The fateful summer of 1940
From a memoir published in the monthly Briviba (Freedom), 1980
Translated by Irene Kalnins
In the summer of 1940 I lived in Helsinki, Finland. I had gone there voluntarily in 1937, unwilling to live under a dictatorship and unable to get any kind of work. In Helsinki I worked for two years as a press attaché at the Embassy of the Spanish Republic, but after the end of the Spanish Civil War I was a correspondent for Lithuania’s biggest newspaper, “Lietuvos Þinios”, and during the Winter War I telephoned daily reports on the progress of the war. During my time at the Spanish Embassy I had contact with the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki. There I got to know Ambassador Derevjanski, who later became Ambassador to Latvia. In 1940 he played a major role in the first Kirchenstein government, during the months of July and August.
Observing events in Latvia from Finland
On the afternoon of July 17 I was visiting the press attaché at the Polish Embassy in Helsinki, N. Þaba (now an immigrant in Sweden). At that time I was the chair of the foreign journalist corps in Finland, and we matters pertaining to that. Þaba was called to the telephone. A few minutes later he returned to say that the Polish Embassy had just received news – the Soviet Army had just occupied Latvia, with the consent of the Ulmanis government!
In the next few weeks the situation was very unclear. Moscow’s intentions were unknown. In Finnish political circles there were differing views about Latvia’s future fate. Vein Tanner, then a member of Finland’s government, as well as K.A. Fagerholm, told me that Palin, the Finnish Ambassador in Riga, was unclear as to if and how the Latvian state would continue to exist, but without a doubt it would be a satellite of the USSR.
A few days later the radio announced the new government appointed by Ulmanis. There were seven Citizens (from the Citizens Party), three Communists, and also one right wing Social Democrat (Janis Jagars). The Minister President August Kirchensteins was a former participant in the 1905 uprising, during the independence years a Democrat, a writer at the “Jaunakas Zinas” (Latest News), head of the Veterinary Inspector’s Office of the Latvian Army. His brother Rudolf, an officer in the Soviet Army, was killed in 1938 during the Stalinist terror. The Minister of War, General Roberts Dambitis, was a member of the Farmers Union, one of the organizers of the national army in 1918, during Ulmanis’ term for four years the Assistant Chief of Staff, and a member of fraternity “Vendia”. After the incorporation of Latvia into the USSR Dambitis was appointed a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. Interior Minister Vilis Lacis was a well known writer, who during Ulmanis’ term collaborated with Alfreds Berzins and the Social Affairs Ministry he led, which produced Lacis’ film, “The Fisherman’s Son”.
The Welfare Minister Julius Lacis was one of the editors of the bourgeois newspaper “Jaunas Zinas” (Latest News). The Social Affairs Minister was Peteris Blaus, an officer in the Home Guard and the chief editor of “Jaunas Zinas”, an active participant in the 1934. putsch.
The Minister of Justice Juries Papers was a well known bourgeois politician from the province of Latgale, a parliamentary representative from the Progressive Union and twice a minister in bourgeois governments, also the Associate Judge of the Daugavpils Circuit Court, who had imposed long sentences on members of the illegal Latvian Communist Party. Paberzs was later a member of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (LSSR) Supreme Soviet. A second member of the same party, V. Latkovskis, was appointed Assistant Minister for the Interior and chief of staff. The conservative Agriculture Academy professor, P. Lejins, was appointed Minister of Education. In place of K. Berzs, dismissed after the 1934 putsch, Roberts Klavins, longtime commander of the Democratic 4th Infantry Battalion of Valmiera, was appointed as commander of the army. He had been dismissed from service after the Ulmanis putsch. Klavins was well known. I served under him as a reserve officer.
There were no communists at all in the makeup of the first government. On June 20th K. Ulmanis appointed the Kirchenstein government, but the communist Ministers J. Vanags, K. Karlsons and A Tabaks only on July 2,3,and 4, so approximately two weeks later. Bet they too were insignificant persons, insignificant also to the Latvian Communist Party (LCP). In addition, Tabaks and Karlsons had joined the communists only during Ulmanis’ term. Tabaks was a member of the student fraternity “Zemgalia”.
K. Ulmanis remained in office and collaborated with A. Vishinski, who together with Ambassador Derevjanski put together the Kirchenstein government. Ulmanis appointed the new government, opened its first session, gave a speech on June 17, emphasizing: ”I want the people of our country to look on the army units that have come in with friendship”, and he finished the speech with the words:”I am remaining in my place, you remain in yours”. During the next two weeks, while I was still in Helsinki, Riga radio reported Ulmanis’ orders, with which a number of high officials and officers were fired; the Home Guard was disbanded, and other major changes. Ulmanis rescinded a whole lot of laws that he himself had earlier ordered. There was no doubt, that in those circumstances Ulmanis felt it necessary to collaborate with the Russian occupation, hoping to stay in office in the future.
Latvia’s ambassadors abroad also recognized the new government and followed the orders of the Kirchensteins government (he was also Minister of the Exterior). Zarins, Krievins, Feldmanis, Salnais, Dumanis, Tepfers and others in June and July represented the Kirchenstein government and recognized it as legitimate. Up until the point that the decision was made to annex Latvia to the Soviet Union, which happened on July 21, not a single ambassador protested. Ambassador A. Bilmanis in a press release on June 25 (No.6), which was sent to the US press and politicians, presented glowing biographies of the new ministers, ending his overview with this evaluation of the Kirchenstein government:
“We must clarify the doubts emerging in the foreign press, that the new government is friendly toward the Soviet Union, but it is not communistic in any sense of the word, and none of the ministers is a communist.”
