Installment: Riga, Latvia by Elliott Hester
on photos for more images of Latvia
housed in a dark, tarnished building that once gleamed in copper
and served as a center for spreading Communist propaganda, The Museum
of the Occupation of Latvia is a testament to the fortitude of this
tiny Baltic nation.
each of the 40,000 visitors who pass through the museum doors each
year, I was taken back to perhaps the darkest time in the 20th century.
A time when Hitler's armies were gaining on all fronts, when the
Soviet Union began gobbling up the countries of Eastern Europe,
when Communism prospered, fascism flourished, and the fate of the
world became uncertain.
instead of viewing history from an American perspective, I saw it
through the eyes of a Latvian.
the somber, dimly lit museum, photographs, historical documents
and artifacts tell the story of 51 long years of occupation. From
1940 to 1941 the Soviet Union occupied Latvia. Next came Nazi Germany
(1941-1945), and from 1945 to 1991 the Soviets occupied for a second
the half-century of occupation 550,000 Latvians (more than one-third
of the population) were either murdered, killed on the battlefield,
deported, forced to flee as refugees, or simply disappeared without
black & white photographs show the bodies of Latvian partisans who
were killed by their Soviet oppressors. The bodies were put on public
display as a deterrent to those who might support the resistance.
Nevertheless, between 1944 and 1956 during the second Soviet
occupation the national partisan movement included nearly
10,000 people in 900 different partisan groups. Some 20,000 Latvians,
mostly rural folk, provided food, shelter and protection for the
not all Latvians fought the good fight. The Soviet occupation authorities
dispatched special "destroyer battalions" to end the resistance
movement. These battalions consisted of Soviet sympathizers who
managed to help kill 2,500 of their own people. Thousands more were
arrested. During the mass deportations of March 25, 1949, more than
10,000 partisans and their families were packed in train cars and
deported to Soviet labor camps.
before the destroyer battalions were unleashed, I learned that Latvians
were often forced to fight against each other.
the Nazi's first arrived in 1941, many saw them as liberators from
the first Soviet occupation. Two years later, Hitler created an
army division called the Latvian SS-Volunteer Legion and forced
Latvian men to "volunteer". (The museum displays an induction
notice sent to Laimonis Ezergailis, proving that Latvians were compelled
to join the German army. This fact was not discovered by Allied
forces until after the war.)
the Soviet army was ousted in 1941, however, it took along thousands
of Latvian recruits. When they embarked upon the second occupation
campaign, Latvian soldiers with the Soviet Army were forced to fight
against Latvian soldiers in the German Army. All tolled, some 215,000
Latvian citizens (115,000 with the Germans, 100,000 with the Soviets)
belonged to two armies which intended to destroy their homeland.
Nearly half of the Latvian soldiers perished during the fighting.
Latvia had declared neutrality during the war.
the 51-year occupation, Latvians lived in a police state. From 1940
to 1941, the Soviet Secret Police (a.k.a. Cheka) was responsible
for the arrest, confinement, torture and execution of thousands.
On a single night in 1941, for example, more than 15,000 men, women
and children were arrested and sent to labor and "settlement"
camps throughout the USSR.
latter days of the occupation, locals and foreigners were subjected
to secret surveillance by the KGB. Evidence to this fact is a KGB
listening system that was discovered during the renovation of Hotel
Riga in 1999. The KGB switchbox is on display at the museum.
museum is filled with many artifacts depicting Latvian life during
the occupation. I saw tattered suitcases belonging to deportees,
uniforms worn by Latvian Legionnaires, a modified Ross-Enfield rifle
used by a fallen partisan, personal letters, and keys to a Cheka
most interactive exhibit is a full-scale model of a Soviet prison
barracks. Built from drawings and verbal descriptions from former
prisoners, barracks like this once housed criminals and political
walked into the replica barracks, past the sleeping quarters (twin
rows of wooden planks, one row above the other) and felt the chill
that most visitors probably feel. A bare, low-wattage light bulb
illuminated a placard on the wall near the corner of the room. The
placard describes some of the deplorable living conditions that
prisoners had to endure: "They slept so tightly packed together
that turning over had to be done by everyone simultaneously on a
is a bright side to the museum, however. At the exit I noticed black
& white photos of men, women, and children holding hands along a
road. The faces varied from photo to photo, but the road and handholding
remained the same. The photos where taken on Aug. 23, 1989, on the
50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (a mutual non-aggression
treaty between Berlin and Moscow that secretly divided the Baltic
states into "spheres" of German and Soviet "influence").
About 2 million people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had joined
hands along the single road that links the 3 Baltic countries. This
massive hand-holding ceremony became the region's largest protest
against Soviet occupation.
years later, on Aug. 21, 1991, Latvia declared full independence
and banned the Communist party.
here for more images of Latvia
Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (1940-1991)
Address: Strelnieku Laukums1, Riga 1050, Latvia
Hours: Daily from 11:00 AM until 5:00 PM
(Closed Mondays from Oct. 1 until May 1)
Telephone: (371) (34) 721-2715
Entry is free. Guided tours are free.
Groups should book in advance.
Museum texts and explanations are provided in Latvian, English,
German and Russian.
for more information and to take a virtual tour.
stop: Vilnius, Lithuania.
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