Tag Archives: Anti-Soviet Resistance

Jews in Soviet Latvia. Assimilation, resistance and revival.

Jews in the Riga train station on the way to Israel

Jews in the Riga train station on the way to Israel

On May 14 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence. It was the realization of hopes and dreams of many of the Holocaust survivors. Large masses moved to the new country, others watched it from their homes at the Diaspora.  In Soviet Union it was pretty much different. Despite initially supporting the Israeli independence, Soviet Union maintained hostile policy towards Israel for next five decades. Despite Soviet Union having one of the largest numbers of Holocaust victims and survivors, its policy was anti-Semitic and unfriendly towards the Jews in Soviet Union. The Soviet Anti-Semitism was not genocidal as the Nazi was. It was more oriented towards full assimilation, oppressive atheism and anti-Zionism. Soviet ideology was generally against practicing Judaism and embracing the Jewish national identity. In such climate the Jews around the Soviet Union had to choose between assimilation into Russian speaking “Soviet nation” devoid of religion and national values or resist. The resistance was not always active and open. The resistance was trying to preserve and maintain their religious values, commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and protesting to gain rights to immigrate to Israel. The post-war Latvia was one of the active parts of this resistance. The survivors and the newcomers all had to through the same choices that others had in the Soviet Union. At the end on late eighties the Latvian Jewish community was again on path to revival and restoration of the independent Jewish community.

 The Holocaust in Latvia killed about 75 thousand Latvian Jews. Only 15 thousand people managed to escape Latvia to the depths of the Soviet Union. A large number of Latvian Jews were deported by the Soviets on June 14 1941 mass deportations. Those who survived the camps later returned to Latvia. Not all returned, but those who did, found their pre-war life’s completely destroyed. There were no synagogues, no Jewish organizations; most of the old Jewish community was destroyed. On 1959 in Soviet Latvia there were 36 600 Jewish nationals 1,75% of the population, 80% of them living in Riga. Only 100 000 of them were born in pre war Latvia as large numbers of soviet Jews moved to live and work in soviet Latvia. Just 48% of them had Yiddish as their native tongue, 50% of them spoke Russian. In next decades the newcomers from Russia and other places overcome the native Latvian Jews. However in many cases they were united in their struggles against the Soviet assimilation policies.

The Jewish struggle against assimilation can be divided in two major parts. First: the preservation of religion, maintaining the religious values in defiance of the official atheist policy. Judaism is the most important aspect of the Jewish identity so it was crucial to keep and maintain it. Officially the Soviet constitution allowed religious practice that is separated from the state and schools. However, the Soviet authorities always tried to interfere in the affairs of the countries many churches and cults. The main authority concerning religious groups was the Council for the Affairs of the Religious Cults. At first the CARC was unable to control the Jewish congregations because of their small size and lack of unified spiritual center. Also because of transport problems, the religious live in rural towns was left beyond observation. The CARC representative Voldemārs Šeškens had very scarce knowledge about the Jewish religion and how to control it. He did not even know if the Soviet Union has any chief rabbi.

Despite that he began registering the Jewish congregations across Latvia. To register a congregation at least 20 people were needed, who then had to found a place for prayer and submit registration papers to local executive committee. It also had to be approved by the KGB.  If all sides approved then: the registry application had to be sent to Moscow where the People’s Commissar Council (later the Council of the Soviet Ministers) approved in the last instance. On 1949 seven congregations with 6 “cult servicemen” were registered across Latvia. Two in Riga, one in Tukums, Ludza, Krāslava, Rēzekne and Daugavpils.  However, there were also unregistered congregations with people unofficially or approved only by local authorities like in Jēkabpils, Liepāja, Ventspils ect. Most of the synagogues in Latvia were destroyed or damaged during the Holocaust, so it was difficult or impossible for the 20 people congregations to restore them. The only fully working synagogue in Latvia was the Pietav street synagogue in Old Riga that was left completely unscarred. Many synagogues were turned into libraries, restaurants and even sport halls like in Tukums.

