is spy of their government. Marchand posed as hostile to the Bolsheviks, but in reality he informed Dzerzhinsky about the British plans. He learned that the supposed coup would happen in 28 August at the time of the party meeting at the Great Theater. The Latvian rifleman should arrest and execute the Bolshevik leadership on spot. Reilly promised Latvian conspirators senior positions in the future Latvian state under Allied protection.

Why Latvian rifleman were so important in the British plans and why they believed them? Latvian rifleman regiments were one of the best Russian formations during the war with Germans. Their intentions were to defend and liberate their homeland from Germans, however because of many pointless military defeats and pointless casualties under Czarist leadership exposed them to the Bolshevik ideology. After the Bolshevik coup the majority of Latvian rifleman went to Russia to protect the revolution and became the Red Army elite guard. They played the most important role in the Red Army victories and Lenin trusted them. However, the British regarded that the Latvians would switch sides on promise of independent Latvian state and bigger money offer since they regarded Latvians as Bolshevik mercenaries. That was a grave mistake – ironically the Latvian rifleman were the most devout defenders of the Bolsheviks at that time.

Dzerzhinsky went straight to Lenin to inform about this plot. The problem was how to use the Marchand’s  material. Lenin came with ingenious solution. The French journalist Marchand wrote a letter to French president Raymond Poincare where he warned the president about his countries spies involvement in the plot. It’s a duty of journalist to inform his head of state about ludicrous actions of the secret service. Then the letter would be “found” by the Cheka during the search at the Marchand’s home.

Cheka waited few days to see the plot developing. But the assassination on 30 August of the head Petrograd Cheka Mosei Uritsky and later in the evening the assassination attempt of Lenin himself prompted the communist leaders to spring the trap. On 31 August eight officers of the Cheka raided the British embassy. Officer Cromie was shot dead while trying to delay the intruders and allowing his two officers to escape. The Lockhart, his assistant and the French consul general was arrested, interrogated and later deported.Reilly escaped but was sentenced to death in absentee. In 1925 he again fell for Dzerzhinsky trap and was arrested in Soviet Union. He and others fell for guise of so-called anti-Bolshevik resistance organization the Trust that in reality was made out by the Cheka to lure western agents and Russian monarchist agents in to hands of the Cheka.

The so-called Lockhart plot was the first Soviet counterintelligence operation, many others would come. The next crushing failure by British and American intelligence that involved Latvians was Operation Jungle. The ill-fated attempt of supporting the Latvian anti-soviet partisans after the World War II will be discussed in the future.

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Soviet Antisemitism 1945-1991

Antisemitic caricature published in Soviet Satirical magazine “Krokodi” in 1952 during the “Doctors case”.

Undoubtedly Nazi Germany was the biggest enemy of the Jewish people. Organized, systematic attempt of destruction of whole nation should never be forgiven and always must be remembered to prevent from it happening again. But, Jewish oppression continued even after the holocaust.  However, there was another totalitarian regime that for many decades tried to assimilate, hinder and oppress Jewish community. It was Soviet Union who is largely responsible for constant abuse of national rights of all nations that lived in Soviet Union. It was not only Jews; Latvians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Fino-Ungrian peoples also were subjects of Russification  and suppression of the national culture. The constant abuse of national rights and culture have done great damage to Jewish community in former Soviet Union. The result is almost complete extinction of Eastern European Jewish language the Yiddish, the decline of Jewish Ashkenazi  culture and Jewish religious life.  Latvian Jews have also greatly suffered from this Soviet policy. In last 20 years in former Soviet Union there have been Jewish cultural awakening, the revival of old culture and independent historical study of Jewish nation. However, the aging Jewish population is running out of time to pass their legacy to younger population. Why this has happened will be discussed further in this post.

After the World War II there were 12 million Jews in the World. 3, 2 million Jews lived in Europe, 2 million lived in Soviet Union. There were only 225 thousand Jews remaining in Poland, mostly refugees from Soviet Union that returned. Also many Polish Jews were deported to Soviet camps. 700 Jewish officers of the Polish army were murdered in the Katyn massacre. In war affected parts of Europe only 1,6 million Jews had survived.

