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Last Updated: Friday, 2 December 2005, 06:42 GMT
Latvia to delve into Soviet past
Child's drawing of her deportation to Siberia
A child's drawing at the museum recalls her deportation to Siberia
A commission being launched in Latvia to calculate the human and financial cost of the Soviet occupation faces a long and difficult road, the BBC's Laura Sheeter writes.

Under the first snowfall of winter, by the side of the Daugava river in Riga, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is inspecting her armed forces.

A military band accompanies her, stopping, sometimes mid-note, as she pauses to bow to each regimental colour-bearer.

A gunship on the river fires in salute as helicopters towing the Latvian flag fly overhead.

It is Latvian Independence Day and this annual military parade displays the pride of the country's armed forces.

It marks the day, 87 years ago, when Latvia first became a state. But the new country was short-lived: in 1940 it was occupied by the Soviet Union, an occupation that lasted half a century.

It is 14 years since Latvia became a nation again, and the county is proud of how much it has changed since then.

Unread files

Last year, the country joined Nato and the European Union, and it is looking enthusiastically to the future. But its relationship with the past is more troubled - there are still many unanswered questions about what happened here under Soviet rule.

Daina Girke
We were a family, and suddenly there was no family and no tomorrow
Daina Girke

Now, however, the government has set up a commission to calculate the cost of the Soviet occupation, in both human and financial terms.

It will not be easy. At the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, they try to show visitors what life was like in Soviet times, displaying many personal items which people smuggled back from prison camps in Siberia, and kept hidden until the fall of the USSR.

The museum's director, Gundega Michel, says they learn more every day, as people still bring items to the museum; but researchers are still asking basic questions - such as how many people were deported from Latvia by the Soviet authorities, how many deportees died, and of the survivors, how many returned to the country.

"There are still tens of thousands of people unaccounted for," she says.

The records held in Latvia's state archives will be key to finding many of the answers. One storeroom full of cardboard box files contains KGB dossiers recording the fates of hundreds of thousands of people, deported or arrested by the Soviet authorities.

Children deported

Most of the documents have not been read - and the task of going through them is painfully slow. The records of the deportations of more than 15,000 people in just one night in 1941 fill three rows of shelves - it took archivists three years to read them all.

Siberian village
Daina was sent to a village in Siberia where she lived in exile

One of those folders contains Daina Girke's story. Now 76 years old, Daina was just 11 in 1941, when her father was arrested and shot. She was deported to Siberia with her mother, brother and sister - and the children were only allowed back to Latvia five years later, because their mother had died in exile.

Daina was told to keep quiet about what had happened to her, and did so for more than 40 years.

Now, she says, Latvians have a duty to talk about what happened.

"It was terrible. Terrible," she says. "We were a family, and suddenly there was no family and no tomorrow. When they took us from our house I was in hysterics, crying. I was so afraid that I'd never see my home again."

Important work

The commission's task - to put a price on such experiences - is a controversial one. Its results could be used to claim reparations from the Soviet Union's legal heir - Russia.

Broken violin made by a Latvian in the Siberian prison camps
Personal items from the prison camps are on display at the museum
And with nearly 30% of Latvia's population made up of ethnic Russians, and a general election due next year, some accuse the government of playing politics with history.

Juris Sokolovskis, an ethnic Russian MP, says the commission has been set up simply to win votes for Latvian nationalist parties.

But Edmunds Stankevics - the head of the commission - rejects the accusation. He says the commission is needed so that Latvia can face up to its history. In any case, he says, his job is just to make calculations and give his results to the government, who will then decide what to do with them.

When those results are finally produced, how they are used will affect whether Latvia is indeed able to come to terms with its past - or whether its painful history continues to divide this newly reborn nation.

Thorny legacy of 'Soviet Man'
09 May 05 |  Europe
Country profile: Latvia
20 Jul 05 |  Country profiles

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