The state policy became more hostile on 1948 trying to exclude and limit the Jewish religion. Sanctions were made against the young people who attended synagogue; many new regulations prevented Jews from maintaining their traditions. The anti-religious campaign was boosted by official state hostility towards the new State of Israel and the anti-cosmopolite campaign. Many of the religious activists were arrested and accused for the national treason. On 1953 the anti-Jewish campaign reached climax when the so-called “Doctors Trial” in Moscow boosted great fear of massive repressions towards the Jews. When the Riga Jews asked the Pietav Synagogue chief why there was no matzo bought this year, he replied “How can I ask for matzo if the head of the state himself (Stalin) writes anti-Semitic sounding article in the newspaper? One of the dearest rumors was that Stalin is preparing a mass Jewish deportation to Siberia. So far, no compelling documentary evidence have been found, but as Russian archives remain closed for the most part, it’s possible that such deportation was planned. After Stalin’s death the repressions against the Jews were ceased.

State policy became more liberal towards religion excluding the arrests and repressions. However, the anti-religious propaganda was omnipresent and often ignited hate and misunderstanding from the locals. On sixties as the Jewish national movement became strong worldwide the restriction and suspicion against the Jewish congregations became more severe. The new CARC rules removed the juridical status of the congregations and became fully controlled by CARC representatives. Taxing was increased to maximum; the local authorities could close down the congregation without higher approval as in Tukums in 1961 when the congregation was closed down.

Maintaining religion to preserve national identity proved not was the only working answer to assimilation. Not only because of the state restriction, but also because religion was not favored by all the Jews as their mean of the self identity. On 20th century two new self identity factors appeared among Jews: Holocaust commemoration and the State of Israel. Both of these factors became a challenge as the Soviets viewed them with even more hostility.

Both in Europe and Soviet Union the Holocaust commemoration begun in full-scale in the beginning of the sixties, when the Eichmann trial and Israeli victories made to talk openly about the Jewish Genocide and ask retribution. In Soviet Union the Jewish genocide was overly not mentioned in state media and history books. Only right after the war until 1948 the state newspapers mentioned the Jewish victims killed by the Nazis. Some novels like the Vētra (The Storm) written by Vilis Lācis famous writer and soviet statesmen described the Jewish killings in Latvia. The KGB made Extraordinary Investigation Commission and punished most of culprits who took part in the killings. However, later the Jews killed in Soviet Union were just part of “soviet citizens killed by the fascists”. It was done to avoid mentioning one nation not to boost the much feared Jewish nationalism.

The Star of David made from barbed wire at Rumbula mass murder site removed by the soviets

The Star of David made from barbed wire at Rumbula mass murder site removed by the soviets

The Soviet approved Rumbula memorial sign with hammer and sickle

The Soviet approved Rumbula memorial sign with hammer and sickle

In answer to that on sixties the first commemorative events started to take place in Rumbula, the mass killing site where 25,000 Jews were killed on November 30 , and December 8 1941. On 1961 first Jewish youth’s came to the site and started to mark the killing sites. The soviets were quick to issue warnings not to gather there. On 1962 first commemorative wooden plate was placed there. On 1963 at least every week people gathered to build memorial site. Artist J Kuzkovskis placed a large poster of Jew with squeezed fist rising from the grave in protest to what’s have bee done to him and his family. It was placed roadside alarming the soviets who removed the poster. After much friction between the state and the activists on 1964 a memorial stone was placed, with hammer and sickle and writing in three languages “For the victims of fascism 1941-1944”. Similar sites were made elsewhere, but not mentioning word “Jew”. Also if one dared to place the Star of David on the monument, he would be punished and the star removed. Soviets considered gatherings and seminars at the killing sites as the Zionist anti-soviet activity. Most of them were illegal, but were not dispersed, because sometimes more than 200 people came to them especially at Rumbula.

Soviet Union was hostile towards Zionism as it was Jewish Nationalism, and communism is primary against any kind of nationalism. However, on 1948 Stalin hoped that Israel would be ruled by leftist forces that would join the Soviet Block. Instead as in result of Arab-Israeli war the main force in the Israeli politics turned out to be right-wing Zionists; many of them having roots in Russia, Ukraine and Latvia. Soviet Union invested great sums to arm and train the Israeli enemy states Egypt, Jordan and Syria. During the times of Khrushchev, Soviet Union was the champion of the anti-Zionist ideology. It became even more active after the Six Days War on 1967 and Yom Kipur war on 1973 when Israeli military disgraced the Soviet Union by defeating the Arab states armed to teeth with the best Soviet weapons. The Israeli advances became known for many across the Soviet Union and movement begun to immigrate to Israel. However, the Soviets were against this and the resistance movement started across the union to gain rights to leave.

