Baltic Countdown extract

Raindrops, sluggish with cold, slid down the outer panes of the double windows in the gathering dusk. From the high ceiling an unshaded bulb glared harshly on the faded group of armchairs, and the wooden partition which divided room No. 22 of the Hotel St Petersburg, Riga, and hid the massive Russian bed from the sight of visitors. Beside this stood a couple of suitcases—all that we were sure of possessing in the world.

It was October 12th, 1938. Two months before, my husband’s chief, Tommy Kendrick, head of the Passport Control Office in Vienna, had been expelled from Austria on a charge of espionage, and when the Gestapo began to arrest his ‘accomplices’ we had been told by the Foreign Office to leave for Riga within twenty-four hours.

But this was not so easy. Six months earlier, the Germans had without warning occupied Austria and now they were threatening Czechoslovakia. Our route to Riga lay through Prague, Warsaw and Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania. Already the land frontiers of Czechoslovakia were closed and most of the staff of our Prague Legation evacuated to London. Hungarian and Polish troops were mobilizing in order to snatch disputed strips of territory from their stricken neighbour. Trains to Prague were at a standstill and planes already over-booked. However, with the help of our Dutch colleagues we managed the two hops to Warsaw by KLM, and next day, the final stages of the journey, the aeroplanes becoming smaller and the days shorter as we progressed northwards.

On our arrival in Riga, Kenneth went off to report for duty and I sat alone, bereft at one stroke of the home we had set up six months earlier (now impounded and sealed by the Gestapo), our friends, an interesting job and even, for the moment, of anything to read or do.

A thermometer was fixed between the two windows and as I gazed at the congealing raindrops its crimson thread sank slowly towards freezing point.

Only five years before, I had left Riga, resolved never to return.

* * *

Next morning a watery sun gleamed on the puddles in the Castle Square. Kenneth set out for the Consulate. He had returned quite cheerful the evening before.

‘The building’s a bit old-fashioned. It faces a park which runs along the Canal. The Consular offices are in the front—quite imposing and must be pleasant in summer. The Passport Control Office is in the servants’ quarters and I should think our main office must have been the kitchen. There’s the usual counter and a row of hard chairs for the visa applicants, but the Iino stops short at our door, as well as the trimmings. The rest of our work goes on in a series of rooms leading from a long dark passage. One of them may have been the larder, or else the architect got his sums wrong and had a little bit of space left over, not that it matters, since no one works there.’

‘And what about the staff?’

‘The Consul, Henry Hobson, is a bluff sort of chap and seems to know what he’s doing. The senior Vice-Consul, Glyn Hall, has lived here for years and is thoroughly dug in. Apart from that there are a couple of girls married to Latvians, a locally employed Vice-Consul and the usual solid, respectable Consular Messengers complete with basic English.’

‘And the P.C.O.?’

‘As you know, Nick in is charge. Ex-Black Watch with no family and no obvious cares, and the most incredibly polished shoes. Then there is Dorothy Corrie from one of the Anglo-Baltic families. She speaks fluent Russian, has lots of local knowledge and an unshakably British outlook.’

‘Anyone else?’

‘Just Paul. His father and mother have lived here since the Baltic States gained their independence from Russia after the ’14–’18 war. When the family fled from Moscow at the time of the Revolution, poor Paul was somehow left behind with his nurse and it was months before they were picked up by some refugee organization and reunited with his parents. I don’t think he has ever quite got over it. Don’t underestimate him, though. He speaks the three local languages fluently and he has a photographic memory.’

The days at the Hotel St Petersburg, or Peterpils Viesnica, to use the Latvian name painted over the door, passed slowly. There was no news of our luggage and, without a typewriter or wireless set, we had no home diversions but a writing pad, a pack of patience cards and a few books we had been able to borrow. It was no use looking for a flat until our furniture arrived, so we decided to move into the apartment of Madame Mossolova, widow of a White Russian general, who took in odd foreigners and ‘language officers’. Since the Soviet Union was closed to visits by members of our Armed Forces, British officers studying for a Russian interpretership were distributed between Riga, Tallinn (the capital of Estonia) and Helsinki. To learn in one year what their American counterparts were only expected to master in two, meant steady application, and as the young men were boarded out in respectable households they were denied the convenience of a ‘sleeping dictionary’.

