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Crimes of Nazis and communists haunt Latvia Bitter recriminations rooted in 1940s strain Moscow-Riga relations


RIGA, Latvia -- A bomb goes off outside the only remaining synagogue here; no one is hurt. A Soviet secret police agent who came here in 1945 to build communism now sits in a cell in the same building in which he once worked, charged with genocide. A monument to the soldiers who died fighting the Nazis is defaced. Veterans of the Waffen SS gather for a reunion and are greeted by the head of the armed forces and speaker of the parliament.

If it seems as though Latvians, in their seventh year of independence from Moscow, are unable to shake off the terrible years of the 1940s, they reply that their big neighbor to the east appears to be unable to embrace the present. Russia, say the Latvians, is dusting off its old imperial ambitions and stirring up trouble.

Relations between the two countries are bad and getting worse. Many Latvians here exalt those who had anything to do with fighting what they see as Russian communism -- though the fight has inextricable roots in the country's Nazi past.

This is one of the few parts of the world where veterans of the two great opposing armies of World War II live side by side, ride the same buses, shop at the same stores.

Just now, though, there's only one group of veterans that dares to gather and honor its memory here -- and that's the group that lost.

"These people are not heroes," Indulis Berzins, a member of parliament, said of the 500 old soldiers of the Latvian Legion of the SS who met for their eighth annual reunion two weeks ago. "But the majority were conscripted. They were victims, too. How can we explain this?"

The Russians, in any case, are not listening.

Angry at Latvia over its treatment of the country's 700,000 ethnic Russians, as well as its interest in joining the European Union and NATO, Moscow seized on the reunion and has lost no opportunity since then to denounce and threaten the Latvian government.

In fact, not every soldier who joined the Latvian Legion when it was formed in 1943 was conscripted. Folded into it were volunteer units that had spent two years killing communists and Jews.

But Russia has deeper concerns here than being on the right side of history. Most galling has been the way Latvia treats its large Russian minority -- settlers who were moved here after the war.

Almost two-thirds of them were denied citizenship when Latvia became independent, and 24,000 children born since 1991 are stateless.

Moscow denounces this policy at every opportunity. Under pressure from Western Europe, Latvia relented slightly in 1995, and increasingly large groups of noncitizens have grudgingly been allowed to apply.

But hardly anyone does. Russians here have their own blind spots. They clutch their old Soviet passports, as if nothing Latvian could offer true identity.

"You saw the pickets today," said 70-year-old Irina Pryadko one evening after Latvian nationalists had demonstrated outside the Russian Embassy. "They say the Russians are a threat to the whole world. We are occupiers. I'm awfully offended.

"I was 18 when I came here. I helped clean away the rubble with my bare hands. I'm called an occupier -- why? Riga was built by us -- by occupiers!

"Well, my children and grandchildren are not Latvians. If they forget Russian, if they forget their own language, who will they be?" she asked.

These were people who were taught to think of themselves as heroes, but Latvians have a different view. And it, too, goes back to the war years.

The Soviet army invaded Latvia June 17, 1940. More than 15,000 Latvians were deported to Siberia, including Guntis Ulmanis, age 2 at the time and now president of Latvia. In June 1941, Germany turned against its then Russian ally. As the Nazi armies approached Riga, the Soviets deported another 6,182 Latvians before retreating.

About 16,000 young Latvians were conscripted to work in German factories, but many treated the Germans as liberators. One auxiliary death squad enthusiastically adopted Nazi policies and killed 30,000 people -- mostly Jews -- by the end of 1941. Of the 85,000 Jews who lived in Latvia before the war, more than 90 percent died.

In 1944, the Soviet Army swept back with a Latvian infantry division that took 26,000 casualties before the war was over.

In its wake came thousands of new settlers, a centralized economy, five-year plans, the secret police, the Gulag.

In its wake also came men like Ilya Mashonkin, a bright young officer with the dreaded NKVD, the secret police. His task was to help build a new Soviet society.

Now 83, he is charged with genocide for taking part in a March 1949 roundup that resulted in the deportation of 42,000 Latvians in four days. Thousands died.

Vivaldis Aiveers' entire family was deported to Siberia. He would have been with them except he was already in a prison camp in Kazakstan.

His grandmother and a 16-year-old cousin died. His parents' lives were shattered. He himself spent nine years in a camp and lost all the fingers of his right hand.

"Of course it was a crime, without a doubt," he said.

Aiveers today is head of the Latvian Union of Politically Repressed Persons, and he argues that there are thousands of people who should stand trial for what happened under communism.

"But you can't get hold of them," he said. "They're back in Russia, and Russia doesn't recognize the occupation."

Mashonkin is a Russian citizen who has been living in Riga. Since his arrest March 18, Moscow has been notably quiet about the case. The whole issue of responsibility for acts committed under Soviet policies -- policies that did far more damage in Russia itself than in the Baltic republics -- has been studiously avoided there.

Latvia is gingerly probing the outlines of Soviet crimes. Uldis Strelis, chief prosecutor in the Totalitarian Crimes Office, made it clear that he is only interested in prosecuting those who gave the orders. This is not going to be like France coming to terms with its collaboration during the war. Not everyone thinks Mashonkin's trial would serve much purpose.

Karmella Skorik grew up in Riga, and she, too, was sent east with her family into Soviet Asia, but as a Jewish refugee seeking haven from the Nazis in 1941, when she was 5. She returned after the war. Today she is director of the Riga Jewish Community Culture Center. About 11,000 Jews live in Riga today, most of them migrants from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

"I think we can judge no one," she said. "No. Enough."

The point is not to forget, she said. That would be impossible. The point is to find a common language, to think more about the future than the past.

But the chances for that appear to be growing worse, not better -- as the bomb that shattered windows in the synagogue last Thursday underscored.

Nationalists in Russia and Latvia seem to be pushing each other into ever more strident positions. Latvian and Russian residents of Riga read their own newspapers, watch their own television stations, have no idea what's going on in the other community.

"We have some sort of vicious circle," said Parliamentarian Berzins. "And it's quite dangerous."

Pub Date: 4/05/98

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