Anti-Israeli cartoon in the Soviet Latvian satiric journal Dadzis. The Gamblers of Tel Aviv by Normunds Zvirbulis

Anti-Israeli cartoon in the Soviet Latvian satiric journal Dadzis. The Gamblers of Tel Aviv by Normunds Zvirbulis

Jews in Latvia were active in this movement writing petitions to the Soviet government and international organizations. During the seventies more than 40% such letters came from Riga. The petitioners were called “otkazniks” (in Russian refused). 24 Riga “otkaznik’s” wrote open letter to UN. Grigorijs Mincs member of the prominent pre war family even approached the British MP Piter Archer and the UK embassy to grant him rights to leave. Protests and sit-ins were made by the “otkazniks” at the soviet authorities like on 1970 in Riga at the Latvian Soviet Supreme Council. On 1971 March 56 Jews from Riga arrived at Soviet Supreme Council at Moscow and gave a signed petition to allow them to leave and also free arrested activists. Along with them, people from Lviv, Vilnius, Kaunas and other cities. After being rejected, new letter signed by 165 people was addressed starting hunger strike that lasted for 26 hours that in first time in USSR history took place in state rooms. When they were threatened by militsyia (soviet police) they left the building only to return to Ministry of Interior next day. The marching Jews confused the people on the streets of Moscow and brought western media attention. The action took place in the same time as the 24th congress of the Communist party. Embarrassed soviets finally gave in and granted all previously rejected appeals to immigrate to Israel.  Hunger strikes became frequent among many Latvian Jews who in such way protested to the denial of emigration or the arrest of their relatives.

One of the most radical methods to leave the Union was a plane hijack attempt by the Jews from Riga on 1970. A group of 16 people planned to hijack AN-26 passenger plane in Leningrad but, were arrested before doing so. Their trial caused protests both in Union and the west. Later four Jews were arrested in Riga for supporting the hijackers. One of the evidence for their guilt was illegal Jewish newspaper “Iton”. The Jewish illegal publishing was called “Samizdat” (Self Publishing). “Samizdat” was journals and books about the Jewish history and culture and religion. Soviets targeted this as anti-Soviet propaganda and often arrested the publisher. Getting in goods from Israel and making things with Jewish symbols also alarmed the soviets. Jews also organized private educative lectures, theatrical plays called “Purimshpīl” displaying stories from the Jewish cultural life. The Judaica lectures gathered people from all over the Union and abroad. Eventually rather large numbers of Jews managed to move to Israel. Not all stayed there however, and used legal rights to travel further to US or Western Europe to settle there.

Not all Jews choose to resist assimilation.  For many it was easier to adopt Russian name to hide their Jewish identity and live the lives of the ordinary soviet citizen. Some of them became too assimilated and became Russian nationalists after the fall of the Union. Some only after the fall of the Union re-discovered their Jewish identity. In early 90ies Israel became overflowed with Jewish immigrants from all over the Soviet Union. About 1.6 million Jews from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States settled in Israel making rapid changes in the society.  Even the Arab tradesmen in the Old city of Jerusalem started to learn Russian.

Star of David along the Latvian flag at the Baltic independence protest

Star of David along the Latvian flag at the Baltic independence protest

Meanwhile those who stayed in Latvia at the late 80ies were on path on making legal Jewish organization as the state reforms finally allowed to create national minority organizations. The Jewish community was divided in two fractions. The “culture” fraction did not insist on leaving, but on maintaining the Jewish culture at home. The “political” fraction meanwhile maintained that in current circumstances the national revival is only possible in Israel. On 1988 the Latvian Jewish Cultural Society was founded in Skolas Street 6th the former Jewish theater later turned in to Communist party congress building. When the new Congress building was made, the Jews regained the old Jewish theater. The main stage was full of people witnessing the grand event the revival of the Latvian Jewish community.

Skolas Street 6th became the center of the modern day Jewish community in Latvia. On 1996 the unified Council of the Latvian Jewish communities and congregations becoming the main representative of the Jews in Latvia. The rather small minority of six thousand people are one of the most active national minorities in Latvia. On 1992 Latvia established diplomatic relations with Israel. The contacts between Latvian and Israeli Jews are dense and helping the local Jewish community. The Holocaust has finally received its place in Latvian history. It has been studied in depth. New monuments have been built across Latvia to commemorate the events. The Jewish nation has survived many attempts of assimilation and extermination. Their successful struggle against soviet assimilation is another proof of how the strong is the Jewish nation.

