CHASIN’ THE LOSERS

Flash backs to the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago and how I tried to find out, what a victory looks like, when you are on the losing side. In this essay, meet the KGB-general with no regrets, and the communist party officials, seeing their world collapsing. 

“You are lucky to catch me here. In an hour or two, I will be gone. Fired after serving the people for more than 30 years. I will not give them the satisfaction to see my sadness when I walk out. I accept my fate. No matter what they say about me, I have done nothing wrong. I have done my best to protect our country and its citizens from the criminals, I have caught over the years.”

So, this is what a monster looks like”, I thought, while the general paused and lighted up a cigarette.

Here I was with Latvia’s KGB top general Edmunds Johansons, possibly the most feared, the most hated man in the entire Latvia, the tiny Baltic country and the first republic to declare its independence from the Soviet Union the week before. Less than five feet tall, smoke-stained uneven teeth, balding, dressed in a cheap looking suit and tie. I wondered if the general would have looked more impressive in his uniform.  

Get the losers to talk

It was the great idea of a unique angle, which had brought me to the KGB general’s office that morning. Admittedly the great idea belonged to my mentor and chief editor, the late Jørgen Flindt Pedersen, who once told me:

“Anybody can find the winners, getting the losers to talk is true journalism.” 

This morning in August 1991, Jørgen’s advice proved to work surprisingly well in the turmoil of Latvia’s capital Riga. I presented myself to the guard at the entrance of the KGB headquarters at the corner of Friedrich Engel Street and the Lenin Boulevard. My interpreter had refused to enter the building with me. Fortunately, the guard knew enough English to understand that here was a foreign journalist wanting to speak to the general himself. Less than 10 minutes later, I was led from the gate to the general’s office, a big darkish room with heavy curtains and the air stale from cigarette smoke and human sweat.

A group of officials are busy emptying the cabinets of files, stacking them on a big conference table. Some of the documents are put on the general’s work desk for scrutiny, piling up next to an impressive array of telephones in different colors of black, green and red. The general himself is standing at a window, looking at his lost city, a foul-smelling Russian cigarette in his hand. He greets me with a handshake and an attempt of a smile.

“I love Riga. I spent my life here. This is where I met wife and my children grew up. Can you imagine how it feels to see it all fall apart in over just a few days.”

The general points at the streets below us. 

“The other morning, I was standing here and looked on, while some criminals burned our flags down there. I never imagined this would happen. They should have been arrested and punished severely for this insult to the symbol of our nation.”

The city has become quiet now, after two weeks of violent chaos. The barricades, built by the civilians to protect the government buildings from the Russian black berets, are still in place. But the shootings, mostly in the air, and the savage beatings of civilian demonstrators stopped. The black berets have retreated to their base outside Riga.

The only loud noise this morning had come from the huge Lenin statue crashing down on the main square in front of my hotel. The demolition workers were cheered like heroes of a war when they chopped off pieces of the statue and handed them to the on-lookers. 

A failed coup

The showdown in Riga had been a direct result of a failed coup attempt in Moscow, more than 800 km away from Latvia.  A group of hardcore communist leaders and generals had staged a coup attempt to stop the dramatic reforms, spearheaded by general secretary and president Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup not only failed but also unleashed a chaos, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

In the aftermath of the coup the general secretary of Latvia’s communist party, Alfreds Rubiks, was arrested a few days before by forces, loyal to Latvia’s new government. Rubiks, also known as a hawkish member of the politbureau, was accused of participating in the attempt to overthrow Gorbachev.

“I have not in any way been involved with the coup in Moscow, and I think I would have known, if Rubiks has had any role. We worked together very closely for years. In the present situation I would not be surprised if I am the next one to be arrested. But I am not worried. A fair trial will prove my innocence,” the general said, lighting up another cigarette with the butt of the one he just finished.

A black beret throwing a smoke grenade to cover the retreat of the Russian elite soldiers from the street fighting in Riga.

General, why did you agree to see me?

