Monthly Archives: February 2013

First man who died for Estonian Independence was Latvian

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Today at 24 February Estonia marks it 95 anniversary since its proclamation of independence. Estonian armed forces played an important role into the liberation of the whole Baltic region. Without the help of Estonians, Latvia would have harder time to win its own independence. But until this day little known is the fact, that first man who died in the Estonian ranks was a Latvian national Jānis (Johans) Muižnieks. This article  tells a story about him.

In 2011 12 November at the church of St. George at the Tori village near city of Parnu, the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilvess unveiled a memorial plate to Latvian fighters that were awarded with the Cross of Liberty. In his speech the president noted that first man who fell for Estonia in 24 February 1918 in a battle with the Soviets was Latvian Johans Muižnieks.

The Republic of Estonia was first proclaimed in 23 February at Parnu in situation when the German army was advancing and the Soviet army was retreating. In the same day at Tallinn the Estonian Defense League begun its work along with many self-defense units. Soviets could only hold the portside of the city. In 24 February the Estonian interim government took office and spread the Manifest of the Estonian independence. Already in the spring of 1917 the gym teacher of Tallinn Peter Science School Anton Eunapu had formed the so-called Studying youth company (SYC) that was composed from students from the elder classes, from many Tallinn high-schools.

In the February 23 SYC together with other self-defense units started to patrol in Tallinn. In the next day one youth group was assigned to the Tallinn old city, because of the news about planned Soviet attack on electrical station and the city center. In the evening first battles were fought near the Electrical station. At 16:00 the fire exchange between self-defense units  and Soviet mariners near the Tallinn Town Square.  Soviets lost some man and few were wounded and fall back. The retreating mariners got themselves located near the so-called Fat Margarita medieval tower and then  continued to head to the electrical station. Also the size of the attacking Estonians dropped to eight man as others were patrolling elsewhere. The company of eight man were heading to the Electrical station becoming involved in more serious fire exchange

At the beginning of the shooting one member of the self-defense unit Johans Muižnieks, who was described as the leader of Peter Science school group was seriously wounded. Two others got lighter wounds. Estonians fought back near the Fat Margarita tower taking Muižnieks along with them. The battle near the Fat Margarita and the Electrical station continued until 25 February, when Soviet mariners could no longer break the self-defense units.

Johans Muižnieks was gravely wounded in breast and died next day. He was declared as the first martyr of the Estonian War of Independence. At 1936 on the Fat Margarita tower a memorial plate was unveiled commemorating him. During the Soviet occupation the plate “vanished”. In 28 September 1991 a new plate was unveiled with text: “At 24 February 1918 near the Fat Margarita in the first battle for Estonian Republic, the student of Tallinn Science School self-defense man Johans Muižnieks fell in battle”.

The Tower of Fat Margareta where Johans Muižnieks died in battle with the Soviets

The Tower of Fat Margareta where Johans Muižnieks died in battle with the Soviets

However, for long decades the identity of first Estonian hero was mistaken. In many books it was falsely stated the first man who died for Estonia, was the son of Tallinn wine trader Johan Muižnieks named Johans Gotlībs Bērends. Because of many false witnesses in exile after the World War II this false version still traveled on many Estonian textbooks.

First who found out this mistake was Estonian historian Killo Arjakass who published an article in the Estonian newspaper Postimes called: “The first who died for Estonian Independence was… Latvian” and asked everyone who have any information about the Johan Muižnieks to contact him. By the help of his distant relatives and Estonian and Latvian historians the story about the Johans Muižnieks became more clearer.

Johans Muižnieks was not a son of the wine trader Johans Muižnieks, but his nephew and godson, who in the years of the First World War worked as the assistant in the wine shops. Also in 1918 Johans was already 34 old and could not study in the science school. In the church of St Olav congregational metrics book register of the deceased persons, it has been stated that Jānis Johans Muižnieks had died and was conducted to funeral service at 3 March. The reason for death was stated as a wound from ricochet of bullets near the Fat Margarita. His year of birth was not mentioned but later it was discovered that he was born at 1883.

The Johans Gotlībs Bērneds is known to have studied at the Tallinn Peter Science school, but he already finished it at 1913. He was conscripted in Russian Army in the First World War. He really died in 1918, but in November from illness. The history simply mixed two nephews do the lack of proper information. Many questions still lay unanswered about Johans Muižnieks life. He was the member of rich Latvian family from town of Rauna in Latvia, who moved to Tallinn. Its not known how Johans Muižnieks joined the Estonian self-defense forces, was he already called into army at the First World War and how he was mixed with Johans Gotlībs Bērends, but the fact that lies that he was the first or one of the first who gave his life for Estonian independence.