Selected Sources:

Barkane, Karīna. Valsts varas attieksme pret ebreju reliģiskajām draudzēm Latvijas PSR (1944-1964). Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie laiki. 2013. 3 (91)

Aļeksejeva, Olga. Ebreju pretošanās formas PSRS pastāvošajam režīmam (Latvijas PSR ebreju nacionālās kustības kontekstā) Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie Laiki. 2014. 1/2 (92/93)

Алексеева, Ольга. Радикальные формы сопротивления советскому режиму в среде евреев Латвии в начале 1970-х гг.: призма Ленинградского и Рижского процессов. Евреи в меняюшемшя мире VII. Рига 2015.  Латвийский университет


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Gunārs Astra The Latvian Anti-Soviet Dissident


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”.

Gunārs Astra in prison

Gunārs Astra in prison

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.

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Soviet Psychiatry of Punishment. Latvian Example

The Riga Psychiatric Hospital was made to help and cure. But, for some it became a new kind of Gulag prison camp.

The Riga Psychiatric Hospital was made to help and cure. But, for some it became a new kind of Gulag prison camp.

After the death of Joseph Stalin the Gulag was closed down and the numbers of the arrested people dropped significantly over the years. However, the Soviet repressive state apparatus still continued to exists and searched for more refined ways to punish and isolate those who did not agree with the Soviet state. And the psychiatry originally a medical science to help mentally ill persons, now was used to punish completely sane persons for being anti-soviet dissidents. The disbelief for the soviet propaganda or making anti-governmental acts was viewed as a sign of mental illness. Instead of sending to prisons where legal appeals were possible, people were declared mentally unfit and confined in mental wards. In long run this turned out to be even more effective way of punishment. After release from the mental ward, people were unable to get job in many professions because of the official documents that gave them discouraging diagnose. The illegitimate diagnose served as a tool of isolation from the society. Even after twenty years since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Latvian lawmakers only now has made a law that will rehabilitate the victims of the Psychiatry of punishment.

Soviet secret police had taken interest in field of psychiatry before the WW2. On 1939 NKVD the Soviet secret service took control over the psychiatric hospital in Kazan. It became one of the first Psychiatric Prison Hospitals in Soviet Union nicknamed Psikushka’s. After the end of WW2 on 1948 Andrey Vyshinsky first ordered to use psychiatry as a tool for punishment. Russian psychiatrist Pyotr Gannushkin also believed that in a class society, especially during the most severe class struggle, psychiatry was incapable of not being repressive. In so the Punishment Psychiatry was discovered during the Stalinist rule. But, it became prominent after the death of Stalin and denouncement of his repressions. Soviets were unable to maintain open repressions of the political dissenters because of the relative liberalization so they used more sinister methods.  On 1959 Nikita Khrushchev the heir of Stalin declared that persons that resist  the Soviet power are mentally ill. And Latvia as occupied part of the Soviet Union was no stranger to this methods.

Pēteris Lazda was PHD student in the Faculty of Law in the Latvian State University. In his dissertation he discussed the possibility of Latvian breakaway from the Soviet Union as it was granted by its constitution. It was no secret that these rights exists only on paper and the Moscow will never grant such right to any soviet republic by its own will. However, Lazda stressed that statewide poll might help to decide this question  and received the KGB attention. He was removed from the PHD studies or aspirantura as it was called then. Lazda decided not to quit and spread out the leaflets asking the deputies of the Latvian communist government to make decision of breakaway from the Soviet Union until June 1 1974.What he proposed was according to constitutions.

Consequently he was arrested by KGB. His case was made in 33 volumes, however the prosecutors wanted a mental expertise for the suspect could be too sick to face the court. There was n0 other way for in case of open trial Lazda might say the same things  as in leaflets and his dissertation. Asking to fulfill the constitution in trial would be very disadvantageous for the Soviet regime. So instead he was kept in prison camera, while the trial went without his presence. The Law Psychiatrist Ērika Rāta stood as witness and concluded that Lazda is mentally ill and needs to be sent to special mental institutions to be forcibly medicated.

As result Lazda was sent to Gulag of his own. Moved from one clinic to another, together with mentally ill people of all kinds in anti-sanitary environment. Patients were subjected to beating and forced medication. Lazda was forced to swallow capsules containing dubious substances and was checked with a big spoon to see if he had swallowed them. In case of resistance he received injections of Amizonum  a powerful drug that paralyzes the human movement and his senses.  Many of the patients could not withstand the destructive side effects of these medications and became even sicker than before entering the hospital. That was the very point of the forced medication- making sane man insane with use of powerful mind altering drugs.