The old general staff of the army, prior to its removal, also seconded Ulmanis’ optimistic assessment of collaboration. On June 17 the Army Commander General K. Berkis and Chief of Staff General H. Rozensteins sent an order to all commanders, emphasizing among else:” At present there is no reason to exaggerate the nature of events and to lose confidence. ..In any case in the pact (1939 pact between Latvia and USSR “mutual assistance” pact) the strong principle of noninterference in our internal politics remains in force.” This old leadership had also, on the night from June 16th to 17th, delegated Colonel O. Udentins to sign an agreement regarding the placement of Soviet Army Units in Latvia, that is, the military occupation of Latvia. This agreement was ratified on June 18th by Ulmanis’ government; after creating a special communication unit attached to the army commander, General M. Hartmanis, who was close to the Farmers’ Party, was appointed chief of this unit.
My return to Latvia
In this confused situation, when Ulmanis and those who surrounded him seemed to maintain hopes for the continuation of Latvia’s independence, I stayed on in Helsinki for the next 17 days. Nobody invited me to return home, I had to make my own decision. A few days after the appointment of the Kirchenstein government I called my father in Riga, who was the Chair of Saema, Dr. Paul Kalnins, and asked about the political situation. He said that Ulmanis’ circle was collaborating with the Russians and hoping that Latvia would remain independent in the future. The view in the bourgeois circles was that in the future Latvia would have the “status of Outer Mongolia”. Democracy was not being renewed, parties were banned, including the LCP, which still had few adherents. The social democrats were taking a wait and see attitude, because nobody knew what would happen next. The illegal left wing “Latvian Socialist Workers & Farmers Party” (LSWFP) in which a few left leaning social democrats and young people were active, was disbanded, but few of them joined the LCP. Other parties were surprised by the Russian collaboration with Ulmanis and by the fact that they kept him in office, while the press and meetings were attacking his regime. They were no longer calling it a dictatorship, but a kind of “plutocratic regime”. In this unclear situation, the fear of Nazi Germany also influenced the stance of Latvians. Many recommended, that “its better to be under Russia”. In fact, according to my father, everything was being run by A. Vishinsky and Ambassador Derevjanski, whom I knew. When I asked what I should do, my father recommended returning to Latvia “You’ll find some sort of work, you’ll be able to live somehow, you have been away long enough as an emigrant”.
After this conversation with my wife Maiga, who always gave her advice on my political decisions, we decided to return home. I too hoped for the continuation of Latvia’s independence, even if it was limited. There was also the purely personal desire to return home after three years abroad. In addition, after the Winter War life in Finland was becoming harder, and my friends, Finnish social democratic politicians, advised me to return home.During the first three days I tried to meet with democratic politicians and get to know their views. J. V., former secretary of the consortium of independent unions during democratic rule told me that he had tried to resurrect unions, but the leadership was being taken over by communists and he did not foresee anything good. Several former social democratic representatives gathered in the apartment of former Minister of Finance V. Bastjanis; they thought that in the new circumstances we were faced with a fait accompli, and should do our best to protect Latvia’s interests. They said that Ulmanis hoped that Latvia as a state would continue to exist. Given the situation, the only option seemed to be cooperation with the Russians.
On July 3 I traveled through Tallinn to Riga. Finnish friends, including the editor of the main social democratic newspaper, E. Kilpi, and parliamentary representative K. Sundstrom, accompanied me to the passenger port. In Tallin I met with the social democratic parliamentary representative Andrezen (later deported, now back in Tallinn), who informed me about changes in Estonia and was of the opinion that both Estonia and Latvia would remain independent states. Still, he had no definite grounds on which to base this assessment.
On July 4 I arrived in Latvia. Meeting me in Valka was my friend from sporting days, A . Udris. On the train he told me about the situation, but could say nothing definite about the future. At the Riga station I was met only by the chair of the former independent labor unions Andrejs Veckalns and a few SSS (Social Democrat Union) workers. I got the impression that it was not especially advisable to be linked to me in the new situation. About my return “Jaunas Zinas” had only a few lines.
Along with my family I settled next door to my father’s summer home in the Forest Park, on Yachtclub Street, where V. Olav’s widow who was moving to the country gave her apartment.
First days in Riga
My father took me to a meeting of Latvian parties, which was preparing a joint slate of candidates from democratic circles for the Saema elections, which had been announced for June 14 and 15. It took place in the apartment of an attorney on Marija’s street. There were about 20 well-known politicians from the bourgeois parties, with former ministers A. Kenins, P. Berkis, V. Zamuels. There was nobody at the meeting from the putch of May 15.
A.Vishinsky had promised A. Kenins that the elections would be free and non-communist slates would participate in them too. The bourgeois politicians believed it, and readied themselves for elections in all seriousness. Besides the names already mentioned, among the candidates was also K. Skalbe, Gen. J. Balodis, and former Minister President H. Celmins. The platform of the bourgeois block declared a desire for close and continuing cooperation with the Soviet Union, but at the same time emphasized the preservation of “free, independent, democratic Latvia”.
My contacts in the leadership of the Latvian Army
On the second day after my return I was visited already by the new army commander, General R. Klavins, who told me that he and the new Chief of Staff Gen. Jeske had suggested, that I should be appointed as the political leader of the army, but the LCP Central Committee opposed this. I asked if the senior officers of the army had grown friendlier, formerly they were conservative and not positively disposed toward me. Klavins answered, that the situation was drastically different now, and the generals though that I would be the best candidate for the new position, they were pinning high hopes on me. After all, for 15 years I was on the Saema Armed Forces committee, and knew our army.
