The spy who loved me

Adventures of a medical student in post-communist Latvia. Not completely untrue.

 

It was 1992, Latvia. A year after the declaration of independence the people of the country were a mix of anxiety and great hope and expectation. Martin, a British medical student, had just arrived, having  elected to spend two months in the capital, Riga. Wide-eyed with wonder he soaked up the scene on the central avenue. Everywhere were signs of recent tumult and years of neglect under the occupying Soviet administration. The city had been emasculated. Churches were converted to cinemas and planetariums. Brutalist municipal buildings jostled with the neoclassical architecture of the pre-Soviet era, squatting like concrete bullies.
In the park Martin’s Latvian student guide Andris lamely gestured towards five scattered large reddish-brown memorial stones with polished surfaces.  He explained they represented blood drops, that they were placed exactly where five Latvians fell, shot by Soviet loyalists in the January of the year before.
Unlike the places fellow students had gone to for their elective trips – the Philippines, and the Windward Isles, this place, still reverberating from the Cold War’s last death throws, was not a typical holiday destination. Latvian reconciliation with the sizable Russian minority was out of the question. People felt hurt, neighbours distrusted each other. Residents of the expansive tenement blocks warily eyed each other’s business through tattered lace curtains.
Martin quickly grew bored and restless with his official project in Riga studying infant growth rates. He wanted to connect. One evening sampling the local vodka Martin told Andris of his left-wing sympathies, confessing that he had in fact joined the Communist Party of Great Britain The tinted-spectacled fellow’s demeanour immediately warmed. He explained in conspiratorial whispers that he had no sympathy for the nationalist movement. He spoke of bigoted reprisals being committed against innocent Russian speakers every day. Fifty percent of the capital’s inhabitants had suddenly become personae non gratae. The truth was he said that many would never forgive the Russians for displacing the Nazi regime in the ‘40s, that they were complicit in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. Wary of saying the name in public, he wrote down for him in a distinctive scrawl the name of the seaside village Skede, where 2731 Jews and 23 communists were openly shot on the dunes.  . Latvian fascist militia like the Arajs Commando  units were known to have zealously killed Jews for the Nazi cause.  These units were still honoured by many. Andris said a couple years ago he’d have been employed by the secret police to ‘look after’ visitors like himself – to be sure they appreciated the benevolence of the parent state, its pluralism, its stance against fascism. His eyes darting around the smoky bar, he spoke in Martin’s ear: ‘ they are the enemies of progress, soaked in blood … they can’t launder their history…we are a fifth column… preparing the fightback.’
In the colourless streets people hurried with hunted expressions. The very road Martin was lodging on was dominated by an ornate pink-stuccoed building that had been the KGB headquarters  with its basement cell interrogation rooms. Most of the official tours organised by the university left him feeling blinkered and bridled: the sterile Ethnographic Museum  harping back to a rural idyll, endless anatomy exhibitions. Andris arranged an extra visit to the neglected site of the Kaiserwald concentration camp   marred by nationalist graffiti. The language issue was complex. In pockets of  the town Russian was endearing, in others, an insult. Martin despaired of only skimming the surface of this enigmatic country and people. He couldn’t take part in the struggle. Andris begged to differ.
Love & intrigue erupted on a visit to an orphanage. The packed facility had scores of children who had been left there, many with disabilities. Martin noted how for the want of an operation so simple in the west children suffered with hugely enlarged heads. He was appalled to witness them throwing themselves dementedly at the walls and floor. He watched with astonishment how tenderly one young helper handled them. The blonde, in crisp white linen caught his eye and smiled. He connected. As his group left they passed by a row of staff, in their outfits looking like a line of bakers, bidding farewells. Martin felt charged, energised with that fleeting contact. The manager slipped him a small handwritten note. It asked him in perfect English, translated  it seemed by a colleague, to meet him at the Freedom Monument the next evening. The note’s originator seemed clear. There she was in the line up blushing, with a winsome expression.
Martin bounded back. The tawdry streets were transformed. Everything around him now seemed to be imbued with the light of new possibility, of adventure. The surprise romantic gesture was drawing him into that life of the people that he craved. The place of the rendezvous was significant. In Soviet times, any kind of gathering or loitering at the defiant 1935 landmark was strictly forbidden.   The next day, his heart pounding, searching the crowd, wide-eyed Martin waited. In one hand a bunch of roses. He examined the crumpled note. He suddenly recognised the handwriting. Andris. Wiley Andris! … That secretive youth would forever be responsible for setting him up with Lieutenant Dariya Sokolova. Dariya was a Russian spy who would soon become Martin’s wife.

Endnote references:

[1] Ministry of foreign affairs of the Republic of Latvia. (2014). Holocaust Education, Research and Remembrance in Latvia. Available: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/policy/society-integration/history/holocaust-education-research-and-remembrance-in-latvia. Last accessed 7th February 2017

[1] Andrew Ezergailis . (1996). The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944.. Available: http://www.thefullwiki.org/Arajs_Commando. Last accessed 7th February 2017.

[1] Anda Galffy. (2016). The Corner House. Available: http://www.travelnotesandbeyond.com/dark-secrets-of-the-corner-house-the-headquarters-of-the-kgb-in-riga/. Last accessed 7th February 2017.

[1] Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum | Latvia Travel. 2017. Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum | Latvia Travel. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.latvia.travel/en/sight/latvian-ethnographic-open-air-museum. [Accessed 08 February 2017].

[1] Gutman, Israel. (1998-2017). Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vols. 1-4. Available: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/kaiserwald-concentration-camp. Last accessed 7th February 2017

[1] LiveRiga. (2017). Freedom Monument. Available: https://www.liveriga.com/en/3231-freedom-monument. Last accessed 7th February 2017

 

 

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