The flat in the Elizabetes iela, halfway between the Legation and the Consulate, was rambling, dark and filled with heavy drapes and furniture from Tsarist times. Olga Mossolova, a thin authoritative woman with the enduring quality of whipcord, chatted across the long table during meals, in Russian or French or slightly hesitant English, according to the nationality of the guest she was addressing. Between courses she drew impatiently at the long cardboard mouthpiece of her papirossi, discarding one after another until the crystal ash tray was overflowing. For every meal the table was laid with a starched damask cloth, cut glass and heavy Russian silver.

‘It is a pleasure to use such beautiful things, Madame,’ I said to her after we had been there a few days.

‘Ah this,’ she replied in her deep voice, ‘is nothing. My husband was governor of a province. We had a staff of seventeen indoor servants and a dozen house guests at a time. But, do you know, I never went inside the kitchen. I was not even sure where it was. You see, I was only a child when we married and my husband took care of everything. Now, I think I have become quite a good housekeeper. You will never find bought vodka in my home.’

She pointed to three cut-glass decanters filled with yellow, gold and pale green liquid. A careful ménagère, madame told us, would never buy ready-made vodka but go to a chemist’s and get a bottle of pure alcohol. This was then warmed in a saucepan and the fusel oil burnt off with a lighted match. A measured quantity of distilled water was added and the whole brew flavoured with lemon or orange peel, or the Polish zubravka grass which gave a subtle flavour and a delicate green hue.

‘I offer small glasses, but in the old days …’ Her eyes glowed with memories of the expansive life of Imperial Russia.

She turned abruptly to Dorothy Corrie, who lived permanently in the flat. ‘Noble has passed his exam. I had a letter from him today.’

‘And what about Thurloe?’

‘Failed. And he with a Russian wife. I think she wanted too much to learn English.’ She crushed another papirossa into the ash tray. ‘And who will have a bath tonight?’

It was the custom in the older blocks of Riga flats to provide the tenants with hot water from a central boiler once a week. Early in the morning the maids would start to wash the household linen, which was then hung in the basement to dry. Although a bath was available at any time, provided one had the patience to wait while the wood in the tall copper stove burnt through, Madame Mossolova naturally encouraged her guests to take advantage of the free hot water on washing day.

We had always been impressed by the luxurious Hollywood image of a sunken bath. Here, for the first time, we were to enjoy one. The bathroom was large and drably tiled. The taps were of massive brass and the W.C. bore the name DREADNOUGHT, trade mark of an English manufacturer and a relic of the supremacy of the sanitation anglaise. The huge enamelled bath, perhaps owing to some misunderstanding on the part of the builder, was sunk right into the floor, its varicosed rim flush with the encaustic tiles. It was not until one lay in the steaming water and gazed upwards that the problem of accommodating the bath’s volume was explained. From the ceiling hung the naked cast-iron belly of the bath in the flat above, its runaway pipe snaking exposed down the wall. Lying in the bath one was enjoying space normally belonging to one’s neighbour below, whilst inside the bulge above one’s head the occupant of the flat above might even now be lying naked.

Every morning after breakfast Kenneth walked to the office and I went back to our bedroom overlooking the blank brick wall of a narrow courtyard. Cars from a garage below tainted the air with the curious fumes of the local petrol, which was mixed with thirty per cent of the potato spirit used to make Latvian vodka.

On fine days I would walk through the gardens on the banks of the canal which divided the original Hanseatic town from the nineteenth century city. The old town had been encircled by walls which were demolished in 1857, and the canal was the moat which once protected them. Originally, the houses of the Baltic German settlers were confined within these walls. The tall dwellings of the merchants, housing floor upon floor of store-rooms beneath tiled and gabled roofs, jostled patrician mansions with their stone portals and chevron-built shutters. Here and there, in a courtyard, a tree reached for the sun.

On the river front below the castle, carts loaded with goods for shipment rattled over the cobbles behind horses with high wooden yokes over their necks. A small steam ferry plied between the castle and the industrial suburbs of Kipsala and Ilgeciems. Upriver, the road was carried over the Daugava by a pontoon bridge half a kilometre long, with the girder arches of the railway bridge rising beyond it.

One day I followed the river downstream to the Export Harbour, where ships were loading with timber, hemp and dairy products, and bundles of king veitch, exported to Scotland for colouring whisky, now that the sherry casks from Spain were becoming so expensive. This quay held a special memory for me.

Five years earlier I, with my small sons, had been asked to spend the summer on the estate of Baron Kruedener, the father of the man I was to marry. We arrived by sea in a small German coaster from Stettin. As we sailed up the Daugava to Riga three great churches dominated the skyline—St Peter’s with the tallest wooden spire in Europe, built tier upon tier; the Dom, its galleried tower swelling with the graceful lines of a Georgian silver teapot and St James’s spire, slender and hexagonal. All of them copper-sheathed, gleamed in the evening light. The air was warm and Jimmy, my future husband, was waiting on the quay.

