Latvians Can't Escape Cold
War's Divisive Legacy
NY TIMES Sunday, 20 May 2001 By
RIGA, Latvia Visvaldis Aivers's father built his family's house
with his own hands. It was 1933. Purvciema Street, No. 10, was imposing for its era:
five rooms, two stories of brick encased in yellow stucco and adorned with columns. It had a vast front yard and a garden across
Mr. Aivers was 6 years old at the time. Today he is 74, and 10 Purvciema Street sits almost in the shadow of several grim
Soviet-era apartment blocks, its stucco streaked with grime. What happened to man and house in those intervening decades is a
gripping tale about how Latvians and Russians, two peoples fated to share this nation under 50 years of Soviet rule, can be so far
apart when it comes to their common legacy.
"History is very divisive in Latvia," Nils Muiznieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, said in a
recent interview. "It's not only everything related to the K.G.B. and the role of Russians in doing nasty stuff in the 40's and 50's.
It's anything related to World War II in general."
And in Latvia, most everything is related in one way or another to World War II.
More than a third of the country's 2.4 million people are Russian, many of them the offspring of the Soviet troops who took control of
Latvia in 1940, or of the tens of thousands of Soviet settlers that Stalin later ordered here to Russify the nation. Most of the
remaining two-thirds are native Latvians who often as not are descended from the fathers and grandfathers who waged guerrilla war against those same Soviet troops.
The native Latvians tend to see the Soviet troops as invaders and the Latvian resistance as freedom fighters. Russian Latvians tend
to see their military forebears as Latvia's saviors from Nazi rule and the native Latvians who resisted them as Nazi collaborators.
That is not to say that the two groups do not get along. By and large, they do. Sixty years of cohabitation have worn away the
relationship's sharp edges. A decade of independence has made them Latvians first and ethnic Latvians a distant
second. But the opposing views of history are never far from the surface.
Consider, for example, the events of May, the 56th anniversary of Germany's capitulation to the allies.
Here, in Latvia's bustling and immaculately restored capital, tens of thousands of Latvian Russians marked Victory Day by marching en masse to a military cemetery and heaping mountains of carnations on the graves of Soviet soldiers.
Native Latvians went to work as usual. They saw no cause to celebrate. "For us, in our view, when the war ended in Europe, it
didn't end in Latvia we were occupied," said Ojars Kalnins, a former Latvian ambassador to Washington who directs the
government-financed information institute. "In our view, World War
II ended in 1991 when we finally restored our independence." Today, some Russian Latvians complain of subtle discrimination:
difficulty being hired and onerous language laws. They are outraged by the government's recent prosecutions of a
former Russian soldier and security officials including Latvians as war criminals.
They see malice in Latvia's decision shortly after becoming independent to deny citizenship to outsiders who settled here after
1940 that is, after the Soviet takeover.
And they resent the fact that officials took six more years after that to draft workable rules for their naturalization. So more than
half remain legal aliens, ex-citizens of a nonexistent Soviet empire who have no vote or say in a government dominated by native Latvians.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors such issues, says Latvia's language and citizenship rules
meet European standards, but that the government could do more to ease the naturalization process for instance, lowering the $50
fee and offering Latvian language classes.
But some say it is too late. "We are ready to accept some rules, some regulations," Anna Stroiya, one of Latvia's most respected
Russian journalists and herself a naturalized Latvian, said over lunch at a cafe here. "But there is a
"Mr. Stalin did some bad things," she added. "We are still eating this kasha. But this war issue is sensitive. And it is easily
For their part, native Latvians agree that most Russians who settled here after the war were not occupiers, but ordinary Soviet
citizens who often had little say in the matter. But they see no small amount of irony in the Russians' complaints.
During those five decades under Soviet rule, Russian became Latvia's lingua franca and Russians constituted a majority in most
Latvian cities. At least 75,000 Latvians were exiled to Siberia.