Lazda was rescued by the alarmed human right groups in the west and Latvian exiles. To escape public international protests Lazda was released and granted asylum. In West  Germany a group of Medicine doctors and one professor made an independent expertise and concluded that his diagnose was made for political reasons.

Jānis Apse was born in Siberia since his parents were deported in March 25 1949. He graduated Polytechnic Institute in Tomsk. However, his anti-soviet views were the reason for diagnosing him with paranoid schizophrenia. For three months he was forcibly medicated with drugs who directly affected his central nervous system. His profession was heating system engineer. With such diagnosis it was almost impossible to work in this field.

Ivans Jahmivočs and Sandris Riga made an underground Christian movement. On 1969 they were arrested and from the prison ended up in various mental wards. The Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher stood up for their release. These are just few of the many hundred such stories. People subjected to such repressions tend to hide their unjust diagnosis because of humiliation and negative view from society.

Today there are many professions that require mental checkups. And if a person for ever what reason was diagnosed as mentally unfit during the Soviet occupation, he cannot work in this profession. And the same applies for people who were diagnosed for political reasons. For many years Latvian lawmakers were unable to design laws to rehabilitate them. To appeal the diagnosis person had to gather documents in archive and go the mental institution. And since many of the Soviet time medical personnel are still working there such task seems unpleasant to say the least.

Many of the doctors who issued these fake diagnoses were forced by the KGB. However, that does not prevent them from defending their actions. Some of them say that mentally fit persons perfectly understood how the soviet system worked and behaved accordingly. In so those who opposed or criticized the soviet occupation were not diagnosed without reason. That does not go far from the Nikita Khrushchev rhetoric. Others say that schizophrenic people often share political views. And that KGB was smart enough to recognize if their suspect is mentally unfit.

On January 2013  amendment for the law concerning the rehabilitation of politically repressed was made by Juris Judins from the Unity party. His amendment was however turned down by the Juridical commission of parliament. A alternate law was made by National Alliance lead by Human rights and Society commission and on June 20 2013 it was approved by parliament. The law still includes expertise report from Riga Psychiatry and Narkology center as its impossible to legally bypass this institution. We shall see how this law will work and how many people will be able to restore their justice.

The biased use of psychiatry during the Soviet occupation has made very negative effect on mental treatment today. People are afraid of mental diagnosis and especially the  mental hospitals. Because of the inhuman conditions in Soviet psychiatric hospitals that in some cases still persists today, they still rather viewed as prison camps than hospitals. Worst part that this psychiatry of punishment is still widely used in modern Russia. There have been many cases of political activists of all kinds ending up in mental wards. The danger still persists in Latvia itself. The freelance journalist Leonīds Jākobsons leaked private email conversations of Major of Riga Nil Ushakov that proved his ties with Moscow authorities. In result Jākabsons was pursued by police investigation and placed into mental ward to check if he is mentally fit. After the expertise failed to prove he has mental problems he was released. Later he was attacked by unknown assailants on the stairway of his house.  This proves that these Soviet traditions of punishment is far from over and may return in full-scale if we are not too careful.

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Latvian National Resistance Against the Soviet Occupation 1944-1956

Latvian National Partisan

Latvian National Partisan

On May 9 Latvia once again fell in the Soviet captivity. This time the Soviet power was intending to stay here forever. However, there were people who did not give up their fight for national independent Latvia and continued to resist occupiers in the forests. So called “forest brothers” or national partisans fought local Soviet government from 1945 to 1956 when most of them were defeated. Soviet government called them “bandits” and used NKVD death squads against them. The national partisans were hoping in the coming war between Western powers and the Soviets. The western spy agencies even sent assistance and special agents to help them. They all were uncovered by the Soviet secret service. After the all hopes for outside support and victory were lost these men left the woods. This is a story about them.

Latvian partisans had not prepared for resistance. There was no support bases, communications and no Latvian government in exile to direct them. The first battle was fought on 27 August 1944 in the Abrene region (now in Russia) 4 NKVD men were missing in action. In whole 1944 NKVD lost 12 men. Most action took place in the eastern regions. In Vidzeme first groups showed up in May 1945 after the ice melted and the warm weather allowed people to gather. Usually a group of 5-7 men assaulted local Soviet activists, beat them up or even killed them. On April 17 Kārlis Krēmers murdered local Dzelzava party organizer (partorg) Mihial Kodalev on his wedding day and wounded many other Soviets.

