KGB in Latvia

The main KGB headquarters in Riga. The tallest building in Riga since people could see Siberia from its tower.

The main KGB headquarters in Riga. The tallest building in Riga since people could see Siberia from its tower.

The Soviet Secret Service widely known as Committee for State Security or KGB was a direct successor of the All-Russian Extraordinary Committee to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage or simply known as Cheka founded in 1917. Since then the Soviet secret service has changed its name many times. It was known as OGPU, NKVD, NKGB, MGB and finally from 1954 as KGB.  But, the very basis of this secret police has always stayed the same: strict protection of the communist party and its power. The KGB was omnipresent in every part of the Soviet life and it did everything to combat any means of the anti-Soviet movement.  For 50 years KGB also did everything to keep Latvia under the Soviet Iron fist.

During the first years after the war, the Secret police was preoccupied with battling the armed resistance movement. There were even cases of CIA and M16 involvement when Western allies sent special commandos to aid the national partisans. The CIA and M16 had naive belief that the partisan movements in the Baltic States and the Eastern Europe will weaken the Soviet Union and would help to crush it. However, the NKVD was aware of this and all western agents fell in their traps. The national partisan movement was eventually crushed and KGB now was more afraid of the non-violent resistance.

The Khrushev “Thaw” pawed way for more freedoms for the intelligentsia. For instance Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was freed and released his eponymous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which revealed the Stalinist crimes. This made many to question the Soviet policies and their past. As Khrushchev was deposed, KGB started to combat such authors. On 1967 the new Fifth Department was made in the ranks of the KGB to combat “ideological diversions”. KGB believed that the intelligent anti-Soviet movement is directed by the Western secret service. Before that the task combating the “anti-Soviet elements”  was given to the Second Department of the counter-intelligence. While the Second Department was searching for foreign agents the Fifth Department now was searching for ideological dissidents.

The usual task was monitoring the Latvian emigration and foreign radio stations. The creative intelligentsia – artists, writers, actors and composers were under the KGB watch.  The Latvian nationalist movements like “Helsinki-86”, “Latvian National Independence Movement” and the “Environmental Club” was monitored and persecuted. When “Latvian Peoples Front” became the most active force for independence it was under the KGB watch. The KGB also monitored the national minorities like Germans and Jews. The KGB was involved in youth and student activities and closely watched them.

The nationalism was a prime concern for the KGB. Latvia was overflown with immigrants from the Soviet Union. The cultural differences between Latvians and the immigrants was very visible. Despite the official calls for national equality the Russian speaking immigrants were more privileged than  local Latvians. Also the Russian language was placed above Latvian language. However, Latvians themselves did not do much to force immigrants accept Latvian language and culture. For instance in Estonia, the local Estonians were more reluctant to speak Russian and enforced their rules on immigrants. Immigrants in Latvia took the Latvian passivity for granted and dictated their rules. This all made very bad national micro-climate in the national relations. However, most Latvians understood that the regime is too stable to stood openly against it.

Because of that KGB was occasionally accusing people of “masked actions against the Soviet order”. This usually involved private conversations where people condemned the Soviet power and praised the pre-war Latvian Republic. KGB had informants in many working collectives. The KGB was concerned about people who refused to hang out the flag of LSSR or USSR. The KGB also discovered that in case of foreign invasion the locals cannot be trusted. Two fake groups landed with parachutes near Ventspils. First group head for the city and was discovered and stopped. Other one was heading inland and met many locals, who did not report them.

Soviets destroyed many monuments built-in the time of the Latvian Republic. However, they were unable to remove the Monument of Freedom and the Brothers War Cemetery. At least what could they do was placing trolleybus depot around the monument. However, people still went there and placed flowers. They were arrested by militsya (Soviet police) and taken to KGB. KGB was aware that many people on every November 2 in so-called Totensonntag – the Lutheran commemoration day for the death comes to commemorate not their relatives, but the leaders of the Latvian Republic. People like the first president of Latvia – Jānis Čakste and general Jānis Balodis. Many restrictions were made and cemeteries were monitored day and night.

Soviets were afraid of the international radio broadcasting. Latvian leading companies VEF and Radiotehnika made brilliant receivers, however they could also receive the Western broadcasts aimed at Latvians. The Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America had their Latvian service. From 1948 Soviets built powerful jamming systems. People who listened to western broadcasters were reported and arrested by KGB. For a short time in the Seventies the jamming was halted when the relations with the US improved. Soon after the crushing of the “Solidarity” movement, the jamming was resumed until it was halted completely in 1986.

KGB was suspicious about Latvians leaving Soviet Union for trips and people from the West arriving here. KGB checked every application for visa. Often when large group of tourists went on a trip, a KGB informant was included to control them. KGB was worried about the intentions of the Latvian exiles who entered Latvia to meet their relatives. Actions were made to monitor them and ideologically influence them. In return Latvian exiles started to view their compatriots who visited Latvia with suspicion. KGB installed listening devices in the main hotels, after the collapse of the USSR they were removed in secret.

KGB was also aware of the anti-Soviet literature. Many sailors brought it home and sell it as contraband. Books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or the Latvian exiled authors were confiscated. Local intelligentsia made self published books or samizdat. The restricted books were kept in special funds and could only be viewed with special permission. Sometimes even the most loyal communists were affected by the restricted literature.

