During the long years of Soviet occupation few dared to resist the enormous oppressive system. After the armed struggle made by national partisans were crushed, the resistance to the Soviet regime was more passive and intellectual. But, even to non-violent ways of resistance the Soviet response was punitive. One of these men who opposed the system and to end of his life gone through the soviet persecution. His name was Gunārs Astra. Because of strong character and powerful last words at the court before the final sentence he became the symbol of the Latvian anti-Soviet resistance.
Gunārs Astra was born in October 23 1931. He lived in Riga and was in the age of 9 when Latvia was occupied by the Soviets. From 1940 to 1947 he attended the Riga City 48th Elementary school. After graduating he joined the Riga Electromechanic School. He went to work at VEF factory. On 1952 he graduated and became the VEF engineer technologian. On 1954 he was conscripted into Soviet Army. After the end of service on 1956 he went back to VEF and became the Radio Workshop master. On 1957 he became the chief of this workshop. He there first witnessed of what he called “the cooking room of the administrative and ideological directing”. He meant that every leading official in every state enterprise had to submit to soviet ideological brainwashing and obey every order from above. On 1958 he left the VEF and joined the Riga Pedagogical Institute to learn foreign languages. He wanted to learn foreign languages to get more wider view on things.
Gunārs Astra from the very childhood was a philosophically minded person. He practiced in dialogue skills , challenged people to express their opinion and then openly pointed their mistakes. He was directly critical of loudmouths and gossipers and therefore gained many enemies. In his workplace at Latvian State University at the Light and Sound testing laboratory unimpressed colleges started to report him to KGB. Because his desire to learn English and contact Westerners were considered suspicious he was under the KGB monitoring.
Astra read pre-war literature and listened the Western shortwave broadcasts and gained strong belief that Latvia was occupied and annexed and Latvia is under the dictate of the Communist party. He was deeply passionate about the sad state of the Latvian language, because it was pushed out of the official and social space. And he did not hide his beliefs, instead he contacted the western people and expressed his views.
On February 26 1961 he was arrested by KGB. He was accused of “seeking contacts with the US intelligence, gathering military type information to weaken the Soviet power”. On October 26 he was sentenced for “state treason” to 15 years in prison camp in Mordovia. The same place where now one of the menbers of band Pussy Riot Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is imprisoned. He was 30 years old at that time. During the years in prison he sent many letters to his relatives that were checked and censured by the KGB. Despite restrictions he made friends with other jailed dissidents from various parts of the Soviet Union. He took place in many protests and made hunger-strikes. He turned down any calls for compromise to ease his sentence.
After serving his 15 years he returned to Latvia. He was not broken down by the imprisonment instead he became even more confident to spread out his political beliefs. And nothing stopped him. KGB tried to isolate him from his work colleagues at the factory “Straume”. KGB tried to influence his brothers and asked to cooperate. After the proposal was turned down his brother Leons Astra lost his academic carrier. KGB even infringed his marriage with his wife Herta Līvija Vagale.
Astra found joy and profit in to flower breeding and selling. Selling flowers were one of the few legal ways of private enterprise. He lived in Lucasvala island in Riga and made his own small Latvia in his property. KGB sent men posing as fisherman to watch him. Despite meeting common minded people he declined any group activity.
On January 6 1983 KGB came back and made search in his home. KGB confiscated many photos, sound tapes, foreign literature and sound and photo equipment. From 15 to 19 December he was put on show trial in the Higher Court. He was sentenced for 7 years in prison for “anti-soviet agitation”.
His last words were secretly recorded with illegally brought in tape recorder. The speech made its way to Western media and Latvian exiles. If no tape recorders would be taken by his supporters, then these last words would never seen the light of day. Instead just official court report with edited text of last words would show up.