The historical ties between Latvia and Estonia have been deep since the times of the Livonian confederation. Although our languages are different and life outlook may differ, there is much common in our history. The good relations and cooperation between Estonia and Latvia is key to stability and well-being of the whole Baltic Region.

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Latvian Cinema

The site of the Riga Movie Studio

The site of the Riga Movie Studio

Few days ago two Latvian movies won prizes in the International Berlin Film festival. Mammu, es tevi mīlu! (Mother I love you!) and Eži un lielpilsēta (Hedgehogs and the City) are latest internationally acknowledged works of the Latvian cinema. Latvian cinema has deeps roots right from the end of 19th century. It has changed over the years, adapted to different regimes and trends. During the years of the Soviet occupation, the movie making was a priority for the state and so the Latvian cinematographers received generous funding. Despite often tricky Soviet censorship regulations, many great films were made that are favorited  by many until this day. After the regain of the independence, state support for cinema significantly dropped and full swing entry of the Hollywood films made it difficult for movie makers to start or even finish their works. However, movie industry although now private and smaller than in past continues to make films and animations that often score international recognition. This article will mention few best Latvian films, their directors and artists in 20th century.

After the end of the war of independence in 1920, cinema was becoming popular everywhere. Movie theaters opened everywhere and became fancy way to spend time and money. As the main movie makers in Europe were Germany and UK Latvian movie theaters mostly showed their works. As Latvia has just faced World War I and War of Freedom no wonder that first movie made in the State of Latvia was called I Went to war (Es karā aiziedams) in 1920. The director was famous Latvian theater director Alfrēds Artmanis Briedītis. Movie was about Latvian farmer who became soldier and the officer of the Latvian army. Including aspects of love and betrayal this movie  introduced national melodrama genre that was popular until the occupation.  In 1921, Artmanis Briedītis came with the second film In the whirlwind of times (Laiku Viesulī)  that was again based on the war of independence and featured difficult relations with Latvians and Baltic Germans. However, war was not the only theme in Latvian movies. In 1921, a comedy Fritz in the seaside (Fricītis jūrmalāscored great popularity. More comedies by Roberts Vizbulis in later years.

Scene from Lāčplēsis. The actress Lillita Bērziņa

Scene from Lāčplēsis.
The actress Lillita Bērziņa

Two first Latvian movie studios Latvju Filma and Dzintarfilma went bankrupt one by on the 1924. New attempts followed and great effort was made by director Aleksandrs Rusteiķis. His first work was again war drama For Fatherland in 1928. Film featured a great amount of violence unusual for those times. He then focused on the movie that should become first epic blockbuster the Bear Slayer (Lāčplēsis) that was finished in 1930. Lāčplēsis was the name of the epos written by Andrejs Pumpurs, that was Latvian national symbol. The movie started in the mythological ages were Lāčplēsis   the hero faces the Black Knight to free his beloved Laimdota. As the Black Knight wins in treachery, movie shifts to year 1905, where Lāčplēsis is reborn in young Latvian boy Jānis Vanags. There he meets Laimdota reborn as Mirdza and the Black Knight as the vile German officer. The plot follows them throughout the World War I, war for independence until the final fight were Jānis or Lāčplēsis finally defeats the German officer and frees Latvia from the enemy. Movie features many novel scenes, like the proclamation of the Latvian independence, the Battle for Riga in 11 November 1919 and the orgies of the Bermontd army men. The main hero was played by Voldemārs Dimze, his partner Laimdota was played by legendary Lilita Bērziņa. The main nemesis- one-eyed German officer was played by Osvalds Mednis. Movie was a certainly a breakthrough in Latvian film industry – it had special effects, full-time battle scenes and action. It was still a silent movie with rather annoying soundtrack for our time. Despite the critics and some flaws this movie is certainly a golden archive piece and has been preserved and available on the internet.

The filming of the Fishermans Son 1939

The filming of the Fishermans Son 1939

In 1934, the first full Latvian musical film The Son of the nation (Tautas Dēls) came out. Again featuring war and national theme the movie was widely praised. More patriotic movies were made until in 1939 the legendary Son of the Fisherman (Zvejnieka Dēls) came out. It was a dramatization of the novel of the same name written by popular writer Vilis Lācis. The movie was not about war, but about life of the fishermen in the coast of the Baltic sea, as they fight injustice, bigotry and search for true love. The main protagonist Oskars was played by Pēteris Lūcis who became legend along with his partner Nina Melbārde. Movie had live dialogue and music and it was truly a best Latvian movie at those times.