Thousands more were executed. To Latvians, those Russians and other outsiders were house guests,
of a sort, in a free Latvia that never ceased to exist. And naturalization is not a slight, but a generous invitation to move
in for good.
"These 50 years have left many problems," Mr. Aivers, whose family had built the house on Purvciema Street, said with a wave of his
left hand. The other, ripped off years ago by a motor that drove mining equipment, is a gnarled stump, a discomfiting remnant of
another time that he tucks discreetly out of sight.
"But there is no reason to go around in a bitter mood," he adds. "And you have to make sure that there is no reason to be bitter in
He was nevertheless compelled to note that Latvia's Soviet administration extended no such invitation to him in 1956, when he
returned to the home for the first time in eight years. In fact, he has not lived in No. 10 since July 13, 1947 a date he knows well
because it is the day the Soviets came for him. It was not unexpected. The Soviet security police had seized his
older brother Janis in 1941 for helping to organize a political resistance to the Soviet Army, which had arrived the previous year.
Janis was taken to Stalingrad and shot, one of nearly 36,000 people exiled or killed that year in Stalin's first great attempt to crush
Mr. Aivers, a first-year architecture student at the University of
Latvia, was a member of the Democratic Defense Organization, another resistance group. He spent 13 months and three days in a
K.G.B. prison, then was sentenced to 25 years at a copper mine in
In 1949, the authorities seized the remaining residents of Purvciema Street his parents and grandmother and a distant cousin in another roundup. The government imprisoned 42,000 people in
converted cattle cars and took them by train to Siberia.
The family was let out in Amur, a hopelessly remote province on the border with China. Within three years, Mr. Aivers's grandmother
and cousin were dead.
"We were locked in barracks the whole time, except when we were let out to eat or work," he said of his exile in Kazakhstan. "It
was very hard work. The food was terrible. Many people were killed when stones fell on them, or when there were explosions."
Only Stalin's death and a review of exile cases by the Kremlin under Khrushchev ended the ordeal. In 1956, Mr. Aivers and his
parents were released and returned home to a delirious reunion.
His father returned to Purvciema Street. The house he had built was occupied by a retired Soviet military officer. The parents'
bedroom had been converted into a kitchen.
"My father asked the district party organization to let us go back to our house," Mr. Aivers said. "The district committee said that
if my father could give them an equal place to live, they could do that."
Mr. Aivers, his parents and his wife, Linarda, whom he had met in
Kazakhstan, spent the next two years in a 13-foot-by-13-foot room in a relative's house, cooking meals on a camp stove. When a
neighbor died, they moved into her two-room apartment. Eighteen
years later, they found the three-room apartment where they now live.
After the Soviet Union's collapse, independent Latvia enacted legislation allowing victims of repression to recover lost
property. Mr. Aivers was awarded his father's home in 1992, but he has yet to take possession, for he is locked in a legal battle over
its ownership. His opponent is Leonid Kotov, the son of the Soviet officer Mr.
Aivers's father confronted 45 years ago. "He still lives there today," Mr. Aivers said.
A trip to Purvciema Street confirmed that. There, behind a wire fence, in the still vast but now weedy front yard, Mr. Kotov and
his family live in a second-floor flat, with a vicious-dog sticker glued prominently to the door.
Mr. Kotov, a slim, middle-aged man, said he had little sympathy for Mr. Aivers.
"It's bad, of course," he said, lounging against a wall in the home's concrete stairwell. "But the bringing of the 1917 revolution
was also bad. Everything is in the past. My family has lived here 50 years now. What about that moral question?"
Mr. Aivers, he said, has not paid taxes on the house. His claim on the house, he said, was incorrectly filled out in 1992. He lacks
even a piece of paper to prove that his family ever owned the house, much less built it.
And of course, there is the question of fairness, too. "I privatized this house," Mr. Kotov said. "When it became mine, I
began to put money into this place. I even put a new gate in the front
yard, though it's government property.
"Now, if this goes through, I'll go from being a landowner to having nothing."