However, Klavins thought that his proposal would be unsuccessful because of LCP opposition. The general also told me that the army leadership was convinced of Latvia’s continued existence: Vishinsky had promised that to Kirchensteins, and Klavins had heard it personally the commander of the Russian Army, Lt. Gen. Kuznecovs. He thought that Moscow was well aware of the value of Baltic and especially Latvian armies, they had not forgotten the contributions of Latvian divisions in the Civil War, and it would be senseless on their part to eliminate this army. Moscow had to reckon with a possible war against Nazi Germany. Therefore the officers were prepared for the continuing existence of our army and wanted to remain in the service in the new circumstances. In this atmosphere of uncertainty and contradictions, but also hopes and illusions, I spent the first three days after returning home at the beginning of July.On one of the first three days after my return to Latvia a meeting had taken place of leading politicians. My father Dr. Pauls Kalnins had approached them to learn their thoughts about my appointment as the political directior of the Latvian Army. Adolfs Blodnieks, the Minister President of the last legitimate democratic government, whom I knew since 1919 after 15 years of working together on the Constitutional Assembly and during all four Saema’s, came to see me. He announced that the group had unanimously expressed an opinion that I should take on the difficult task of political leadership for the sake of the nacional army. They hoped that I would be successful to keep our army from “being scattered all over Russia”, as he wrote in a notarized explanation on October 7, 1949. Blodnieks announced also that Gen. Janis Balodis, former Commander in Chief during the war for independence, held the same views. He had also discussed it with several generals who wanted to see me in the position of political director, and held great hopes for me. I knew Balodis well since the 1919 war of liberation, when I served in his brigade and formed two units of volunteers. During the years of independence, 1922-1934, I worked with him on the Saema Armed Forces committee, whose chair Balodis was.
My appointment to the post of the army’s political director
Then suddenly came a telephone invitation from Ambassador Derevjanski to come see him at the Soviet Embassy. There I was met by the ambassador, his aide, secretary and a few more staffers. Derevjanski received me in a friendly way, he recalled our meeting a few years ago in Helsinki and asked about mutual acquaintances in Helsinki. Then he said that he would like me to accept a responsible post in the new administration, especially the political director post for the army. He said he would soon return to this topic.
On my way back along Freedom Boulevard I met the Estonian Ambassador in Moscow, August Reij. He was the chair of the Estonian social democratic party, and I had met with him over long years of congresses and visits in Tallinn. Reij told me he had just flown in from Moscow and was flying on to Stockholm. He was very optimistic and said that the new regime would not last long in the Baltic States, “ these guys are caliphs for an hour only”. He hoped for intervention from other countries, and it seems also for war.
On July 8 I had a call from the Ministry of War and was invited to come immediately to see Minister of War Gen. R. Dambitis in his apartment. They had looked for me earlier, but I wasn’t home. So I arrived in the evening to see Dambitis, whom I knew since November of 1918, when he was one of the founders of the Latvian Army. Dambitis announced that this day he had appointed me acting political director of the army, and I must take office without delay! So I was faced with a fait accompli, and there was no backing out.
Thus began my service in the Latvian Army, which lasted from July 9 until September 20. The next morning I arrived at the staff headquarters and presented myself to the commander, Gen. R. Klavins and the new chief of staff, Gen M. Jeske. With them I would work daily in the coming critical weeks, and with good harmony.
Klavins was a person with a broad view, with definitely democratic leaning, who for 8 years had commanded the 4th Valmiera Infantry, which was loyal to the democratic constitution; I was a reserve officer in that unit. After Ulmanis’ putsch he was removed from the army. As a pensioner he studied jurisprudence at the university, and earned a Juris Doctor degree. Klavings was a patriotic officer who always looked out for the interests of the army and in no sense was a tool of the Russians.
Gen. M. Jeske had fought in the French Army in World War I, and during the years of independence had graduated from the French military academy. He also was known for his strongly democratic views.
I reported to both the army commander and the Minister of War. I had many meetings with Minister of War R. Dambitis. He was different than the previously described generals. Dambitis was an opportunist and very interested in material goods. In the first months of the summer of 1940 he showed much greater submissiveness to the occupants than Klavins and Jeske. Politically he was right wing and belonged to the Farmers Party. With Ulmanis’ help his career had flourished during independence, and helped him survive several unpleasant financial scandal.
Lt. Colonel R. Osis, aide to Gen. Berzs, remained as Dambitis’ aide; Osis was later the organizer of the police battalions during the German occupation (died in England). Klavins appointed as his adjutant the former Lt. Col. Of the Valmiera battalion, Gredzens (communist partisans shot him in Vidzeme in 1942).
When I arrived at Gen. Klavins headquarters on the morning of July 9, we discussed the appointment of political officers and their role in the army. First the general recommended keeping in the service and appointing as my aide A. Kontrovskis, in charge of the training department during the Ulmanis regime. He was one of the “Valmieras battalion” people, and I agreed. I had no difficulty in working with him. Klavins also expressed his wish that the appointees be men who knew the army, preferably instructors and officers, as much as possible avoiding foreigners. “You had a lot of good men in the Worker Sports Association”, said the general. Otherwise he had no recommendations. Klavins also expressed worry that the LCP would be trying to force their candidates on the army. “Try as much as possible to appoint as few communists as possible, we are counting on you,” that is approximately how our conversation and agreement on future work went. The Minister of War Gen. R. Dambitis expressed little interest about political officers.
The legal basis for my activity was the Kirchenstein regime’s law on July 4, with amendments on July 12, and the Minister of War’s instructions on July 5 about political officers in the army.
All the political officers were considered on active duty and enjoyed the rights of active duty officers. In my role I had disciplinary rights, and as part of army governance a Culture and Propaganda Board was established, including two aides to the army’s political director and 6 political officers.
