RIGA, Latvia—In the decade since Latvia became independent, the headlines often have trumpeted what would be considered old news in other countries. Lately, 1949 has become a hot topic again as Latvians debate the actions of Nikolai Larionov.
The 81-year-old retiree, a one-time agent of the Soviet secret police, is on trial for genocide, accused by Latvian prosecutors of helping organize the 1949 deportation of more than 500 Latvians to Siberia. Many were women and children. More than 60 died.
Larionov's case is the most recent in a string of such prosecutions since the Soviet Union's collapse allowed Latvia and the two other Baltic countries, Lithuania and Estonia, to regain the freedom lost during World War II. In recent years, nothing has proved more divisive than such trials in a country where rifts run deep between those who suffered under Joseph Stalin's regime and those who participated in it.
In a place where the ghosts of the 20th century still loom large in the 21st, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 is mentioned in interviews almost as frequently as the latest economic indicators, and no political issue has as much resonance today as what happened in 1949. Across the three Baltic countries, the memory of the 140,000 families Stalin deported to Siberia during and after World War II has been zealously resurrected.
“Of course it's relevant,” said Larionov's attorney, Alexander Ogurtsovs. “Even today, almost every family in Latvia was repressed in some way. It's hard to find anyone here whose relatives weren’t connected with repression or repressed.”
The Latvian government takes the position that it is not prosecuting the Soviet system, just going after individuals accused of wrongdoing, such as Larionov.
“This is not about collective responsibility, this is about individuals,” said State Secretary Maris Riekstins, the top professional diplomat in the Latvian Foreign Ministry. “This is not about collective responsibility of Russians as a nation.”
But for Russia, and the more than 700,000 ethnic Russians still living here, it's pure revenge.
In Moscow, hardly a week goes by without the Foreign Ministry denouncing Latvia for cases like Larionov's, while here in the Latvian capital, ethnic Russians see an effort to score political advantage.
“We should have long ago put a full stop to this historical settling of accounts and look to the future,” said Ksenia Zagorovska, editor in chief of Chas, a Russian-language daily. Like other Russians here, she believes such trials are a matter of politics. “It's a useful thing for those parties who are interested in fanning disputes between ethnic communities,” she said.
Top Russian officials reinforce that idea.
Larionov's trial is a “psychological persecution” of “an elderly, sick man,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov recently. In pursuing Larionov, “the Latvian judicial system is once again demonstrating to the whole civilized world its disregard for the principles of universal international documents,” he added, according to the Interfax news agency.
Latvians should be doing less to go after Soviet-era crimes and more to address their own history of collaborating with Nazi Germany, Malakhov continued. “If Latvia is truly interested in building an image of a democratic country and a good neighbor with Russia, instead of squaring accounts with fighters against fascism, its authorities should seriously get down to business and look for former Nazi criminals.”
Listening to such statements, Latvian officials like Riekstins see a rear-guard effort to needle, pester and generally annoy a former colony the Russians can no longer subjugate. The Latvians point out that it was only in the late 1980s, as the Baltic independence movement was gaining steam, that the Kremlin belatedly announced it had discovered the existence of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which divided Europe between Hitler and Stalin and placed the three Baltic countries squarely in Stalin's territory.
Officially, as Riekstins noted recently, the Russian Foreign Ministry considers the absorption of Latvia into the Soviet Union a matter of free will, citing the “invitation” from the Soviet-installed puppet government, while the Latvian government calls it an “illegal occupation.”
Russia, he and others noted, is never interested in discussing deportations like those being prosecuted in the Larionov case. In its own post-Soviet decade, Russia has not gone through a legal process of accounting for the crimes of the Stalin era. There has never been a Nuremberg-type prosecution of those responsible for the labor camps and the mass killings, and most Russians say they prefer to look ahead rather than back at the murders of a previous government.
Latvia has its share of current concerns to tackle: dismal Soviet-era hospitals; poor rural areas untouched by a decade of the Baltic “economic miracle” so evident in this prosperous capital; corruption so rampant that Transparency International, which monitors the problem, recently ranked Latvia as the second-most corrupt country of those hoping to join the European Union.
But here and in the other Baltic states, the arguments over history continue. In the Larionov case, which was scheduled to resume yesterday in a courtroom just outside Riga after lengthy delays caused by the defendant's health, Latvian prosecutors are litigating anew one of the most painful episodes of their Soviet past: the mass deportations, starting on March 25, 1949, that took place as part of Stalin's order to forcibly impose collectivization of agriculture on the Baltics.
Altogether, 42,133 people were deported from Latvia, accused of being kulaks, or rich peasants, along with thousands more from the other Baltic countries. In total, 94,799 people from the Baltics were sent to labor camps in Siberia in just a few days.
Larionov, an officer in the State Security Ministry at the time, allegedly was responsible for 500 of the deportations. He does not deny taking part in what Russians still call the “repressions.” The issue for him and his legal team is whether he should now be held accountable for following orders—a debate familiar from decades of Nazi war crimes trials.
“It's a mistake to prosecute him,” said his attorney, Ogurtsovs. “The whole system participated. They shouldn’t hold responsible only those people at low levels. This is wrong. A typist might have had a stronger impact on somebody's life than these people.”
Talk about the Larionov case quickly turns to a detailed discussion of Communist bureaucratic practices. The recounting serves as a reminder of how huge an apparatus participated in the massive gulag prison system, which sent millions of Soviet citizens to their deaths.
As a bureaucrat in the secret police, Ogurtsovs argued, Larionov came into the deportation process long after it had been ordained. He was handed a list with 500 names on it, his attorney said, and told to check each one to determine whether the individual belonged on it. People were removed from the list only if it could be proved that they had served in the Red Army or had been decorated by the Soviet Union.
“He did not make decisions, with the exception of one thing—to decide whether a person had reasons for not being deported,” Ogurtsovs said. “Clearly, he indirectly participated in it, but his participation was less than the driver of the truck or train that took them away, for example.”
For Ogurtsovs, an ethnic Latvian who has represented a long list of accused Stalin-era killers in the decade since Latvian independence, the matter seems clear. “I’m Latvian, but our nation has got its negative sides, especially vengefulness,” he said. In this trial, he said, and all the others, “the goal is to make enemies out of those who used to be heroes.”