The organization of the partisan movement started in Latgalia on the winter 1944-1945. In Courland after the end of the war partisans were mostly former Waffen SS Legion members vanished in forests and formed partisan ranks. North Courland Partisan Organization, Latvian National Partisan Organization, “The Hawks of the Fatherland” were part of the Courlad combat movements. In Vidzeme the “The Latvian Self Defense”, in Latgalia “Latvian Fatherland (partisan) union” and “Latvian National Partisan Union”. All movements tried to print their own illegal newspapers and leaflets. At first they were written using typing machine, as the conditions worsened the last newspaper “Homeland” was handwritten. The partisans wanted to inform people about their cause and attract new members.

After first spontaneous formations of the partisan groups in the summer of 1944 they started to look forward to make contacts and form unified command. On Northen Latgalia December 10 in the Abrene district Viļaka parish the Latvian National Partisan Union (LNPU) was formed.  It was lead by Pēteris Supe (“Cinītis”). His deputy was the former student of the Latvian University National Economy faculty Staņislavs Ločmelis (“Dūze”). They were even joined by catholic dean Ludvig Štagars. At first LNPU consisted 123 partisans, after forming of united camp in the Stampaku swamp in Abrene district, the fighting force was about 350 men. In 1946 there were already 1000 men.

On March 2 1945 the camp was surrounded by the NKVD forces and local destroyers. Attackers were convinced that there is only 30-35 men there. Instead they met a sizable force that was not willing to give up. The battle lasted all day and the partisans managed to leave the Stampaku swamp and took refuge in pre-made covers. Soviets lost 32 and partisans 28. The leadership changed frequently as commanders fell in battles. Finally after three commanders were lost Antons Circāns (“Spike”) took the lead and re-organized the LNPU. He formed many regional staffs since the central staff could no longer lead all remote partisan units. LNPU operated all around Latgalia and Vidzeme. Most of the staff leaders sooner or later were captured or killed by NKVD. On July 7 the commander in charge Circāns was lost in action. The central staff ceased to exist. Local staffs continued to operate autonomously. On July 4 1948 the head of the Central Vidzeme staff Rusovs was captured along with the archive of the LNPU general staff. In months’ time all groups submitted to him were crushed.  The last remnants of the LNPU continued to resist until 1953.

In Southern part of Latgalia on January 28 in Līvāni parish Vanagu catholic church dean Antons Juhņevičs was hiding the Red Army deserters. The church was raided by the NKVD, the partisans fought back and defeated the Soviets. The catholic dean hid in the forest and organized Latvian Fatherland guard (partisan) union (LFG(P)A). The partisans had to give an oath to God and the fatherland.  The LFG(P)A) was formed into divisions that would operate in every Latvian region. That was never realized however many sizable partisan regiments Latgalia was formed. The dean wanted a full time resistance army that would lead an armed uprising. He was obviously counting on allies to start a war against the Soviet Union. Because of this he was not prepared for long time partisan warfare . As the winter came his “divisions and regiments” were one by one destroyed. On October 23 1945 NKVD assaulted the Ilūkste staff. In heavy frontal battle with great losses on both side’s partisans retreated to other forests. Since the ammunition was low  the regiment was forced to begin talks of legalization – surrender. 90 out of 200 men did this. On 17 December almost all fighters of the Daugavpils regiment turned themselves. The end of LFG(P)A) came when the undercover agent of NKVD captured the leader J Zelčāns.

Meanwhile in Courland many ex-Waffen Legion members took refuge in the forests. If they would surrender they would be sent to “filtration camps” in Siberia. Some changed his identity with fake documents. Lieutenant Miervaldis Zeidainis as Miķelis Pētersons worked as an accountant in Ventspils. However, while driving around the countryside he was looking for former Legion members. Soon together with Lieutenant A Zutis,  first lieutenant J Bērziņš, first lieutenant Ēvalds Robežnieks he formed The Northern Courland Partisan Organization (NCPO). They wanted to establish connections with the west and 17 men with one Estonian and German with fisherman boat reached Gotland. However, soon both leaders of the NCPO were arrested by  the NKVD. But, the NKVD was unable to extract information about other groups hiding in the forests.

