The resistance to the Soviet Occupation of
Latvia led to many men and women risking their careers, their health,
their lives and their sanity in the fight to regain control over their
country and culture. Stura
Maja: The Shadow of Fear
is the fictionalised acount of one family's experiences during the
period from 1968 to 2014.
Based on factual accounts and actual historical events, the novel takes you inside a country separated from Western Europe and its Scandinavian neighbours by an autocratic regime. The main characters are fiction but they represent real individuals.
"Stura Maja" was the local name for the KGB headquarters which occupied a corner building just outside the old town centre. When I visited the building in 2014, when all the floors used by the KGB were open to the public, I was struck by the horror of what they KGB and their Russian masters had created. In this once glorious apartment building unspeakable horror had taken place. As we were lead throgh the rooms and along the corridors by the historians and museum curators the fear the prisoners must have felt was palpable. Sitting in one of the prison cells imaging the heat pouring down, the smell of sweat, urine, faeces and fear was a dreadful experience. In one of the interrogation rooms I sat and watched filmed interviews with former prisoners who described the degradation and punishments they had experienced. Standing in the small exercise yard being looked down upon was a humiliating experience even for a visitor. The reception area was very much as it had been during the KGB reign of terror and I could imagine the fear and incomprehension of the poor souls who had been dragged there for interrogation.
It was a few weeks after I had visited the building for the second time that I knew I had to write about it. It took some time to come together but, I hope, I have done the story justice. The eversion of the book is available from Amazon.
For the past twelve months I have been working on a new novel historical novel set in Soviet Occupied Czechoslovakia and Poland. It is a novel of hope, betrayal, a search for justice, a quest for truth, of new friendships and partnerships, of love, of courage, of exile and of bravery. It is a story of its time and for our time as writers who bear witness to the society in which they live continue to be vilified and treated inhumanely by political, social and religious leaders. The persecution of writers by the Nazis and the Communists was an expression of fear of the power of the pen and the power of ideas. That fear lies below the democratic gloss of many European countries today.
This novel has arisen from a song, a memory, a hope, a germ of an idea and an amble across the internet. Along the journey I have come across many writers previously unknown to me and many films I had yet to see. One writer and activitist in particular has inspired this novel. I first heard about her in 1975 when the American singer-songwriter-activist-painter Joan Baez sang a song about her. This song was my first introduction to political protest. Natalya Gorbanevskaya was at that time imprisoned in a Soviet psychiatric hospital as she was deemed mentally unstable for continuing to oppose the Communist regime. From 1968 until her death she continued to write poetry, monitor human rights abuses in the Soviet Union and act as a translator from Polish to Russian. When I listened to the song again forty years later and began to research life of Natalya Gorbanevskaya I knew I had the subject for a novel which would become very dear to me.
This novel is being written from a sense of joy and admiration. Joy that so many writers managed to get their works to eager readers during their own lifetime. Admiration for the people who wrote, copied, translated, distributed and championed literature during difficult times. I salute them all.
I have written and submitted the first part for an MA in Creative Writing at Middlesex University. The second part I am writing for Joan Baez, Asha Guppy (who wrote the lyrics to the song I heard), the memory of Natalya Gorbanevskaya and all other writers currently being persecuted around the world.
The word-image above includes the words of the Tank Poem, a collage poem, by the main character in the novel. Marta Kucherova wrote this poem in anger as a reaction to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. It is the penning of this poem which takes Marta on an extraordinary journey and leads to an extraordinary life.
Katalin glanced at the electrical clock on the wall above the kitchen window, took a final swig of her strong black coffee and poured the remains down the sink. Turning on the hot tap she gave the white mug with it blue onion swirls a quick rinse and upended the mug on the metal draining board. It was 6:40 and the world beyond the curtainless window was in near darkness.
Walking the ten steps to the hallway she reached out her arm to yank her padded jacket off the back of a chair on her way. By the time she had reached the front door she was fishing her long striped scarf out of a pocket with one hand and her wool gloves with another. At the door, she unclicked the locks and turned the key around before pushing the door open into the corridor. She stooped to take her backpack from its hook with a flowing movement and swung it over her shoulders. She took a quick look at her watch as she was thrusting her left arm through the straps. 6:45. Bang on time.
Winter had only started a few days earlier but already Katalin felt an icyness on the stairwell as she closed and locked the heavy door. She zipped up her jacket as she began her descent down the twisting staircase. Her boots made a thumping noise on the old marble and echoed up through the empty space anouncing her presence on the staircase. As she walked the four flours to the ground she heard the sounds of city life coming through the thick walls and grimy windows. The bell from a tramcar. A blast of horn. The clatter of machinery. A ship's horn. Maybe she imagined that. Metal shutters opening up.
Katalin left her apartment in that dead time between the departure of the early morning shift workers and the schoolchildren. She hardly ever met a soul and the sound of silence always unnerved her. She had left at the same time Monday to Saturday except for holidays and holydays for 25 years. She could count on the fingers of one hand the times she had come across another resident as she left. Unlike Margit.
