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."
Russia often tries to turn the tables, accusing Latvia of Nazi sympathies during the war and discrimination against its ethnic Russian minority today. Some Latvians did join the Nazis to fight the Soviets and win their independence. Latvian officials insist they have bolstered the rights of Russians, who still make up 29 percent of the 2.3 million-strong population.
In an interview with Bush, a Russian television reporter pressed him on U.S. culpability for abandoning Eastern Europe to Communist rule after the war, noting that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill went along with Stalin's division of the continent at the Yalta conference in 1945. "There's no question three leaders made the decision," Bush conceded to NTV television in remarks released Friday.
The history of the period is documented at the occupation museum. Opened in 1993 and visited by 65,000 people a year, it has become the region's premier memorial to the suffering of the era.
By most accounts, the Soviets engineered provocations to send troops into Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in June 1940, then installed puppet governments, supposedly elected by margins of up to 99 percent of the population, which then asked to join the Soviet Union.
The Soviets moved quickly to deport Latvians en masse and relocate Russians into the states. In 1941, the Nazis captured the republics and held them until 1944, when the Soviets moved back in. About 550,000 Latvians, or one-third of the population, died during the two wartime occupations. Moscow remained in command until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Gundega Michel was born 11 days before Soviet troops first moved in and was a year old when 15,000 of her neighbors and countrymen were rounded up one night and loaded aboard cattle cars bound for Siberia. When she was 4 years old, her family escaped, remaining in exile for half a century. Eventually, she made her way to the United States, where she became a chemistry professor in Chicago.
After she retired, Michel came back to Latvia in January 2002 and took over as director of the museum. She found a homeland still bruised from an occupation Russia denies ever happened.
This week's statements out of Moscow, she said, reminded her of the museum's mission. "It makes us feel very, very badly," she said. "It's a denial of reality. Those who have lived through it, they're told, 'What you experienced, what you lived through, that's not real, that didn't happen.' "