The political officers were intended to be only at army headquarters, at the division and brigade level, at specific institutions. They were not appointed to smaller units, battalions and platoons. All political officers were under the commanders of the army units, and also under their superior political officers.
As the political director of the army, I reported to the Minister of War and the army commander. All political officers were appointed and removed by the army commander on my recommendation, and appointments came as orders of the commander. We had no disagreements in this sphere. All together 76 political officers were appointed. Compared with 2000 officers, their numbers were small. Most of them were former members of “Labor Sport and Guard” workers, whom I knew personally and could trust. There were no communists among them, although there were several active Latvian Social Democratic Party workers.
The LCP was very ineffectual during the first two weeks when it came to army affairs, and did not give me any candidates for the political officer positions. Their explanation was the lack of appropriate candidates, because in June and July the party consisted of only a few hundred members. Only in the middle of July the secretary of the LCP Central Committee Spure sent me a list with names and demanded their appointment as political officers. I did that, but sent them to the provinces.
Completely untrue is Zagars’ assertion in his book “Socialistic transition in Latvia, 1940-1942” (Riga, 1975), that the LCP and labor unions sent the army “a whole lot of active communists”. This untruth is repeated by LME (III: 61). Of the 6 communists, whom the LCP secretary recommended appointing as political officers, one (I don’t recall the name) turned out to be a provocateur, who was a spy for political unit of the party, and was later arrested. He and other agents of the illegal communist party were discovered by the Ulmanis’ regime security forces and the Director of the Security Department, Fridrichsons. Among the communists sent me I recall the current editor for foreign affairs for “Cina”, M. Vulfson (Wolf), the others were insignificant persons.
As my other aide I appointed one of the Arturs Zirnitis (died during the war), assistant officer in the military police. Reserve Ltn. Pauls Lejins (deported in June, 1941), former Saema representative and former member of the War Department, active social democrat, became the political officer of the Vidzeme Division and the Riga unit. A number of other political officers were members of the Latvian Social Democrat Party, for instance, P. Grundulis, K. Kurmis, P. Grigans, K. Zamariters etc. Reserve Ltn. Janis Bauskis (now in Upsala, Sweden) was appointed the political officer of the Valmiera Division. The editorial staff of “Latvian Soldier” remained unchanged, with former Valmiera division officer Captain Rudzis (now in the US) as the chief editor.
The duties of the political officers were determined by government edict. They included familiarizing soldiers with the government’s laws, instructing them in “the spirit of the democratic transition”, strengthening military discipline and organizing a military press. Soldiers’ committees, which were begun in some divisions in the first weeks, were subordinate to the political officers and later had little significance.
Relationship with the Russian Army leadership
On the second day after my appointment, Soviet Military Attaché Col. Zavjalov came tu see me, and invited me to visit the commander of the army of occupation, General Ltn. Fjodor Kuznecov.
His headquarters were in the former 4th High School, but soon moved to the Riga People’s Palace. As it turned out, waiting for me was not only the commander, but also the chief of headquarters General Major Aleksejev, and a member of the War Council, who was the highest political officer in the Soviet Army (I don’t recall the name). The first thing Kuznecov said to me was “Why aren’t you in uniform?” Then the political discussions began, and after every few sentences he turned to his political officer, asking officially,”War Council member, is it right what I am saying?” It turned out that I was in a meeting of the occupation army’s War Council, and there in the presence of all the members the commanded announced to me the views and demands of the Red Army.
He had no specific demands, but emphasized, that I was responsible for events in the army, I had to look after discipline and order, and cooperation with the Russian Army leadership. With that the meeting ended. Still, I got the impression that this was a transitional period, after which would come harsher conditions, of which the Russians in charge at present said nothing.
A few days later a Russian colonel Bartasun was announced to me, and turned out to be a border patrol officer from the Russian-Latvian border, Lithuanian by nationality, who had fought in the Latvian Rifles in World War I. He was attached from the occupation army to “maintain communication”. Later it turned out that he had been sent to watch us. He did not interfere in our work.
Untrue is the assersion of Zagars, that “great assistance to the Latvian Army political officers was given by the Red Army senior political officer Janis Avotins”. Actually Avotins arrived from Russia only at the end of July and presented himself as a journalist, who might “help” with the military press. I passed him on to the editor of “Latvian Soldier” Captain Rudzis, and knew no more about his “great help”.
I must mention that at that time the Russians’ behavior was determined, of course, by A. Vishinsky, with who I met several times. I recall, a week prior to Saema elections, the Russians had a big reception, where artists from Moscow entertained. A full complement of our army leadership was present too. Vishinsky made a speech, in which he clearly declared:”We don’t need your land, we have plenty of land. Do not fear, that Latvia will annexed by the Soviet Union. Those are only rumors, they will not happen”. Such a categorical announcement from the Vice Chairman of USSR government left an impression and the generals later said, that the future did not seem lost. They all tried to believe Vishinsky.
Kirchensteins and Ulmanis in July
Kirchensteins had similar hopes, when I visited him to present myself, as he had wished. He received me in the Ministry of Exterior offices, because he also fulfilled the functions of Minister of the Exterior. The first thing he said was that “people who have lived abroad for a while are the most successful”, therefore I would be too. Further he emphasized, that there was no need to worry about the continuing independence of Latvia. Vishinsky had declared that to him in the name of Stalin. At the beginning of July Kirchensteins voiced this viewpoint in various press releases and elsewhere. I had the impression that he believed this. In any case he had not been informed about Moscow’s future plans. That was confirmed for me by his personal friend from emigration times in Switzerland, an old social democrat Varkals, who was in charge of the courier service in the Ministry of the Exterior. Kirchensteins used to talk with him completely openly.
