Unnerving sight of tanks in Riga

February 04, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Len Latkovski was walking to an early morning mass at St Jacob's Cathedral when he first saw Soviet tanks in the streets of Riga, Latvia.

"It's unnerving to see them," he says. "But you know that the idea's intimidation. The most I saw at any one time was three or four. But it is unnerving."

The Soviet crackdown on the Baltic countries had begun.

If the tanks had appeared out of nowhere, it would have been even more shocking, says Latkovski, who teaches European history at Hood College in Frederick.

"But I'd already known that, with the paratroopers coming in, they're showing themselves to tell the people we'll kick your butts."

Leonard Latkovski was in Riga with 16 students on what has become an annual cultural and educational trip to the Soviet Union. "I was anticipating some crackdown, some action, some repression, starting early in January," he says.

Latkovski specializes in Soviet, Latvian and religious history. Born in Latvia in 1943, Latkovski escaped with his family when he was only a year old, barely 24 hours ahead of the Red Army.

His recent trip began Dec. 26 and lasted nearly three weeks. On Jan. 2 he had been at the Latvian diplomatic office in Moscow.

"I'm there talking to the vice minister," he says. "I'm talking to him and he said we just now learned the black berets have stormed the press building in Riga. I think he had gotten the news about a half-hour earlier. So that was the beginning of this tension in Latvia. Storming the Press Center in Riga. The black berets occupied it forcefully.

"There wasn't bloodshed. But there was physical force. They just threw people out."

The black berets are the shock troops of the crackdown. They killed four Latvians in Riga Jan. 20 and 14 Lithuanians a week earlier in Vilnius.

"Gorbachev clearly sanctioned this kind of a crackdown," Latkovski says, "and the use of force of this type."

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has denied giving the order to shoot. He ordered a commission to investigate who did.

"But there's been nothing saying we're going to court-martial any person who violated orders or killed a civilian," Latkovski says. "This is the most amazing thing."

Black berets apparently began leaving Lithuania last week but neither Latvia nor Estonia reported similar movements. Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis cautioned against hasty optimism, citing the Soviet Union's frequent "broken promises."

"I agree with that," Latkovski says. "It's a minor positive step, but it's window dressing for public opinion. But it doesn't address the real problem."

Latkovski believes the Soviet Union aims to destabilize the Baltic nations. Moscow hard-liners can then argue the republics' leadership can't govern and Gorbachev has to appoint a presidential government.

He believes the crisis in the Baltics is at least parallel in importance to the war in the Persian Gulf.

Latkovski was in Latvia between Jan. 8 and 13.

"We arrived when 2,000 additional paratroopers were sent in," he says. "It was in this climate of tension we saw the tanks and armored personnel carriers on the streets of Riga.

"What was particularly ominous was the morning of the 12th, when the Inter-Front demonstration had made demands on the government, to see these tanks parked right at the Council of Ministers building, parked there for about an hour."

The Inter-Front is a kind of Soviet puppet opposition. The Council Ministers building is a sort of capitol of the republic.

The Latvian people rallied to barricade the Council of Ministers building, the television tower, the parliament building and others.

"The barricades are still up in Riga," Latkovski says.

The Soviet paratroopers in their turn put guards around the Communist Party archives.

"The Latvian students thought that was particularly ironic," Latkovski says, "that the sacred place they were going to guard, that they didn't want people to have access to, was the party archives."

The next day, the Latvian University students and professors they had been talking with were manning the barricades.

"They're guarding the buildings with their bodies," Latkovski says. "It was people vs. tanks."

On his last day in Riga, he woke up at 7:30 a.m. and met friends and relatives at church.

"Every one has this look," he says, "not of horror, this look of crisis on their face. Something awful has happened. Everyone is in a state of shock.

"You could just see it. I didn't have to talk to them. After a car accident you see the parent or someone and they have that look on their face.

"They said the military has taken over Lithuania. They've stormed the TV center and they said there are many casualties. . . . It was happening in Vilnius, it was going to happen here."

They were told they should leave because the army was moving in and might close the roads. He was concerned for his group's safety.

"Our bus headed out of the city," he says. "We stopped at the new St. Gertrude's Lutheran Church on the road north. We stopped and prayed with the people in the church."

Then they drove on to Tallinn, Estonia, and Tallinn was calm.

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