Intransigent discussions about the activities of Latvian soldiers in World War II often ignore lesser-known pages in history, i.e. post-war repressions against former Latvian Legionnaires: incarceration in filtration camps and camps in the Gulag and decades of restrictions on work and life in communist-occupied Latvia. While the Latvian Legion Remembrance Day on 16 March that is marked unofficially has transformed from a simple day of remembrance of war veterans to a politically charged day of explication and conflict, it is important remembering how communists in occupied Latvia restricted living and working conditions to the Latvian war veterans for several decades.
One way ticket to the Soviet internment camps
During the Second World War, approximately 115 000 Latvian soldiers served in the Nazi German armed forces against the Soviet Union. At the end of the war, almost 50 000 of them became Soviet prisoners-of-war, imprisoned for short or long periods of time in Soviet filtration or Gulag camps. Among them were soldiers who were captured in battles on the eastern front in Russia in 1943-1944, those who had either been separated or deserted from their units, and those who had been sent to Germany in 1944–1945 and were surrounded or injured in battle. This number also included soldiers extradited from Italy, France, and Sweden; those who were repatriated from English and American captivity; and Legionnaires who were in the Courland Pocket when the war ended on 8 May 1945.
Soviet armed forces, in extended formations, combed the forests of the Courland Pocket area up until the end of May 1945 and herded all males between 16 and 60 into collection areas surrounded by barbed wire. Captured Legionnaires were frequently robbed of their watches, boots, and articles of good clothing. Frequently, the captured were shot on the spot, immediately upon detention or shorty thereafter. Prisoner verification procedures were organized and implemented by the Soviet Red Army Counter-intelligence Branch SMERSH (“Death to spies”). Many of the imprisoned were gathered in Kūldīga, Grieze, Kandava, and elsewhere, but prisoners who ended up in the furthest regions of the USSR were usually deported after being processed in filtration points in Jelgava, Riga, or Daugavpils. After numerous verification sessions, they ended up in filtration camps and were forced to work in a variety of Soviet factories and building projects; those who were convicted – most frequently under Article 58 of the Russian SFSR Penal Code (as enemies of the state) – ended up in special camps or special settlements.
Repeated arrests and imprisonment
Soviet security authorities arrested well-known Latvian Legion officers, tried them at special war tribunals, and sentenced them to death – their only “crime” was war activity against the Soviet army. Among them were Lieutenant-colonel Nikolajs Galdiņš (executed 5 October 1945 in Leningrad) and Captain Miervaldis Ādamsons (executed 23 August 1946 in Riga). Later, the Soviet occupying regime also deemed captured commanders of partisan units dangerous to the regime – Legionnaires First-lieutenant Miervaldis Ziedainis (shot 13 July 1946), Captain Pēteris Čevers (shot 24 August 1951), Lieutenant Kārlis Mūsiņš (shot 2 June 1955), and many others. Most of the captured Legionnaire officers were sentenced to 10–25 years in hard labour camps or general corrective labour camps in Kolyma, Karaganda, Vorkuta and Norilsk. Thousands of Latvians slaved in Medvezhyegorsk in Karelia, Moscow and its environs, Morshansk in Tambov, Solikamsk in Perm, Severouralsk in Sverdlovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Sov Gavan in Khabarovsk, and many other locations. Many never returned, and a number of the former Legionnaires experienced repeated arrests and imprisonment after they had served their initial sentence. This was the fate of 19th Division Reconnaissance Battalion Commander, Major Ernests Laumanis, who served time in Vorkuta Gulag (1946–1955) and then Mordovia (1957–1966), where he came to be a noted figure for the then young Latvian dissident Gunārs Astraa, poet Knuts Skujenieks, and other political prisoners.
Countless years of forced labour
The forced imprisonment of tens of thousand of Latvian citizens in USSR filtration and Gulag camps and their treatment as Soviet citizens was a human rights violation. Provisions and living conditions in the filtration camps were deplorable and belittling. Often illness, and sometimes death, resulted from malnutrition, poor hygienic conditions, lack of medical treatment, and exhausting labour. Frequently, time spent in these camps resulted in negative effects on physical and mental health; contracted diseases and illnesses had long-lasting effects. Thousands of Legionnaires, who had managed to survive the war, died in the repressive Soviet penal camps and never returned to their homeland.
Legion soldiers and instructors who could not be found guilty of specific activities were released after approximately two years in the filtration camps, and many of enlistment age were forced to serve in Soviet army Construction Battalions. Approximately 6000 former Legionnaires ended up in Soviet Ministry of Interior Construction Complex No. 7 in Narva and Sillamäe, Estonia, where they were forced to work in dangerously unhealthy conditions until 1950. Many were allowed to return home only after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the USSR Supreme Council decree adopted on 17 September 1955 – “On the amnesty of Soviet citizens who collaborated with the occupiers during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945”.
