Tarzier Memoirs

Part II   War and Awakening



World War I spread wings of blood over Europe February 1914 to November 1918. In November 1917, Lenin and Trotsky led the “October” Revolution and deposed the Petrograd Soviet, seizing the reins of the newly formed Soviet Union. In exchange for an empty promise of non-aggression, Russia had turned the three Baltic nations over to Germany. In the power vacuum that followed the Armistice of November 11, Latvia hastened to proclaim its independence. But it would take much more than a proclamation to win freedom. The fight against Bolshevik troops, as well as German monarchists, lasted for two years--MT.

During World War I special Latvian regiments served in the Russian Army. By fighting on the Russian side against Germany, Latvians hoped, foolishly it turned out, to defend their territory and to earn independence, or at least a degree of autonomy, from Russia. But regiments were instead sent to the southern front to fight against White forces in Ukraine, where they were pretty much exterminated in savage battles against Ukrainians. The few survivors, no longer in separate units, were integrated into the Red Army. In one of the bitter ironies of war, my father Karlis and my brother Janis fought on opposite sides of the fence.

I will add here what I remember of the history of those times. Following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the German army occupied the whole of Ukraine, Southern Russia that is, and the Baltic States including Latvia. The Imperial Army was abolished. Commanders of the new Red Army were now elected in mass meetings of soldiers. At this time the Red Army was fighting the White Army led by General Denikin in Ukraine.

After the exhilaration of standing up to the vastly superior power of Russia, cold reality took over. If we wanted independence to be more than just a word, we would have to fight, alone as it turned out. At that time, the British played first violin in world politics. Our only significant ally was France, and that more or less by default. French investments in Russia had been confiscated by Lenin after his assumption of power, and that did not endear him to the French. America made a stand on the independence of nations, but to Woodrow Wilson this meant the Austro-Hungarian nations, not Latvia. Only five countries—Cuba, Colombia, Persia, Portugal and Italy—supported our bid for recognition as an independent country.

We didn’t have friends across the Baltic, either. Sweden in 1918 dismissed the Baltics as communist and a rightful part of the Soviet Union. The Finns, blood brothers though they were to us, did not see much reason to cooperate because they could rely on the Gulf of Finland for their trade and they didn’t need to use the Baltic Sea.
Relationships with Poland were much more ambiguous. Latvia had a half-hearted friendship with Poland. We considered the Poles arrogant and overly ambitious. But Poland’s Marshal Pilsudskis was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and because of this special tie to the Baltics, he supported Latvia with gifts of weapons. Under his rule Vilnius was annexed to Poland, turning it into a bone of contention—really without much justification, because Vilnius was an international city all along, its population consisting of Lithuanians, Poles, white Russians (Ruthenians), and a large contingent of Jews. An anti-semitic joke going around at the time suggested that Vilnius be incorporated into Palestine.

I don’t believe the United States really cared about the independence of the Baltics. It used us as dumping ground for tools rejected by American farmers. It sold us, for $2 each, an exorbitant sum for the times, shovels so bulky and heavy that they rusted in toolsheds across the country. The Great Powers “helped” Latvia with weapons that quickly became unusable, because no spare parts were made available. At the time of this writing (1985), Latvia still owes restitution for this kind of non-help.

So Latvia felt abandoned, ignored and forgotten by the big players in the world scene, even though we were now officially independent. Despite our exuberant celebration, Latvia’s freedom would not be easily won. With the retreat of the Cossacks, a new threat descended over Latvia at the end of World War I, the Red Terror of 1918-1920. Tsar or no Tsar, venom instead of blood ran in Russian veins, and anyone who tried to better himself and who accumulated more than needed for bare survival became an “enemy of the people.”

In order to divide and intimidate the population, Lenin’s new government fanned the fires of hate against independent farmers and fledgling landowners such as my father. We were automatically classified as “kulaks,” a pejorative word. Like poison gas, Lenin’s brand of terror swiftly penetrated every hamlet and house. His henchmen forced the local population to attend mass rallies, and not only to show up, but to actively cheer the new regime. In these rallies, agitators harangued against the kulaks as bourgeoisie, exploiters, and blood suckers. They swore to liquidate every last one of us. Some of the most vicious agitators were armed women, called “Plintinces” in Latvian—a word impossible to translate, something like “shotgun broads.” The few meetings I attended made my blood run cold, because I knew how vulnerable we all were. In order to terrorize Latvia into submission, they posted black lists of the most influential citizens, men scheduled to be exterminated as “enemies of the People,” Father heading the list in our area.

The Bolsheviks attempted to mobilize men of military age, without much success, during this first takeover of Latvia. Rather than being caught in the Soviet machinery of war, men of military age joined the Resistance in the forests. They became the Green Army or Partisans. Too young to serve, I took on the dangerous role of courier, taking messages to the forest and back.

Still in school as the year 1918 drew to a close, I took advantage of the confusion to steal a Russian army rifle and approximately a thousand rounds of ammunition, “just in case.” I hid my cache in the attic of the high school building. Perhaps it was a premonition of my father’s arrest. When Father arrived with the sleigh to take Peteris and me home for Christmas, I stuck rifle and ammunition among the hay, under cover of the early winter darkness. Father never suspected the danger in the baggage he carried during the fifty-five km (33-mile) trip, and luckily neither did the troops we passed on the way home.

The Family in War

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