The occupation of Latvia changed everything. Another movie based on the novel of Vilis Lācis The Water Dam (Aizsprosts) was finished in 1940, but not shown and lost. Vilis Lācis himself became member of the Latvian Communist government responsible for repressions and deportations. During the first year of occupation one  movie was made called Kaugurieši that depicted the peasant revolt in 1802.

After the end of the war Latvia was caught in two realities- one was lack of funds and special equipment the other was the Soviet desire to make great propaganda masterpieces since the great cinema lover Stalin loved such movies. Two Soviet movie studios Mosfilm and Leninfilm were suited for this job. Such epics as the Fall of Berlin in 1949 was example of the Stalinist cinema. In Latvia the job of movie making were entrusted to Riga Movie Studio that became the main maker of movies until the fall of the USSR.

First movies after the war were off coarse propagandic Rainis in 1949, told an inaccurate story of the famous Latvian leftist writer and poet Jānis Rainis (Pleikšāns) making him convinced communist although he was more a socialdemocrat.  Returning home with victory (Mājup ar uzvaru) in 1947, was another story by Vilis Lācis, this time praising Red Army. First Latvian color movie was also based on work of Vilis Lācis To the New Shore (Uz jauno krastu) in 1955 not receiving positive reviews from the critics. In 1960, the Storm (tra) was the culmination of the Soviet propaganda showing the events in 1940, in positive way.

After the denunciation of the Stalin’s personality cult in 1955, the Latvian cinema became more free and opened space for drama and Latvian classics. A symbol of these times was the Frost in the Sprigtime (Salna Pavasarī), based on the novel by classic Rūdolfs Blaumanis. No communists, no war, a return to country life before World War I. Despite the presence of  the Soviet realism the movie was brilliant psychological work of art, placing itself as example for other movies.

The scene from the In The Shadow of Death

The scene from the In The Shadow of Death

The works of Rūdolfs Blaumanis became good material for the movie makers. In The Shadow of Death (Nāves Ēnā), The Swamp Slusher (Purva Bridējs) is considered as classics of the Latvian Soviet Cinema. In 1957, Fishermans Son was shot again making the actor Eduards Pāvuls new star and legend later on. More and more movies were made by every year not all of them notable, many of them relayed on the traditions of the Soviet realism.

All works of art in the Soviet Latvia were first checked by the Soviet censorship, the movie scripts were analyzed by the Soviet bureaucrats and state loyal artists. Mostly after some corrections all movies went trough the censorship.  However the director Rolands Kalniņš was unlucky enough to have his three movies banned. I remember everything Richard (Es visu atceros Ričard) dared to depict the men of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion. In no way the movie praised them, instead showing them as a victims of the Nazi regime. Despite that the question of the Latvian legion was so touchy that Latvian local censors banned it at the end, despite the overall good reception of it in Russia. Movie was restored after the regain of independence and was truly a work of art. Kalniņš did not give up and went further to provoke the authorities. His movie Breathe Deeply (Elpojiet Dziļi), was about the life of the young musicians struggling against the censorship commission that dislikes their music. Movie featured many great songs by composer Imants Kalniņš that later became pretty popular. Likely the depiction of the work the censorship commission was the cause for its removal. The third attempt by Kalniņš called The Seaside Climate (Piejūras Klimats) was not even finished, for it also was too modern.

The Sixties and the Seventies brought some great movie hits. 1967 movie When rain and winds bang at the windows (Kad Lietus un Vēji Sitas Logā), was about the Latvian National resistance and the Western Secret Agents. The movie was based on real events when agents from US and UK went to support the Latvian national partisans only to be captured by KGB. The movie tells a story from the KGB side of view. The Times of the Surveyors (Mērnieku Laiki) in 1968 was great adaption of the first Latvian novel of the same name by Kaudzīte brothers. With beautiful music and actor work it was a masterpiece for years to come.  In 1969 director Leonīds Leimanis made first attempt of showing the pre- war independent Latvia. At the Rich Ladys house (Pie bagātās kundzes) was ironical and colorful depiction of the Latvian politics, elections and the society, that was not filled with too much Soviet slandering.