In Talsi district Latvian National Partisan Organization (LNPO) was formed lead by former “Jagdverband” leader Alberts Feldbergs. In Kuldīga district Luitenant Ēvalds Pakulis (Sheriff) gathered men in the Latvian National Partisan Unit “Courland”. (LNPU”C”). Both groups made meetings and later were united in the Latvian National Partisan Union “Courland”. Unfortunately NKVD agent Marģeris Vītoliņš was present at the last meeting. He was posing as a British agent and convinced partisans that the British secret service will take command of them. Because of this the partisan leaders were invited to Riga to meet the British resident and discuss further cooperation. Partisans waited for such opportunity for so long that they actually fell for this trap. On October 13 they were arrested at Matīsa street.

At first Soviets sent regular Soviet Army soldiers against partisans. From May 31 to August 9 1945 in Latvian eastern parts operation “Vostok” was issued. 4 divisions and 3 NKVD battalions swept the forests, but only managed to eliminate 21 partisans. However for “filtration” 3471 civilians were arrested, meaning Soviet soldiers fighting more against them rather than partisans. On Summer 1945 battles erupted every day. On Ilūkste district in 10 days time 32 Soviets were shot and 10 wounded. Soviets were only safe in the Ilūkste district center. In Abrene district partisans paralyzed the work of the village soviets. They were either destroyed or unable to operate. On May 25 1945 partisans burned down the Bērzpils executive committee. The Tilža parish center was assaulted in the night burning down the executive building. In Jersika partisans raided the parish executive building killing major Parfenov and captured two Soviet food trucks. In retreat partisans blew up the bridge. Many villages were taken, Soviet activists were constantly under threat and shops were raided. In case of shops, milking farms and money transports  partisans spared peoples life’s. But when they encountered soviet activists- the party organizers, committee workers and executive chiefs they were usually executed.

Soviets answered the partisan attacks by sending large forces including armored vehicles. Until September 1945 3145 partisans had either lost their lives or have been legalized. 17 987 people were arrested. Soviets tried to stop the revolt by issuing legalization programs. People were asked to give up their weapons in return facing no repressions. 1268 people did this at the end of 1945. NKVD, however mistrusted them because they could find legal means how to overthrow the Soviet government. Also some of them were hired as double agents and sent  back to the active partisan units. Issues of legalization were made many times and many thousand men gave up their fight.

The NKVD men searching the woods for partisans

The NKVD men searching the woods for partisans

The only event when partisans and NKVD men made talks was the Alsvišķu truce on 28 September 1945. Lutheran priest Eduards Grāvītis was against active means of resistance and did not believe that the allies will come anytime soon. So he made contacts with NKVD to look for peace agreement. On September 4 he met them in the Zeltiņi forest. He demanded to stop repressions and release the captured ones so the partisans can freely give up their arms. He also asked to withdraw the Soviet forces. Two NKVD officials were unable to answer these questions so they proposed to take him to Riga to meet more senior NKVD men.  He arrived in Riga and met the NKVD peoples commissar  Eglītis. He gave the list of the partisan demands for proper legalization. Eglitis published answer in party newspaper “Cīņa” on October 12 where he called partisans “bandits” who only attack and pillage the locals. At the end he asked the partisans to surrender. Partisans were unable to meet such call. On September 26 commander of LNPU A Circāns met E Grāvītis and asked him to arrange a meeting with the NKVD. Grāvītis informed NKVD about this. On September 28 NKVD Anti-banditism chief lieutenant-colonel Kornejev met Circāns calling himself “major Šmits” and Grāvītis. After two hour talks of useless bloodshed, Circāns proposed a 10 day ceasefire so the signal troops can reach every partisan group and ask about the possibility of legalization. After the talks were over all partisans could freely go back to their forests. The Alsvišķu truce was in effect from September 29 to October 9 in the Valka district. This was the only such case of mutual talks between NKVD and the partisans.  However, this caused the opposite effect- LNPU gained so much respect that legalization significantly dropped among Valka district partisans.

The NKVD was dissatisfied with the anti-partisan warfare results.  In so they decided to make united NKVD-NKGB staffs in the most active areas. Gathering up the forces helped to use effectively the intelligence data and make decisive strikes. During cold winter NKVD was more effective  attacking the slow moving partisans. Already mentioned attack on Ilūkste partisan staff was a failure since the partisans escaped. More attacks were made in Madona and Valka district. In Kuldīga parish even tanks and reconnaissance aircraft was used against the force of 30 men. Battles took place all winter with more losses on the Soviet side.

However, the partisans were far from giving up. The Vinston Churchill speech about the Iron Curtain on March 5 motivated them. NKVD made operative fighting groups. To force partisans to legalize NKVD took their families hostage with all their children and abused them. Whole families went to the forest to the partisans. Now women and children died in the battles. To scare the locals Soviets publicly displayed the naked bodies of the killed partisans. Public executions were made as well.