Even in early May it was still light when, after leaving the train at the country station of Tukums and driving for four hours through deep forest and rolling fields, we reached Rindseln. Life was exciting—a new door opening. The lovely summer days passed quickly, but beneath the surface lay financial worries. It seemed that Jimmy’s best hope of employment lay in Germany, where the Nazis were becoming increasingly aggressive, while the economic situation was depressing wages. There seemed no prospect of ever being able to send the boys to school in England. For all the Baron’s ingenious schemes and his wife’s thrift, Rindseln was bringing in barely enough to cover expenses.

‘You know,’ Kruedener confided to me one day, ‘cards are my only source of ready cash. When I’m in Riga I play every evening at the Musse, the club where we Balts have been winning—and losing—money for the last two hundred years. It’s not that my bridge is so good. It’s just that I can stay awake longer than anyone else.’

The situation was precarious and my brother, a medical student, was so concerned that he thumbed a passage in a Lithuanian freighter and came to Rindseln to persuade me to return. In those days there would have been no haven in England if Jimmy were without a job or our marriage went wrong. There was no Welfare State and no Health Service to ensure survival. My mother, for all her loyalty and initiative, could do little to help since her pension, as a general’s widow, was only £150 a year. As long as the boys were dependent, my alimony was a precious hedge against destitution.

So, with great sadness, Jimmy and I agreed to part. A door had closed, I thought for ever.

Now, it was as if a great pendulum had swung, reversing the past. I was beginning life in Latvia once more. This time our situation was secure, but winter loomed ahead like a long, dark tunnel.

As my future home, Latvia and its history had interested me deeply, but I had absorbed, inevitably, the Baltic German point of view, which regarded the country from the standpoint of a colonizing power. Yet the Latvians had developed an indigenous culture and were trading fine weapons and ornaments forged of gold, silver and bronze with places as far afield as Rome, Baghdad, Basra and Isfahan when both we and the Germans were not yet civilized.

Latvia’s natural wealth, added to excellent harbours, which were starting points for trade routes to Russia and the East, made it a tempting prey for Vikings, Danes, Hanseatic traders, the warlike knights of the Teutonic and Livonian Orders and, in their turn, the Poles. Even England was involved in the competition and in 1558 sent arms to Ivan the Terrible, who made use of them in a scorched earth campaign against Erik XIV of Sweden in the course of which he put the northern half of the country to the torch and the sword. Most of the towns were levelled and ‘over great stretches of the land no human voice could be heard, nor even the barking of a dog’.

The Cross accompanied the sword, and missionaries of the Greek Orthodox Church clashed with Catholics, while the southern half of the country was for centuries involved in the struggle between the Protestant states headed by Sweden and the Catholic group led by Poland.

Until the independence of Latvia was proclaimed on November 18th, 1918, the country was divided into three sections, often ruled by different foreign powers—Livonia in the north, Courland to the south, and Latgale, marching with the Russian border. Under a succession of semi-independent dukes, Courland achieved a degree of prosperity. Duke James, ‘too rich for a duke and too poor for a king’, as Charles XI of Sweden described him, supplied our Charles I with six men-of-war built of Courland oak and complete with cannon, muskets and provisions. When the King failed to pay the bill the Duke hedged his bet by signing a treaty of non-aggression with Cromwell. This was used as a pretext by Charles II for offering him in payment only a small island at the mouth of the Gambia River, which was good for nothing but a little pearl fishing.

Peter the Great, seeking an outlet to the Baltic, drove the Swedes out of Livonia and took over the independent city of Riga. The Baltic barons were quick to realize the advantages of co-operation with Russia, and though a centralized system of administration was imposed, most of the governors of the new provinces were Balts who, with their administrative ability, soon occupied nearly half the important positions in the Russian Government and Armed Forces.

In 1817 the serfs of the Baltic Provinces were freed, but at the same time the land they had acquired was sequestered in compensation, it was declared, for the loss of their labour. The serfs were free as birds—but free to starve. In spite of this, and the introduction of a government poll tax and compulsory military service the peasants, probably as a reaction against former domination by the Balts, pinned their hopes on the Russians.

Following the ‘russification’ campaign of Alexander III, corrupt and inefficient bureaucrats swarmed into the country. Freedom of the press was abolished, the powers of the secret police were extended to cover the area and denunciations and deportations became common. Wholesale conversions to the Orthodox faith were achieved by means of bribery and Russian became the official language.

