Riga, Latvia, USSR — When word of strikes in the Polish port of Gdansk first reached Riga, only 450 miles northeast along the Baltic coast, Latvians snapped up copies of Polish newspapers and tuned in shortwave radios with intense interest.
The Polish communist paper Trybuna Ludu, regularly on sale here, sold out so fast Riga residents were forced to hunt from kiosk to kiosk, from shop to shop, for copies.
"We also tried to buy the London communist paper Morning Star, which had many more details than our own controlled press," one Rigan told me as we walked through this ancient, brooding, Germanic city. With 850,000 people, Riga is the largest center in the three Soviet Baltic republics.
"Bews kiosks ran out. We tuned in Latvian broadcasts from the West. They weren't jammed, although Russian-language programs were."
Factory workers discussed the Polish events among themselves. I was todl there was a feeling of "envy -- but we all knew that Moscow would never allow such strikes or such demands here."
Despite that realistic assessment, the keen interest here is exactly the kind of reaction the Kremlin wants to stamp out within the Soviet Union.
And it shows the attraction the strike issue holds for many Soviet workers, even as Moscow continues warning the West to stay out of Polish affairs.
Kremlin concern about the interst in the West in Polish strikes and concessions surfaced Sept. 27 in an authoritative commentary signed Alexei Petrov -- thought to be a pseudonymn indicating authorship by the Soviet Foreign Ministry.
The article denounced a debate on Poland by the European Parliament in Strasbourg, calling the debate itself an interference in Polish internal affairs. Pravda praised the Polish Communist Party, repeated claims that the Soviet Union was Poland's true friend and protector, and warned for the third time in a month against thoe who "gleefully contemplate and try to exacerbate the difficulties" facing the Polish party and workers.
Here i n Riga, which has a long history of contacts with Poland, both intellectuals and pro-Soviet officials spoke of the local interest in Polish affairs.
"Yes, we followed the news closely," said one official.
"Gdansk is not very far away from us. But I think those workers who went on strike suffered: They stayed away from work for so long."
"What do you think of their demand for independent trade unions?" I asked.
The official laughed. "Let them do what they want to do in their own country ," he replied. "They have only made things worse for themselves. Now they have a new government. . . ." He shook his head.
"Could such independent unions ever come here?" I asked.
The official laughed again and shook his head.
Meanwhile, other Latvians, who prize their own traditional nationalism and culture and have little sympathy for the ruling Russian Slavs, said events in Poland created a stir here and elsewhere in the Baltic region.
"Events in Afghanistan are remote from ys here," said one woman. "But Poland -- well, we have a long history of close ties with Polish culture -- unlike the Lithuanians who have fought the Poles for centuries. We know the Poles have more freedom to travel than we do.
"Frankly, we are envious that the Polish workers have been able to strike and to win concessions from their government."
Many Latvians followed events in Poland on their shortwave radios. Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian broadcasts from the Voice of America, the BBC, and the West German Deutsche Welle stations have not been jammed so far, though Russian-language programs have been blocked.
Factory workers around Riga discussed Polish events among themselves. Comments ran like this:
"Just look at what the Poles are achieving. But Moscow won't allow it here. And Moscoew will do all it can to suppress the concessions already granted Poland."
Said one Latvian intellectual: "It just can't happen here. But we hope that local party and government bosses will take account of what happened in Poland, and fight against corruption here in Latvia, or replace older trade union leaders with younger men.
"Many people here are privately dissatisfied with our trade unions and believe them to be organs that simplly carry out decisions already made elsewhere."
Soviet authorities in Riga reacted to the local interest. Copies of the Morning Star were held back from distribution, according to local sources. At least one Latvian tourist trip to Poland was canceled in August.
The local press published only reports from the Soviet news agency Tass, with details of Polish political demands omitted. The strikes were made to look like they involved economic issues only.
One commentator in the official Latvian youth newspaper echoed the Moscow line by saying the Polish party had planned all necessary reforms but had failed to implement them in time.