Artūrs Ēķis and Olga Dreģe in the Devils Servants

Artūrs Ēķis and Olga Dreģe in the Devils Servants

In 1970, inspired by the French costume films notably the Three Musketeers, director Andrejs Leimanis made a legendary historic adventure movie The Devils Servants (Vella Kalpi). The plot took place in Riga during the Swedish-Polish War in 17th century. The three central heroes Andris, Pēteris and Ērmanis rises up to defend Riga against the Swedish conquerors and traitorous Riga municipality and the Lutheran church. The movie had great comedy elements, music and the best actors around. The reception was so positive all around the Soviet Union that a sequel The Devils Servants in the Devils Mill (Vella Kalpi Vella Dzirnavās) in 1972 was made and a similar film In the Claws of the Black Lobster (Melnā Vēža Spīlēs) moving from 17th century Riga to Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.

   Rolands Kalniņš did not gave up movie making and in 1972 made an impressive comeback with Ceplis. The movie took place in pre war independent Latvia, showing a story of a business tycoon  Ceplis and his great business scams. With great actor work and rather accurate depiction of the life of the pre war Latvian elite the movie was an instant success.

The 1975 was rise to fame for director Jānis Streičs, he was known before of his children films, but the comedy My friend- a light- weight person (Mans Draugs nenopietns cilvēks) was story of a light hearten man name Arvīds who tries to make a good life despite his foolishness and harsh reality. Film was a satire view on the everyday normal Soviet life. In 1976 The Lake Sonata (Ezera Sonāte) by Gunārs Cilinskis and Varis Bralsa became another classic. The great actor work by Gunārs Cilinskis and Astrīda Kairiša made the Lake Sonata possibly the best love drama ever to be made in Latvia. Jānis Streičs went further in 1978 with his adaption of novel by Somerset Moem the Theater with exceptional main role play by legendary actress Vija Artmane. 

The eighties begun with epic TV-series The Long way in to the capes (Ilgais Ceļš Kāpās). It was a historical drama showing pre war, World War II and postwar times. It was rise to fame for Lilita Ozoliņa. Together with music by Raimonds Pauls it was the first successful Latvian TV series.  In the same year Jānis Streičs made another satire look on realities of the Soviet life with movie The Car in the Color of the Night of the Summer Solstice (Limuzīns Jāņu Nakts Krāsā). The plot was about old lady who wins a VAZ car in the lottery, but cannot drive it. Pretty soon she discovers that she has many friendly relatives who desires her car. In those times cars were not for everyone and people had to made great efforts to get their own private car. Film had plenty of comedy elements, the feature of the Jāņi celebrations or the Summer solstice was also a successes. As such this movie has become golden hit of the Latvian cinema.

After the start of the reforms of peresetroika, in Soviet Unions, the history shown in movies became more freer. The Zītars Family (Zītaru Dzimtain 1989 was based for the last time on the work of the Vilis Lācis novel. But, contrary to other such movies based on his work, the movie showed more realistic depiction of the history than ever before. In 1991 Jānis Streičs made his most remarkably film The Son of Man (Cilvēka Bērns). It was based on the works by Jānis Klīdzējs, and centered around young Bonifācijs who lives in religious Latgallian family. The entire movie dialogues were  in Latgalian national dialect that also played great role in Latgalian national awakening.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence the Latvian movie industry faced great changes. The funding from Moscow vanished, and the Riga Movie Studio was privatized and slowly fell apart in next two decades. Cinema was now made by private companies. First notable films after 1991 was The Spider (Zirneklis) a psychological thriller and similar Cage (Būris). Also in 1993 the movie The Christmas Brawl (Ziemassvēktu Jampadracis) started popular children movie genre that is very successful in modern day Latvia.

The movie poster of The Horrible Summer

The movie poster of The Horrible Summer

Jānis Streicš continued to make movies like The Mills of Fate (Likteņdzirnas), The Mystery of The Old Parish House (Vecā Pagastmājas Mistērija) and The Will of Rudolf (Rūdolfa Mantojums). An ex musician member of the rock band Jumprava Aigards Grauba has made attempts on making epic films on Latvian history. The Horrible Summer (Baiga Vasara), was about the events in 1940, The Guards of Riga (Rīgas Sargi) about Battle for Riga in 1919 and The Dream Team 1935 (Sapņu Komanda 1935) about Latvian basketball team that became first European Champions. The historical accuracy in these movies are questionable to say at least.

