Friendship caught up in the borderlands

  • 2002-07-11
  • Jorgen Johansson
The war may have ended a long time ago, but some remember it as if it were yesterday. Jorgen Johansson reports on an annual gathering of veterans, for whom the Soviet collapse seems like a backward step.

In the early 1940s, as German forces were charging at the great Russian bear's throat, small bands of Russian, Belarusian and Latvian soldiers formed partisan groups to harass the enemy's rear. As old soldiers do everywhere, the survivors of these battles get together occasionally to relive the glory days and remember fallen comrades.

The commemorations gained official status in the communist era, when a Hill of Friendship ("Draudzibas Kurgans" in Latvian) was erected at the spot where the borders of the then Latvian, Belarusian and Russians Soviet Socialist Republics met. Every year on the first Sunday of July since the end of World War II, the survivors from the Soviet side gathered by the thousands to celebrate their victory. On one occasion as many as 100,000 people turned up. They sang old military songs, drank an abundance of vodka and talked war memories for hours.

But the arrival of independence has meant that these former brothers in arms are now separated, and getting together is complicated by border guards, visa regimes and other bureaucratic impediments.

The most recent gathering of the veterans took place on July 5. Using a Soviet-era derogatory term, the participants referred to their former enemy as the "fascists." And while most people in Latvia are happy to have seen the end of the U.S.S.R., for these people the wrong side seems to have won the Cold War.

The comrades rally

The bloddy battles fought by these small partisan groups took place in an area where almost five decades later, borders separating Russia, Belarus and Latvia would be drawn.

The hot war may be long over the years, but as the countries are now separated, former brothers in arms can only holler across the borders to their friends.

Ivan Anosevich, 80, was a sergeant in the Polish army, but after the German invasion of his country he lent his services to the Belarusian army.

His chest was covered with various medals for bravery. With tears in his eyes he explained that this year was the first time he had traveled to the Latvian side to meet friends he had only been able to shout to before over the borders.

At his side, also coated with similar medals, stood Valentina Kakorina, 79, the woman he lives with in Belarus. She proudly told of Anosevich's bravery in fighting the Germans.

Kakorina herself is no stranger to bombs, grenades and gunfire. She was only 17 when the Red Army summoned her for duties. During the war she ran across battlefields with cables to connect radios so that the combined forces could communicate.

"I was really scared when German bombs fell over this area. But after some time the fear wore off," she said. "Once I was hiding from German soldiers under a bridge. But as it turned out, their orders were to destroy that bridge and all of a sudden they started rigging it with explosives. It's a miracle that I escaped before it exploded."

Both Kakorina and Anosevich are very upset because of the borders. They both remember how they used to freely cross between the three republics during the days of the Soviet Union.

"I am very sad about this whole situation we have today. We were all fighting for freedom, but now we cannot meet," Kakorina said. Meanwhile, Anosevich was punching and kicking the air with his fists.

"I am still fit to fight if my country would ask me to," he exclaimed.

More than two dozen border guards were overlooking the crowd. Most of the time the guards were happy just to sit around and smoke, but on occasion they would get up and take a short stroll to the border in case somebody tried to cross it.

During this year's Hill of Friendship festivities there were no incidents to report according to the guard in charge on the site, Peteris Cebotars.

"The border is not difficult to control. I don't think even the European Union will make it more difficult," he said.

Cebotars also said he could understand that people were upset about not being able to celebrate like they did only a decade ago, but added with a shrug of his shoulders there was little he could do about it.

Different histories

While World War II was traumatic for all countries involved, Latvia had a particularly bad time of it.

After enjoying 20 years of independence, the country was invaded by the Soviets in 1940 after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 divided up Eastern Europe between the totalitarian states. Then the Germans invaded the U.S.S.R. in 1941, creating great confusion in Latvia.

Many welcomed the Nazis as liberators from the communists, whose one year of rule had seen tens of thousands killed or deported to Siberia. But others were loyal to the Soviets.

This split in society meant that Latvians fought on both sides on the same battle fields. And the bitterness this caused simmered long after the guns had fallen silent.

Just inside the border on the Latvian side stands the Hill of Friendship. This small man-made hill honors those who fought together against the Germans. A single oak tree has been planted on its top. The current plant is the third to go into the ground.

In 1963 former Latvian Legionnaires, soldiers who fought on the German side because they believed the Soviets were the worse of two evils, cut the first oak down.

The vandals were caught, but when a similar incident took place six years later, no guilty parties were found. The third tree has been left untouched.

Through the trees surrounding the old battle fields, singing and accordion music could be heard from both the Russian and Belarusian sides. Comrades of old may still cross the border freely between those countries. But none of the two countries' citizens may stroll over to their Latvian friends and shake hands.

Pihels Pauls and Fransis Kadins were two of the Latvians who wound up fighting for the Red Army.

"It's very bad that the veterans can no longer meet and talk. We should write to the President (Vaira Vike-Freiberga) and complain about this situation," Pauls said.

Kadins interrupted and said that it was an awkward celebration.

"In the past people used to go and meet, shake hands and exchange flowers. But now the distance is too great. We are not young people anymore and cannot throw a bouquet of flowers that far."

The way the border is sealed off from both sides leaves a no man's land about 40 - 50 meters wide.

"We fought with the Russians, so I cannot understand how anyone can say that they occupied our country. The Latvian Legionnaires march around like heroes, but they fought on the German side and killed both Latvians and Russians," Kadins said.

Imants Sudmalis fought as a guerrilla against the advancing German army. Uniting with some other bands of soldiers, a force to be reckoned with was formed.

A monument not far from the Hill of Friendship, covered with flowers on July 5, honors this fallen war hero.

Kadins spoke highly of Sudmalis even though the two never met. He said that uniting some of the partisan groups was the only thing that prevented the Germans from taking Russia.

The chairman of Latvia's Socialist Party and a former communist boss, Alfreds Rubiks, said he had been helping organize the festivities at the Hill of Friendship for 44 years. Even though the numbers of World War II veterans who travel to the Hill of Friendship become fewer and fewer every year, Rubiks is happy to see that young people are taking an interest.

"We need to educate the young about how it was when we were fighting fascism. We must not forget because if we do, fascism will return," he said. "I don't understand the Americans. They should mind their own business. We don't like what they did in former Yugoslavia and what they are doing right now in Afghanistan. When they bomb countries not like them, they are neo-fascists."

However, perhaps he has overestimated the political commitment of today's youth. In reality, there were just a few youngsters at the gathering, who seemed more interested in drinking beer than in decrying the fascists.

One young man, perhaps in his early 20s, slept unabashed through the hours of dancing and singing in Latvia's borderland.