Crackdown on Latvian religion hides Soviet fear of nationalism

Soviet repression in Latvia has taken a bizarre turn. After several arrests and trials directed against Latvian Baptists, the KGB has started persecuting Dievturi, a people professing a pre-Christian Latvian folk religion revived in the 1920s, according to Latvian exile sources.

The apparent reason for the persecution is that the modern practice of Dievturi involves nationalism, pacifism, and ecology. Ints Calitis, a Latvian peace activist involved in the Dievturi cult, was reported by Tass as having been sentenced to six years' imprisonment in Riga recently for alleged anti-state and Nazi activities. In fact, Calitis once signed an appeal by Balts demanding that the 1939 pact between Stalin and Hitler be annulled, pointing to the illegitimacy of the Nazi regime.

Exile sources report that on the day of Calitis's trial, Sept. 15, the KGB arrested Gunars Astra, a friend of Calitis and a witness at the trial. It isn't known what charges were brought against Astra, but Julijs Kadelis, who runs an information center for the World Federation of Free Latvians in Munster, West Germany, thinks Astra was seized for something he said at the trial. Astra served a 15-year prison sentence from 1961 to 1976 on charges of treason and organizing anti-state activity.

Kadelis says there have been signs that the Latvian KGB may be preparing to arrest Kadelis's sister, Maija, who is also linked with the Latvian folk religion. The Dievturi cult is based on values reflected in more than 100,000 Latvian folk songs. Ethnographers in the West say Baltic folklore contains few ethnic prejudices, almost no concept of the national state and nature, and peace-loving values.

The crackdown may also be one reason for the persecution of poet Gunars Freimanis, who is expected to be tried soon on charges of anti-Soviet activity. He is considered a sympathizer of the folk religion movement. Kadelis in Munster worries that his trial may produce more arrests, possibly of witnesses at the proceedings.

The arrests of Dievturi cult followers are an obvious attempt to crush any effort to mask nationalist feelings under the cloak of Latvian folklore or the revival of ancient traditions, as well as to discourage any modern-day application of the faith to questions of war, peace, and Soviet environmental policy. But in 1985, Soviet Latvia celebrates the 150th birthday of the great Latvian folklorist Krisjanis Barons, whose multivolume collection of dainas, or folk songs, is still a source for anyone interested in the subject - cultist and researcher alike.

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