Tarzier Memoirs

Part IV To a Far Shore

 

STALINIST TERROR


The rape of Latvia was heralded by Nature itself on a lovely Sunday in June, 1940. Russian tanks were reportedly rolling towards the Latvian border. Leading life as usual—what else was there to do?—we had traveled to Ramuli with the choir to hold a Gospel meeting. As we returned to the city on the evening train, we witnessed a sunset I have never forgotten. Riga’s lovely church spires were bathed in red, as if the city were already burning. The display of Nature’s colors seemed to augur nothing but trouble, and I sensed everyone’s somber mood as we said good night to return to our respective houses. I hardly slept that night.

Monday lived up to our premonitions. It was mid-afternoon, and I had gone to the main Post Office in the city center. When I walked back out into the street, Russian tanks ground noisily into the city, disregarding traffic police, one-way streets, and cross traffic. Pedestrians scattered like roaches chased by a broom. From open turrets Mongolian soldiers amused themselves by pointing rifles at the population. They looked like beggars in uniforms not much better than dirty sacks, but they had guns, and they laughed and sneered at us.

I rushed back home, where I took down our maroon-and-white Latvian flag, folded it, wrapped it in cellophane, and stashed it in the drawer. All I could do was sit in my study in a numb state of mind. This was not a dream. Our sweet two decades of freedom had come to an end. Later that day I ventured back into town by streetcar. Russian tanks were parked by the radio station and government buildings. At the Foreign Ministry building, a crowd listened in silence to a harangue by Vishinsky, the chief Soviet butcher. His voice full of poison, he spewed death threats to anyone who opposed the Russian takeover. No one dared raise a voice to remind him of the peace treaty with Latvia, signed and sealed by the Soviet Union in 1920.

Factories, schools, and stores were ordered to stop their normal activities so that everybody could pour out into the streets with red banners to greet the Red Army “liberators.” I knew many of the workers of the rubber manufacturing plant near our church, members of the Baptist community. They were told that the machine belts would be cut if they did not stop work. So they, too, dropped their tools and joined the “celebration” in the streets.

In writing about Stalin’s tightening grip on Latvia, I am reminded of Luke’s words, “And it came to pass, in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be registered.” Two millennia later, Stalin repeated history. Following his order that all property in Latvia be returned to “the people,” soon thereafter a truck pulled up in front of the church and disgorged several Cheka, or agents of the secret police, now called the GPU. They marched into the church office to seize whatever they could find of any value, such as the typewriter. In addition, they demanded the surrender of church membership records. However, I had anticipated this moment, knowing that the life of anyone with religious affiliation would dangle by a thread. I had put away the latest membership book, and I surrendered an outdated one to the Cheka. I prayed that they would not get much information from an ancient membership list.

I was also notified that the church building had been nationalized and was now the “people’s” property. I have always considered myself a chicken, but that one time I took my life in my hands and refused to sign the papers they shoved under my nose. Later I entered the very lion’s den, the former Ministry of Interior, now the headquarters of the GPU, with their decree in hand. I told them that church buildings could not be nationalized because they belonged to an organization and thus were not private property. Somehow that bureaucratic argument managed to confuse them, because they sent a committee of three to investigate our situation and found the Golgotha Church to be indeed an organization. They left us alone for a while longer.

My colleague and friend Augustus Korps had kidded me a while back: “Robert, when the Communists kick you out of the Golgotha Church, ask them to grant you the cemetery chapel for your worship. You know that the communists are very superstitious. They won’t look for you there, and you will be free to conduct services.” But history protected the Golgotha Church. It still stands to this day, while Agenskalna Church, where Korps was pastor, was taken over by the emissaries of the Terror.

A few days later, in desperate need of peace of mind, I took my motorcycle out of mothballs, filled the tank, and drove the 140 kilometers to my sister’s farm in Vidzeme. Their farm was in the peaceful Latvian countryside, close to the Tirza River where I had been baptized. It was also close to the old family farm and the familiar landscape of my youth. But not long after, Moscow ordered Communist elections to the Latvian “Saeima,” or Parliament, and anyone who did not vote would be considered an “enemy of the people.” So I returned to Riga to vote. Like cattle filing into the slaughterhouse, we went to the polls and voted the Party-approved list.

By this time it was abundantly clear that our work with the Sunbeams was over, so I sold all musical instruments. A few days later, as I had expected, a group of activists from the rubber factory knocked on the door. They had come to confiscate our musical instruments, they said, because they were organizing a band in the factory. This was one of the few satisfying moments in the bitterness of those weeks. I led them to our empty music room and told them to help themselves to the broken sheet music stands, all that was left. They left empty handed. My motorcycle was another coveted item in those days, and I knew it would be confiscated in the name of “The People,” so early on I advertised it in the newspaper. Soon enough I found a buyer. A few days later a communist activist arrived to seize my bike, but I showed him the receipt of sale. I believe he confiscated it from the buyer.

The Stalinist noose tightened with each passing day, taking bizarre forms as well as more serious ones. For example, an order came down from the new government prohibiting the church custodian to carry firewood to our living quarters. I did not especially mind taking on that task. After all, I had chopped and carried wood all my life, back in the farm. The next step was much more damaging. Taxes imposed on the church were raised to an outrageous level. I appealed the ruling, arguing that our congregation were low-income factory workers, unable to afford such payments. The response was that church attendance was a voluntary activity. If they chose to attend, they must pay the tax.

My solution was to forgo my salary. I told the congregation I would serve for free, so that they could pay the tax imposed by the Party. I set out to find other paying work. At first I did odd jobs—swept the streets in summer, shoveled snow in winter. Insulating the water pipes in the basement of the local sports hall kept me busy for several weeks. No work was too menial for me.

After that, needing a more reliable source of income, I applied for a position in the psychiatric hospital. I told the chief of staff at the hospital the truth—I had never done that kind of work and, moreover, I had no experience with a psychiatric population. He needed more orderlies, though, and I think he liked me. I don’t know what strings he pulled, because all new hires had to be approved by a party representative, but the party woman who reviewed my application asked no questions and quickly rubberstamped my employment. I now had a steady income to feed and clothe my wife and children.

So here I was—from God’s House to a madhouse. I was assigned to the morning shift in the ward for the seriously disturbed. Two of us orderlies were responsible for a twenty-patient ward, some of them dangerously irrational. My partner was tough. He walked in, donned his white coat, and proceeded to beat up the patients. In this way, he controlled them rather effectively. I had a more difficult time. I objected to the beatings—this was a hospital, after all—so we ended up using strait jackets to restrain the violent ones. When the Soviet Union went to war against Germany in 1941, we admitted a number of Red Army soldiers in mental breakdown. The memory of one handsome, slim young soldier still haunts me. Rocking from side to side, he sat in the ward, repeating endlessly, “Stalin, I am with thee! Stalin, I am with thee!”

Arrested

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