Margit always left at 5.30 in the morning to start baking the bread and cakes. She often met one of their neighbours either returning home from work or leaving for work and they would exchange pleasantries. Margit was friendly in that way. Her bounce down the stairs and the tune she sang as she went down seemed to encourage people to address her and pass the time of day. As a consequence, Margit was on at least speaking terms with most of the residents and had stories to relate about the people she encountered. Katalin often had to ask her to remind her which floor they lived on.
On the rare occasions Katalin had been at home
during the daytime
she left the inner hallway door open and had noted the different sounds which
reverberated around the building and marked the hours when they occured. At 7:30
am the schoolchildren started to leave. She could hear their excited
shouting on the landings as their harassed mothers tried to get them out of
the door fully clothed and with all the right equipment for the day. Then
they ran or clomped down the ancient staircase. Then the older residents
made their way out into the corridors and sometimes down the stairs.
if they met on the stairwell then they would greet each other in the polite
old fashioned way of previous generations: Good Morning Mr So and So, Good
Afternoon Mrs So and So. Never by first names. How are you today Madam
Professor So and So? How is your arthritus this morning Mr Doctor So and So?
All titles and surnames were rememberd and used.
if they met on the stairwell then they would greet each other in the polite old fashioned way of previous generations: Good Morning Mr So and So, Good Afternoon Mrs So and So. Never by first names. How are you today Madam Professor So and So? How is your arthritus this morning Mr Doctor So and So? All titles and surnames were rememberd and used.
Sometimes, usually on Sunday mornings when they were idling about in
the apartment, Katalin would leave the inner door open and listen to the
conversations. Then, using the sounds of the voices, the intonations, the
accents and the actual words she would then try to image what the speakers
looked like. Working quickly in pencil she would draw the image she imaged
happening outside the door. She inferred clothing, manner and demeanour from
the voices she heard. She worked on the images for several months in pencil,
pen and ink, watercolour or chalk getting the detail down fine. When she was
satisfied she put them in her portfolio ready to sell along the banks of the
Danube on summer days....
Sometimes, usually on Sunday mornings when they were idling about in the apartment, Katalin would leave the inner door open and listen to the conversations. Then, using the sounds of the voices, the intonations, the accents and the actual words she would then try to image what the speakers looked like. Working quickly in pencil she would draw the image she imaged happening outside the door. She inferred clothing, manner and demeanour from the voices she heard. She worked on the images for several months in pencil, pen and ink, watercolour or chalk getting the detail down fine. When she was satisfied she put them in her portfolio ready to sell along the banks of the Danube on summer days....
It was extremely hard to finish up breakfast in the warm cosy kitchen of the boarding house where we had spent the night. Was there time for one more pancake? Or more coffee? It had been raining solidly all night and I had woken several times to the sound of raining lashing against my window. Each time I had left my bed and looked at the slightly illuminated courtyard in the hope that the rain might be going away. Instead the intensity of the lashes increased and it was clear that this was a proper storm.
Our host called a cab and so we climbed from the warm basement kitchen up to the ground floor landing. We pulled on boots and outdoor clothing, gathered up our luggage and bade our host farewell.
The driver took us through the waterlogged streets to the bus-rail interchange and we were about the begin the second leg of our journey. We half-walked and half-ran through the departure hall towards the coach heading for Minsk. It was a sad wet morning and not the best of conditions for a three and a half hour trip to the unknown.
There is nothing really interesting about travelling along a motorway sat in a coach seat while the wind and rain lash the outer windows. We sped past trees, mini forests, dirt tracks, farmhouses, squat concrete buildings, road signs and painted cottages. We stopped at the border and had our passports and visas examined with an intensity that should shame UK Border Patrol. Our bags and persons were patted down and investigated. We wandered through duty free and acquired some gifts. We negotiated the exchange of Euros into Belarus Roubles. We drank coffee from a machine and were eventually dropped off at a concrete cave in Minsk.
We were approached by taxi drivers but needed to organise train tickets for our return to Vilnius so we declined their offers of transport. In a no-man's land between the bus station and the street we found a plan of the local transport hub and were grateful for some words in English. Following the sign we made our way up the street to the shiny building we had noted on our way in. The entrance to the metro-rail interchange is a big open space populated by bewildered travellers, escalators and destination boards. We looked around and it was not clear where we were meant to go. Up the escalators? To the left? No. That was a café. To the right? There seemed to be something happening in there.
The ticket booking office is a triumph of order and beaurocracy over customer service. There were some machines by the windows which I had a play with but could not work out what they were for. There were no signs over the kiosks to indicate internal or external travel. Where to go? My companion accosted a startled employee and flung a barrage of English at her. Following the onslaught the woman picked up a telephone on her counter and dialled a number. When the handset was thrust at her my companion was able to explain that we wanted two single tickets to Vilnius departing three days hence and early in the morning. With some gesturing and the return of the handset, tickets were purchased. A bargain at around €20. A gesture of thanks, I donated some small change to a cardboard alter collector box guarded by a nun at the entrance to the metro.