“You told my staff, that you come here as an impartial observer, offering me an opportunity to tell my side of the story. I am happy to share the truth with your readers. I want to stand up against this anti-communist witch-hunt, instigated by the enemies of our Soviet Union. I have done nothing but my duty to our fatherland.” 

A call from the president

The general is interrupted by his assistant, whispering in his ear.

“Excuse me for a minute, I have a call from the president of Latvia.”

The general picks up one of his phones. For the next 10 minutes or so a lively exchange takes place, with me becoming increasing frustrated that I did not manage to persuade my interpreter to accompany me to the interview. She could have filled me in later, what this was all about.

For whatever reason, general Johansons decides to share a little from his conversation with Latvia’s president, after he put down the phone.

“President Gurbonovs would like to meet me to discuss with me if we can work together to ensure peace and stability in Latvia. He is worried that common criminals, not least the Mafia, will exploit the situation. Even though we are on opposite sides now, we have known each other for many years. The president knows I am not an enemy.”

The general might have been right in his assessment of the president. Latvia’s new president at the time had a long past as a chief ideologist in the communist party before he joined the popular movement against the party.

“If our security organization is dissolved, it will be very easy for the Mafia to operate in our country.” 

Knowing the risk that ‘impolite questions’ might lead the interview to an abrupt end, I decide to take my chances and confront the general with the public reputation of his organization. 

I understand that a special investigation committee of the Latvian parliament is expected to soon publish a report, which documents close ties between the KGB and the Mafia. The chairman of the committee, Linards Mutinsh, told me yesterday, the committee will present evidence that security agency staff has been involved in smuggling and selling illegal narcotics and prostitution racketeering.  I also understand that the Hotel Latvija, the biggest in Riga where I am staying myself, is a kind of joint venture between KGB and the Leningrad mafia. Hidden cameras and listening devices have been found there. According to rumors, the equipment was used to blackmail guests after their encounters with prostitutes.

“Nonsense and lies. You have seen too many bad movies. We are here to protect the nation and the people, and that is what we have been doing all these years. As a matter of fact, I myself, have been a supporter of the reform process. I have served with loyalty, even to him,” the general says pointing to a portrait on his wall, framed in gold, of Mikhail Gorbachev.

You have been the head of Latvia’s KGB for 20 years now. You do not have any regrets? You never made a mistake?

“In hindsight, you can always find something, that should have been done differently.  But my personal mistakes are really nothing compared to the ultimate and catastrophic mistake when our party leader and president Gorbachev got his way and forced through the abolishment of paragraph 6 in our constitution. After that the Party lost its leading role in our society.”

You told me this is your last day in your office. What future do you imagine for yourself?

“With the call this morning from the president, I have some confidence that I will be allowed to hand over this organization to my successor in an orderly fashion. At present, I do not have any specific ideas what to do next.  And now, you will have to excuse me.  I do have some important things to deal with before I leave.”

My interpreter is waiting for me outside on street.

“I am so relieved to see you again. You know what we say about this building. If you go inside, you will never be seen again. You have no idea of what the KGB have done to us over the years. Thousands of people have been imprisoned and tortured by them. Many have simply disappeared. We believe they were sent to Gulag, the prison camps in Siberia.”

A presidential denial

Later the same afternoon, I take the floor at a press conference with Latvia’s president Anatolisj Gurbonovs. The entire press corps, including journalists who have flown in from all over the world, have been invited to a presidential presentation of the future plans of independent Latvia.

I understand that your government is trying to establish agreement with the KGB on maintaining security in your country.  Do you think this will be accepted by your people with all the sufferings that the KGB has inflicted on them over the years?

“Where on earth did you get that idea, that we would have any collaboration with the KGB,” the president shoots back.

Because you called the head of the KGB this morning in his office. I know because I was there interviewing him.

The president sends an irritated look in my direction and does not respond to any further questions on the topic. 

“A victory no one celebrates” – one my original reports from Latvia.

A party in distress

I decided to follow my mentor’s advice further. Next was a visit to the headquarters of Latvia’s Communist Party to see if anyone there would be willing to talk to me.

