Latvian Plan to Exhume Bodies Stirs Patriotism, Russian Anger
Mar. 16, 1993
RIGA, Latvia (AP) _ In Brethren Cemetery, surrounded by 4,000 fallen soldiers, Ojars Blumbergs cupped a flickering candle and placed it at the foot of the Mother of Latvia, a 30-foot limestone woman weeping for her lost sons.
''In the 1950s, they would have sent me to the camps for this,'' he said.
Blumbergs, a 58-year-old member of Parliament, leads an effort to exhume the bodies of about 200 Communist leaders and Soviet army officers during a restoration of the national military cemetery.
His plan, approved by Parliament, has infuriated neighboring Russia and worries ethnic Russians living in Latvia. Although some of the bodies involved are of Latvians and Jews, most are of Russians.
''This is an inhuman attempt by radical nationalists to raise their profile before our parliamentary elections and show they will go to any length to fight for the 'purity and honor' of Latvia,'' said Leonid Kordyumov, an ethnic Russian member of Parliament.
Blumbergs said the exhumations would redress ''desecration'' that occurred under the Soviet regime, when Communist leaders were given places of honor near soldiers who died fighting the Red Army during Latvia's war of independence in 1918-1921.
''Try to imagine if some Nazis, or the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor, were buried at Arlington Cemetery,'' he said.
Latvia became independent after the 1917 Russian Revolution along with its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania and Estonia. Brethren Cemetery was built in northeastern Riga in the 1930s as a memorial to Latvian soldiers killed in World War I and the fight for independence.
The Soviet Union seized all three Baltic states in 1940 and they did not become independent again until it collapsed in 1991.
During 51 years of Soviet occupation, the cemetery was one of the few public reminders of Latvia's lost freedom.
''It was politically dangerous to come here, but many people did anyway,'' Blumbergs said, standing at the Eternal Flame that overlooks long rows of flat gravestones, each hardly larger than a brick.
''The Communists wanted us to forget there had ever been an independent Latvia,'' he said. ''They could not tolerate this shrine. So at first they neglected it, let it fall apart. Then they began burying Communists and Red Army people here to try to give it another meaning.''
When Latvian lawmakers voted 81-21 for the restoration plan Feb. 2, Russian television and newspapers portrayed it as a national insult.
''Sorting the dead into 'clean' and 'unclean' ... will produce nothing but a new cycle of worsening relations between residents of Latvia, and between the states of Russia and Latvia,'' Leonid Maiorov, a Russian general, protested in a letter to President Anatolijs Gorbunovs.
Blumbergs and his supporters were surprised by the outcry, but it only stiffened their resolve.
''We are in a Cold War with Russia,'' said Janis Freimanis, another nationalist lawmaker.
Russia has accused Latvia repeatedly of discriminating against ethnic Russians. Latvia demands the withdrawal of former Soviet troops, calling them occupation forces.
Only 52 percent of Latvia's 2.7 million people are ethnic Latvians. Most of the rest - Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Jews - will not be allowed to vote in the June parliamentary elections because they cannot trace their ancestry to pre-1940 residents of Latvia.
Blumbergs promises reburials of bodies exhumed will be respectful and that the families of the Communists will be allowed to choose among many other cemeteries.
''If they want, we'll even bring a band and sing the 'Internationale' one last time,'' he said.
That did not amuse Anatolijs Safonovs, whose father-in-law, Soviet air force Col. Konstantin Kiselev, is among the officers whose bodies are to be exhumed. He died in 1984.
''Think of the pain when they dig him up before my family's eyes,'' Safonovs said. ''Why? You cannot fix one evil with another. Evil only breeds evil.''
No date has been set for the exhumations. Blumbergs said the cemetery restoration could begin this summer and might take years. The goal is to restore the design of the late Karlis Zale, Latvia's foremost architect.
Most of the Communist officials were buried in the 1980s in an area Zale designated as a garden without graves. He had landscaped it to recall battlegrounds of the independence war: Artillery Hill, Tirel Swamp, Death Island and others.
''I am not motivated by national chauvinism,'' Blumbergs said. ''I consider this an architectural decision. And a matter of honor.''