Riga, however, was becoming the most advanced city in Russia. A Latvian middle class was established and peasants left their homes and settled in the cities to form a growing industrial proletariat, though Balts still held the most important positions in industry, commerce, banking, education and medicine. In 1905 peasant uprisings against the Baltic landowners were ruthlessly suppressed, too late to prevent the looting and burning of scores of estates. The Latvian leader, Karl Ulmanis, was sent into exile.

With the coming of independence the position of middle-class Balts was little affected, but the landowners, their estates reduced to fifty hectares each, lost the power they had held so long and were obliged to eke out a modest existence in the country, or look for employment.

These landowners, though acknowledging their German origin, insisted on their status as Balts and, whilst regarding Latvian achievements with reluctant admiration, their attitude towards both the Russians and the Germans was tinged with contempt. The former they regarded as incompetent and often crude, and the latter as narrow-minded, conformist and somewhat provincial.

‘There have been many outstanding Balts, including Madame de Stäel and her pen-friend, my ancestor Madame Kruedener,’ the baron told me, adding with pleasant cynicism, ‘but we are a bit inbred and if you go to any estate and look around you’ll probably find the family idiot up a tree.’

This expectation had kept the boys interested during the visits we sometimes paid to neighbouring estates. There were signs of inbreeding, a certain defeatist lassitude amongst some of the Balts, but we saw nothing stranger than a squirrel in a tree top.

‘My great-grandmother was a foundling who was brought to Riga during the cholera epidemic in Hamburg’, Kruedener said one day. ‘Goodness knows what kind of blood she brought into the family. Whatever it was, it was welcome. She was a survivor, like me.’

In spite of the loss of estates which before the war had covered over thirty thousand acres Kruedener displayed no resentment. The great house at Rindseln had been burned down and the family now lived in the low wooden building formerly used by the bailiff. But there was still excellent shooting, and riding through the firebreaks out in the forest, and plenty of food for the family. The mill and the forge and the great barn and dairies which had made the estate into a self-sufficient unit had been allotted each to a peasant proprietor.

‘Quite irrational’, commented Kruedener. ‘Formerly all this was used by everyone. A peasant had his share of the produce and could bring his wood to the mill and his grain to be threshed. Now, the buildings are falling into disrepair. None of the peasants can keep sufficient animals to manure his fields or afford machinery to work his holding, though I must say that the State has made a good job of the big dairy co-operatives, and exports are booming—particularly to your country.

‘The landowners were wrong to despise the Latvians,’ he continued. ‘They’re tough and intelligent, wonderful craftsmen with a feeling for timber and natural materials, and whatever the stories put about by my people, they’re clean to the point of destructiveness. It’s not so difficult to keep things clean once they’re in order, but after the devastation of the last war I’ve seen them polishing the few remaining panes of glass in a window or scrubbing a shell-torn floor. Of course, they’re a bit surly, but after so many years as under-dogs, who wouldn’t be?’

The Latvian passion for order was evident in Riga. In spite of the mixture of races and traditions, the town was run with doll’s house neatness. Under the drifting clouds of autumn large yellow leaves floated down from the trees and formed jagged patterns on the glistening pavements. But they were not allowed to lie, and in the parks, women with clean kerchiefs over their heads moved about ceaselessly in pairs, carrying small wooden stretchers on to which they gathered the leaves as they fell and tidied them away.

The language problem was tackled just as methodically. The Latvian language, though of considerable philological interest, is of little use outside the frontiers, and there was no incentive for foreigners to learn more than the limited amount which concerned their daily needs.

But the Latvians, clinging to this symbol of their heritage, had a very high standard of literacy, even through the periods when the teaching of Latvian was suppressed or limited in the schools. So with Independence in 1918 there was a surge of interest in the vernacular. In order to purify the language of distortions a department of philology was opened in the State University. As new words are constantly needed to keep a language up to date, a small cash reward was offered to anyone inventing an acceptable Latvian equivalent for a modern foreign word. These new Latvian words were listed in the local newspapers.

Unless one were content to walk everywhere it was essential to know the Latvian names for the Post Office, the railway stations, the Central Market, and so on, otherwise bus or tram conductors would refuse to issue a ticket. Numbers were vital too, as stamps were sold on the same basis. German and Russian were current in the shops, but most of the business in the market was conducted in Latvian by the peasant women who sold fruit and berries and fresh vegetables in summer and, all the year round, delicious dairy products, fresh fish and game. It is surprising how quickly one learns the essential words when one is interested or hungry.

