Why a nearly 30-year-old list of names is roiling modern Latvia

Ints Kalnins/Reuters/File
A photographer takes a picture inside the walking inner courtyard for prisoners in the former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) headquarters, popularly known as Corner House, in Riga, Latvia, in April 2014. During the 50 years of the occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union, the KGB headquarters in Riga became a prominent symbol of totalitarian power.
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There were no tears when the KGB fled Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1991; the Soviet security agency was deeply reviled across the Baltics for its role in their oppression. But in Latvia, the KGB left behind a dossier of some 4,500 people who served as agents and contacts in the 1980s. Ever since, the country’s politicians have debated whether or not to make the list of names public. One of the complicating factors is that the catalog says nothing about what the KGB's contacts actually did, or why. And there are fears that the Soviets may have left the dossier behind to sow uncertainty in the young country. The largest issue may be what happens if all the names are published. Latvians were shocked in 2016 when a famous poet confessed he had been a KGB informant. “I have a feeling that I am a murderer and that I carry the corpse inside me. I have killed my life, myself, and my honesty,” he said.

Why We Wrote This

As a nation transitions from occupied state to democracy, is it better to reveal or destroy the identities of informants in order for a nation to move on? Latvia is still deciding which way to go.

More than a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, the three former occupied Baltic states are still agonizing over the legacy of their harrowing, respective “Soviet times.”

In the case of Latvia, dealing with that legacy is particularly controversial because of its physical nature: a catalog of 4,500 people who served as agents and contacts for the KGB during the 1980s. Ever since it was left behind in 1991 when the Soviets evacuated, as the Latvians were taking back their independence, politicians have wrestled with the question of whether the list should be made public.

One of the reasons is that the catalog is incomplete: It says nothing about what the contacts actually did, or why. Now, in the wake of a report by the government’s KGB Scientific Commission, this Pandora’s box-like issue has come to the fore again.

Why We Wrote This

As a nation transitions from occupied state to democracy, is it better to reveal or destroy the identities of informants in order for a nation to move on? Latvia is still deciding which way to go.

“Dealing with the aftermath of totalitarianism is a complicated matter for the countries that were under the domination of the Soviet Union during the cold war,” says Pauls Raudseps, an American journalist of Latvian descent who has been working in Riga since 1990. “However in Latvia’s case the issue is even more complicated because of the incomplete nature of the available KGB materials.”

Although the shadow of the USSR and the KGB still hangs over all three Baltic states, the fact that the KGB was unable to remove all its archives from Latvia means that the process of purging the country of the Soviet occupation is somewhat further behind here.

It is hard to exaggerate the effect that the KGB had on Latvia, says Aiva Rozenberga, director of the Latvian Institute, a government institution that promotes Latvia abroad. “Either at your job or your social activities or when meeting relatives from abroad, you were always surrounded by some ‘eyes’ or ‘ears’ that could put you in danger. There was always a risk that one of your ‘dear colleagues’ or even ‘friends’ could report on what you have said, even what kind of jokes you told.”

This left a hidden layer of “trauma,” as Ms. Rozenberga describes it, one which many Latvians are reluctant to discuss, or even acknowledge, today.

Now, the risk of revisiting that trauma by publicizing the list’s names threatens to wreak havoc on Latvian society, as well as the future of Latvian democracy – which some worry may have been the Soviets’ intent in the first place. That is one of the reasons why Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who served as president from 1999 to 2007, thrice vetoed the Latvian parliament’s decision to open the archives, once in 2004 and twice in 2006. It is a decision she still stands behind.

“We have to consider the possibility that the KGB deliberately left the incomplete archives in order to create trouble for Latvia,” says Dr. Vīķe-Freiberga. More importantly, “we know that many important files were destroyed and others taken to Moscow” when the Russians evacuated.

Kārlis Kangeris, a former professor and head of the KGB commission, scoffs at the notion that the records were deliberately left incomplete. He says that the manner in which they were left was the accidental result of the haste with which the KGB had to evacuate Latvia – an accident which the government is duty-bound to take advantage of in order to expose the former KGB agents who he feels sure now live and work in Latvia.

Vīķe-Freiberga disagrees. “Just publishing the names of people with an agent’s card seems to me to be insufficient,” says the former president, who remains the country’s best known public figure. “I look forward to getting more information from the commission about exactly how the KGB operated in Latvia.”

Whether that information, or the list itself will become available – as the commission, whose report has been “conceptually” accepted by the parliament, recommended – remains unclear. The imbroglio is further complicated by questions which some have raised about the quality of the Kangeris commission’s work.

“This issue – to open the records or not – continues to be a ‘heavy’ topic for our society, as well as our legislators,” says Annija Emersone, a former journalist who worked as a museum assistant at the former KGB headquarters in Riga, also known as the Corner House, after it was opened to the public in 2014. “However,” she adds, “the challenge of catalyzing the political will and support from the parties in power to enact those recommendations is still ahead of us.”

A poet's confession

A core concern for many here is what happens after the list is finally published.

Latvians got an idea of what may be in store in December 2016, when a celebrated poet confessed to having worked for the tormentors of the Corner House. “I was a KGB agent,” said Jānis Rokpelnis, revealing that his job was to report on the mood of civil society groups. “I have a feeling that I am a murderer and that I carry the corpse inside me. I have killed my life, myself, and my honesty,” he said.

Mr. Rokpelnis’s confession astounded his countrymen. Some praised him for his forthrightness. Others branded him a traitor. What would happen if and when the 4,500 contacts on the fateful list are compelled to explain what they did – or did not do – for the still hated KGB?

That question also weighed on the mind of Valdis Zatlers, the president from 2007 to 2011. It weighed even heavier after Dr. Zatlers took the opportunity to examine the KGB archives himself. “To see some of my friends there was a big surprise,” he says. “Some of them did very nasty things.”

However, although he continues to share many of Vīķe-Freiberga’s reservations about the lustration process, Zatlers says that he has changed his mind about whether the list should see the light of day. He feels it is better now to open the records and let the chips fall where they may. “It makes no sense to keep secrets,” he said. “It’s much better to disclose all the documents and end speculation.”

Even if the dossier is published and the names revealed, it remains an open question if Latvia will ever fully face up to its past and finally put the Soviet time, including the depredations of the KGB, to bed. But perhaps that’s not so unusual, says Otto Ozols, a noted Latvian journalist.

“After all it took the French 40 years to fully expunge the taint of the German occupation as well as bring to justice those who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. It seems that it will take just as long for Latvia to purge itself of the KGB,” he says. “France was only occupied for five years. We were under the shadow of the KGB and its helpers for nearly 50.”

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