His last words included: “I was born in time when childhood was difficult, but filled with decisive events. In those times I grew up, learned to analyse, compare and confront and make my conclusions. I have been born early enough to witness these events and late enough to personally feel these events that make many frozen forever, by their fear. I came to work at early age. Already at the age of 25 I was chief deputy of the workshop with 2000 people working there. My social background can be clearly verified by my persecutor who stated that have “positive social basis” I had “socially right” background so I was put forward, trusted and thats why I experienced the cooking room of the administrative and ideological directing”. I was asked to join the Communist party openly explaining to make further carrier “I first must politically establish myself”. I had to take part in cabinet meetings, where they spoke openly, calling things as they are, and previously choosing people for positions and then placing them on “elections”. Our workshop was awarded on the anniversary 40 anniversary of the Bolshevik coup. We were awarded in the opera theater, but the 50 anniversary I spent in Mordovia in the KGB dungeons.
As my lawyer pointed out I am a Latvian man. I would dare to call myself Latvian. And not just citizen of Riga, as the central radio and press tries to call us lately – “рижанин Балдерис” and so on (Haralds Balderis a famous hockey player from Latvia). Its not a coincidence and its not unimportant that our beautiful and rich language is being pushed out of meetings, cabinets, offices and slogans and is being depleted and crippled. I am saddened that behind the large facades of our factories “Straume”, “VEF” and “Radiotehnika”, everything is just in Russian, all orders, manuals, documents in Russian. Its painful for me that the Latvian language has to enclose in reservoirs in ethnographic museum, theater plays and in mass information. And even there the great Russian language breaks in.
Its painful and humiliating when large part of Latvia born Russian students don’t learn and does not want to learn Latvian. Latvian language has became the point of laughter and no examiner asks it from the student, when then Russian is compulsory everywhere.
Its sad for me that Latvian kindergartens don’t teach the golden fund of Latvian folklore. The Latvian street names have been renamed in the names of Mayakovsky, Gorky, Sverdlow and so on. The various street names of Riga resemble the submissive history of the Latvian nation. Alexander street, Freedom Street (Brīvības iela), Adolf Hitler street, Lenin street. Its sad and angering when the name of Latvia has been became decorative name for brands like soup “Latvia”.
Deeply insulted I feel when in shop, office, public transport or other public place almost daily I encounter chauvinistic attitude towards my language. In the best case I would hear: Чего? Чего? По-русски! (What? What? Speak Russian!). We have been encouraged by media that is natural to speak, think and write Russian. Everything is Russian according to media.
I have been brought here by my love and respect for my nation and also the oppressive ways to dismay and deplete my nation. I believe these times will pass away like a bad nightmare. It gives me strength to breathe and carry on. Our nation has suffered enough and had learned to survive this hard time. “
After the beginning of the Gorbachev reforms and the national awakening the movement to release him became more stronger. On the summer of 1987 a thousands of protesters organized a commision to release him. At the winter of 1987 large crowd gathered at the Supreme Soviet building demanding his release. On February 1 1988 he was released according to new amnesty law. He was met as hero by the people; many were deeply touched by his powerful last words at his court. But, his only son was gravely ill and his health was deteriorated by the long years in prison.
On March 1 1988 Gunārs Astra drove to Leningrad to sell his freshly grown set of flowers. He collapsed and after many relocations he ended up in KGB war academy hospital. It soon became known to outside world and many offered assistance, but locals for various reasons turned down. After many misdiagnoses he was put on hearth surgery from which he did not recover and died on April 6. There was a suspicion that KGB directed medics may speeded up his death.
His funeral on April 19 1988 turned into mass event. His coffin was covered with Latvian national flag and the Latvian national anthem was sung. He was a inspiration for Latvian national leaders who realized his dream to restore the Latvian national independence. On November 18 1993 memorial plate was placed at the Higher Court building with the excerpt of his famous last words: “I believe these times will pass away like a bad nightmare”. Gunārs Astra was a national fighter a non-conformist in a time when most choose to conform. His message of mistreatment of the Latvian language was a powerful message for those times. If the Latvia would not regain its independence its language would continue to fall astray, like many other languages of nations that still are captive under the yoke of more stronger nations.