Partisans still tried to assault Soviet, and ambushed and killed the officials and their convoys. The tight security and pressure made impossible to make a full scale attacks. However, in Gulbene district partisans assaulted Līgo village and captured the main building. Soviets sent destroyer battalion and forced partisans to leave. Partisans attacked again and destroyed the executive committee in Galgauska.

NKVD went on full scale attack crushing the partisan movements in every part of Latvia. In some parts partisans were surprised while sleeping in their bunkers, others resisted til the last man. The 15 men group lead by Gulbis was all destroyed, despite his heavy wounds  Gulbis fired the machine gun until his final bullet.

On 1947 after heavy NKVD offensive the battles were more quieter. In Talsi district NKVD faced heavy battles with the Felbsbergs group. Partisans assaulted the armored vehicle and killed MGB senior lieutenant Dmitrij Krup. In answering strike Feldsbergs lost his life. On 1948 situation remained the same. NKVD used the effective method of sending double agents within the national partisans and either turned them in or assassinated their leaders. On Marc 19 NKVD assaulted the joint Latvian and Lithuanian bunker in Īle parish. 18 of 24 partisans were killed.

Then on March 25 the Soviet mass deportations took place in all Latvia. Partisans were unable to stop them. Most of them were deeply entrenched in their bunkers because of the winter. And Soviets gathered large security forces. Many partisans learned the fact about the deportations only after a few weeks. Now all could they do is to attack local soviet activists who assisted the deportations.

Soviets thought that is the end of the resistance, and removed the main MGB Interior soldiers and left only the destroyer battalions. Instead new partisans showed up, many who escaped deportations joined in. Partisans started attacks on the soviet activists killing all their families. In Jēkabpils parish partisans ambushed and eliminated whole MGB command. Since the collectivization was  underway partisans now attacked the local kolkhoz chiefs. Soviets were forced to resend the MGB forces. Again battles erupted in forests of Alūksne and Jēkabpils district. Heavy battles were also present in Courland. Even in the streets of Saldus, where NKVD was attacking two partisans. Six buildings burned down and 4 civilians were killed along with two partisans. The deportations did not halt the partisan war, but the losses of the partisans were catastrophic. Many strong groups were destroyed and surviving partisans  switched to more passive action.

Partisans became more mobile and undercover. NKVD sent fake partisan groups to destroy the real partisans. Partisans became more viscous and murdered the whole families of soviet officials and fighters. NKVD was no less brutal to partisan woman and children. On 1951 partisan activity was minimal. Soviets disbanded the MGB 24th rifleman division and changed with OKON the Special task force team a forefather of the Specnaz. Battles still erupted in some parts. To avoid capture partisans killed themselves singing “God Bless Latvia!”. From 1952 to 1953 the Moscow authorities sent special forces to stop the revolt. The 1953 was the last bloody year with 100 Latvian partisans lost.

After the death of Stalin and fading western support the partisan war activities became more rarer. From 1954 to 1956 11 were killed, 49 captured, 39 legalized. 533 people were still hiding individually or in small groups. In 13 February 1957 Mičulis partisan family of five people came out and legalized. They were resisting from 1945. They still had a sizable arsenal of weapons. Last partisan to leave the woods was Arnolds Spārns who did this in 1959. He resisted the Soviets for 14 years.

The armored resistance was over, however there are many untold stories about the non-violent resistance. Latvian intelligentsia, Jewish Zionists, all kinds of dissidents struggled for many years and made the dream of the national partisans possible.

Memorial to the fallen partisans in the city of Jekabpils



Selected Sources:

Turčinskis, Zigmārs. (2007) Karš pēc kara: Latvijas nacionālo partizānu cīņas 20. gadsimta 40. gadu beigās – 50. gadu sākumā. In: Karš pēc kara 1944-1956. Latvijas okupācijas muzeja gadagrāmata. Riga. Latvijas Okupācijas muzeja gadagrāmata.

Strods, Heinrihs. (2012) Latvijas nacionālo partizānu karš, 1944-1956. Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

The unknown war : the Latvian national partisans’ fight against the Soviet occupiers, 1944-1956 : the battle and memorial sites of the national partisans (2011) Latvian National Partisan Association ; English translation by Peter Jacob Kalnin. Rīga : “Domas spēks”.



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