I did not get to meet with Ulmanis personally. Gen. Klavins according to law reported appointments and removals in the army to him. At the beginning of July he told me that surprising as it seemed, Ulmanis still seemed to think he was in charge. He continually made it clear to one and all that the Russians recognized him as President, and it would continue that way in the future. Another time he told me, that Ulmanis had contributed 5000 Ls to “Red Aid”. Klavins said – “ He should not have done that, it won’t strengthen his position”.
Klavins related another surprising thing. When on July 20th amnesty was declared for political prisoners, Ulmanis asked Vishinsky, did he want them to to also free the “Swastika fashists”? Vishinsky denied that, and thanked Ulmanis for calling attention to this. Later Vishinsky spoke very favorably about Ulmanis, and referred to him as “gosudarstvenij muzh”, a real statesman. In connection with Ulmanis intervention then the swastika group, among them Prof. Ernests Plakis (son of Prof. Plakis), Fricis Kronbergs and others were held in the rock quarries in Kalnciems and later after annexation sent to Russia, where they died.
Changes in the Latvian Army
What happened in the Latvian Army during my time up to the beginning of August, when the dissolution of the army began? There were no radical changes in the structure of the Latvian Army. Overall, everything stayed the same. The work of the political officers actually was dealing with minor demands and complaints of soldiers, setting disputes without difficulty in direct conversation with the unit commanders.
There were also no changes in the officer corps. Participants of the 1934 putsch and some military court judges who had led political trials during the Ulmanis regime, were relieved of duty and removed from the service. The same thing happened with chaplains, because religious observances were no longer held. All together 55 officers were relieved, and at that time there was no persecution against them, and a good many were active again during the German occupation, but a number ended up abroad after the war (for instance, Lavenieks, Colonels Malcenieks, Pripens, etc).
Officers who did not want to remain could request to be relieved from service. Few wanted to do that, they all wanted to stay in the army. That was wrong, because it was precisely in the army that they had to await the future, the repressions, when their background was examined.
In July and August no officers were arrested, and not a single case was brought by the military court. However, in some cases the arrests were carried out by the Russian security organizations (Colonel Lejins, Captain Vidins). That happened without the knowledge of the army commander, and so we both with Gen. Klavins went to the Soviet Embassy and protested, but unfortunately with no result.
The attitude among the officer corps was passivity. No protests or resistance took place. The higher ranking officers adapted to the circumstances and hoped to remain in the service. They had served in the Russian Army formerly, and assumed it would be the same. There were others, who showed unexpected and excessive submissiveness.
The attitude was different among the younger officers and some instructors. They had grown up in independent Latvia and prepared for an eventual defense against a Soviet attack. They were dissatisfied with the surrender of Ulmanis’ government and did not hide their dissatisfaction with the new circumstances. Still no confrontations occurred and the political officer reports always repeated the same pharases: “Nothing to report”, or “the spirits of the troops good”.
The return of several officers was encouraged, those who during Ulmanis’ dictatorship had been removed from the army as unreliable. The former commander Gen. M. Penikis, Chair of the military court colonel Birkensteins, Ltn. Colones Lielbiksis, army staff Ltn. Colones Milevskis and other were among them.
This period ended abrupty when the “People’s Saema”, elected in illegitimate elections on July 21, voted to annex Latvia to the Soviet Union. Vishinsky dropped his mask and revealed the true aims of the Soviets, carefully hidden until that moment.
Even before the convening of the illegitimately elected “Saema) Ulmanis had changed his earlier optimism and dropped his mistaken illusions about the possibility of a “communist-bourgeois” state. That happened after the candidate list of the bourgeois parties was not allowed, and the organized or the list was arrested. Now Ulmanis understood that the Russians would not keep him as President, but he began in all seriousness to have new illusions. He imagined that the Russians would let him leave for Switzerland. Dambitis and Klavins told me, that Ulmanis had made this request to Vishinsky and Kirchensteins, and the latter notified the government. The Russians and the Kirchenstein government agreed to Ulmanis departing to Switzerland. Derevjanski ordered a passport to be prepared for him, and gave him foreign currency in the amount of 3000 Ls. His departure was set on the opening day of the new Saema, when he would lay down his mandate.
It was hard to imagine, that the cautious and experienced Ulmanis could believe such promises, but he did! However, Ulmanis on July 21 gave up to A. Kirchensteins the office of President, but they did not let him go to Switzerland, and took him by train to exile in Voroshilovsk. Ulmanis had let himself be hoodwinked.
A few days after Ulmanis deportation I had a conversation with Kirchensteins about the reasons. I sat next to Kirchensteins at the graduation of the 14th and last class from the War College, where 106 cadets were promoted to lieutenants. He asked me among other things, did I know, why Ulmanis was not allowed to go to Switzerland? When I said I did not, he told me how it all happened. The acting director of the chancellery R. Bulsons had showed the government previously unknown minutes from a meeting of the Cabinet on May 17, 1940. There was an order for extraordinary mandate for Ambassador Zarins, signed by Ulmanis. This mandate was aimed against the current regime, and therefore it was no longer possible to release Ulmanis. I personally do not think that this decided Ulmanis fate, the Russians were not so naïve as to leave him at liberty, and they did not leave at liberty Estonian President Pets either, although he had given no extraordinary mandate.
Speaking of this conversation at the War College graduation, I want to mention a memoir of one of the participants, former cadet V. Jaunkalnietis, today printed in DVM (Nr. 1-2). Among other things he writes about the political officers: “They did not talk much about politics, but invited us to have sports contests, which we had always had. They did initiate the “wall newspaper” and found it an editor, Cadet Indans, but it was kept pretty moderate.”