Burdened as we were with our luggage and lack of command of the local language we hopped in a taxi and waved the addresses of our rental apartments at the driver. We were so grateful to be out of the pouring rain that we did not negotiate the fare. We were later to find out that this was a mistake. The driver took us though the centre and what I now know to be Independence Avenue, past the monument to the Great Patriotic War and into the housing estate where we were to be based for three days.
There really does not appear to be a means of prettying up panel housing units. Maybe it is the meanness of the building materials or the utilitarian nature of their design but they are depressing places to live in. This particular one had a set of concrete steps in the badly lit entrance, leading to a series of metal panels, two corridors going left and right and then a staircase to the first floor. There was no attempt at decor other than cream paint which was probably older than me. The mini-suites of apartments were sealed from the stairwell by thick metal doors which could only be breached by two locks. Inside, there was a small hallway and cupboards built above the doors. The apartment I had rented was functional but bare and clearly unloved. I like minimalism and am not overfond of decoration but there was no lightness of touch to the apartment. All the furniture, except the humongous television set, came straight out of the communist era. I found it a depressing place to be.
The housing estate proved to be, on futher investigation, a souless dreary place. The squat concrete supermarket selling the barest of essentials failed to lift the spirits. It sold an excellent freshly baked pizza and nice fresh produce but it was no Rimi. Three days of surviving on Greek style yogurt, rye bread, butter and cheese beckoned me. I bought a packet of coffee and some tubs of milk to wash the meagre food offerings down with. I am a simple soul and this fare was more than sufficient but I did wonder what would happen to my physique if I had to survive like that for more than a few days.
The horrendous rain and wind kept us confined to the housing estate for the first day. On the second day, the weather showed some improvement and we ventured out. I do not have a built-in sat nav and so get easily lost and confused with the result that my companion and I met up after breakfast, did some exploring of our neighbourhood and found ourself on a street. We explored a shoe shop where we discovered some lovely items but they seemed a little pricey. Moving down towards the river we found a department store which seemed to sell everything except food. When we emerged we looked over the river and saw the start of the Trinity Suburb. We were now able to do some proper tourist-type sightseeing.
Trinity Surburb or Trinity Hill is a small area of preserved buildings which managed to avoid being razed to the ground by the Nazis and the Soviets. There are a few streets of buildings which would not disgrace any central European city. Particularly lovely is the concert hall with the faux stained glass windows. Unfortunately, the drizzle started up and we moved swiftly onwards in search of more sights. Not for away we came across October Square which contains a little monument to make the spot from which Belarus's road lead out and some impressive flag poles. There was some kind of Former Soviet Bloc event going on - ice hockey perhaps - hence a great number of flags and banner were flying in the square. We mossied on down to the State Circus and a lovely little park taking in a small grocery shop for some chocolate and a café bar where I ate some kind of dried flat bread with stringy cheese. This meal was not exactly a culinary highlight. The beer was alright, though. From there we ended up in a suburb and discovered a bakery. We eventually made it out of the suburb and across the river. It tooks some scrabbling around to locate our residential area and we required coffee and cakes to get over the whole experience. Dinner was some strange tortellini from the frozen food cabinet in the lcoal supermarket. It was reasonably gross.
The next day the housing estate was enveloped in fog and I had great fun taking photos of the emerging buildings from the kitchen window. We tried to find the statue remembering Nazi genocide but failed miserably. I blame the faulty internal sat nav. However, I managed to communicate with a road sweeper and was directed to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War and it's gigantic memorial. I have seen many a Communist Era monument in my time but that has to be the biggest one yet. It was huge. World War Two was a huge event so a huge monument was required. Minsk was also declared a "Hero City" so the heroes were correctly celebrated.
From there we hopped on a bus and found ourselves at the Gum Department store. I love a bit of Art Deco and Gum has it in bucket loads. Two things stood out: the gracefully ornate central staircase and the tiny little dining room tucked away at the top of the building. I am not a lover of Russian fashion so I purchased only some lovely handwoven linen tea towels for presents. The best meal of the trip was from the dining room and consisted of beetroot salad, beef and potatoes in a gravy and a sweet bread roll. I was given enough energy to tackle the post office decorated envelope section, the Red Church, Independence Square and then the Metro.
My overall impression of Minsk was that it was an interesting place which did not shy away from its history but was also looking forward to the future. The statues were impressive as were the neo-classical buildings of the Stalin era. The highlights of the trip were the small things such as a brief conversation with a woman out walking her dog and the kindness of the post office manager who directed me to some nice printed envelopes in halting English. I left wanted to return and see more. That for me is always a good thing.
On the final morning I did manage to see the Nazi Genocide statue. If I had looked behind me while I was talking to the street cleaner I would have seen it a day earlier. A pre-booked taxi failed to show so my companion and I went to the nearest hotel and ordered one from there. A few minutes later we were dropped off at the railway station. Our journey ended when the doors of our extremely modern international train closed and moved off swiftly towards Vilnius with the sun rising above the city of Minsk.
© Lynn Bradshaw 2016