KGB, torture and Soviet terror: why Latvia worries about today’s Russia

Full video transcript

KGB, torture and Soviet terror:

why Latvia worries about Russia

Latvia was

an independent and neutral country

when it was invaded

by Soviet troops in 1940.

For the next fifty years, Latvia lived

under an oppressive Soviet regime,

directed from Moscow. Since Latvia

restored its independence in 1990,

these physical relics are the main

reminders of the Soviet occupation.

But the mental reminders of

the Soviet years have been revived

by Russia's interference in security,

especially in Georgia and Ukraine.

NATO Review went to find out what

happened to Latvians in those years

and how it affects

their view of Russia today.

We thought that we had seen

the worst in Georgia.

It makes me very sad.

This is the first time

since the restoration of independence

where we feel that threat.

- That's a new situation.

I would never expect

a couple of years ago,

that this would be possible

in any part of Europe.

For many Latvians,

Russia's recent aggressive actions

towards its neighbours

bring back memories

of when the Soviet Union

invaded Latvia not once,

but twice

during the Second World War.

People in 1939 were

convinced that they were safe.

It's very sad

when you read people's memoires.

That last summer

of Latvian independence in 1940,

before the Russian troops marched in,

they truly were living happy lives

and saying: We're absolutely safe.

Nothing can touch us.

When the Soviets arrived,

one of the first things they did

was start to deport any Latvians

who they felt were a threat.

On the night

of the 14th of June 1941,

15,000 Latvians

were woken in the night

and forced to come

to the railway station

and they were pushed

into wagons such as these.

Of these 15,000,

2,400 were children.

As they left,

they tried to push out farewell notes

and they were scattered

on the tracks,

some of them never

reaching the families concerned.

Of those 15,000 who were

transported here, over half would die.

Those who wanted to avoid

deportation or worse, escaped.

Ojars Eriks Kalnins family

was one of those who escaped.

Today he is Chairman

of Latvia's Foreign Affairs Committee.

My parents lived through the last war.

I ended up growing up in the US,

but returned,

and I never imagined

on returning to Latvia

that I would face the same thing

that they lived through.

I hope that history

doesn't repeat itself.

The complacency

that some would exhibit by saying:

Oh, that's the Eastern neighbourhood.

It's their immediate neighbours

that are a danger,

it doesn’t concern us,

we are far away.

Please, do not fall into that illusion.

It's the sort of illusion that led

to the First and Second World Wars

and many unpleasant things

that happened in the world.

One of those unpleasant things was

the treatment of Latvians by the KGB.

And this is the KGB building in Riga

where some of the worst treatment

from torture to murder took place.

Let me give you

an idea of what it would be like

to be a prisoner

in this KGB cell in Riga.

The cell itself is

about 3 meters by 5 meters.

It has four wooden beds here

and the lights were on permanently,

so it would be very difficult to sleep.

In fact, the KGB agent looked

through the spy hole and saw

that a prisoner was asleep,

he would come in and wake him up.

There was a system

of heating downstairs

which meant

that the temperature within this cell

would be almost unbearable,

around 40 degrees.

But perhaps one of the worst things

about this, is that this cell,

designed to hold four prisoners,

at times held up to 42 of them.

And for those prisoners

that the KGB really wanted to break,

this was the method:

a solitary confinement cell

of less than 1 meter by 1 meter.

No opportunity to lie down.

Prisoners could be in here

for three days.

And, to make matters even worse,

during that time,

repetitive noises

designed to break the mind,

were pumped through

through the ceiling.

And this is

the exercise yard of the KGB building

where one day in every three,

if prisoners were lucky,

they would be allowed

to have a walk and exercise here.

However, it would be just

for ten minutes, and even then,

whilst they walked, they would be

viewed by a KGB officer above.

The reason for this ten minutes, was

not to give the prisoners some relief.

The reason was to show them

the freedom that they were missing.

And finally, this is the execution

room where prisoners were shot.