When Ulmanis left Latvia, the senior officers privately expressed their dissatisfaction with his actions. He had judged the situation and Latvia’s chances of remaining independent wrongly, and inexplicably forced the officers and officials to remain in their places and not leave Latvia. The passports have been rescinded and foreign travel forbidden. Because of that, they felt that many people would now suffer, and a few months later that came about.
Of course, there was a larger number of Ulmanis’ inner circle who turned and sought to save their own skins, betraying other Ulmanis administration people. Besides the already mentioned Fridrichsons, who betrayed secret agents to the LCP (among them Communist Youth Central Committee member Kurlis and others); I must also mention Riga circuit court prosecutor A. Karcevskis, who prosecuted all political cases during Ulmanis regime, but not offered the Kirchensteins government to prosecute Ulmanis himself! In the Ministry of War intelligence section one of the leaders and liason with western intelligence services was Fridrichs Linde. One day he vanished, and appeared again in the fall of 1940. He had contacted Soviet Army intelligence and been taken to Moscow, where he spilled all his secret information and then was hired on with Soviet intelligence. He returned to Riga in a fancy personal auto, and when friends asked how he was, explained – “better than ever”. He said he was working in his old profession and earning big money.
The visit of the Swedish military attaché
Around this time in the middle of July I was visited by Ltn. Colonel Karl Almgren, military attaché to army headquarters. Our conversation was in Swedish, because I knew this language since high school days in Helsinki during World War I. Almgren was critical of the one-party elections and asked me, what would happen next?
I explained the real situation and worries that the new “Saema” would vote to annex Latvia to the Soviet Union. I said, that the army commander and I were trying to save the army, but that in fact we were under Russian power and could do less and less. I asked Almgren to inform Swedish Minister President Per Albin Hanson and Social Minister Gustav Meller, whom I knew personally, about our hopeless situation. Almgren promised to do it without delay. After the war I found out that he had done it. In later years Almgren had a notable career in the Swedish Army and in the 70’s was the army commander. Now he is retired.
Change at the headquarters of the occupation army
A few days after the convening of the “Saema” on July 21, in which “Soviet power” was proclaimed in Latvia as well as its joining the Soviet Union, there was a sudden change in the headquarters of the occupation forces. The commander, Ltn. Gen. F, Kuznecovs, his chiev of staff Maj. Gen. Aleksejevs, the entire war council and staff left Riga in great haste and secrecy. The Latvian Army, which still remained as a separate formation in its old configuration, did not receive any explanations, and Gen. Klavins said that nobody had even said goodbye to him.
In place of the recalled staff new Russian generals soon arrived. Now it was revealed that after annexation the army of occupation was to become the Soviet Union’s separate Baltic Military District, which would include Russian armed forces in all 3 Baltic States. Soon Klavins received notice, that the commander appointed for the new military district was Lt. Col. Aleksandr Dmitrijevich Loktionov.
He had been a noncommissioned officer in the Czar’s army, participated in the Civil War as a Red Army battalion, division and brigade commander and commissar, but after the was he was a division and corps commander. After the arrest of Alksnis in 1937, Loktionov was appointed in his place as commander of all air forces. From this post, at age 48, he was sent to Riga in the fall of 1940 and appointed as commander of the military district.
Loktionov also was to rule about the future status of the Latvian Army, a matter of which the army leadership was completely in the dark. All through August the Latvian Army continued unchanged in its previous formation. The changes then came gradually, and in fact over September and October. A struggle took place over the fate of the Latvian Army, in which the commander and I tried for the last time to save what we could.
The next time period included the last days of July, August, and September. During this time the Latvian Army still remained in its old formation and was led by officers who had been appointed to their commands during independence. However, the army’s gradual liquidation was already taking place, side by side with changes in the state’s operations. The illegitimate annexation of Latvia into the Soviet Union was in fact concluded only in the beginning of October 1940.
The army experienced great uncertainty about the future. Various stories abounded, which for the most part turned out to be untrue. It seems that even in Moscow the final decisions had not been made yet, and various proposals existed as to what to do with the armies of the three Baltic States. Still, it was foolish to think, as some of our generals at that time did, that prolonged discussions about this question took place in Moscow. With Stalin’s total dictatorial power at that time, such questions could be decided only by Stalin himself.
Even right after the act of annexation on July 21st, the leadership of the LCP tried to get me out of the post of Chief Political Officer. From the Communist ranks came word that Spure in the name of the Central Committee asked Vishinsky to finally get me out of the post of Chief Political Officer, inasmuch as I was a Social Democrat who had fought the Communists for years. In connection with this I was called to the Soviet Embassy. Vishinsky and Derevjanski awaited me. They informed me of the LCP CK demand, at the same time explaining that this question was “settled”. They had refused the party’s demands. That might cause unnecessary unrest in the army. However, Vishinsky stressed that now after annexation the role of the LCP in internal affairs would continue to grow. He smiled, and said something like:”In the usual Soviet practice, you (as holder of that post) should be not only a party member, but at least a central committee member”. That seemed to be an indication that the demands of the LCP had a basis.
After this conversation, CK Secretary Spure called me and explained, that they no longer demanded my removal, because all the blame for the faults of Social Democrats could not be laid on one man. After what had taken place, I knew my days were numbered, and I could stay in my post only until the liquidation of the army. That did not sadden me, for the political game was lost, and I had never had a thought about entering the Red Army service.
Gen. Klavins thought otherwise, He was very concerned about my situation. He thought that we were facing an important duty. Both of us had to try to save the Latvian Army from being scattered all over Russia.
