A Story With A Happy Ending
Finland, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Chechnya, Dagestan, Moldova, Belarus, Hungary, Latvia and Ukraine. Have I left any out? All have been subject to annexations or attacks by various Russian regimes within the last century.
In 2005 I went to Latvia, newly installed as a NATO and EU member.
It was a warm sunny day in July and Jurmala was crowded. All the elegant weatherboard houses behind the beach were full, the pedestrian walkway was busy and the cafes hectic. On the beach ladies in twin-sets and pearls struggled through the sand in stilletoes, others posed in fashionable bikinis next to Soviet-era costumes. Middle-aged men proudly sunned their paunches and youngsters played volleyball. I stood and watched for quite a while before Janis, my translator, finally asked, "What do you want to do?"
I shrugged. I had no idea. I was supposed to get a story. Latvia had joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and now tourism was booming. It was a historic moment in the country's history. I needed something that reflected the gravity of the moment. I started wandering along the beach, Janis trailing behind me, wondering what he had got himself into. Ahead of us an old man stood in the shallows, staring out to sea. Something about him caught my eye. While everyone was running about, he seemed utterly absorbed in his own thoughts. Without thinking, I said, "I want you to go up to that old man and ask him if he will tell his life story to a British journalist."
Janis let out a sigh and raised his eyebrows, but dutifully trudged off. I saw him accost the old man who listened for a minute, then suddenly became animated. He started gesturing up the beach, waving his arms and shouting. Janis was waving excitedly at me. Come! Quick! Then the pair of them set off up the beach, me running to catch up.
They went up the dunes and disappeared over the top. A few seconds later I was there too.
Lying on a blanket in a sunny hollow was an old lady in a battleship-grey bikini. Around her neck was a string of Baltic amber beads. She was already deep into an intense discussion with Janis and the old man. As I arrived, Janis turned to me. "This is Lucija Dreimane and she has a story for you."
Over the next hour, with long digressions and explanations, that story emerged.
"I was born in 1931 in a small village not far from Riga," Lucija began, "And when I was nine years old, the Red Army invaded our country. I remember that everyone was very afraid. Some people disappeared, taken away to Siberia and never seen again."
The Soviet takeover in Latvia had been relatively bloodless. Having made a secret pact with Germany, Russia invaded Poland in September 1939 and then forced the Baltic states to accept military bases. Finland refused and in the bitter war that followed they lost territory, but inflicted severe losses on the invaders and retained sovereignty - an inspirational war for anyone facing down the might of Russia. In June 1940, Moscow fabricated charges that Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia were conspiring against the Soviets. With the Allies distracted by the impending fall of France, the Baltic governments decided that opposition was pointless and let the Red Army in.
We had all sat on the blanket by this time and the old man produced some food: punnets of raspberries from a shopping bag. Home-grown fruit picked that morning. While we ate, the old lady resumed her story.
"A year later the Germans invaded Latvia. My brother, Tonis, was thirteen years old. When our village was attacked we both ran together, into the woods. There was shooting all around and houses on fire. In 1943 things had got so bad that Tonis told me he was going to escape into the forest and join the partisans who were fighting for Latvian independence. Then he ran away. I never saw him again."
The old lady put on a blouse and jammed a sunhat on her head. The sun was at its peak.
"I survived. The Germans occupied our country until the Soviets came back in 1944. In all the fighting our village was completely destroyed and no one lived there again. My family moved to Riga. I went to school, then got a job. I got married. My parents always hoped to see their son again, but he never did come back."
Most Latvians had indeed accepted their fate, but there was a resistance fight, one that was constantly undermined by the presence of spies like Kim Philby in British intelligence. Of 42 agents that were secretly landed to support the insurgents, most were captured and killed by the KGB. (The code name was Operation Jungle, if you want to look it up.)
"I retired," went on the old lady, "And we moved to a village not far from where I was born. And then two weeks ago..." Her face lit up. "I had a phone call. A man said, 'Do you remember my voice? It's your brother, Tonis. I'm in England'."
The old man stood up and let out a cheer. Janis was grinning from ear to ear, "I told you. An amazing story."
The old lady pulled out a piece of paper and showed me a telephone number. "This is his number." I recognised the city code for Birmingham.
"He told me that when he ran away through the woods, he managed to join the partisans and fought the Russians and the Germans. Unfortunately in 1944 he was captured by the Germans. It was a terrible time. By then the Nazis were desperate and he was sent to fight on the Eastern Front against Russia. He was still young of course, but already secretly organising for a free Latvia. That was his dream."
I stopped her there. "You mean he fought on all sides: Axis powers, Allies and partisans?"
She nodded. "Yes. When the war ended, he walked west and reached the American forces who put him in a camp. Eventually he had the choice: go back to Latvia, go to America, or go to Britain. By that time his name was known to the Soviets as an independence agitator. He knew if he returned he would be killed. Also he had news that our village was completely destroyed. He thought that if anyone from the family had survived, his known association with the independence movement would get them into trouble. He chose Britain."
Tonis had made a wise choice. Independence supporters were either killed or despatched to the gulags. In the post-war decade around 120,000 Latvians were either murdered or transported, while around 400,000 outsiders were brought in. Latvian language was supressed in favour of Russian.
Lucija and Janis were now deep in discussions as he sorted out what was a complex final chapter to her tale.
"When the USSR crumbled and Latvia was free, it was September 1991. He was working in Birmingham, England. At first he did not believe it was safe, but eventually in 1992 he came here to search for us, his family. He went to the site of our village and saw it was all gone. He searched in Riga, but could find no one that he remembered." She gave an expressive shrug. "So, he went back. He decided that we had all died and he must try and forget."
In 2004, however, Latvia took a brave decision and joined the EU and NATO. They were lucky in their timing. Russia had brutally put down rebellions in Chechnya (assassinating the country's first-ever democratically-elected president in 1997) and Dagestan, but had yet to look westwards for targets.
"When we joined the EU, Tonis decided he must come back for one last attempt to find family. He happened to walk through our old village, the site of it, and then to the next village, which is still inhabited. And there he went into a cemetery. One grave stone caught his attention. The name seemed familiar. He thought it was someone he knew at school before the war. And there were fresh flowers on it. He scribbled a note with his name and telephone number, saying, 'I am searching for my family who I lost touch with during the war.' He left that note on the grave and returned to England."
By now the old lady was grinning constantly. "One day the old lady who tended that grave came back and found the note. She read it, but she didn't recognise my brother's name. In fact, he was mistaken - he had not been to school with that deceased person, the old lady's husband. Anyway, that old lady crumpled the paper up, shoved it in her pocket and forgot about it. On her way home she passed the house of a friend who was in her garden and the friend invited her inside. In the kitchen, by chance, the note fell from her pocket. Later that evening the friend found the note and smoothed it out. She saw my brother's name and recognised it. Can you believe it? They had been at school together."
Lucija started laughing. "I still can't believe it. If that piece of paper had not fallen... if she had not recognised Tonis's name... none of this would have happened."
Fortunately for Lucija, the woman took action. She called Tonis in Britain and gave him Lucija's telephone number which he immediately rang. After that first conversation, they had spoken every day. Then Lucija had flown to London and met Tonis. "I knew him immediately, but it was a strange feeling, not exactly happiness. I was so afraid that when I touched him he would not be real."
Lucija and her husband had returned to Jurmala the day before and come down to the beach to try and relax. They were still buzzing. I had the impression that it was difficult for them to believe how their world had suddenly changed. And there was another tricky adjustment: having to smile all the time; it takes some getting used to after so long.
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