While some Latvian directors made movies that only critics could understand like Laila Pakalniņa with her Shoe (Kurpe),  others made great movies for children like Waterbomb for the fat cat (Ūdensbumba resnajam runcim) and The Dog man and Tille (Šuņuvīrs un Tille)Children movies and animation has become trademark of the Latvian cinema. While adult drama is certainly lacking, as it’s too depressive like Kolka Kool or too pornographic like The Hunt (Medības). Some drama movies like The Dark Deers (Tumšie Brieži), The Monotony (Monotonija) and Vogelfrei has received good reception. A great achievement was film Amaya that was made in collaboration with Japan and featured the famous Kaori Momoi in the main role. Interesting piece of work is a In the Golf Stream under the Iceberg (Golfa Straumē zem Leduskalna) by director Yevgeny Paskevich who made this film for twenty years.

The movie poster for Latvian - Japanese film Amaya

The movie poster for Latvian – Japanese film Amaya

Latvian movies have their own national prize the Great Kristaps Prize that takes place every too years. In 2012 the Yevgeny Paskvich long desired work won the prize. Latvian cinema had many prizes in the foreign festivals, the Oscar prize is a certainly a cherish dream, but Latvian cinematographers must keep on making works of art that will lighten up the viewers and critics. Since last year because  of the rise of the nationalist party in the Ministry of Culture, a movement has started to make more positive and patriotic movies. In so the promises to make film about 12th century Ancient Latvian leader Namejs has been given, others rush to adapt epic work by Aleksandrs Grīns The Blizzard of Souls and more talks about semi historic films about the Crusades has started. However it was again the children themed movie Mother I Love You that reached the international sympathy. The cinema is not only an art its a major collective intellectual effort that needs a lot of money and support. Latvian movie makers lack enough funding to fulfill all their dreams, therefore not all their works are worthwhile. However, it’s not worth to force state to give more money as the prime importance is not how much money you receive, but how you use it to make a great product. And not always the state funding brings the greatest results, not in Soviet times and not before. The State funding should be viewed as a generosity that must be used properly. And it’s not right for politicians to affect the movie production, for cinema is a a free art and every most ignorant intrusion in the cinema industry can hurt the most badly.

The recent success has shown the Latvian cinema industry still has potential and despite the difficulties and bickering we hope to see more great Latvian films.

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Litene – The Latvian Katyn

Memorial place to arrested and killed Latvian officers at Litene

Memorial place to arrested and killed Latvian officers at Litene

Once again the massive Soviet crime of the Katyn massacre has entered the media spotlight and finally the court. Lets, hope the jury will be on the side of the victims not defenders of the criminals supported the present Russian regime. But Polish army was not the only army that suffered this kind of fate. It was also Latvian Army who after the occupation and annexation of Latvian state in 1940 became subjects of Soviet repressions. On June 14 1941 in Litene army camp hundreds of officers of the Latvian army were either set to Siberia or shot on the spot. It was our own “little” Katyn massacre that also needs to be mentioned publicly and receive justice.

The occupation of Latvia begun on June 17 1940, Latvian army was told not to resist the invaders. The new Latvian communist puppet government liquidated the Latvian Army as the national forces and renamed is as the “Peoples Army”. Army circles were flooded with political activists and soviet agents. All officers were commanded to write their biography, many of them wrote it too honestly exposing all their details, that certainly backfired on them later. Perhaps many of them were not used to lying and did not know what to expect from the new Soviet power.

On August 27 1940 after Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union, the Peoples Army was officially disbanded and inintod in to 24 territorial rifleman corps in the Red Army. 55 Latvian officers were already fired and repressed. Officers and soldiers were called for interrogations from many of them did not return. Many were forced or talked into to become informers for the Soviets.

There are many categories of the Latvian officers in this situation- first were the officers that had resigned from the army until 17 June 1940 and was in the status of the civil person. They were persecuted by Soviet secret police the NKVD. Others who were fired after  June 17 also fell victim to the NKVD. The third category was the Latvian officers who remained in the 24 TR Corps until June 1941, and the last the ones that were arrested on June 14 1941.

First who were arrested were persons with active anti-soviet past, like taking part in battles against the Red Army in 1919-1920 war of liberation. After disbanding the Peoples Army 820 officers were fired, one part of them repressed. The climax of the repressions reached June 1941. They took place in the summer camps made by Latvian Army. Their locations were Carnikava, Lilaste, Litene, Daugavpils, Liepāja and others. Every one of these camps only a regiment or rarely a division could gather since there were no bigger camp spot and the military exercises were rare mostly in the last years before the war. Now Soviet command ordered all 24 TR Corps to gather at one Litene summer camp.

