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UNLOCKING THE DANGEROUS SECRETS OF LATVIA’S KGB

  • 2015-01-08
  • By Annija Emersone

The names of Latvia’s former KGB  operatives have so far been kept under wraps, with many still living undetected, their neighbours blissfully unaware of their dark past. Only for three more years, however, as the Latvian KGB documents are due for public release in 2018. But are there some things lurking in the past that are just better not to know? TBT reporter Annija Emersone heads to Riga’s infamous Corner House, speaking to the man in charge of the Latvian government’s Special Research Commission, a man who holds the key what KGB secrets the Government reveals, and what secrets they might be advised to keep...

RIGA, LATVIA — When people from post-Soviet countries hear the three letters KGB (which stand for “Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti” in Russian and “Committee for State Security” in English), they usually need no reminder of what it means and what it really stood for. After all, it was not so long ago that the biggest secret state security system in the Cold War era was fully functional, gathering minute details about its own citizens, and working as a well-organised torture and intimidation machine.

However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the KGB building in Latvia, known to Latvians as the Corner House, closed its doors, and the truth about those who were part of this system — those who had kept it going for almost half a century — was hidden away. On the one hand, this allowed the newly independent Latvia an attempt at a fresh start, preventing a series of witch hunts and blame games. Yet this also left Latvians uncertain about who had actually been involved in the KGB, and frustrated by the idea that whoever they were, they may have gotten away with it. This has been termed the “uncomfortable heritage” in the consciousness of Latvian society.

The uncomfortable heritage
On the morning of April 30, 2014, the doors of Latvia’s KGB building were opened again to the Latvian public, this time as a tourist attraction during Riga’s year as the European Capital of Culture. “Buildings like the Corner House is a heavy and an uncomfortable heritage in the consciousness of the society and in the urban environment” is written in the information leaflet found at the exhibition “Corner House. Case No. 1914/2014”. The KGB building had not been entirely abandoned: it had served as a building for a few institutions of the Latvian government , including the State Police of the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Latvia, but had fallen into disuse over the last seven years.

The grand opening of the building this year was a major talking point throughout Latvian society and in many respects a success  – it was one of the central events during Riga’s year as Europe’s Capital of Culture.  Nevertheless, it was a great struggle for society and government to figure out what to do next – to close it up once again, or to keep the doors open? And if so, where to get finances for the heating system and salaries for staff.

After long discussions, and an initiative from the KGB exhibition employees where people were asked to sign a petition for the maintenance of the exhibition — along with large amounts of popular support in favour of keeping the museum open — the government on Oct. 28 decided to grant funding to keep this exhibition and museum open for at least some time; but it is still not clear what the long term future actually holds for this building.

While there is the occasional suggestion for opening a bizarre hotel for those who seek scary adventures during their holidays, it is more than doubtful that something like this could happen in reality. Latvia could learn a lot from museums like the Museum of Genocide Victims in Lithuania, or the “House of Terror” in Hungary, where society’s memory has been kept alive for more than ten years now. Even though Latvian society sees this house becoming a permanent museum, there is still a great deal of general confusion throughout society and indecisiveness about what to do with it.

The uncomfortable documents
With the opening of the Corner House, it has felt like the dusty pages of the Latvian history book have been opened once again for everyone to read. This year a specially made inter-ministerial KGB documents research commission finally has started their work on researching KGB files. These are the formerly confidential documents that communists left behind when they moved out of the building in 1991. The commission’s objectives have been clearly set – to carry out the scientific, historical and legal examination of the KGB documents and to evaluate the material and moral damage done by the former KGB. This commission has committed to look at this issue in a very broad context, to search for correlations, to look for the links with the Communist Party, and to show how the system worked and how it influenced the nation.
The whole reason behind this is to prepare proposals for the government after 3 years of research on what to do with all this information and findings. It is set by law that the contents of the KGB documents must remain confidential until 2018, but after the scientific research is done, it is still uncertain if they will be published or not at that point.

A lot of conspiracy theories are wrapped around the documents. The documents list those people who were once secret agents for the KGB. Their names have come to light in some cases where someone has tried to prove their innocence in relation to cooperating with the KGB, and in the most cases, they have proven to be innocent due to the lack of evidence against them. Even if part of this information is known to the Constitutional Protection Bureau of Latvia, these names have to remain secret to the rest of the society.

So why don’t we just publish all the names, then? Well, this question is occasionally raised in the political arena and among the public. But there hasn’t been one common answer to it yet. There is the possibility that some of the names of those who are mentioned as secret agents are not accurate and that they could be forged. Also, reasons why they did what they did were various – starting from the support for ideology and up to the fear of the regime. Some say that even the way just a small part of the whole card files were left in Latvia (around 4,800) by Russian communists is questionable – did they leave something behind deliberately? Did they take some of the files with them with some kind of a greater purpose?

Doctor Karlis Kangeris, the chairman of the ministerial KGB documents’ researcher commission rejects such a scenario. “it is hard to imagine, that there would have been some kind of special organization of events or manipulation, or that they would leave some secret agent cards behind with an intention,” said Kangeris, speaking in an interview with the Baltic Times. “I don’t believe that this is the way it was organised and I have to agree with Johanson (Edmunds Johansons, Latvia’s last KGB general) – (the communists) left what was still useful at the time – what did they know anyway?”