As I arrive at the enormous building, I just walk in. In the courtyard a couple of soldiers are arguing with a handful of civilians, pressing their IDs on them.

“They are party officials trying to get in. They say they want to collect their personal belongings, but the soldiers refuse to let them in,” my interpreter explains. She is not scared this time, entering the party headquarters with me.

“The communists are all gone. I want to see what it looks like inside.”

No one seems to pay any attention to us, as we enter the grandiose lobby, including a pompous spiral staircase.

“Look at all the marble on the wall and these beautiful carpets. I had no idea Latvia is such a rich country,” my interpreter observes. Next, she approaches a soldier sitting at the lobby desk, explaining our desire to have a closer look at the party headquarters.

“Sure, and welcome. I am sergeant Starasts Aivars. You want to see the general secretary’s office.”

The friendly sergeant motions us to follow him up the stairs to office 602 on the top floor.

“The general secretary was sitting in his office when we first got here. We informed his security detail that we were here on orders from the government to arrest him. They just nodded, and we went inside and announced his arrest. Rubiks did not say a word nor resisted us, when we took him downstairs and put him in an army truck, taking him to the prison, where he is held now.”

The sergeant let us peep through the door into the general secretary’s impressive office. 

“The office has been sealed now by the court, but you can go inside for a quick look, as long as you don’t touch anything.”

Former party chief Alfreds Rubriks.

Stench of destroyed documents

A strong smell of smoke is coming from the back of the office, as we look around. I push a half-open door leading to the private bathroom of the general secretary and proceed inside to locate the light switch. Once the light is on, I find myself standing on half burned documents. The staff were obviously interrupted before they had a chance to finish the job.

The sergeant moves forward to stop me, as I pick up some of the half-destroyed documents to take a closer look.

“You need to leave now. You are not really allowed to be in here. You can have this little souvenir.” 

The sergeant hands over one of the general secretary’s business cards. On our way out, we stumble on a cart, just standing there with a messy pile of red membership books, intended for newly approved party members.

“Here are a couple more souvenirs for you.” Sergeant Aivars hands over a membership book to both of us with a friendly grin, waving goodbye. 

In the courtyard the small group of former party officials are still pleading with the soldiers.

“You might as well go home. Everything in here is now the property of the government.”

“I have an official ID-card and even keys to the building. You have to let me in.”

The elderly, well-dressed man put his hand on the soldier’s arm, only to be pushed away with disgust. 

“You might as well hand over your keys, all of you.”

“You call this democracy. It looks to me that fascist bandits have occupied our country.”

“You better watch it old man,” the soldier pushes him so hard that he almost falls down. 

A woman in the group is crying now.

“How can they do this to us. We have served the country and the people all over lives. We have done nothing wrong. How will we survive? Are they going to arrest all of us?”

This morning she has no chance of knowing that only the general secretary himself will be convicted for his involvement in the coup attempt. Almost four years later, on 28 July 1995, Latvia’s supreme court hands out an eight-year jail sentence to Alfred Rubiks.

“This is not a verdict. This is the beginning of a new repression,” Rubiks shouted as security guards escorted him out of the court room, as he reportedly muttered: “I will take power in Latvia again, shortly.”

Rubiks did not get his way. Latvian law prohibits him to this day running for public office, but he found new ways to engage in politics. After being released in 1997 for good behavior, he became chairman of The Socialist Party of Latvia, which had been founded on the ruins of the communist party.  In 2009, Rubiks succeeded to become elected to the European Parliament. 

He is now retired. His two sons are members of the Latvian parliament for The Harmony Party, known to represent the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia.

During these extraordinary days in Latvia, I made a third and successful attempt to implement the advice of my mentor and get one more important losing group to talk: The Russian elite troops, known as Black Berets, who had terrorized the citizens of Riga during these tumultuous events.

However, this essay is already too long. So, I will keep that part for my memoirs if I ever get around to writing them. I have tried in vain to trace KGB general Johansons. He would be 85 years old now, if still alive. 

Hanoi, August 2021

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