Therefore Soviet Union was potential place for new cultural center for Eastern European Jewish Diaspora. It could replace the Poland and the Baltic states. The Jews had every rights for it as the 500 thousand of them had fought in the Red Army and were awarded with Orders and Medals. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his government decided to use the Jewish factor in his foreign policy. In 1942. the USSR Jewish Anti-Fascist committee was founded. Its leader was Daugavpils born artist Solomon Mikhoels the director of Moscow Jewish Theater. The JAC issued a call to whole world to support the  Soviet Union in fight against the Nazi Germany. On 1943. Mikhoels and his deputy Izick Fefer went to United States and acquired greater support from American society and businessman for more funding for Soviets. Even after the war JAC continued to call for greater friendship between USSR and US. Stalin wanted to use the contacts between Soviet Jews and American Jews to gain support from American financiers for rebuilding of the war-torn economy. A scheme was made to promote the Soviet and other countries Jews emigration to Crimea where the Jewish Autonomous Republic was to be founded. Mikhoels was intended as the chairman of the republics higher council. According to KGB official Pavel Sudoplatov the idea of Crimea Jewish Autonomous republic was made by Soviet foreign minister Molotov and supported by Stalin, who wanted to use this to get 10 billion dollars from the US. The JAC only had to submit the proposal.

However, the Stalin’s scheme to use Jews for his foreign policy failed. It was because Stalin wanted the new state of Israel to be under the Soviet influence. The American support for right-wing Zionists angered him. Therefore the KGB now issued a report that JAC is against the Soviet foreign policy in Middle East and spreads Jewish nationalism. KGB concluded that JAC has fallen to Zionist – nationalist positions and poses danger to Soviet Union. However, Stalin still hoped that he can influence the founding of the Jewish state in Palestine and spared JAC. Mikhoels even received the Stalin’s price.

It soon turned out that Soviet Union cannot influence the Zionist movement. The new State of Israel was founded as western democracy and American ally. Stalin’s gamble had failed. The Kremlin blamed Mikhoels for it. The KGB was alarmed by the JAC proposal for making not Autonomous, but united Jewish republic in Crimea that could secede from USSR according to constitution. KGB ordered the assassination of Mikhoels. He was killed January 1948, by poisonous injection at his summer cottage in Belarus. After that his body driven over by a truck to fake his death reason. KGB arrested all members of JAC and the organization was closed. The repression  campaign was hidden from public as the antisemitism was still officially condemned.

In same time the communist party started campaign against “cosmopolitanism” – the unpatriotic bowing to western ideas, works of art and western lifestyle. From Autumn 1948, Soviet newspapers begun to uncover the “spreaders of cosmopolitanism” placing emphasis on their Jewish names and surnames and disclosing their pseudonyms.  After that these persons were fired from their workplaces. Every Jew who was working intellectual job was fired, Jewish officers and generals were fired, professors, academics, members of writers unions even top communist party members became victims of anti-Jewish action. Even Molotov’s wife P. Zhemchuzina was arrested for having links with Zionists in US, where his brother lived and for her friendship with Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir the future prime minister of Israel.

On July 1952. after long painful interrogation the 15 members of JAC were sentenced to death. Along with them the deputy of Foreign minister Solomon Lozovsky, writer Izik Fefer were shot but academic biologist Liza Stern was deported.

From 1951 to 1952 almost all Jewish artistic collectives across Soviet Union were banned. The theaters, troupes, writers groups and studies were closed. That was the beginning of the decline of the Jewish cultural life and shift in to Russian culture. Jewish songs could only be sung in private apartments or closed restaurants the Jewish language was replaced by Russian.

The Stalinist antisemitism was beginning of the new ideological takeover in Soviet Union. The 19. century Marxist ideas was to be replaced with new imperialistic Russian nationalist government model. Stalin considered Jews as the enemies of this model that had to be dealt with at the very beginning in the time of new changes.