He thought that the Latvian political officers and I would be removed. Loktionov had told him about this plan. The Latvian Army was to be moved from Latvia to the Turkestan Military District in the steppes of Asia. It would be dangerous to keep a politically unreliable army in a border district, according to Loktionov.
We decided to bet everything on one last card, and appeal to Stalin himself. Klavins got in touch with Gen. Dambitis (the Minister of War). The latter had his secretary Col. Kaneps without delay go to historian Professor Arveds Svabe and ask him to write an appeal to Stalin, arguing mainly historical facts. He was to stress the Latvian Riflemen and their role in the Russian Civil War in 1918-20. Klavins thought, that Russia’a dictator would not have forgotten the Riflemen. That might influence him in the critical 1940 events of Word War II to not destroy such a valuable military unit, as at that time our army undoubtedly was.
The documents were written without delay. Klavins planned to give it to Vishinsky as he was leaving for Moscow. The final document was ready only a few hours before Vishinsky’s train was to leave. I don’t recall the date for sure, but it was a few days after the so-called “People’s Saema” , which concluded on July 23.
After Vishinsky left, we remained uncertain as to what Stalin’s reaction would be. An ominous sign was the position of Loktionov, who par in favor of sending our army to Turkestan. In the army headquarters the usual routine went on. On July 30th a 20-person delegation from the “Saema” left for Moscow, Gen. Dambitis among them.
We hoped for some clarification on the delegation’s return. However, on August 13 when the delegation returned, even Gen. Dambitis was unable to give us any definite answer about the future fate of the Latvian Army.
The army’s fate finally was settled only in mid- August. Loktionov notified Klavins, that the Latvian Army would not be sent to Turkestan, bet it would be transferred into the Baltic Military District, renaming it the 24th. Territorial Latvian Riflemen Corps. The corps was made up of the 181st and 183rd divisions, as well as several technical units. A few days later, on August 24 – 26 th, the Council of Ministers was renamed the People’s Council of Commissars (PCC) with V. Lacis as chair, but the President was replaced by a Supreme Council Presidium with Kirchensteins as head. The “Saema” was renamed after the Russian fashion the Supreme Council. The PCC hastily legalized the liquidation of the Latvian Army, deciding to make it the Red Army 24th Corps.
With that, Klavins and I had succeeded in stopping the sending of out army to Turkestan. That was an important achievement! The corps remained in Latvia’s territory, and at the start of the Russian-German war in 1941 it fell apart. Most of the soldiers deserted, and the majority were able to return to their homes. What had influenced Stalin to accept our appeal and refuse the option presented by the Soviet Army Staff, that we still have no way of knowing. In any case, we achieved our goal. Klavins was very satisfied, and said: ”Kalnins, we saved the army after all!” Satisfaction reigned in the army too, especially among officers.
I had a chance to personally see that on a visit to the 3rd Jelgava Infantry, stationed in Jelgava, and announce that the army was not going to Turkestan and was staying in Latvia. The news was also published in “Latvian Soldier”.
The Turkestan project was known to many army officers. It was also discussed in the intellectual circles. Turkestan was a global term for the Russian Central Asia – five republics of Turkish peoples (Kazachstan, Khirgiziya, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, and Turkmenistan). Many Latvian’s were deported to Turkestan during Stalin’s rule. If the Latvian Army were moved to such a far and foreign place, it would be completely isolated from Latvia. In the Soviet Army leaves are rare, and letters are censured. In Latvia there would be practically no news of what was happening to our soldiers in Turkestan. It can be assumed that the army would be divided into small units and scattered all over the wastes of Turkestan. Arrests could be carried out in secret – nothing would be known of them in Latvia. The matter revolved around preserving our vital force. Everything possible had to be done, to save our more than 20,000 soldiers.
The final act
Four weeks were left before the transformation of the Latvian Army into a corps. It was not until September 20th that Minister of War Dambitis, with Order #21, ended the political officer institution and with October 1st removed from active duty the all the Latvian political officers. Paul Lejins (former independence era Saema representative) were ordered to report to the Ministry of War Sekretatiat “until further notice”, until we found another post. On October 18th of 1940 Dambitis removed the two of us. With Oder #1739 it was communicated to the chief political officer of the Baltic Military District, Damanin. On October 9 the post of army commandy was ended. For a few more months the commission to liquidate the army continued to work, under Dambitis. Mainly it dealt with logistical details. The formal transition into a Red Army Corps was concluded only on February 23 of 1941, when all the formalities were complete and the soldiers gave the loyalty oath to the Red Army.
It is characteristic that the liquidation began with the replacement of Latvian political officers. They were all replaced with Russians. They came from various parts of the Soviet Red Army and they did not know Latvian. Now political officers were appointed even to the smaller units. The assertion of E. Zagars in LME, that “some of the political officers became political officers in the Red Army”, is untrue. They were all removed, including the few Latvian communists. Not a single Latvian was retained in the Red Army. The leadership of the occupation feared that the incorporation of the Latvian Army into the Red Army could cause some resistance, and therefore they did not trust the Latvian political officers. The one exception is the current foreign correspondent for “Cina”, M. Vulfson (Wolf), bet he was not really Latvian, and he was kept on the “Latvian Soldier” (already renamed “The Red Soldier”) editorial staff.
There followed the dismissal of 730 officers. That was done by the Baltic Military District staff according to their own views. Some were dismissed because in the Red Army corps there were no equivalent ranks (for example, Court Martial Board, several technical boards); probably the Russians had political objections against the rest. No recommendations were asked for, from either the Latvian Army commander or myself. We heard about the changes only after the fact.
