Russians leave Latvia in 'a day of silence' THE RUSSIAN ARMY DEPARTS

September 01, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

RIGA, Latvia -- The Russian army, which swept over the Baltics with the roar of tanks 54 years ago, left quietly yesterday, rumbling out of Latvia on a woebegone train that carried the tattered remains of fallen empire.

For the Baltic nations, a long foreign occupation had finally ended. The day was historic, but oddly empty of jubilation. For most Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians, the occupation was so painful that relief held sway over joy as it ended.

In Germany yesterday, the departing Russian troops managed to march off with verve and honor. Their president, Boris N. Yeltsin, came to see them off, praising a job well done, and Germans applauded them.

In Riga there were tears. Sixty-six-year-old Lija Busa silently wiped hers away as she stood in the city's imposing, medieval Lutheran cathedral, remembering. A church service constituted Latvia's farewell, and as it ended, Mrs. Busa's words faltered on her grief.

"This is a day of silent satisfaction," she said. "I don't need loud speeches. It's a day of silence.

"All the hard years are behind. I want to live with hope now."

Hope fled Latvia with the arrival of the Russians, she said. On the night of June 14, 1941, she was among 16,000 Latvians deported to Siberia.

The Russians had overwhelmed Latvia on June 16, 1940, installing a government that followed Moscow's orders and agreed to an annexation by Russia. In one year, 32,000 Latvians were sent to Russia. Mrs. Busa, her parents and her brother were swept away in the deportation frenzy that preceded Russia's retreat when Germany invaded Latvia.

"I was 12 years old, and I spent the next 16 years in Siberia," she said.

Mrs. Busa has faint memories of the night the Russians took Latvia. Her father, a policeman, came home and spoke only a few words.

"Latvia is occupied," he said. "Now we must live under the foreign boot."

Under that boot, 17 percent of Latvians were killed, deported or exiled. Mrs. Busa's father was sent to a different labor camp, and she never saw him again.

"I only found out what happened to him in 1992," she said. "He had been declared an enemy of the working class and was shot in 1942 in the Urals."

Mrs. Busa, a slight, gray-haired retired accountant, remembers years of agony at a labor camp in Tomsk, and a return in 1957 to an unfamiliar, suffering Latvia.

"That period was so long," she said. "We suffered a lot, very terrible things."

So she felt no joy yesterday. "Everyone has his or her own point of view that depends on age and the life they had all those years," she said.

She thought of her own daughter, and her granddaughters, now 12 and 17, and she remembered the 12-year-old girl inside her who was seized by terror so many years ago.

"I have a special prayer that I've said three times now," she said. "I said it when my daughter was 12 and when my granddaughters turned 12. I prayed to God that they won't have to suffer what I did."

The troops left only after months of anguished negotiations. Russia

pulled out of Lithuania a year ago, but agreements with Latvia and Estonia stalled.

Russia wanted to stay for strategic reasons and because thousands of Russian-speaking people live here.

As Baltic citizens were deported to the Soviet Union, the Soviet government replaced them with Russians sent to work in factories and consolidate Soviet power.

Today, ethnic Latvians make up only 53 percent of the country's population of 2.5 million, and they are a minority in all the cities. In Riga, the capital, only 36 percent of the population is Latvian. Ethnic Estonians make up about 60 percent of their country's population. Lithuanians constitute about 80 percent of the people in their country.

After winning an agreement to keep a small radar base in Latvia until 1998 -- controlled by civilians -- the Russians agreed to leave. An Estonian settlement followed. And yesterday the deadline was met.

Last two trains

The Russians packed up their last two trains on a weedy siding in Riga. Six young girls gathered in a quiet knot to say goodbye to their boyfriends. About 20 soldiers and families were on the last train.

One young man hastily wrote his address out on a scrap of a cigarette carton, gave his girlfriend a snappy kiss and sprinted cheerfully off as tears fell down her cheeks.

Families filled a sleeping car, along with a friendly Airedale named Jersey. A father chided his small son for playing on the rails and covering his clothes with oil.

A battered 8-year-old Russian car was fastened down. A box car bore piles of wood, a chipped safe with a broken lock, six worn pingpong paddles and a makeshift punching bag -- a wooden stand wrapped in a lumpy old mattress.

The soldiers were reluctant.

"You should be writing about where we're going, not where we're leaving," said Andrei Nekrasov. "What's waiting for us but an empty field?"

He had lived here 10 years and had been happy in Latvia. Other soldiers returning from the shrunken borders of the Soviet empire have had to camp out for lack of housing in Russia.

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