The culmination of the Stalinist Antisemitism was the so called doctors plot. After party veteran and Stalin’s personal friend Andrei Zhdanov died in rehabilitation center, the KGB presented Stalin a fabricated information about the plot by nine Kremlin doctors six of them Jews against him personally and the whole Soviet government. The named leader of the conspirators  was Mikhoels cousin Miron Vovsi (also from Daugavpils) who has secret contacts with Jewish organizations in US. In November 1952, the doctors were arrested. The case was discussed by the politburo and the Soviet main newspaper begun a series of antisemitic publications about the “Jewish, Zionist murderer conspiracy. Jews were fired from medical institutions on February 1953. 37 people were arrested. Jews suffered from insults and verbal attacks in public places, in Jurmala a leaflets were found with slogan “Beat the Yidds!”. Stalin was planing to initiate Jewish pogroms in major Soviet cities that would result of mass deportations of Jews to Siberia and Far East. Barracks for captives were already under construction. According to documents found in early nighties also the Latvian Jews were intended to deported. The culprits of the doctors case was to be hanged in Red Square. All these actions were halted by Stalin’s death in 5. March 1953.

According to some historians and publishers Stalin was killed by his closest aides, who were afraid that they will become the victims of the new purge. Beria, Malenkov and Khrushchev either killed Stalin or did everything to prevent his recovery from stroke that he suffered. There are even wilder theories that Stalin was preparing for new war with Western powers. In all possible scenarios, his successors brought halt to doctors case and all anti-Jewish repressions.

During the Khrushchev era the state antisemitism did not disappear, it was under the guise of anti-Zionism and condemnation of Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel.  Soviet Union considered Israel as its enemy and did much to finance its enemies, supply them with weapons. Any support for Israel was considered a national treason, Jews were forced to publicly denounce Israel and support the pro-arab coalition. After the Six Day war in 1967, the campaign against Israel was getting stronger.

The economical pressure by the Western powers made Soviet Union to allow emigration to Israel. The military victories by Israel sparked national awakening of the Soviet Jews. Soviets were against it since many important leading specialists in science and technology were Jews. Soviet attempts to block the emigration sparked resistance as in 1970 a group of Jews some of them from Latvia, tried to hijack a plane in Leningrad to escape to Israel.  They were sentenced to long years in prison.

But, the wave of emigration was unstoppable in 1967. 1416 Jews left Soviet Union, but on 1971 already 13 033, 1972 – 31 681 and in 1973 34 733. After the another Israeli victory in 1973 Yom Kipur war, the emigration quota was downsized, but later again increased. It was decreased again after the Soviet Invasion in Afghanistan 1979.

The growing Jewish resistance sparked even more Soviet Antisemitism.  It was banned to commemorate holocaust or to write about it. Attempts of doing so were met with repressions. Also Moscow became main center of antisemitic publications. Soviet Union mastered the anti-Zionist ideology and exported it to Western world and the Middle East. Most Israeli enemies – Syria, Lebanon, Iran and the terrorist groups received support from Moscow.

The Gorbachev perestroika and glasnost lifted the barriers of Soviet antisemitism. Large waves of Jews left Soviet Union. However, the political reforms also sparked the rise of Russian nationalism, extremism and neo-czarism that was aggressive towards the Jews.

Today’s  Russia is not officially practicing  state antisemitism. Jewish cultural and religious life has returned. Jewish national and cultural organizations are working again. Famous cultural workers, artists and singers no longer hide their Jewish nationality. However, many aspects of the Russian Jewish culture has become long forgotten as the Yiddish language is rarely spoken today. In Latvia and Russia a hard work has been done to educate Jewish history and culture to younger generation.

The remnants of the Soviet antisemitism has not completely disappeared, it’s still down in Russian society and affects the Latvian society also. Russian internet is full of antisemitic sites, and antisemitic books are still published and exported. Russian anti-Zionist ideology has largely influenced the Western antisemitism. Local Latvian antisemites take many of their ideas straight from Russian antisemite propaganda. The reason for this is to hide Russian aggressive foreign policy by blaming the US and Israel in the worlds troubles. Russia is a creative center of the various conspiracy theories headed against the west. Its part of Russian policy of deception that seems to never end no matter of what kind a political order is in Russia.

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