Litene is located at the Gulbene district halfway between the town of Gulbene and Balvi, 19 km from Gulbene. A place notable for its beautiful estate and also railroad were nearby. It was a good place for training base. The army had built barracks and tent spots and roads for supply gathering.

Although the 24 TR Corps command had originally planed to send their man to many different places, all of them were ordered to go to Litene. That made the firsts doubts and suspicion as the camp was too small to hold all the officers and soldiers about 8000 – 10 000 men. Despite the order of getting there at May 15 most of the men only arrived on  June 1 since the climatic conditions were too bad to hold a camp. Plus the camp needed to be upgraded and cleaned after it was left by one Red Army unit that had vastly polluted the place.

The Litene army training camp

The Litene army training camp

Along the men of the 24 TR Corps rumors spread that they will be sent to Russia instead. The corps was filled with conscripts from the Soviet Union, the size of the ethnic Latvians in some units dropped by 2o percent. On the night of the June 14 1941 more than 150 000 Latvian civilians were sent to Siberia, same in Lithuania with 180 000 and in Estonia 10 000 people.

On  June all ex Latvian Army officers serving in the 24 TR corps were arrested on the spot at Litene. The operation was carefully planned. Camp was carefully guarded by the NKVD men, and all the necessary transport equipment was gathered earlier. Camp guard duty was given to Russians and Asians, Latvian men had their guns removed. The officers were told to gather at early morning of June 14 to prepare for tactical training.

The officers gathered at 8:30 in the open air cinema. A lecture by the chief of the staff N Miljevski his assistant Kirilov was announced, the topic was battalion attack. After a half hour lecture the list of training participants were issued.  Strange to all, the list included those in hospitals, on vacation or on missions. Also since only the names and surnames were called not army ranks as it should be, showed that the list was made by the NKVD. For the army surely would list officers by their ranks.

It seems there was some slip ups in the Soviet plans, since officers had to wait for transport until 14:00. Probably it took time to gather all the officers and put them into trucks. The convoy was led by armored jeep. After driving 1-5 km from the town of Gulbene, officers were told to leave the car and stand in two. They were escorted to a nearby forest, disarmed and arrested. The forest was full of camouflaged NKVD men and their armed cars. Most of the officers were arrested. However those who resisted were killed and buried on the spot. A mass graves were already dug out  for such occasions. Some of those who resisted managed to kill or wound the Soviet captors but were outnumbered.

After arresting all the officers they were taken to cattle trains and sent to Riga. After bringing extra deportees and searching all the captives, the train took route to Russia. Approximately 560 Latvian officers were sent to Russian Gulag camps at Siberia. After the regaining of independence Latvian archeologists found a grave of 11 Latvian officers killed on the spot by the Soviets.

It was complete destruction of the Latvian Army. From all 2193 officers of the ex Latvian Army  299 were arrested, at one 14 June 562 officers were arrested and deported, 247 officers went missing. In all 1100 Latvian officers from June 17 1940 to June 14 1941 was repressed by the Soviets. The amount of killed officers on Litene still is unknown and could be more that 11 men.

While in Katyn the most Polish officers were simply executed, Latvians were sent to Gulag camps in Dudinsk and  Norilsk. While certainly it was better than be shot on the spot, the conditions in the Soviet camps were beyond any civilized man could imagine. Not all could survive and not all could return to Latvia, only 80 Latvian officers returned to the Latvia, the rest of them stayed in Siberia. Latvian army officers were the elite of the Latvian society that were caught up in the Soviet injustice and treachery. It’s our duty to respect and commemorate  these men.

Selected Sources:

Zvaigzne, Jānis. (2012)   Jūnijs. Litene, 1941. Rīga : Jumava.

Starptautiska konference “1941. gada 14. jūnija deportācija – noziegums pret cilvēci”. 1941. gada 14. jūnija deportācija – noziegums pret cilvēci : starptautiskās konferences materiāli, 2001. gada 12.-13. jūnijs, Rīga = Deportation of 14 June 1941: crime against humanity : materials of an International Conference 12-13 June. (2001). Riga. Latvijas vēstures institūts.