When the Nazis came to Riga

in 1941 and discovered this building,

there were 240 bullet casings

on the floor alone.

The room has been designed

in such a way to be very easy

to execute and clean up afterwards,

as there's a slope down

so the blood could be

washed away immediately after.

And it was in this room that

many of the Latvian KGB prisoners

the journey ended for them.

Sandra Kalniete's family were less

lucky than those who could escape.

Her family were deported

to Siberia where she was born.

She didn't actually

see Latvia until she was aged 7.

As an adult

she started challenging the system

and one of her most

memorable contributions

was organizing the human chain

across the Baltic States in 1989,

which became known

as the Baltic Way.

The first one was to attract

the attention of the West

and to remind to the world society

that for the Baltic States

the Second World War has not ended

and that we still are occupied.

But another goal of course

was to show to Moscow

that this is our very strong will.

I think it touched many people

and this was something,

which during the first ten years

after independence

was vastly remembered.

I for instance,

I made a trip to Morocco

and I was buying

something in the local souk

and I was asked where I am from.

I said: Baltic Sea, Latvia.

Yeah, he answered, he knows.

It’s where people were holding hands.

Independence from the Soviet Union

was followed by a quest to join NATO.

And the effects of joining

the alliance were profound.

I remember in front of Riga castle

we had a ceremony raising the flag

and there were

elderly people in the audience

openly crying and saying:

I have been exiled to Siberia.

I have seen how quickly

a country can lose its independence

when it thought itself

safe from attack

because of its neutrality

and prosperity and so on.

I'm so relieved now

that I feel we have a chance,

my grandson,

whom he held in his arms,

that he would not have to go through

what I went through in my life.

I have a grandson, you know.

Once he came back

from school and said:

Is it true there will be war?

You see, even children are afraid.

Keeping them informed

about what happened

to their parents and grandparents

is one of Latvia's biggest defences.

I think our schools

should remind them of the dangers.

But also, they should look

at what's happening in the world.

None of us should feel

complacent or entirely safe,

just because we wish to be.

So how do young Latvians

see their history?

Last year, we had

an exam about Latvian history,

about all the Second World War.

So, I think I actually kind of know.

I can’t explain, but I know

quite much about these times

from my granny,

and so it's worrying me.

What do they think

of what's happening today?

I think everything will be OK. I'm kind

of optimistic about that. I hope so.

But things are not black and white.

Latvia has

a Russian-speaking minority,

which ranges from a quarter

to a third of the population.

And protecting such a minority

was one of the excuses

used by Russia

to invade both Ukraine and Georgia.

The difference of opinions

can perhaps be best illustrated

by the feelings

towards this monument behind me.

It was built in 1985,

officially to commemorate the victims

who died in bringing victory

over Nazi Germany in 1945.

However, some Latvians see this

as a symbol of the old Soviet regime

and there have been more than

one attempts to bomb the monument.

On the other hand,

Russian-speaking Latvians

commemorate 9th of May

here in their thousands

and have vowed

to protect the monument.

And the Russian-speaking

community can feel strongly

that Russia has been victimized.

This feeling can even be found

amongst the younger population.

People in the West,

so, like America and West Europe,

they have made this

like revolution in Ukraine and so,

I don't think

that Russia made something wrong.

I think they've made everything right.

But regardless of the theories,

the fact is that 2014

is Latvia's tenth year in NATO.

So, what would be happening now

if the country hadn't joined NATO?

I don't think I want to imagine that.

I'm glad that

that's not a reality anymore.

We might have seen little green men

or tanks rolling across our borders.

Do you feel that NATO means much

more in this part of the alliance?

I think it means everything.

It means our security

and it has reasserted itself

in our minds after ten years.

It has proven why we needed to join.

You personally, I've talked

to others who were affected

by what happened

during the war and after the war,

what does this mean to you to see

this kind of thing happening again?

Well, it makes me very sad.

