The End of Empire: What's a Soviet Officer to Do?


October 23, 1991|By ERIK LACITIS

RIGA, LATVIA. — Riga, Latvia -- In the downtown here, you cannot walk a city block without seeing them: Soviet officers in their pressed green uniforms and caps with a golden hammer-and-sickle emblem in front, clutching their briefcases, briskly walking to what appears to be an important meeting.

I decided to follow some of them, just to see what important matters they were dealing with.

I got a glimpse.

There are many officers here, because the Baltics are literally an armed camp. By some estimates -- there are no official ones -- from 120,000 to 200,000 active military personnel are here, plus 80,000 who retired in the Baltics, presumably because the living standards are better.

In a country of 2.7 million which is supposed to be independent now, that would mean that almost one of 10 people is in the Soviet military. That's why, when the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia spoke before the United Nations last month, they all agreed on one thing: They wanted the Soviet army out.

The military occupation is especially felt here in Riga, the general headquarters for the Baltic Military District. I went to what used to be the Central Soviet Officers Club, but now is being returned to the Latvians. Built in 1908 for the Latvian Society of Riga, it still has ornate rooms for movies and small concerts. The officers added pool tables in one room.

On the second floor, there is still a meeting room used by the military to listen to personal pleas from both officers and civilians. About half a dozen high-ranking types were sitting around a conference table. Outside in the hallway we all milled around, hoping for a hearing.

A woman came up to me and said she had been waiting since 10 in the morning. It was now 5:30 p.m. I didn't quite understand what she wanted from the Soviets, except that her husband had died many years ago and she wanted something, and she wanted me to barge into the room and demand action.

I declined.

Another of one of the waiting officers had taken this special occasion to plead for a car for himself.

A Latvian, the head of a single-engine airplane sports club, also had been waiting since morning. He wanted me to barge into the conference room with him, tape recorders and camera in hand. He was mad because the Soviet military hardly ever allows his club to fly.

''They tell me we can't fly when they're having air drills, or maybe it's when Gorbachev is flying over Latvia on his way to some place,'' said Viesturs Berkmanis. ''This is ridiculous. We're a sovereign country, aren't we?''

By then, the officer who wanted the car had left the room. He lighted a cigarette and looked satisfied, so I assume he got his wish.

We waited around some more. An officer with a couple of stripes asked what I wanted. He was one of the general's assistants. He didn't want to give me his name. He said he didn't want anyone to believe he was speaking for his boss.

We started talking and he told me about himself. He is 40, married, has a 2-year-old daughter and has been in the army since age 18. It didn't take long for him to say what was on his mind.

''My wife is registered here, but I'm not. Where will I go?'' he said.

Under the old Soviet rules, you could live in a city only if you were registered to live there. Those rules still apply in Latvia, where stores display signs saying you might be asked to show your residence ID card. The purpose is to prevent shoppers from poorer parts of the Soviet Union from coming to Latvia and carrying off consumer goods.

''If the army is reorganized and they tell me to go somewhere, I don't have any place to go. I want to stay in Latvia. I like it here. You know my daughter . . . ''

I knew what he was going to say next. You hear it more and more from Russians here.

'' . . . my daughter is learning Latvian. My wife is learning Latvian. I don't have time to learn Latvian. But I have Latvian friends.''

This was a man used to giving orders. Once he had headed up a whole garrison. Now he was worrying about a home.

The Latvians want a timetable for the removal of Russian troops, and the sooner the better. They say that if in 1940 Russians could invade the country in three days, they can get out in three days.

The door opened and another officer entered to make his plea.

''I never thought it would be like this,'' the assistant to the general said. ''There have been so many changes. I don't think even Gorbachev thought it would be this way.''

The meeting-room door opened and the general and his staff walked out. The widow, the flying enthusiast and others were still waiting to see him, but apparently the general had had enough. He strode down the stairs to his waiting white car, which looked like a 1960 Studebaker. His assistant quickly followed. Another business day at the general headquarters of the Baltic Military District ended.

The flying enthusiast went up to the general's assistant and badgered him about getting a hearing.

''Look,'' the assistant said, ''what are you getting bothered about? Soon the airfield and everything else will be yours.''

Erik Lacitis is a columnist for the Seattle Times.

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