Returning to Latvia and facing new humiliation
Latvian Legionnaires who managed to survive inhumane conditions in Soviet imprisonment returned home with seriously impaired health that significantly shortened their life span. Imprisonment frequently separated many families: wives and children awaited the end of the war in occupied Germany and later dispersed to other corners of the globe while the men were located in Soviet occupied territories, or vice versa. For example, one of the 130 Legionnaires extradited by Sweden to the Soviet Union was Ernests Ķeselis, recipient of the highest Latvian military award (the Order of Lāčplēsis) and Latvian army and Legion Captain, whose wife and daughter ended up in England after the war. He was accused of participating in the liberation of Limbaži in July 1941 and fighting against the Red Army and only returned to Latvia in 1962 after being imprisoned in the Gulag in Irkutsk and Komi – he was separated from his family for life.
After their return to Latvia, former Legionnaires experienced physical and moral discrimination the entire duration of Soviet occupation. Frequently, family members suffered as well: they were mistrusted by the Soviet regime. Soviet authorities continuously created barriers, restricting their rights and freedoms, including education opportunities. Such an example is Legionnaire Lieutenant Rolands Kovtuņenko who returned in 1955 after ten year in the Urals, Kazakhstan, and Vorkuta Gulag. He tried to enroll in the Riga Road Construction Technical School, unsuccessfully. On his second application attempt, he succeeded in being admitted to entrance exams, which he passed with flying colours, but the director refused him entry noting: “With this biography? With your two Iron Crosses? I am not allowed to admit you.” (Excerpts from former Legionnaire experiences are taken from Tālivaldis Vilciņš’ study “Latviešu leģionārs 50 gadus pēc kara. Socioloģisks aspekts” [The Latvian Legionnaire 50 years after the war. A sociological approach]. Latvijas Arhīvi, 1994, No. 2, p. 32-40.)
Similar obstacles took place at work and in daily life. J. Burkevics worked at VEF [State Electronics Factory] during the 1950s as a millwright and invented a tool that increased productivity 37 times. The factory director, Georgs Gaile, even arrived at the workshop, shook his hand, and promised a grand prize. Yet, when the authorities realized that the man was a former Legionnaire, in place of an award, he was threatened with being returned to the “polar bears”, i.e. repressions. In another incident in 1970, V. Eneris had managed to reach second position in line for a state-issued apartment but was told: “A Legionnaire’s family can wait until ‘humans’ get their apartments first.” Former Legionnaires were often denied access to proper medicine, not to mention treatment time in sanatoriums or similar health institutions. These restrictions and the inability to resign themselves to life in Soviet occupied Latvia caused some former Legionnaires to become alienated from society, resulting in increased use of alcohol and other socially unacceptable behaviour.
Restrictions and hostile attitude until the end of the USSR
Only on rare occasions were former Legionnaires able to hide their war activities from Soviet authorities for an extended period of time. Occasionally, serendipity, benevolent managers, or, of course, the individual’s abilities and competence allowed some to develop a relatively successful career during Soviet occupation. But these were exceptions and not the norm. Former Air Force assistant Harijs Liepiņš returned from 18 months heavy labour in a coal mine in Vorkuta Gulag and successfully graduated from the Daile Theatre Studio to become a beloved actor of stage and screen. In contrast, a famed author of the beloved Blue Kerchief and other popular Latvian songs, Eduards Rozenštrauhs who suffered repressions at the hands of Nazi and Soviet authorities, spent many post-war years eking out his existence with casual jobs or as a guard at VEF.
The Latvian Legion was a taboo topic in the Soviet arts as well. If any works addressing this topic managed to escape the watchful eyes of the censors, it was only briefly and followed by a ban (Rolands Kalniņš’ 1966 films Akmens un šķembas [Rock and Fragments]; Es visu atceros Ričard! [I remember everything, Richard!]), or they were published only in part and became available to the general public only during the final days of the Soviet era, such as Visvaldis Lāms’ 1958/1989 novel Kāvu blāzmā [In the Glow of the Northern Lights].
The restrictions and hostile attitude of the Soviet occupying authorities succeeded in hampering, but not totally suppressing the work of a number of the creative intelligentsia and members of other professions, whose undesirable past was known only to close friends and relatives. Soviet security institutions continuously reminded them of their past, but the wider public only learned of this when the blank spots of history began to be filled in the latter half of the 1980s. Writer Egons Līvs, mathematician Jānis Mencis, landscape architect Alfons Ķišķis, camera man Laimonis Gaigals, linguist Konstantīns Karulis, and sociologist and historian Tālivaldis Vilciņš were just a few. Only during the Third National Awakening was the fully-fledged return of Legionnaires into society possible, which coincided with the actual renewal of Latvian sovereignty and the factual assessment of the events of World War II. It also strengthened the respectful attitude towards and collective memory about the experiences of Latvian Legionnaires during the war and the repressive post-war measures taken against them by the Soviet occupying regime.