Winter was tightening its grip and drawing the sap deep into the earth. The wide clear skies of early autumn had shrunk to a grey blanket pressing down on the leafless branches and clustered roofs of the city.

The sense of claustrophobia was overwhelming. The two small states of Latvia and Estonia lay side by side between the mute boundaries of Russia and the sea. Below these two, Lithuania, with Poland on her east and East Prussia to the south, completed a trio bound, it seemed, to remain on the sidelines of international events.

But though space was confined, time could be extended, and I decided to explore backwards into the history of the country and to discover more of the Latvian point of view. Unfortunately, I could not read the Latvian language and owing to political prejudices accounts in other languages were hardly likely to be helpful. I needed some personal contact. The various racial groups established in the country tended to mix very little, and even the Anglo-Russian families, some established for four generations or more, limited most of their social contacts to their compatriots and some White Russians and Balts.

One day, however, when I was visiting the Consulate, a thin grey-haired man with wire-framed glasses approached me timidly. ‘I am Peksens, professor of history at the State University, and I like very much to learn English. I study, but I need conversation. Do you know where I can find it?’

I suggested that we might meet and talk from time to time. The Professor’s vocabulary was extensive but the sentences flowed awkwardly, so when he was caught up in a subject he would lapse into German, the lingua franca of the Baltic States. This was fun for me, but bad value for him; however, he seemed quite happy about it.

It was only after several meetings with Peksens that I learnt, to my surprise, that we were living under a dictatorship. One was so used to the stereotypes—black shirts, brown shirts, hoarse cries of ‘Duce, Duce’ and ‘Heil Hitler’, thumping boots and sudden disappearances—that one accepted any country with a peaceful tenure of life and plenty of individual freedom as a democracy. And this had been Latvia’s status when I left in 1933.

When Latvia gained independence the Government set to work in a mood of optimism. Democracy, which they had chosen, meant freedom, so anyone was free to form a political party, with the result that some of the parties in the Saeima, the Latvian parliament, had less than ten members. The outcome was confusion and compromise and, as usually happens in a troubled situation, corruption crept in, encouraged by economic depression. Constitutional reform was blocked by hard-headed parties of the Left and Right. The Communists were building strategically placed blocks of flats, potential fortresses like the Karl Marxhof in Vienna, and the Nazi ‘Nationalists’ were running a clandestine Hitler Youth Movement.

By early 1934 things had reached such a pitch that there was a real fear of civil war. In May, just as in Estonia two months earlier, the government declared a state of siege and the Saeima was dissolved. Some of the left wing deputies were arrested and later released, and the Communist Party went underground. A Government of National Unity was declared by President Ulmanis and General Balodis, both old fighters for Latvian independence, and since then things had gone along quietly, Ulmanis having declared that he would only stay in office until constitutional reforms had been carried out. But that was four years ago.

Towards the end of November our belongings arrived, neatly packed beneath the Gestapo seals, and we moved into a flat in one of the old-fashioned apartment houses in the Ausekla iela, just opposite the dock where the ships left for the outside world. Someone had told us that Reginald Urch, for many years Times correspondent in Moscow and afterwards in Riga, was being transferred to Helsinki and no longer needed the maid who had been in his employ for seventeen years.

One chilly afternoon we called on Urch in the small wooden house where he was just packing up. ‘Lotte is an original,’ he said, ‘a white witch one might say. At some phases of the moon she’s strange, but she can cook, and if she takes a fancy to you, all her spells will be benign. Are you a good housekeeper?’

I hesitated. ‘I like a comfortable home and good food, and a clean bathroom and kitchen …’

The interview was turning out a little differently from my expectations, as it seemed that it was I who was being put to the test. Lotte, having evidently decided to use Urch as her representative, was not at home.

‘I think you’ll suit each other. Lotte is not very fond of dusting ornaments, but when you can write your name on the top of your desk she’ll understand, and for a week or two everything will be spotless. Lotte is honest and speaks good German,’ said Urch as we parted. ‘We are very fond of her. I hope you will thank me.’

When we arrived at the flat Lotte was waiting outside the tall varnished front door, a stout woman in her fifties, wearing a tight black coat. Her large floury face had the pallor of a freshly picked mushroom and her frizzy hair had obviously been tinted with henna, but not for some time. The gaps in her front teeth gave them an individuality which seemed to suggest that they, too, were involved in any conversation and her eyes, the red-brown of a faithful setter, appeared a little out of focus.