Memories of Soviet Repression Still Vivid in Baltics

Storefronts in Riga display posters of President Bush, who arrived in the Latvian capital Friday to meet with the leaders of the three Baltic states.
Storefronts in Riga display posters of President Bush, who arrived in the Latvian capital Friday to meet with the leaders of the three Baltic states. (By Mindaugas Kulbis -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

RIGA, Latvia, May 6 -- The rusted helmets, pistols and knives tell part of the story. The worn boots, tattered prison clothes and slave laborer serial numbers fill out the picture. And then there is the life-size reproduction of a gulag barracks where inmates slept on wood-slatted platforms and shared a single primitive toilet.

The nerves are still raw here at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia more than six decades after Soviet troops rolled across the countryside to seize this seaside capital and all three independent Baltic states. As Russia prepares to host President Bush and other world leaders for a Red Square celebration of the end of World War II, Latvia and its neighbors find themselves once again haunted by memories of the Soviet repression they were left to endure.

"It's still a very, very living and present topic," said museum director Gundega Michel. "Sometimes in passing by, people say, 'That's the old stuff, why do you still focus on the old stuff?' But for the people who lived through it, it's still part of their nightmares."

To show that the United States appreciates the ambiguous legacy of the anniversary, President Bush, who landed here Friday night, will pay tribute Saturday to Baltic independence from Communist tyranny before traveling to Moscow. First lady Laura Bush will visit the occupation museum.

As the president begins his five-day trip to Europe, Russia and Georgia, White House officials have been stunned at how quickly it has become caught up in a fresh debate over the legacy of the Soviet Union. An acrid exchange between Washington, Moscow and the Baltic capitals over long-ago events has overshadowed the Victory Day commemoration.

Moscow has bristled at U.S. and Baltic suggestions that it should repudiate the secret 1939 pact between dictators Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler that led to the Soviet occupation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Although the Soviet Union declared the pact null and void 16 years ago, Russia has lately reprised the Stalinist assertion that it did not forcibly occupy the Baltic states but was invited in.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told German television Friday that the 1989 declaration was enough. "We've already done this," he said. "We must, what, do it every day, every year?" In a separate interview with the German newspaper Bild, he maintained that Stalin was not as bad as Hitler. "I cannot agree with equating Stalin with Hitler," he said. "Yes, Stalin was certainly a tyrant and many call him a criminal, but he was not a Nazi."

As Bush headed his way, Putin rejected U.S. criticism of his crackdown on democratic institutions in post-Soviet Russia. Russian elections may be even more democratic than U.S. contests, he told CBS's "60 Minutes," because the American president is selected indirectly by an electoral college.

The Russian refusal to accept responsibility for Soviet dictatorship in the Baltic republics has renewed long-standing frictions with the three states, which joined the NATO alliance and the European Union last year. The leaders of Estonia and Lithuania are boycotting Monday's ceremonies in Moscow.

"By coming to the Baltic states, President Bush is underscoring the double meaning of these events," said Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who plans to attend to improve relations with Moscow. While victory over Hitler meant freedom for many, she told a news conference, "for others it meant slavery, it meant occupation, it meant subjugation, and it meant Stalinist terror."

In an interview, Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks said Russia appears intent on reclaiming lost greatness through "domination" of its neighbors. "We do not hate Russians, we do not hate Russia. We simply want to be left alone," he said.

But, Pabriks added, "It's not easy to forgive, and it's especially difficult to forgive those who never asked for forgiveness."

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