My primary motivation for meeting with Janis Rozkalns was to ask him “why?” Rozkalns received Latvia’s highest honor, the Order of the Three Stars, for running one of the Soviet Union’s largest anti-communist groups during the 70s and 80s. Why did he resist the Soviet occupation? Why did he illegally print and distribute religious anti-communist pamphlets, when doing so was nearly guaranteed to land him in a Siberian Gulag? Why did he immediately join up with the human rights group, Helsinki-86, upon his release from a Soviet prison camp?
“Responsibility,” he answered when he sat down to talk to me in his small apartment in Riga. “The country is the common home of a nation, and if a person understands this, he will feel responsible toward his nation just as he will feel responsible to protect his family if a stranger broke in the front door.” Today, Rozkalns is largely remembered for human rights advocacy. But he told me that while violations of human rights were certainly a detestable feature of Soviet communism, they are inevitable in any society where it is the goal of government to homogenize people by eliminating their historic traditions and values.
By resisting Soviet occupation, Mr. Rozkalns felt he was defending Latvian heritage. “You have to resist,” said Mr. Rozkalns over the cup of herbal tea he poured for me. Though his words sound weighty on paper, he is, in life, so soft-spoken that my microphone didn’t always register his voice. “You have to resist because we, the Latvian nation, had our own state. This is a big deal, not many nations have their own state. We were enlightened, we produced our own airplanes, buses… we were an oasis of knowledge and intelligentsia. They came, brought communist ideology, and destroyed our Christian underpinnings.”
These Christian underpinnings, learned in childhood, seem to be the second major aspect of Mr. Rozkalns’s anti-Soviet resistance. He fondly remembered the communal bible studies his family used to hold in their home, about 130 km away from Riga. Perhaps it was the community, meaning, and belonging he derived from these bible studies that gave him the strength to refuse to join the Komsomol, the Soviet youth pioneer movement, even after his teacher locked him in a drafty wood shed for hours after school to “think about his decisions.”
When Mr. Rozkalns got to university, he began meeting with other Christian students.
Along with partners like Olav and Pavel Bruvers (the latter now a Lutheran priest), he began systematizing and organizing resistance to communism on religious grounds. “An individual cannot resist the system,” said Mr. Rozkalns as an aside. “We had to put together our own system.” Their first publication was a pamphlet with 20 seemingly innocuous questions designed to lead people to consider the deep existential questions that communism dreaded. “What do you believe? Are you happy? Can you practice your beliefs openly?”
When the Bruvers were arrested for their “simple but logical” pamphlets, Mr. Rozkalns was left in charge of their growing, primarily religious anti-Soviet and anti-communist opposition movement. By 1978 and 1979, they developed an underground railroad, partly through Western tour guides, to smuggle information from the Soviet Union to the West in exchange for binocular cameras, Geiger counters, and Flo-master pens. From the 1970s until his arrest in 1983, Mr. Rozkalns ran his now-large organization with three goals in mind: to maintain the national spirit, to remind the nation of its former independence, and to inform the West about the Soviet occupation of Latvia and the communist occupation of the human spirit.
Using typewriters muffled with pillows and block stamps smuggled in from Germany, Rozkalns and his wife, and their other partners printed and distributed postcards to mailboxes all over Latvia with paragraphs about the resistance movement.
“Latvian nation, we call you to be strong and believe in the freedom and independence of our nation. Before 1918, the situation was similar. Back then, it seemed less possible to make a Latvian state, and yet we still did it. Today, in difficult economic and political times, the solution to those problems can only be Latvian independence. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, must be free…”
“Imagine,” said Mr. Rozkalns as he translated one of the pamphlets for me from Latvian, “receiving one of these paragraphs on a postcard in your mailbox when you thought you were the only one in the world who still gave a thought to Latvian independence?” I hope that someone in Crimea today has the audacity and the compassion to place similar postcards in the mailboxes of those at risk of losing hope in freedom.
Rozkalns also aimed to fly Latvian flags all over the country on November 18th, the anniversary of its 1918 independence from the Tsarist empire. But creating the crimson-and-white flag was near-impossible. Not only was the flag outlawed, but so was any fabric dyed in the precise Latvian shade of red. Mr. Rozkalns had to sneak into the factory where the appropriate fabric was woven, obtain plain fabric and dye the flag himself. Hanging the flag was even riskier. Rozkalns and a friend hammered the flag into a pole over a major railway in the dead of night and made an escape by motorcycle.
Mr. Rozkalns’s third goal was to inform the West of the communist and Soviet atrocities. Herein lies what Mr. Rozkalns considers his biggest victory. The inmates of a prison camp near Riga—including Pavel Bruvers, one of his collaborators from his university days—were taken every day to build austere “new Soviet cities” for the ethnic Russians that the Soviet Union was forcibly relocating to Latvia. Rozkalns and his friend dressed up as bums and hid 16 mm and 8 mm cameras behind liquor bottles on the side of the road. They managed to photograph the prisoners getting stuffed into pickup trucks like cattle, the German shepherds hounding and harassing the workers, and the five fences keeping the workers from escaping. Smuggled into the West through the Tallinn-Sweden network, the photos created a public outcry in the late 70s, as they provided evidence of the abuses that Alexander Solzhenitsyn had written about in his recently-published Gulag Archipelago.
Rozkalns avoided arrest until Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief, came to power. The command to search 60 suspected houses came on January 6, 1983. The KGB found nothing in Mr. Rozkalns’s house, though he had plenty of illegal material hidden behind bricks in the wall, cooked into food in the refrigerator, and tucked up in secret compartments above the mantel. He caught the KGB officers off guard when he told them that his wife was in the hospital in labor with twins and that if they arrested him for possessing the few Western items they had found in his apartment she would likely have a miscarriage. As Rozkalns was fairly well-known in the West by this point, that might cause an international incident. So the KGB waited until August to sentence him to eight years in a Siberian Gulag.
The trial was a farce, of course. Knowing he would be sentenced no matter what, Mr. Rozkalns took the opportunity to talk to his KGB interrogator about God. I asked Mr. Rozkalns if it wasn’t perhaps reckless to give Christian texts to a KGB officer who had arrested him for possession and distribution of, among other things, Christian texts. “No,” said Mr. Rozkalns, “he was in earnest, and I know this because I met him again in 2001.” Rozkalns was released from the Siberian Gulag in 1987 under pressure from President Ronald Reagan, and when he joined Helsinki-86 upon his return, he was exiled to Germany, where he lived until 2001. When he returned, his interrogator apologized to him. He told him that God had punished him for what he had done to Mr. Rozkalns and his family, as he had been transferred from his desk job in Riga to a field job catching drug smugglers in Kyrgyzstan.
The incident vindicated Mr. Rozkalns’s faith not just in God but also in humanity. He still spoke well of his interrogator. “A human is a living organism that can think,” said Mr. Rozkalns, reminding us all that systems of government may come and go, but the human spirit is permanent and persistent. “We shouldn’t forget those human qualities under any condition,” said Mr. Rozkalns as we shook hands and parted. “We should never forget.”
Janis Rozkalns with his Latvian Three-Stars, the highest award of the Latvian State.
Postcard that Janis Rozkalns secretly printed and distributed in the 70s. Straight on, it looks like a graphic design. But if you tilt the letters so that the paper appears almost two dimensional, the letters become clear. They read “Freedom for Latvia,” and “God save Latvia.
Stamps that call for the release of Soviet dissidents, Janis Rozkalns among them.