Tarzier Memoirs



The history of Latvia is a tale of oppression, injustice, and defeat. It is a tale, as well, of stubborn resistance and determination in the face of overwhelming force.

Traces of human culture in the Baltic Sea region date back to 10,000 BC. “Farmers living on the coasts of the Amber Sea” are first mentioned in written records of Cornelius Tacitus, compiled in approximately 100 BC. The early settlers were nomads from what is now Germany. Lettish people, the ancestors of present-day Latvians, settled in the Baltic area in the 9th century AD. The Latvian or Lettish language is somewhat similar to Lithuanian. Both are branches of Indo-European languages descended from Sanskrit.

The early Balts built a trade culture centered around amber, plentiful on the coasts of the Baltic Sea. Prosperity had its dark side. Because they were situated on the crossroads between Scandinavia and Byzantium, Balts became vulnerable to robbery and extortion. In addition, the port of Riga does not freeze over, despite its northern latitude, and is thus a coveted opening to the West for the huge continent. So, for various historical and geographical reasons, Latvia has been repeatedly overrun by Germans, Russians, Poles, and Swedes. In the 13th century, Latvia became a domain of the Teutonic Knights, who gave the area the name of Livonia and subjugated the population in the name of Christianity. In 1561, under Polish domination, parts of present-day Latvia were absorbed into Poland, while Courland became an independent duchy of Poland. Sweden conquered Riga and Vidzeme in 1621, heralding almost two centuries of prosperity and progress, including the translation of the Bible into Latvian.

This era, referred to forever after as “Swedish Times,” came to an end in 1795, when Peter the Great defeated the Swedish king. In 1860, Latvia was divided into the governorships of Courland, Liveland, and Latgalia, the latter being divided into Vitebsk and Pskov. The national monument in downtown Riga still carries three stars, representing the three governorships, held high up in the hands of Mother Latvia. It took years of fighting to obtain independence. Russians occupied half of the country, and various German barons’ military units in Courland provided another form of servitude for the Latvian people. As province of Imperial Russia, Latvia was used by Russia as currency in political trade-offs with the continent. German barons secured special privileges from the Russian Empire and were de facto rulers in the land, a respite from rapacious Russian domination and an opening to European culture and education in the Baltics.

Latvia first saw an opportunity for freedom from the Russian bear during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, then again twelve years later, in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. The Baltics had been pawned off to Germany in exchange for cessation of hostilities against Russia, at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. With the end of the war, German occupation came to an end as well, and Latvia rushed to proclaim its independence on November 19 of that year.

However, Latvia was no match for Russian power. It lacked an organized military establishment to support its claim to independence, and in the community of nations it was regarded as part of Russia anyway. The indifference of the Western powers remains a source of bitterness for Latvians. Its application for membership in the League of Nations was voted down, and foreign aid came in the form of surplus, ill-conceived tools that neither the West nor Latvia could use. Red troops captured Riga, as well as the whole of Liveland and Vidzeme, and installed a Soviet-sponsored regime with the first major Bolshevik terror. The population declined in total numbers, from 2.55 million in 1913, to 1.84 million in 1925. Karlis Tarziers, my grandfather, was executed like so many, as part of the wings of blood over Latvia.

In 1920, with some Allied coaxing, Russia signed the Riga Peace Treaty, pledging eternal respect for Latvian sovereignty. Latvia was independent at last, or so it seemed. Independence ushered in the prosperity and freedom the country had desired throughout history. However, not everybody believed in the permanence of peace. Prophecies of the coming Anti-Christ urged the people to seek safety, Brazil being the chosen place of refuge. Choosing to ignore a greatly improved political situation, 2,500 Latvians sold their possessions and left their native land for good. My father Peteris and my mother Emilija Zeltin were among those sailing to Brazil in search of lasting peace. Unable to take leave from the Latvian armed forces, Uncle Robert Tarziers stayed behind and eventually consolidated his position as respected pastor of the Golgotha Church in Riga, before leaving the country for good in 1944.

Germany’s invasion of Poland, September 1, 1939, marked the end of two decades of freedom for the Baltics. It also spelled the destruction of all that Robert and his wife Olga had built over two decades. Latvia initially sought to maintain neutrality, but following the fall of France, the USSR accused Latvia of forming a secret anti-Soviet military alliance with Estonia. Whether this accusation was founded or not, Bolshevik tanks rolled into Latvia and rigged elections to install a communist regime. 1940 became known as the “horrible year,” when at least 130,000 Latvians, including my uncle Janis and his family, and most males in my mother’s family, were killed outright or worked to death in the Gulags. On August 5, 1940, Latvia was formally annexed as the 15th constituent republic of the USSR.

German troops were briefly welcomed as liberators in 1941, though jubilation quickly died down when the occupying Nazis expanded the Holocaust to include Latvian Jews. Able-bodied men were recruited to fight in the German as well as the Red Army, and Latvians found themselves fighting fellow Latvians. In the last days of the war, the the 17th Division of the Latvian Army put up a valiant struggle defending the Bastion of Kurzeme, not so much for Germany, as against the Red Army. When Germany surrendered, the survivors of the 17th Division were sent to labor camps to die from cold or starvation. Janits Ozolins, eldest son of Aunt Anna-Otilija, died defending the Bastion of Kurzeme. A guerrilla movement in the forests west of Riga, called the “Green Resistance,” continued to undermine Russian rule until the 1950’s. The body of one of our relatives was displayed in Gulbene, his mouth stuffed with green pine needles, as a warning to those who dared to defy Russia.

The cost of World War II and Stalinist rule has never been accurately assessed. It is safe to say that one-third of the Latvian population fled into exile, perished in the war, or were deported to near-certain death in Siberia. Latvia holds the dubious honor of being the only European country in which the population count declined between 1900 and 1950. Our own Tarzier family was decimated by at least one-third. The annexation of Latvia was never overtly condoned by the international community, but Western powers chose to look the other way while Stalin swallowed up the Baltic states. 1944 and 1945 summit talks with the USSR, at that time an ally of the West, never brought up the issue. Latvia remained the 15th republic of the Soviet Union until the disintegration of the Communist regime in 1991. It reapplied for admission into the United Nations shortly thereafter, with better luck this time. The last Russian troops left Latvia in August, 1994.


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