We really did think

it was behind us, you see.

And it makes me very sad.

KGB, torture and Soviet terror:

why Latvia worries about Russia

Latvia was

an independent and neutral country

when it was invaded

by Soviet troops in 1940.

For the next fifty years, Latvia lived

under an oppressive Soviet regime,

directed from Moscow. Since Latvia

restored its independence in 1990,

these physical relics are the main

reminders of the Soviet occupation.

But the mental reminders of

the Soviet years have been revived

by Russia's interference in security,

especially in Georgia and Ukraine.

NATO Review went to find out what

happened to Latvians in those years

and how it affects

their view of Russia today.

We thought that we had seen

the worst in Georgia.

It makes me very sad.

This is the first time

since the restoration of independence

where we feel that threat.

- That's a new situation.

I would never expect

a couple of years ago,

that this would be possible

in any part of Europe.

For many Latvians,

Russia's recent aggressive actions

towards its neighbours

bring back memories

of when the Soviet Union

invaded Latvia not once,

but twice

during the Second World War.

People in 1939 were

convinced that they were safe.

It's very sad

when you read people's memoires.

That last summer

of Latvian independence in 1940,

before the Russian troops marched in,

they truly were living happy lives

and saying: We're absolutely safe.

Nothing can touch us.

When the Soviets arrived,

one of the first things they did

was start to deport any Latvians

who they felt were a threat.

On the night

of the 14th of June 1941,

15,000 Latvians

were woken in the night

and forced to come

to the railway station

and they were pushed

into wagons such as these.

Of these 15,000,

2,400 were children.

As they left,

they tried to push out farewell notes

and they were scattered

on the tracks,

some of them never

reaching the families concerned.

Of those 15,000 who were

transported here, over half would die.

Those who wanted to avoid

deportation or worse, escaped.

Ojars Eriks Kalnins family

was one of those who escaped.

Today he is Chairman

of Latvia's Foreign Affairs Committee.

My parents lived through the last war.

I ended up growing up in the US,

but returned,

and I never imagined

on returning to Latvia

that I would face the same thing

that they lived through.

I hope that history

doesn't repeat itself.

The complacency

that some would exhibit by saying:

Oh, that's the Eastern neighbourhood.

It's their immediate neighbours

that are a danger,

it doesn’t concern us,

we are far away.

Please, do not fall into that illusion.

It's the sort of illusion that led

to the First and Second World Wars

and many unpleasant things

that happened in the world.

One of those unpleasant things was

the treatment of Latvians by the KGB.

And this is the KGB building in Riga

where some of the worst treatment

from torture to murder took place.

Let me give you

an idea of what it would be like

to be a prisoner

in this KGB cell in Riga.

The cell itself is

about 3 meters by 5 meters.

It has four wooden beds here

and the lights were on permanently,

so it would be very difficult to sleep.

In fact, the KGB agent looked

through the spy hole and saw

that a prisoner was asleep,

he would come in and wake him up.

There was a system

of heating downstairs

which meant

that the temperature within this cell

would be almost unbearable,

around 40 degrees.

But perhaps one of the worst things

about this, is that this cell,

designed to hold four prisoners,

at times held up to 42 of them.

And for those prisoners

that the KGB really wanted to break,

this was the method:

a solitary confinement cell

of less than 1 meter by 1 meter.

No opportunity to lie down.

Prisoners could be in here

for three days.

And, to make matters even worse,

during that time,

repetitive noises

designed to break the mind,

were pumped through

through the ceiling.

And this is

the exercise yard of the KGB building

where one day in every three,

if prisoners were lucky,

they would be allowed

to have a walk and exercise here.

However, it would be just

for ten minutes, and even then,

whilst they walked, they would be

viewed by a KGB officer above.

The reason for this ten minutes, was

not to give the prisoners some relief.

The reason was to show them

the freedom that they were missing.

And finally, this is the execution

room where prisoners were shot.

