Baltic Requiem' gives incomplete score

Television

June 24, 1991|By Michael Hill

*Last January, under the cloak of the blanket of coverage given to the war in the Persian Gulf, the Soviet Union's army launched a brutal attack against the Latvian Parliament in Riga.

The parliament, which had passed an independence resolution in defiance of Soviet authority, had been in continuous session for more than a week. The parliament building was surrounded by Latvian citizens who had come to protect their new-found freedom from the Russians who had ruled their land since the end of World War II.

These hundreds of citizens were there to witness, certain that their presence would stop any brutality. But it did not. The whole world was not watching. America had its channels tuned to Iraq.

However, the cameras of Latvian filmmaker Juris Podnieks were watching, and the brutal, horrifying and ultimately personally tragic reality they record provide a sobering finish to "Baltic Requiem," a 90-minute program about the states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The first hour of "Baltic Requiem," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 tonight, has an entirely different tone, one more in keeping with the program's title.

Podnieks, who filmed the five-part series "Soviets," uses a gathering of Latvian choirs from around the world at a national song festival to link his impressionistic account of the recent history of these lands.

Again and again, the cameras return to the images of thousands of people in various native costumes dancing as the haunting melodies of these old songs provide a constant background to the tales of Soviet invasion, repression and imprisonment.

At times the images seem absurd: A

woman tries to maintain a simple peasant life on an Estonian island that the Soviets have taken over for military use, including target practice for tanks and missiles.

At times the images are soberingly poignant: A man retrieving his mother's body from her grave in Siberia so that it can be returned to her native Baltic land watches as her skull is dusted off and her bones placed in a container.

At times they are simply beautiful: A hill of crosses in what is apparently a graveyard in Lithuania stands as a testament to thousands of them that had to sprout again and again after the Soviets bulldozed them.

At times, however, the images and information are simply incomplete. The narration -- in the first hour only subtitles -- states that Russia invaded these countries in 1939 after a pact between Hitler and Stalin.

But it does not say what happened when Hitler came in with his troops on his way to invade Russia, exactly how much the Baltic lands welcomed the Nazis as liberators from Russian oppression, how fervently they aided what turned out to be the losing side in World War II.

Nor is there even one mention of the Jews that previously lived in these countries, the hundreds of thousands of them that vanished and died during the years of Nazi

rule.

So focused is "Baltic Requiem" on Soviet domination that it skims over the relationship between these countries and Nazi Germany, though those years are crucial to understanding their current plight.

Indeed, when Hedrick Smith, the host for the PBS version of this British-funded program, equates nationalism and freedom in his gung-ho introduction, you might pause a bit and wonder if the battles between the Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia and the many other ethnic rivalries that have re-emerged in eastern Europe after the downfall of socialism are really battles for freedom or only outbursts of ancient, irrational anger.

At one point, the subtitles note that more than 50 percent of the residents of Latvia are not Latvian, blaming this on "Russification." Not that long ago, people in America said the same thing, blaming it on immigration. Combine such sentiments with the summoning up of old folk traditions in the national song festival and you have a form of nationalism that might not be equated with freedom, but has the potential for being the opposite. Nationalism clearly has its downside, and neither that, nor troublesome history, should not be avoided in discussions of the Baltic States.

But, after the requiem, filmed in the summer of 1990, view the images of the winter of 1991, see the heel of oppression come down squarely on the neck of Latvia, and realize that the first order of the day is to get that Russian boot out of the way. Then we can find out if the Baltic States are ready to be modern, multi-ethnic democracies, or countries that would shun those who don't know the words to the old songs.

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