War and Awakening
A BIT OF HISTORY
World War I spread wings of blood over Europe February
1914 to November 1918. In November 1917, Lenin and Trotsky led the “October”
Revolution and deposed the Petrograd Soviet, seizing the reins of the
newly formed Soviet Union. In exchange for an empty promise of non-aggression,
Russia had turned the three Baltic nations over to Germany. In the power
vacuum that followed the Armistice of November 11, Latvia hastened to
proclaim its independence. But it would take much more than a proclamation
to win freedom. The fight against Bolshevik troops, as well as German
monarchists, lasted for two years--MT.
During World War I special Latvian regiments served in the Russian Army.
By fighting on the Russian side against Germany, Latvians hoped, foolishly
it turned out, to defend their territory and to earn independence, or
at least a degree of autonomy, from Russia. But regiments were instead
sent to the southern front to fight against White forces in Ukraine, where
they were pretty much exterminated in savage battles against Ukrainians.
The few survivors, no longer in separate units, were integrated into the
Red Army. In one of the bitter ironies of war, my father Karlis and my
brother Janis fought on opposite sides of the fence.
I will add here what I remember of the history of those times. Following
the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the German army occupied the whole of
Ukraine, Southern Russia that is, and the Baltic States including Latvia.
The Imperial Army was abolished. Commanders of the new Red Army were now
elected in mass meetings of soldiers. At this time the Red Army was fighting
the White Army led by General Denikin in Ukraine.
After the exhilaration of standing up to the vastly superior power of
Russia, cold reality took over. If we wanted independence to be more than
just a word, we would have to fight, alone as it turned out. At that time,
the British played first violin in world politics. Our only significant
ally was France, and that more or less by default. French investments
in Russia had been confiscated by Lenin after his assumption of power,
and that did not endear him to the French. America made a stand on the
independence of nations, but to Woodrow Wilson this meant the Austro-Hungarian
nations, not Latvia. Only five countries—Cuba, Colombia, Persia,
Portugal and Italy—supported our bid for recognition as an independent
We didn’t have friends across the Baltic, either. Sweden in 1918
dismissed the Baltics as communist and a rightful part of the Soviet Union.
The Finns, blood brothers though they were to us, did not see much reason
to cooperate because they could rely on the Gulf of Finland for their
trade and they didn’t need to use the Baltic Sea.
Relationships with Poland were much more ambiguous. Latvia had a half-hearted
friendship with Poland. We considered the Poles arrogant and overly ambitious.
But Poland’s Marshal Pilsudskis was born in Vilnius, Lithuania,
and because of this special tie to the Baltics, he supported Latvia with
gifts of weapons. Under his rule Vilnius was annexed to Poland, turning
it into a bone of contention—really without much justification,
because Vilnius was an international city all along, its population consisting
of Lithuanians, Poles, white Russians (Ruthenians), and a large contingent
of Jews. An anti-semitic joke going around at the time suggested that
Vilnius be incorporated into Palestine.
I don’t believe the United States really cared about the independence
of the Baltics. It used us as dumping ground for tools rejected by American
farmers. It sold us, for $2 each, an exorbitant sum for the times, shovels
so bulky and heavy that they rusted in toolsheds across the country. The
Great Powers “helped” Latvia with weapons that quickly became
unusable, because no spare parts were made available. At the time of this
writing (1985), Latvia still owes restitution for this kind of non-help.
So Latvia felt abandoned, ignored and forgotten by the big players in
the world scene, even though we were now officially independent. Despite
our exuberant celebration, Latvia’s freedom would not be easily
won. With the retreat of the Cossacks, a new threat descended over Latvia
at the end of World War I, the Red Terror of 1918-1920. Tsar or no Tsar,
venom instead of blood ran in Russian veins, and anyone who tried to better
himself and who accumulated more than needed for bare survival became
an “enemy of the people.”
In order to divide and intimidate the population, Lenin’s new government
fanned the fires of hate against independent farmers and fledgling landowners
such as my father. We were automatically classified as “kulaks,”
a pejorative word. Like poison gas, Lenin’s brand of terror swiftly
penetrated every hamlet and house. His henchmen forced the local population
to attend mass rallies, and not only to show up, but to actively cheer
the new regime. In these rallies, agitators harangued against the kulaks
as bourgeoisie, exploiters, and blood suckers. They swore to liquidate
every last one of us. Some of the most vicious agitators were armed women,
called “Plintinces” in Latvian—a word impossible to
translate, something like “shotgun broads.” The few meetings
I attended made my blood run cold, because I knew how vulnerable we all
were. In order to terrorize Latvia into submission, they posted black
lists of the most influential citizens, men scheduled to be exterminated
as “enemies of the People,” Father heading the list in our
The Bolsheviks attempted to mobilize men of military age, without much
success, during this first takeover of Latvia. Rather than being caught
in the Soviet machinery of war, men of military age joined the Resistance
in the forests. They became the Green Army or Partisans. Too young to
serve, I took on the dangerous role of courier, taking messages to the
forest and back.
Still in school as the year 1918 drew to a close, I took advantage of
the confusion to steal a Russian army rifle and approximately a thousand
rounds of ammunition, “just in case.” I hid my cache in the
attic of the high school building. Perhaps it was a premonition of my
father’s arrest. When Father arrived with the sleigh to take Peteris
and me home for Christmas, I stuck rifle and ammunition among the hay,
under cover of the early winter darkness. Father never suspected the danger
in the baggage he carried during the fifty-five km (33-mile) trip, and
luckily neither did the troops we passed on the way home.
Family in War
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