When the Nazis came to Riga

in 1941 and discovered this building,

there were 240 bullet casings

on the floor alone.

The room has been designed

in such a way to be very easy

to execute and clean up afterwards,

as there's a slope down

so the blood could be

washed away immediately after.

And it was in this room that

many of the Latvian KGB prisoners

the journey ended for them.

Sandra Kalniete's family were less

lucky than those who could escape.

Her family were deported

to Siberia where she was born.

She didn't actually

see Latvia until she was aged 7.

As an adult

she started challenging the system

and one of her most

memorable contributions

was organizing the human chain

across the Baltic States in 1989,

which became known

as the Baltic Way.

The first one was to attract

the attention of the West

and to remind to the world society

that for the Baltic States

the Second World War has not ended

and that we still are occupied.

But another goal of course

was to show to Moscow

that this is our very strong will.

I think it touched many people

and this was something,

which during the first ten years

after independence

was vastly remembered.

I for instance,

I made a trip to Morocco

and I was buying

something in the local souk

and I was asked where I am from.

I said: Baltic Sea, Latvia.

Yeah, he answered, he knows.

It’s where people were holding hands.

Independence from the Soviet Union

was followed by a quest to join NATO.

And the effects of joining

the alliance were profound.

I remember in front of Riga castle

we had a ceremony raising the flag

and there were

elderly people in the audience

openly crying and saying:

I have been exiled to Siberia.

I have seen how quickly

a country can lose its independence

when it thought itself

safe from attack

because of its neutrality

and prosperity and so on.

I'm so relieved now

that I feel we have a chance,

my grandson,

whom he held in his arms,

that he would not have to go through

what I went through in my life.

I have a grandson, you know.

Once he came back

from school and said:

Is it true there will be war?

You see, even children are afraid.

Keeping them informed

about what happened

to their parents and grandparents

is one of Latvia's biggest defences.

I think our schools

should remind them of the dangers.

But also, they should look

at what's happening in the world.

None of us should feel

complacent or entirely safe,

just because we wish to be.

So how do young Latvians

see their history?

Last year, we had

an exam about Latvian history,

about all the Second World War.

So, I think I actually kind of know.

I can’t explain, but I know

quite much about these times

from my granny,

and so it's worrying me.

What do they think

of what's happening today?

I think everything will be OK. I'm kind

of optimistic about that. I hope so.

But things are not black and white.

Latvia has

a Russian-speaking minority,

which ranges from a quarter

to a third of the population.

And protecting such a minority

was one of the excuses

used by Russia

to invade both Ukraine and Georgia.

The difference of opinions

can perhaps be best illustrated

by the feelings

towards this monument behind me.

It was built in 1985,

officially to commemorate the victims

who died in bringing victory

over Nazi Germany in 1945.

However, some Latvians see this

as a symbol of the old Soviet regime

and there have been more than

one attempts to bomb the monument.

On the other hand,

Russian-speaking Latvians

commemorate 9th of May

here in their thousands

and have vowed

to protect the monument.

And the Russian-speaking

community can feel strongly

that Russia has been victimized.

This feeling can even be found

amongst the younger population.

People in the West,

so, like America and West Europe,

they have made this

like revolution in Ukraine and so,

I don't think

that Russia made something wrong.

I think they've made everything right.

But regardless of the theories,

the fact is that 2014

is Latvia's tenth year in NATO.

So, what would be happening now

if the country hadn't joined NATO?

I don't think I want to imagine that.

I'm glad that

that's not a reality anymore.

We might have seen little green men

or tanks rolling across our borders.

Do you feel that NATO means much

more in this part of the alliance?

I think it means everything.

It means our security

and it has reasserted itself

in our minds after ten years.

It has proven why we needed to join.

You personally, I've talked

to others who were affected

by what happened

during the war and after the war,

what does this mean to you to see

this kind of thing happening again?

Well, it makes me very sad.

We really did think

it was behind us, you see.

And it makes me very sad.