However, if we compare the number of documents left behind in other Baltic countries, Kangeris points out, there are some things that appeared in the other two states but are missing from the Latvian archives. For example, foreign travel reports could not be found in the Latvian case. Also, it is known that the Estonians were left without any information about secret agents who worked for the KGB. With all the information about those citizens who once supported the Soviet regime on their side, Russians had a power to use this knowledge to get what they want. This fact made possible the story of Herman Simm, who NATO described as the “most damaging” spy to infiltrate their ranks and a former official of Estonia’s Defense Ministry, who leaked information to Russia’s foreign intelligence service during his work in office. The only way that Estonia’s intelligence were able to stop former KGB employees and secret agents to be in power was by passing the Oath of Conscience Act in 1992 – under this piece of legislation, those formerly in the employ of Soviet intelligence and security were barred from running for office or holding high state posts. But in reality, the Oath made little difference – it was (and still is) extremely hard to prove the guilt of a person, though some cases like this have happened in Estonia despite the lack of important documents.

The uncovering of these “uncomfortable documents” in the KGB archives have proven to be a bureaucratic headache for some of the political forces in the government. Since its foundation, the research commission has had to face some difficulties: its financing was in question. Due to its legal implications, it had to switch from being under the authority of the Ministry of Education and Science to the Ministry of Justice. Kanger admits that it is possible that there are people in power in Latvia who are not interested in the work of the commission. Are they related to the troubles around the commission? We still don’t know. Even if this seems like a good place for another conspiracy theory to develop, it seems more sensible to write it off as simply the result of an absence of political will and the muddle of bureaucracy.

The betrayers hunt?
Some while ago, the names of those who were KGB official employees (but not the abovementioned secret agents) were made public by Latvian investigative journalist Lato Lapsa, who revealed a total of 564 names that were mentioned in the phonebook of the USSR Committee for State Security. Who are they now? What are their occupations and what are their roles in the society?

While some have  integrated their lives as best they could and found a job suitable for the skills they had, others have become successful businessmen. “Ex-KGB employees were not allowed to work in government or justice institutions – it was set by a law – but they could still do other jobs,” says Kangeris. “I believe that somehow they managed to keep their careers going. They helped each other out, where they could. At the beginning, some of the agents worked at the security departments of Interior Ministry of Latvia, and then, in 2004, along with joining NATO, there was a need to clear all the institutions (from former KGB operatives). These people lived and worked further on. It is only those 4,800 that we don’t know about the fate of,” says Kangeris.

Whether accepted by society or not, most of the chekists didn’t go anywhere – they stayed and integrated into ordinary society like nothing had happened. It is true, the names of those who actually were secret agents are still unknown to us, as well as their occupation now and at the time when Latvia regained its independence. That’s why the work of this newly made commission is extremely important – after 3 years of research they proposed publishing these names. However in Estonia, information about these betrayers will never come to light, unless Russia decides to share this information, which they took with them before closing the Cheka – but that is not likely to happen any time soon, if ever.

But what would happen in the Latvian community if the names of those approximately 4,800 traitors is revealed? Imagine - it could be anyone on the list: one’s aunt, neighbour, old teacher or current teacher, even a close friend or a life partner. From the one side, the names of those whose crimes possibly changed the people’s lives should be exposed; after all it was their choice to collaborate with the KGB – so now they should not be afraid of admitting their guilt in doing so.  On the other hand, even if the names were exposed, we would not still exactly what these secret agents had done – just that collaboration had taken place. Would they all be called chekists and traitors then – regardless of the circumstances, the damage done and the truth?

Despite the potential for discomfort and controversy, Kangeris answers with no doubt that all these files and documents need to be published. “There is nothing to hide. If we can write and publish about the victims – why can’t we do the same about the reporters (secret agents)? [...] 25 years have passed since independence and these agents have had some time to think about what they have done – whether it was good or bad – and to tell their families about their past.”

The chairman of the researcher commission reveals that even he was a victim of tracking and admits that “it irritates me, offends me, that these people (Cheka agents) have never even tried to admit to their committed crimes,” also adding that “later at the time when Latvia was free again, they built their careers and moved on, without any regrets. A secret agent, who was reporting on me, was working for the KGB for 25 years – the question is how many people’s destinies could he have affected during this period of time?”

There always stays a possibility that some of the agent cards were forged, placed inside the archive or removed from it – either with or without the agent knowing.
Indeed, cases like this have happened, but is it a reason to declare the whole card file system fraudulent and keep it closed tp the rest of the society? I tend not to support this view. The best way for Latvian society to get over this and grow into an well-integrated and self-aware nation is to face the past, acknowledge it, accept it and learn from it. 

Maybe it will take another generation to be a hundred percent sure there are no traitors in government institutions or for people from ex-Soviet nations to forget their unconscious habits and say their first and last names out loud when they introduce themselves, as well as not being afraid to look straight into someone’s eyes. But there is no need to wait so long for Latvian society to come to a common decision to face up to its history.