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The Soviet attack on Latvian border station Maslenki 1940

Burned down Maslenki guard house

Burned down Maslenki guard house

One of the usual interpretations by Russian historians that in the events of 1940 no military force was involved and Latvia was annexed voluntary.   However they tend to forget the events on the June 15 1940 when Soviet special forces raided the Latvian border guard station Maslenki, killing and capturing many borderguards and their wife’s. With all known rules of military warfare this can be seen as act of aggression and invasion, as the Latvian border was crossed and its soldiers and civilians attacked. It was intended as a provocation to force Latvia submit to Soviet demands and allow unrestricted entry into Latvian soil. Also it was a clear warning of what would happen if the Latvian government would not accept the Soviet demands.

Maslenki today is a  part of Russian Federation as it was located in Abrene district that was part of the Latvian Republic from 1920 to 1944, after it was included in the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic. After the fall of the Soviet Union it remained as part of the Russian Federation with no great chances of ever returning it to Latvia.

The border between Latvia and Soviet Russia was established in 1920 according to peace treaty. The Abrene district was mostly populated by Russian nationals, however Latvia saw this territory as important for its railway routes and special geographical situation making easier to defend the eastern border. Also it was earned in blood as Latvian army chased the Soviets away to this point. The Soviet government was forced to sign a peace treaty and give away this district. In next two decades Abrene became important part of the Latvian state. Latvians moved there to establish farms and towns and army fortifications and border bases.

The border protection law was issued in 1928 and the task was entrusted to Border Guard (Robežapsardzība), in 1935 it was renamed as the Border Guard Brigade that was split in three battalions. The third was the Abrene battalion. Battalion worked in guard stations that overlooked every kilometer. Later cordons were established. The border guarding was a tough work, as the Soviet spies and illegal immigrants  and also criminals tended to cross the border.

The Latvian Eastern border with highlighted district of Abrene

The Latvian Eastern border with highlighted district of Abrene

After October 1939 when Latvia signed mutual assistance pact with Soviet Union a greater importance was put on the border protection as every incident could mean accusation of breaking the pact. Latvia was already in undesirable situation as Poland was occupied both by Germany and Soviet Union and sizable Red Army garrison already stationed in Courland. In the summer of 1940 Germany opened the Western front and Stalin was sure that is the right time to “fix the Baltic problem”. For this a small provocation was required.

The 14 June 1940 was a peaceful day for Latvian border guards and civilians of the Abrene district. Many came to Latgalian song and dance festival at Daugavpils. 24 choirs with 1101 singers and 55 instrument players went there forming the second largest delegation. With the presence of the president Kārlis Ulmanis the song and dance festival marked the last normal day for Latvia for many years to come. Meanwhile the border guards organized the sport instructor courses. In the same time in Paris the German army marched on the main streets, but in Estonia two Soviet bombers shot down the Finnish civil airplane Kaleva (Junkers -52) over the Strait of Finland. Soviet submarine prevented the rescue or search of the crash site and collected all the remains. Estonian government made no protest to USSR. Meanwhile  the Soviet documents falsely stated that the plane was shot in June 23 meaning that it was done after the occupation of Estonia and therefore not an act of international piratism  but a defense move by Soviets. At 23:30 in Moscow the Lithuanian ambassador was summoned to Kremlin to meet Molotov, where he gave the ultimatum that Lithuania had to accept until 10:00 at morning.

The Maslenki or Lejnieki border station was one of the first border stations since 1920. The guard-house was a wooden building built in 1929/1930. The commander in charge was senior officer Frīdrihs Puriņš who was notorious for his drinking and brawls with Russian locals. Soviet border guards often tried to provoke him because of it. Despite that his experience in the war of freedom brought a great respect from his senior colleges.

At Midnight a border guard brass band rehearsal took place. The night unusually cold, on guard post were Jānis Macītis and Pēteris Cimoška, one was patrolling other was hidden post. Kārlis Beizaks was resting on wait his shift to replace Cimoška.

On 2:30 25 special soldiers of the NKVD the Soviet secret service managed to cross the border at river Ludza. NKVD had surrounded the border cordon from all sides. Around the guard-house a bags of grenades were placed excluding the main doors meaning that NKVD men intended to capture the border guards without a single shot. The attackers were discovered by patrolling Jānis Macītis. He followed the instructions that if the stranger is spotted, he must let him closer for 20-30 meters and only then call him to stop, so he will be surprised and wont use arms. However, this instruction did not bear the fact that stranger may have an automatic weapon. And precisely at this moment the NKVD men opened automatic fire at the Latvian border guard. Latvians only had shotguns that were useless in thick fog and bad visibility.

