Museum gives a chilling look at Latvia’s past

By Elliott Hester
Special to the Tribune

RIGA, Latvia — Appropriately 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.Like 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.

But instead of viewing history from an American perspective, I saw it through the eyes of a Latvian.

Inside the somber, dimly lit museum, photographs, historical documents and artifacts tell the story of 51 long years of occupation.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 time.

During 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 a trace.

Graphic black-and-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 partisans.

But 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.

When 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.)

Before 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 told, some 215,000 Latvian citizens (115,000 with the Germans, 100,000 with the Soviets) belonged to two armies that intended to destroy their homeland. Nearly half of the Latvian soldiers perished during the fighting.

Ironically, Latvia had declared neutrality during the war.

During 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.

In latter days of the occupation, locals and foreigners were subjected to secret surveillance by the KGB. Evidence of this 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.

The 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 housed criminals and political prisoners.

I 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 shouted command.”

There is a bright side to the museum, however. At the exit I noticed black-and-white photos of men, women and children holding hands along a road. The faces varied from photo to photo, but the road and hand holding remained the same. The photos were 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 three Baltic countries. This massive hand-holding ceremony became the region’s largest protest against Soviet occupation.

Two years later, on Aug. 21, 1991, Latvia declared full independence and banned the Communist party.

Next stop: Vilnius, Lithuania

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (1940-1991) is located at Strelnieku Laukums 1 in Riga (011-371-34-721-2715; ; e-mail: <>. It is open daily (closed Mondays, October through April) from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry and guided tours are free. Groups should book in advance.
Museum texts and explanations are provided in Latvian, English, German and

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