Latvian recalls life as a revolutionary and as a prisoner of Stalin

At the age of 16, Peteris Shmidre was a revolutionary, at 18 a political prisoner, and at 21 he took part in the 1917 Russian Revolution. He went back into prison, camps, and exile under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. One brother was killed by the Nazis during World War II, another close relative died under Stalin. Now, he lives quietly here in Riga, still a convinced communist and an enthusiastic though somewhat impatient supporter of the present political reforms.

He would especially like to see the process of de-Stalinization - repudiation of Stalin's methods and the full discussion of his crimes - move much faster.

``Under Stalin, people lost any sense of morality. To lie was the norm. We have to reestablish morality, or we'll never get out of this dead end,'' Mr. Shmidre said in a recent interview with the Monitor.

Shmidre is one of the last survivors of Latvian units of the czarist army who, in 1917, rallied to the Russian Revolution, providing the nucleus of the Red Army. (At the time of the revolution, Latvia had been part of the Russian Empire for nearly 200 years.)

Born in 1896, Mr. Shmidre started work as a shepherd when he was 9 or 10 years old. He moved to the Latvian city of Riga in 1912, and soon afterward became a member of the forerunner of today's Communist Party. In 1914, he was sentenced to two years prison for handing out revolutionary leaflets. On his release, he joined a Latvian unit of the czarist army.

When Vladimir Lenin seized power in November 1917, the Latvian units, encouraged by Bolshevik organizers like Shmidre, declared their support for the new government. Shmidre enumerated some of the Latvian riflemen's services to Russia's revolutionary rulers.

``The riflemen dissolved the Constituent Assembly [parliament],'' at Lenin's orders in January 1918, he said. The Bolsheviks were in a minority in the assembly. ``They protected Lenin. They provided security for the Soviet government when it moved the capital from Petrograd [Leningrad] to Moscow [in 1918]. And they helped put down the Kronstadt uprising'' in 1921, by sailors opposed to the Bolsheviks.

By 1920, when he left the armed forces, Shmidre had become political commissar in an artillery division. He went back to school, finally graduating in the mid-1920s as a forestry engineer. Soon after that he began to run into political problems.

``In 1927, I was accused of belonging to a faction. I was given a warning. No one bothered to explain whether I was supposed to have been in a left- or right-wing faction.''

The accusation was trumped up, he says. The real reason was Stalin's attitude to the Latvians. ``He never trusted us.'' They were too independent. ``We wanted to discuss [new] policies, not just learn them by heart.''

In the early '30s, he worked in forestry. ``Then, in 1936, I was expelled from the party and sent into exile. I wrote to Stalin asking for reinstatement.'' Shmidre thought it was a misunderstanding. ``But I accepted the decision. I never allowed myself to doubt the correctness of the state security organs.''

In October 1938, he was arrested. ``After a fairly lengthy investigation,'' he says laconically, ``I was sentenced to death.'' The investigation had lasted two years. He was accused of a variety of crimes, including sabotage and espionage. ``It was absurd. The investigator knew the charges were stupid. But we, the accused, had to prove that we were innocent.''

The constant interrogations, he said, had a strange effect. ``After a while, I began to wonder whether I wasn't guilty of something after all. It seemed almost like hypnosis.'' Years after his release, Shmidre says, he would have ``strange dreams in which I really had carried out terrible [political] crimes.''

``At the trial, they didn't even bother to read out the charges. The judge knew it was absurd.'' He refused to appeal for clemency, but asked for a review. His sentence was commuted to eight years in the camps.

After his arrest, Shmidre's wife took their young son to live with relatives, then divorced him and remarried. ``She did the right thing,'' Shmidre says. ``I can't reproach her. After all, we believed in the state security organs. She thought the accusations were true.'' To protect their son, Shmidre's wife changed his surname to the Russian-sounding Shmidrov.

In 1946, he was released and returned to Latvia, but for the next 10 years remained a nonperson. ``I wasn't allowed to work as an engineer. For a time I was a watchman.'' Each time he applied for a new job he had to fill out a form that included the question, ``Have you ever been convicted for an offense?''

``I would write yes, of course. The next question was: What offense? I always wrote: Nothing.''

He says he detected signs of sympathy from people during those years, ``but they were scared of showing it openly. There was an atmosphere of fear.'' In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, Shmidre was rehabilitated and his party membership was restored.

Shmidre expressed some understanding of young Latvians who recently demonstrated in Riga to mark the anniversary of Stalin's deportations of Latvians in 1940. The government tolerated the demonstration, but later denounced some of the demonstrators as hooligans.

There may have been some, Shmidre says. ``But perhaps people were there for purely family reasons - a lot of people perished under Stalin.''

Until quite recently, he noted at the end of an interview, meeting an American journalist would have been considered a serious offense. Explaining his decision to talk to one for the first time, he said, ``We have to show people in America and the West that we are not barbarians, but that we are trying, despite terrible mistakes, to work for a better future.''

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