When I went to the Citadel to say farewell to Gen. Klavins, he explained that he had been appointed as corps commander with the Russian rank of Lt. General. For his chief of staff they had appointed Col. Udentins, who was also promoted to Major General. With irony he pointed out that the officers known for their democratic views, whom Ulmanis removed after the 1934 putsch, were not moved to the Red Army. However, the Farmers’ Party adherents and the adherents of A. Berg’s conservative party were assigned to the Red Army, and none of them refused. That was done, however, by the democratically oriented Gen. M. Jeske. “So you see, my chief of staff will be the former conservative Udentins, and in charge of the auto pool and tanks will be the Nacional Club member, Gen. Grosbart,” exclaimed Klavins. We parted with warmth. The general clasped my hand and said darkly: ”You were my support in hard times, from whom I could always get political advice. Now comes Russian Commissar Smirnov, whom I do not trust at all.”. The general added some words about the fateful summer months. He thought that we had done what we could to preserve our army. Nobody could say that we had not done our duty; that was his view.
So ended my work in the Latvian Army in 1940. Today in the diaspora, looking at my work during this critical period, sharp criticism is often expressed. However, those judging look at things from today’s circumstances, which differed greatly from the actual situation in 1940. When the two forces hostile to us came to an understanding, and Hitler betrayed Latvia to the Soviet Union, we were faced with a fait accompli. Ulmanis had agreed to the occupation of Latvia, in the false hope in the continuing of Latvian independence. The majority of the Latvian people thought that an occupation by Hitler would be a much greater evil than a Soviet occupation. In some cases our politicians and parties found it justified cooperating with the new regime, in order to do all that was possible for Latvia. That was also the view of the Latvian Army leadership, which asked me to become the Chief Political Officer. Undeniably I was able to achieve some results, saving our army from being sent abroad. None of those who have attached me in the émigré press after the war can name a single Latvian politician, who at that time would have recommended withholding any cooperation with the Soviet Union. Latvia’s ambassadors abroad up to July 21st recognized the Kirchenstein government as legitimate. Their protests (and not all of them protested) came only after July 21st, when Latvia was annexed to the Soviet Union.
Blaming me personally now for what, in June and July of 1940, Ulmanis, his government, party leaders, ambassadors and senior army officers accepted as inescapable is factually incorrect and historically baseless.
The future fate of some persons
What happened further with the participants in the events of 1940?
Gen. Roberts Klavins commanded the corps until June of 1941. I met him for the last time in May, when he came to my place in Meza Parks late one evening, dressed in civilian clothes. The general was very somber and asked for advice on what to do. The situation in the corps was getting worse, some officers had been arrested, and his protests were ignored. A Russian general had been appointed his aide. Now he wanted to leave the service in the Red Army and take retirement. We talked it over and concluded, that his resignation could be used as justification to arrest him. That happened soon enough, in any case. In June the corps senior officers were sent to Russia on the pretext of courses; there they were arrested and sent to Norilsk in the far North. There they were imprisoned in a concentration camp, where he died in 1944 at the age of 59.
Gen. R. Dambitis, on the retreat of the Red Army in 1941, did not follow the Russians, but went to Trikata and at his country home waited for arrest. I spent 5 months with him in the Riga Central Prison. We had a chance to communicate. In 1942 Dambitis was taken to Berlin by the Gestapo, and imprisoned in Sachenhausen concentration camp. After the war he returned to Latvia and lived in Trikata, since 1948 he is retired. He died in 1957. His daughter lives in the US. His fate after the war was incorrectly portrayed in LE. It was mentioned there that he died in a concentration camp. The Finnish historian S. Milliniemi likewise mistakenly asserts, that Dambitis shot himself in 1940, while he was still Minister of War! (S.Myllyniemi, Die baltische Krise 1938-1941, Stuttgart 1979).
General Otto Udentins was posted to Moscow in June of 1941, where he was first an auditor and later an instructor at the General Staff Academy. From 1948 to 1956 he led the military science department at the University of Latvia. Since 1956 he is a personal pensioner (for special merit) in Riga. A few times he has spoken on Riga radio.
Gen. Otto Grosbart was assistant quartermaster for the 24th corps. When the German army marched into Latvia, he offered his cooperation with German occupation forced, but he was arrested and imprisoned in the Central Prison. Later he was sent to live in Northern Latvia. After the war he taught at the university. At the end of 1944 his mistress shot him.
General M. Jeske after his dismissal from the army lived in the country. He was deported in June of 1941 and died in the concentration camp.
Lt. Col. Aleksandr Loktionov was arrested and shot during the early days of the war. Probably that was because of the failures of the army he led. In 1963 “Krasnaja Zvezda” (Red Star) on August 11th wrote, that he had “fallen victim to lies and abuses” which dominates during the “cult of personality”. He was replaced once again by General F. Kuznecov.
The author of this memoir after dismissal from the army worked at the university, where on Prof. K. Disler’s recommendation I was appointed docent in international and state law. The frequent evil-minded assertions, that I was a lector or even the head of the department of Marxism-Leninism, are lies. This department was chaired by the “granddad” and Professor of Marxism-Leninism, V. Miske, who was sent from Russia. Likewise untrue are the assertions that I was a LCP member. Unfortunately such gossip is being repeated by historian E. Andersons (DVM, 1980/6), who writes: “ In the early enthusiasm he even tried to join the Communist Party”, but the following year he was “forced to hide out”. Likewise a fantasy is his assertion that I was expelled from Latvia in 1937. I left Latvia at that time of my own free will, because I did not want to live under a dictatorship. My work at the university ended in June of 1941, when I was let go. The university rector’s motivation was that “in the Soviet Union members of minority parties have no place as teachers in higher education”. I spent the last week before the war with relatives in Vidzeme.
to: Crimes Against Humanity