Uldis Strelis was 11 when he was arrested during a geography class at school. "They sent five KGB officers for me, a little boy," Strelis said, amused at the memory.
The KGB also arrested his parents and shipped the family in cattle cars from their native Latvia to a collective farm in Siberia.
A few years after Josef Stalin's death in 1953, the Strelis family returned to Latvia, and today Strelis, 56, heads the now-independent nation's Department for the Investigation of the Crimes of Totalitarianism. One of his first official acts was to arrest Alfons Noviks, the man in charge of the KGB squad that interrupted his geography lesson all those years ago.
Noviks, 86 and Latvian-born, was booked in mid-March, the most infamous catch in a Baltics-wide dragnet for KGB agents and informers from the days when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union. The hunt has toppled a prime minister in Lithuania and a foreign minister in Latvia; it has fostered accusations against Latvia's president, the Estonian president's late father and a handful of Latvian congressmen.
Judging by the comments of prosecutors, politicians and ordinary citizens, the hunt is growing.
As Latvian KGB head from 1941 to 1953, it is said, Noviks put to death so many enemies of the Soviet regime that their blood at times clogged up the shower drains at police headquarters. But his fortunes changed with Stalin's death; Noviks fell from power that same year and has spent most of his time since then fishing on a duck pond near his two-story cottage in Riga. Now in jail, he awaits trial, probably this fall, on charges of "genocide against the Latvian people."
That, at least, is what Strelis says. Noviks himself is not allowed to comment on his KGB days, his fishing, or anything else. Strelis won't let him meet with journalists, even though Noviks has yet to be tried, much less convicted.
"We want him to stay in isolation," Strelis said. "He should feel punished."
Most Latvians agree. Noviks' arrest was greeted with quiet approval, and few have risen to the defense of a man whose deeds earned him a reputation as Latvia's Stalin.
Noviks' son-in-law is an exception to the chorus of condemnation. His complaint echoes Strelis' memory of his elementary school arrest 45 years ago: "They sent men with machine guns to arrest him. He's just an old man."
In the days when the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were gaining independence, citizens watched in dismay as smoke poured from the windows of KGB headquarters in the capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius: The KGB was destroying files. Many more were secretly sent to Moscow, where they remain.
Within a month after Latvia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, members of Parliament boldly marched into KGB headquarters to seize a batch of secret files: 3-by-5 cards listing KGB collaborators. Each collaborator had one card, with his name, code name, address and date of recruitment. There were tens of thousands of cards.
The cards were carried, in two suitcases and two sacks, to Parliament, where they were put into a safe. Later, they were handed over to Strelis. They came to be known as "The Sacks," and for three years Latvians have wondered anxiously who or what they held.
There were also thousands of dossiers on victims of KGB repression. Such files were captured throughout the Baltics--though many were destroyed or sent to Moscow--and they are now being made available to victims and their families. Many people in the Baltics are learning for the first time, through these impersonal archives, what happened to relatives who disappeared into the Soviet gulag or were secretly executed.
"I want to know what happened to my father," says one of many letters on Strelis' desk. "I want to know where his grave is."
"Information on victims is one thing; files on collaborators are much rarer," Strelis notes. "Only Latvia has The Sacks."
Latvian law requires candidates for Parliament to sign a pledge certifying that they never worked for the KGB. Following elections in June, 1993, those pledges were handed over to Strelis to check.
"When we began to verify our 100 deputies in Parliament," Strelis said, "we found five of them in The Sacks."
One of the five was Latvian Foreign Minister Georgs Andrejevs. Confronted with a 3-by-5 card saying he was agent Ziedonis, recruited in 1963, Andrejevs became the only deputy to confess. In an open letter splashed across three pages of Diena, Latvia's largest newspaper, he recounted how, when he was 31 and an up-and-coming doctor, the KGB asked him to spy on his colleagues.
That evening, Andrejevs told his wife about the agent's offer, reassuring her that "I hadn't given and wouldn't give any compromising information about her friends or colleagues." They decided that Andrejevs should play along; otherwise, his doctor's career would be ruined.
Playing along, Andrejevs wrote, meant filing reports filled with boring nonsense, warning colleagues in whom the KGB had expressed interest, and otherwise behaving eagerly but doing nothing. Even his enemies concede that he became a great doctor who modernized Latvia's hospitals and medical practices.
In his letter, Andrejevs begged his colleagues to end the KGB hunt. He argued that The Sacks were far from definitive--cards could be forged, or dug up from Moscow files and slipped back into Latvia to serve Russia's ends.
The hunt for collaborators, he said, "is the greatest absurdity and danger to Latvia . . . (and) will be used by various forces to achieve their narrow, short-term ambitions of power."
Parliament stripped Andrejevs of his office in June. Today, according to friends, he spends his days gardening. But his parting letter prompted a long-overdue debate. "Before Andrejevs' letter, we never had a serious, ethical discussion of our past," Sarmite Elerte, editor in chief of Diena, explained.
Latvia, Elerte said, has learned from the examples set by other countries--notably Lithuania and East Germany, which threw open their secret police files in 1992, and were shocked to see heroes, idols and political leaders tarnished.
Even without the famed Latvian Sacks, KGB hunters quickly turned up a file on Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, a leader of the anti-Soviet independence movement. As agent Shatri, she--like Andrejevs--wrote academic reports for the KGB on trips abroad.
"If such a thing can be called cooperation with the KGB, then all of us can be accused of cooperation with the Soviet system," Prunskiene said. In 1992, she too was stripped of office.
Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis, meanwhile, denies charges published in the Russian-Palestinian weekly Al Quds that he was once a KGB informer code-named Hugo. (The weekly is published in Russian, Arabic and English and has ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization, its Russian editor says.)
The Al Quds version gets oblique support from Andrejevs, who says that his own knowledge of English attracted the KGB's interest. As a boy, Andrejevs was taught English by a cousin who usually taught math and physics. "My cousin told me in 1993 that she had only taught English to two boys in her life. The first is known to you, while the second is the current president, Guntis Ulmanis."
Strelis says that's not possible. "We would have found his card," he said. He dismissed suggestions that the card was stolen or sent to Moscow, saying the KGB would have to have been clairvoyant to pay special attention to Ulmanis, who only became president after The Sacks were seized. But Ulmanis' uncle, Karl Ulmanis, was Latvia's president before the 1940 occupation, while Ulmanis himself was a leader in the anti-Soviet opposition.
For the moment and with the notable exception of Noviks, Latvian KGB files are being used only to screen politicians. But Latvians foresee a day when legal actions will be brought against ordinary citizens.
"Criminal acts (indicated in the files) will be tried under criminal law," Elerte predicted. "If I've always wondered, 'Why have I been so unlucky in life?' and then, looking through the files, I see that someone who worked next to me all my life took care of me--informed on me, ruined my career--well, shouldn't I have the right to demand justice?"