By Stanley Wlodyka Jiménez
Vija Vetra, choreographer, dancer, Westbeth Icon, proudly striding—with an impossibly straight back mind you—towards 98 years of age February next year, an Aquarian soul just like many of the best American presidents, wants you to know that there was an error in last month’s article about her.
“It comes from the Middle Ages, when a criminal, or somebody who did something wrong, was put in the middle of the marketplace and next to him or her was a pot of ashes and everybody could put their hand into the pot and put it on him. You blacken the person. I feel like you blackened me by saying what you said.”
In giving a summation of Vija’s prodigious life, which spans 11 decades and 5 continents (not to mention a variety of dance styles), it was mistakenly reported that she only returned once to her native Latvia in the half century it was under Soviet control. While that much is true, it is not so accurate to say she danced for communist officials during that homecoming. And one could see why she would take umbridge at this error: just imagine what was incinerated in order to produce the ashes that she feels blacken her.
In fact, she made that return trip to Latvia in 1979 in order to give a command performance to an audience filled with artists. While it’s true that after the performance her friends and family in Latvia would begin to be tracked, tapped and followed, it would be too much to infer that someone in attendance was an informant. No one really knew how the Kremlin knew everything.
Artists were considered a particular threat to the communist system, as were the intelligentsia, landowners, military officials: basically anyone who might sow discord and dissidence. The Soviets developed a fool-proof method for dealing with such people: make them disappear. The Russians first occupied Latvia in 1940, and it was only a year later that they deported over 15 thousand Latvians in cattle cars to forced labor camps known as GULAGS in remote sections of nearly uninhabitable Siberia.
They felt they had the right to do such a thing because of the explosive Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 24, 1939. On the surface, this was to be a simple non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Unbeknownst to onlookers from throughout the world, there was a secret portion to the pact in which these two dictatorships divvied up Europe between themselves. The west caught a breeze of this easterly wind during the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, however, Stalin obliged that the draft be ignored and the true, all-important implications of this pact was not revealed until the Iron Curtain finally fell in the 90’s.
The Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944 provided a short respite from the fatal deportations, replacing them with other horrors. By 1944, the Soviets were back, and by the end of the War, Roosevelt and Churchill effectively legitimized their presence in the Baltic states at the Yalta Conference. And so, the deportations resumed uninterrupted, with another 136 thousand Latvians deported between 1944 and 1952. Eyewitness accounts speak of so many bodies littering the side of the tracks into Siberia, that the wolves and the bears soon had eaten more than their fill and would take to only chewing on the cartilage of noses and ears.
By 1952, the objective had been accomplished. The loudest voices in opposition in Latvia had been silenced, in unimaginably terrible ways. Vija remembers hearing about the neighborhood boy scout leader who was found with his head bashed in. By then it was a familiar tale: “You may have heard, when the Russians came into Poland that they killed Polish officers in Katyna? Exactly the same happened in Latvia. Hundreds of officers of the Latvian army were rounded up, told they were going on some excursion. Military. They were taken to a forest, where a dug out grave waited, and then they were shot, and they were falling into the grave and they covered them up. “
Katyna, of course, refers to Katyn Forest, the site of an infamous massacre of over 20 thousand Polish military officers by the Soviet Army in Spring of 1940. Strangely, on the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, in April 2010 an airplane carrying the Polish president, the first lady and dozens more top Polish government and military officials crashed and killed everyone on board as they were flying to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin to commemorate the tragedy. According to some accounts, the Polish president’s twin brother, who also happened to be the Prime Minister at the time, and who now is the president of a rather more nationalistic Poland, receded because of the tragedy into a deep and troubling seclusion, harboring secrets, going so far as to lie to his elderly mother for many years afterwards: “He’s on a trip.”
Vija might say this is one of life’s many circles (“There are no accidents”): fate’s funny way of making her children reckon with the past. She is more prone to believe that it was a conspiracy, however; a conspired event perpetrated by the same old Soviets going by a different moniker:
“They just exchanged the flag from red to now red, white and blue. They have not changed at all. And Putin is from the old method. He is a KGB man. He never changed, he never will. Look! He’s a dictator, like Stalin. He is a dictator. He has made the law such that he will be the president of Russia for another 30 years. That’s what he did right now. He changed the law.”
Vija bears no false illusions, however. Just because Putin is a bad guy doesn’t mean there needs to be a good guy. Things are never so simple as appearances suggest. Even reminiscences of her grandfather, who painted, is tainted. He was from Dresden.
“The Americans bombed Dresden completely. And there were thousands and thousands and thousands dead. It wasn’t a military goal. There was nothing military in the least. Just to raise terror. That’s all.”
While on the topic of American guilt, the conversation inevitably dives to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The official narrative is that such drastic steps were necessary to end the war, even if it meant the deaths of perhaps more than 70 thousand Japanese children under the age of 14.
“They will always say that they needed to do it. Because they did it. So, therefore, they needed to do it,” Vija spits.
Poetically, Vija’s last few rays of naivete are held in one of her earliest childhood memories as a girl in Latvia, before the war and so, too, before a lifetime of challenges as a refugee commenced.
“When I was a little child in Latvia, I would spend always the summers with relatives on the farm from the country. I always knew when the full moon is going to come up and where. I secretly went there and danced for the moon. Because, that was like a face you see. He still is my best friend and oldest friend. I always felt that he was the best audience for my dance because he understood me. I still feel that way.”