War and Awakening
THE FAMILY IN
Unlike my brother Janis, I was too young at the time of World War I, for
conscription in the Tsar’s armies. I served as courier, carrying
messages back and forth between independence fighters in the forest. Some
time after the Bolsheviks struck back with the Red Terror following Latvia’s
declaration of independence in 1918, I finally attained rifle-firing age.
I joined the Latvian army at the first opportunity—least I could
do for Father, who lay buried in a mass grave behind the Lutheran church
By 1918 my sister Anna-Otilija had married Janis Ozolins, a farmer like
Father. Her husband was a prime target of the Red Terror, having been
part of the White underground. As a last resort, he made himself a hiding
place in one of our cattle stalls, a warm, sunny space. The animals faced
each other in two rows as they fed in the troughs, which ran the length
of the building. We heaped the manure against the sides and covered the
floor with fresh straw to keep the cows dry and clean. Janis built a crawl
space behind the heaps of cow manure, where he hid for months. Bolshevik
inspectors never thought to look under the manure. When the Russians were
driven out, my brother-in-law came out of hiding and returned to his family.
I doubt Otilija knew where he was all those months, but Mother risked
her life to bring him food every day.
Osvalds, the eldest of us children, had lost an eye splitting rock with
dynamite a decade back. This disastrous loss served him well in the long
run. It allowed him to avoid conscription in the Tsar’s armies,
and Stalin’s eventual massacre of those forced into service. Osvalds
spent the war as manager of a nobleman’s estate southwest of Moscow.
He moved back to Latvia in the repatriation of 1920.
Meanwhile, my second brother Janis, even though he was not a Russian,
served in the Tsar’s armies and, later, in the newly-formed Red
Army. I think he served with bravery and distinction, but after returning
home, Janis never talked about his military life. I think he knew in his
heart that obscurity meant relative safety. What I know I heard from our
brother Osvalds. Janis was drafted into the imperial army in 1914 and
sent to officers’ training school. After a training period of only
six months he was commissioned as Praportchik, or second lieutenant, and
sent to the southern front under the command of General Alexei Brussilev.
As commander of a Red Army division, headquartered in a train, he fought
against the White forces in Ukraine (at the same time that our father
led the White resistance in our area). His unit also fought Austrian forces
over the Carpathian mountains and on to the flatlands of Hungary. Janis
was never injured and attained the rank of full colonel. He was awarded
three St. George military crosses for bravery in the service of the Tsar.
In all, he earned four medals, two silver and two gold. When his Red Army
division eventually fell to the White forces, Janis fled to the countryside.
For a while he stayed with Osvalds, who at that time was manager of a
baronial estate deep in Russian territory, the baron having fled to France.
Since his service in the imperial army could not be documented, after
independence the Latvian Defense Ministry offered him the lower rank of
first lieutenant. Janis turned down this commission.
Two years of bloody fighting finally earned us independence in August,
1920. With the Riga Peace Treaty, the Bolsheviks pledged forever to respect
Latvia’s borders and agreed to pay huge war reparations. Soviet
Russia also renounced in perpetuity all claims to Courland-Liveland and
the eastern part of Latgalia, land that had belonged to the former Russian
Empire. The latter was less Baltic than the rest. It had been separated
from the rest of the Latvian-speaking peoples for several generations
and as a consequence it had developed its own dialect. The land was cultivated
within the Russian village system, where all land belonged to the village
in common ownership. Courland-Liveland, on the other hand, was divided
into privately owned family farms.
At any rate, after six years of devastation, our country was free to rebuild
burned and looted homes, to clear fields of barbed wire, and to fill in
the trenches. The Riga Peace Treaty included a clause that any resident
of Russia who considered himself a Latvian was now free to return to his
or her newly independent country. Thousands returned, many with Russian
spouses and Russian-born children. Several Latvian military regiments
returned also, unless they had joined the Red Army. My two brothers Osvalds
and Janis took part in this return to the homeland. They found jobs in
Janis came back a married man. As a dapper officer in the imperial army,
he must have made quite an impression on the ladies. While in Russia,
he fell in love and married a wealthy Russian woman. However, history
turned against them when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. Her family’s
property was confiscated by the new regime, and she accompanied Janis
as his impoverished wife when he returned to Latvia in 1920. Not knowing
a word of the language, in a strange country, among farmers rather than
landed gentry, she became terribly unhappy. She was a tiny, delicate woman,
but one day she stalked out the front door and set out to walk back to
Russia. It was a mad idea. The border was 200 kilometers away, and even
the fifteen-kilometer (nine-mile) walk to the rail station might have
been too much for her. Even if she had managed to walk the distance and
boarded a train, she had no papers and could never have crossed the border,
which was no longer open. Janis harnessed the horses and brought back
his unhappy wife.
Knowing that his military service made him a marked man, Janis did his
best to escape attention. Initially he worked as assistant manager of
a dairy processing plant, making butter and cheese, a job far below his
intelligence and education. Fortunately for his wife, Janis did not do
menial work for long. He found a position as administrator and instructor
in economics at the local high school, a job which he did for several
years. Eventually he became manager of the large estate where the high
school held classes. The grounds were expansive and beautiful, a good
place to live. In time, Janis’ wife settled down and bore him three
But Hell did not forget his crime of serving the Tsar. It would claim
its pound of flesh nineteen years later, upon Latvia’s invasion
by the Communists in 1939. Janis, his wife, and their sons were deported
to the Gulags of Siberia. The only survivor from that family was the youngest
son, Edgars. He eventually came back to Latvia alone and settled down
in Ogre, a city on the shores of the Daugava River.
Fight for Latvia
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