NKVD realized that they were spotted and turned to burn down the guard-house and kill all the border guards. Macītis was badly wounded and tried to reach the guard-house and stepped on the hand grenade and lost his left foot. Border guard on the disguised post Pēteris Cimoška opened fire, enemy tried to locate his position to surround him. Cimoška retreated back to guard-house cause he heard other border guard Valdis Grīnvalds resisting. But he stepped on bag of grenades and were torn in peaces.

In the guard-house Valdis Grīnvalds was desperately trying to hide from Soviet bullets that fired trough the walls. As the visibility was bad he fired back without no aiming. Kārlis Beizaks also in the house decided to flee and jumped out of the window. He managed to run 199 meters passing house of Žanis Krieviņš that also was surrounded by NKVD men who killed Beizaks. They even threw grenades at him. Since some resistance was shown from  guard house the NKVD threw inside burning liquid and house went on flames.

In the apartment room of the guard-house the commanders Frīdrihs Puriņš wife Hermīne and his 14-year-old son Voldemārs were caught up in the middle of the firefight. Hermīne jumped out of the window with pillow in his hand to protect herself from the bullets. She was shot dead and later found in strawberry plants. Voldemārs run out of the doors and escaped and hided in nearby pile of firewoods. Soviet attacker had been under cover there and shot Voldemārs in stomach and foot. Valdis Grīnvalds left the house on the same moment and made way to river where he was captured by the soviets.

The body of killed Hermīne Puriņa

The body of killed Hermīne Puriņa

NKVD also assaulted the border guards Žanis Krieviņš house. He was there with his wife Lida, son Artūrs and five year old Rita. Two grenades were thrown in. Lida was wounded as Soviets broke in  took away his husband and children.

As the resistance was put down, the Soviets started to evacuate their killed and wounded men. However, because of the poor visibility they left many of their displaced war equipment. Soviets also abducted two civilians Olga and Dimitry Maslov. As Latvian reinforcements arrived at the scene the Soviets had left with guard-house burned down, three guard men killed, commanders wife shot, his son wounded and many people abducted.

At the same time Soviets attacked other guard post at Šmaiļi. Here Soviets managed to capture the border guards without a fight. Also local civilians were taken as hostages. Also another attack was planned at Žuguru station. However, the plans were thwarted because the border guards wife Marianna turned 25 and border guards threw a big party. This became known by commander Voldemārs Gailītis and he came there with his men to inspect. At the night the border guard Kronis fired the signal pistol alarming the guards on duty and the guests. In 16 June they found a Soviet camouflage suit and wire breaking scissors nearby. It could be that Soviets were scared away by the sudden arrival of the commander himself and his men. The guard Kronis who spotted the Soviet intruder fired a signal rocket and loud talking by alarmed guests confused the NKVD men and made them turn back.

Soviets had taken away 37 men and women and children. Latvian border guards were put on alarm. But, Latvian government made no direct action or even protest against USSR. In 15 June Lithuania submitted to Soviet demands and allowed entry of the Soviet forces. Lithuanian president Antan Smetona fled to Lithuania. Worlds eyes were on France it seemed hopeless to make any significant move. Latvia made investigation commission on the incident but that was it.  In 17 June Soviet forces entered Latvia. Border guards were told not to resist, they had plans for it, but now the border became open to the enemy. At the night between 16 and 17 June all main roads to Latvia were cleared of mines. If Latvian border guards showed some resistance there would be no myth of peaceful occupation of Latvia and the removed district of Abrene.

In 7 July 1940 Soviets sent back to Latvia their 37 hostages. The captured guards were submitted to interrogation. The later events, the occupation and war put them on the extremes again.  The only one who did not return was Dimitry Maslov who was agent of the Latvian Secret Service. He was executed in  1942 at Astrakhan prison.

The attack on Maslenki was intended to force Latvian government to accept the Soviet demands. Soviets blamed Latvia for this tragedy and interpreted as a breach of mutual agreement pact, that was one of the reasons why Soviets demanded the full entry of the Red Army. Also it was a revenge by NKVD to Latvians for the actions of their secret service on the Soviet border. The attack was also made to test the Latvian army leadership, fearing it may order full resistance, instead Latvian leaders showed confusion and weakness. However, the attack on Latvian border station must be seen as act of aggression and treachery that shows that the occupation of Latvia was brutal and bloody not peaceful.

The border guards of the Maslenki and their families before the tragedy

The border guards of the Maslenki and their families before the tragedy

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