  Singing songs with national content was also a crime. Old songs from the pre-war times or even worse the Latvian Legion songs were viewed as deeply danger0us. As new tape-recorders were invented, the possibility of copying illegal songs became widespread. The Latvian famous band in exile “Čikāgas Piecīši” became a fad. Everybody had heard about them, but nobody had seen them. KGB disliked the hippy movement and later rock music. Being a hippy or a rocker was soon understood as a sign of dissent. KGB was unable to stop them. Rock bands inspired by the western music appeared. Although it was unthinkable to write openly critical songs, many had “between the lines”. Rock band “Pērkons” (Thunder)  was the experts in this. Even when they were officially shut down, they reformed under the name “Soviet Latvia” and authorities were unable to stop them. After new perestroika policy, the song texts became more aggressive and  open calling for independence. That’s why many call the regaining of independence as “the singing revolution”.

The youth was viewed as potentially dangerous factor to the Soviet power. Soviet ideal youngster first went trough Pioneer movement, then entered the Komsomol – the Young Communist movement and joins the party in result. But, not all were so perfect. Some secretly embraced the national ideals, others joined punk, hippy and Hare Krishna movement. People caught doing anti-Soviet stuff was put under “prophylaxis” that meant ideological re-education. In schools and higher education facilities informants were placed to report illegal activities. The school teachers and lecturers were also under the KGB pressure.

KGB was eager to fight political dissidents. One of the most famous Latvian political dissident was Gunārs Astra. Despite many persecutions and imprisonments he was far from giving up. In his last court he spoke openly about the russification and occupation and said prophetic words “I believe that this time will go away like bad nightmare”. Astra died in prison. Writer Knuts Skuejenieks spent 7 years in Mordovia prison. Lidija Lasmane Doroņina suffered from many arrests and imprisonments. Latvian dissidents were often stabbed in the back by traitors employed by the KGB. KGB was capable of placing listening bugs in the dissident apartments and also listen to the telephone conversations. The head of the KGB Yuri Andropov even wanted to bug the phones of every Moscow citizen. They told him that its technically possible, but it would require enormous size of workers to monitor all the conversations.

The Jewish minority who survived the Holocaust was thankful to Soviets for rescuing them. However, the Soviets answered by suppressing the Zionist movement and openly condemned Israel. Not only that – the commemoration of the Holocaust was deemed as nationalistic. Soviet propaganda disregarded genocide against individual nations, because everyone in USSR was officially viewed as the “united soviet nation”. The mass murder site at Rumbula forest was the center of the Zionist activities. People gathered there to commemorate the victims and placed signs. KGB chased them away and removed the monuments. Eventually Jews managed to place commemorative stones, if they would not include the word “Jewish” and no Jewish symbolism. If not the Star of David was scrapped or monument was even removed. Many Jews wanted to move away to Israel or US. Soviets were desperately trying to stop this, however because of the international condemnation many thousands of Jews managed to leave.  There was even a case when a group of Latvian and Russian Jews attempted to hijack a plane in Leningrad to leave USSR. They were arrested on spot, the international condemnation saved them from death sentence. Also local Baltic Germans who still lived in Latvia wanted to leave for West Germany sparking KGB resistance.

As the time went KGB found it more difficult to control the masses. The technologies went ahead, connections with the Western world deepened. Even illegal possession of western porn movie was seen as act of anti-Soviet resistance. But, when Gorbachev introduced his democratic reforms the KGB became paralyzed. The work of the KGB was thwarted by many new liberties and the Western eyes were watching on the Baltic State more than before. First nationalistic movement Helsinki-86 in 1987 who heated up the society by openly commemorating the deportations of June 14 and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were halted and their leaders exiled. However in 1988 the KGB was unable to stop people waiving national flags and chanting nationalist slogans. All national organizations were monitored, but even placing informants and provocateurs did not help. The economic failure of the USSR was eminent and large masses now stood against the Soviet order.

KGB now have to answer a tough question – return to Stalinist style repressions or let the country collapse. The return to Stalinism was impossible, Gorbachev had promised too much  to the western leaders. Baltic States and Moscow was full with western media. Everyone wished for Soviets to “go west”. After the communist party lost its monopoly and Latvia declared restoration of the independence, KGB played a desperate double game. By using the “Interfont” movement and special OMON forces, KGB hoped to spark national violence to install presidential order from Moscow. When it failed, the last straw was the 1991 August coup. After the coup failed large crowd entered the KGB headquarters in Stabu street. The KGB agents were forced to handover ID cards and all of their archives. KGB was made illegal. Current law states that ex KGB agents cannot take in the politics. However, many of them owns large businesses like Juris Savickis the head of the energy company Itera, that imports the gas from Russia. The full list of KGB agents are yet to published, however the large part of the KGB archives are available to researcher allowing us to see the real nature of this draconian institution.

Selected History:

Bergmanis,Aldis, Zālīte, Indulis.(2007) Latvijas PSRS Valsts drošības komiteja un sabiedrības ideoloģiskā kontole (1965-1990). In book: Okupētā Latvija 1940-1900. Latvijas vēsturnieku komisijas raksti 19. sējums. Rīga. Latvijas Vēstures institūta apgāds.

Bleiere, Daina. (2012) Eiropa ārpus Eiropas : dzīve Latvijas PSR. Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

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